HC Deb 03 November 1977 vol 938 cc136-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

8.44 p.m.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

This evening I want to highlight one of the many anxieties from which our Service men are suffering, namely, the unfair workings of the Rent Act 1974 and its effect on those who wish to let their homes on being sent abroad. The Armed Forces today suffer from many anxieties, not least how to make their voice heard. Morale is low. They have no industrial muscle.

I went to the Rhine Army and RAF Germany with a parliamentary delegation this September. We found that the five defence cuts in recent years have left the Army and the Air Force short of fuel, amunition and spare parts. None of us was left in any doubt whatever about the strength of feeling there. If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating or making a party plea, all he needs to do is to talk with those of his hon. Friends who were on the delegation in September and who had to endure some pretty rough meetings in the warrant officers' mess and elsewhere in Germany.

On our return, several of my hon. Friends, in statements and newspaper articles, drew attention to the very real threat of a reduction in the local overseas allowance. At the very last moment the Government stayed their hand. They were wise to have done so. If they had cut the local overseas allowance, as some people would have done—the Treasury in particular—we might very well have had another Invergordon situation.

Since the Rent Act 1974 it has become very much harder for Service men to let their homes in the United Kingdom on being sent abroad. All too often the tenant has become the "cuckoo in the nest ". Safeguarded by the provisions of the Act, some have refused to budge and others to pay the rent. Service men have been forced into expensive, slow and tiresome litigation. The financial and psychological hardships caused by this to Service men and their wives can be imagined only too easily.

The 1974 Act has effects which its authors could not have wished. Homes have been left empty or let to people who could be relied on well below the market rate. There is no such reduction for Service men obliged to pay rent for quarters abroad, and wives have been left at home while husbands have been sent to Germany. At the end of 1975 arrangements were made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help members of the Diplomatic Service—and, indeed, some home civil servants—with additional costs arising as a result of the Rent Act. One concession only was made to the Armed Forces: the reimbursement of legal costs incurred in drawing up agreements. The Government said it was not possible to do more because of the stringencies of the Pay Code. I wish to ask the Minister: when will this be relaxed?

I believe that the Minister knows that the Services have suffered more from the arbitrary and unfair nature of the pay policy than has any other section of society. In the late 1960s the then Minister of Defence—the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mt. Healey)—introduced the military salary, designed to put the Armed Forces on all fours with their civilian counterparts. Since then the forces have fallen 25 per cent. behind. The X factor, the part of the military salary designed to reflect the excessive hours of work and disruption of family life, was fixed in the late 1960s at 5 per cent. That was far too low.

Soldiers work long hours without overtime. In Northern Ireland they have been known to work 17 hours a day for six days a week in conditions which are frequently squalid. Late night and weekend working in the United Kingdom and Germany is very common. In civilian life one-third or even one-half of earnings are derived from overtime, yet by the very nature of their duties soldiers are not allowed to take a second job or to be paid overtime. Add to these handicaps inflation at the rate to which we have become accustomed and we have a situation in which Service men feel strongly and justifiably bloody-minded.

Soldiers are at a further disadvantage, in that their wives find it hard to find work. That is because soldiers are often stationed in out-of-tie-way places. The fact that soldiers' families are now applying for rent rebates shows that some of them at least are on the poverty line.

In the most recent increase in pay the Government gave with one hand only to take back with the other. It was the so-called "Irishman's rise ". The next pay review is due in April. The forces must be given at least 10 per cent., and this time there must be no increase of charges for board and lodging. After all, the police have been made a special case, although I think that the arguments deployed on their behalf are less strong than the arguments one might deploy on the part of the Armed Forces. No doubt the miners will get most of what they are demanding. The civil air traffic control assistants voted to accept an increase that will bring the best paid of them at least into the £7,000 a year bracket. An RAF corporal who does the same job is paid less than half that amount. The man who flies a Phantom jet in the RAF is paid less than a bus driver. Perhaps the forces should join the Transport and General Workers Union.

The Government have recognised at long last the defects of the Rent Act 1974. In Command 6851—" Housing Policy A Consultative Document "—it is stated, in paragraph 8.21, that there is a strong case…for improving the procedure for obtaining a possession order. It would be possible to amend the County Court Rules to provide a simplified procedure enabling a court hearing to take place within about 10 days in all cases where resident landlords or returning home owners had a mandatory right to repossession. Consideration is also being given to legislation which would provide for such cases to be heard by the registrar sitting in chambers rather than before the judge. These measures would help returning home owners to recover their homes more quickly. Will the Minister say what is happening about this? When will the law be amended'? I saw no mention of that in the Gracious Speech today. Do the Government still regard the call to arms as an honourable call? I am beginning to have my doubts. Defence cuts, the neglect of service interests and ill-considered legislation of the kind I have described have made the Services angry and dispirited. They feel that their loyalty and their sense of duty have been imposed upon. Her Majesty's Government must take full responsibility for what is a lamentable state of affairs.

8.55 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. A. E. P. Duffy)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) for giving me this opportunity to consider again the position of the Service house owner. I fully agree that this is a most important matter, I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I hope that what I say will make clear how seriously we take it.

The problems which the hon. Gentleman has drawn to our attention this evening are but one aspect of the peculiar and often difficult conditions of service which Service men accept, generally ungrudgingly, as part of the normal pattern of their lives. I was much interested in the hon. Gentleman's own recent experience as a member of a parliamentary delegation to the Rhine Army. I only wish that more hon. Members on both sides would do what he did and what I know some of his hon. Friends do regularly, as do some of my hon. Friends. But there are not enough of our parliamentary colleagues who make that kind of visit, and I am therefore grateful to any one of them who does so.

However, having said that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not exaggerate the difficulties of Service life. I understand those difficulties and the sensitivities of Service men. I have just had some experience of them. Only two weeks ago I spent time at sea in HMS "Tiger" and her task group in the Eastern Mediterranean. I walked round mess decks and wardrooms in every one of those warships and I saw and heard of these difficulties for myself. I felt at the end of my visit to those ships that it was harder than electioneering.

I therefore know something of the pressures. At the same time, however, I tried to explain to sailors, petty officers and chief petty officers, as well as to officers, the other side—the problems which we have here, the problems which others of our parliamentary colleagues bring forward in their concern to represent industry and commerce at different levels and in various parts of our country. I tried to get my own men, men in whom I take great pride and whom I am immensely privileged to be able to represent in the House, to take a more balanced view—that is all—to be confident in this House and the concern which the House has for them, and to give us time. We are fair in this House, and I assured them that on both sides we recognise their difficulties. I put the matter in that spirit, and I hope that no one will exaggerate their concern.

I therefore welcome the opportunity which the hon. Gentleman has provided for us to remind the House this evening of the exceptional conditions under which Service men labour and to assure him and his hon. Friends that in this instance both my hon. Friends the Ministers for the Army and for the Royal Air Force and I, as well as our senior ministerial colleagues in the Defence Department, are working to ensure that Service men are as far as possible protected from the present difficulties.

The particular feature of Service life which complicates the domestic problems of Service men, especially those who are home owners, is the high degree of mobility which we demand of them. The average length of a tour of duty is about two years, and it is not unusual for a move to be required at short notice within the normal duration of a posting. These quite exceptional requirements inevitably impose their own problems in terms of housing for the married man.

In order to allow the married Service man, whenever possible, to be accompanied by his family, while at the same time remaining fully mobile, it has long been the policy to provide accommodation in the form of married quarters or hirings, for all those who need it and want it. However, the married quarter is, of course, tied accommodation. As a matter of common prudence, the Service man must therefore take some thought for his family's housing needs when his entitlement to a quarter ends on his leaving the Service. Also there is always the possibility, which we can never ignore, that the Service man may die or be killed while serving.

For many, house purchase is the most obvious way of providing that security, and house ownership is increasing among Service men. Wherever I have the opportunity, I encourage naval personnel to enter into house ownership.

All the Services recognise this trend, and, at least for those in the latter part of their career, encourage it as a means of easing the transition to family life and of providing the family with a secure base. This second point is particularly important in the Service for which I am responsible, since separation during sea duty is an inescapable part of naval life. The task group I recently joined is on an eight-month deployment.

In recognition of this fact the Navy has schemes to assist its officers and men to buy a house at a relatively early stage in their careers if they wish to provide a secure family base in this way.

For those Service men who are house-owners, the question of letting out their house is a vital one and will bear upon their decision to enter the housing market in the first place. Wherever they buy their house it is virtually certain that they will be posted elsewhere, whether in the United Kingdom or overseas, for substantial periods. I emphasise the point that mobility within the United Kingdom can pose just the same problems as an overseas posting, since Service men clearly cannot be expected to sell up and buy a house at a new place of duty every two years or so. Faced with such a posting, the Service man must choose between letting his house and moving his family into quarters, or, alternatively, leaving his family behind at home and himself living in single accommodation.

Few, of course, can afford or would wish to leave their house empty and move into quarters. In the interest of both the family and the Service we are keenly interested in ensuring that service men are not being forced to accept separation because of fears about letting or because of financial disincentives such as loss of tax relief on mortgage interest payments. Our responsibility is twofold. First we have to ensure that legislation such as the Rent Acts, does not bear unfairly upon the Service man.

Second, we must ensure that all Service men know how best to take advantage of provisions which benefit them and are not discouraged from buying or letting a home by imagined difficulties.

It is clear to me that the considerable concern amongst Service men about the effects of the Rent Acts springs at least in part from a less than complete understanding of the way that the Acts work. The number of cases of real difficulty that have been reported to us is fairly small in comparison with the total numbers of Service men who let their houses. In the great majority of cases Service house owners who let their property do so without apparent difficulty.

Nevertheless, in the close community of the Services a small number of problems of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred can have a widespread influence upon attitudes. This is something which deeply concerns us, and there is no question of holding such cases at a discount no matter how small their number may be proportional to the number of Service men involved.

Perhaps I could mention the ways in which we have been able to enter into agreement with building societies. It is only fair to say that the societies have demonstrated nothing but willingness to help. They have agreed to a house being let when the owner is posted away. This may sound of little consequence, but those hon. Members present—and I acknowledge their standing in this area —know that this matter bristles with difficulties.

I have chosen to start here not only because I was invited to do so but because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force has written to the hon. Member for Aldershot recently on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he? "] My hon. Friend has a bad back and cannot be with us tonight. His absence is due to his physical disability. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Air Force has written to the hon. Member recently on this matter and mentioned possible difficulties with the building societies over letting.

The position here is that following the Rent Act 1974 some societies were unwilling to agree to letting because they would be unable to remove the tenant in order to recover their capital in the event of the mortgagor defaulting. The difficulty of obtaining a rent sufficient to cover mortgage payment gave some grounds for supposing that this would be a real danger. However, an insurance scheme has been introduced to give the societies some cover against this risk, and the latest indications are that the majority of societies will accept letting on this basis, although on occasions a somewhat increased interest rate is charged.

When hon. Members opposite ask us what we are doing, I hope that they will grant me—and I know that they will because they are fair—that this is a very important provision into which we have entered recently. It is only fair to pay public tribute to the public spiritedness of the building societies. Some cases of difficulty still occur, but almost all of them are settled satisfactorily through the good offices of the Building Societies' Association because of the willingness that the societies have demonstrated to help and as a result of which we have entered into a close and fruitful liaison.

Turning to the operation of the Rent Acts themselves, the principal difficulty that has been represented to us is that Service men who have let their homes during a temporary absence have experienced considerable delays in regaining possession and have incurred substantial costs, when it has proved necessary to go to the courts. The hon. Member will know, as I know, of a particular instance about which we have corresponded.

The position when a tenant refuses to quit is that there is clearly no question but that the court must give an order for possession if the owner requires the house for his own use and if the proper notices have been served: but the certainty of success in the long run in no way compensates for the distress and inconvenience that the Service man and his family may suffer in the meantime. Both experiences have been brought home to me more, than once during my visits to shore establishments as well as to ships. There is no question of my minimising the problem involved.

There are, I think, three causes for these delays which can be readily identified and which I would like to cover in a little detail. The first of these is the sheer complexity of the legislation involved. In an Adjournment debate on 2nd March, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment remarked on the complexity and obscurity of the Rent Acts, and although the situation has been simplified somewhat by the consolidation of the legislation in the Rent Act 1977 this is by no means the end of the matter. As hon. Members will be aware, the Department of the Environment is currently engaged in a review of the Rent Acts, and, of course, we have kept closely in touch with this and have discussed the effects of the legislation on the Services in detail.

One of the objectives of the review is to consider how rent laws might be simplified. Such simplification will be welcomed by all concerned and should in itself go some way towards helping the Service man who, I am sure, finds the Rent Acts something of a mystery, as I do, despite the detailed advice and instructions that have been issued.

The second and more substantial cause of difficulty is the lengthy legal procedure that has to be followed when a tenant refuses to leave. Some might indeed argue that court proceedings are completely unnecessary and inappropriate in such cases. We are reluctant to accept this.

There is nothing anomalous or unreasonable in the requirement since it is the general rule that when someone defaults on a debt or fails to comply with a contract the creditor, or the other party to the contract, cannot take the law into his own hands, even if clearly he is in the right. However much one may sympathise with the plight of those affected, the same must apply here.

On the other hand, there are certainly grounds for saying that where the case is a matter of fact, and the court has no discretion but must order possession if the facts are established, a speeded-up court procedure would be appropriate and would not jeopardise anyone's rights. This would be of enormous benefit to the Service house owner, and we have made the point very firmly in the context of the review of the Rent Acts. As hon. Members will have seen from the consultative paper on the Housing Policy Review, this idea will receive further consideration. The consultative paper proposes that lettings by temporarily-absent owner-occupiers should be encouraged by a speeded-up procedure for obtaining repossession.

I cannot, of course, prejudge the outcome of the review of the Rent Acts, which is not yet complete, but we can clearly hope for a significant improvement in terms of this most-frequently criticised aspect of the present legislation. We shall, of course, continue to keep in close touch with the Department of the Environment and the Lord Chancellor's Office on this and other aspects of the Rent Acts review.

The third cause of the difficulties that some Service men have experienced lies in the attitude of tenants to the action taken by local authorities in rehousing evicted tenants. It has been suggested that some people have become private tenants with the sole purpose of jumping the housing queue, and that others may not have these motives but in the end achieve the same effects, the practice being that when the owner wants his house back they sit tight until they are evicted and given priority housing.

Inevitably, this results in delays for the owner, since he has to go to court to obtain possession, and the situation is exacerbated if the local authority will not rehouse the tenant unless an eviction order has been served. Even with a genuine tenant, a local authority's insistence that the order is served must lead to a delay for the house owner which is entirely unnecessary, since the outcome is never in doubt.

I hope that this situation will change for the better as a result of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. In their guidance to local authorities on the Act, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will make clear that insistence on an eviction order in cases where the court must order possession may cause hardship to the house owner and that it may deter temporary landlords from letting their property in future. It will point out that, quite apart from the expense of court proceedings, returning owner-occupiers may themselves have to seek temporary accommodation if they cannot recover their houses promptly.

My right hon. Friends will suggest that, where the occupier has no defence against a possession order, the local authority should consider accepting him as threatened with homelessness, without the need for court proceedings. If local authorities do this—and we hope that they will—it will remove one of the basic causes of the problem which we are debating.

In all, the action in hand in these three areas—the simplification of the rent legislation, a possible speedier repossession procedure in the context of the Rent Acts review, and the guidance to be given shortly to local authorities on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act—should substantially improve the position of the Service man who lets his house temporarily.

I mentioned at the outset that the basic problems confronting the house owner are the same, whether he is posted to another location in the United Kingdom or overseas. Nevertheless, the Service man overseas is obviously at a disadvantage in that it is much more difficult to keep closely in touch with the agent and solicitors handling the letting of his house. This is particularly relevant when he wishes to recover possession on his return, since action must be set in hand in advance of his arrival if he is to he sure of being able to move straight in.

Although, of course, it does nothing to remove the difficulty imposed by sheer distance, we have introduced a scheme to reimburse Service men posted overseas for the legal costs of drawing up a proper tenancy agreement so as to ensure that they have the full protection that the Rent Acts afford.

Perhaps at this point I can refer to the first of the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised with me. It concerned the scheme for reimbursing legal and other costs already available to the Diplomatic Service. This is high on our priority list for measures to be considered when the pay policy permits. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are well aware that this is something which should be done.

I move now to the hon. Gentleman's second question. The position of the Service man under the Rent Acts is the same as that of any other member of the community. The Rent Acts are only one of a variety of factors that influence a Service man's decision—

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way, and also for the presence of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the complexities of the Rent Acts and the reviews of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who understands these matters very well, may wish to say something about them, as the hour is not so late. But what advice is available to members of Her Majesty's Forces on all these complexities and legal matters from within the Services and from within the Ministry of Defence? Is advice freely available to help men in these very difficult matters?

Mr. Duffy

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) for raising this very important point. I assure him that advice has always been available within the divisional system of the Navy, but we have recognised that this cannot provide for matters of this kind which are of a more domestic character. This is why the Navy is currently developing its welfare services. I hope that I shall have an early opportunity to explain it in greater detail to the House. If the hon. Gentleman is agreeable, I shall let him have such information in advance. I hope that he will accept my assurance that provision is being extended currently.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

For all three Services?

Mr. Duffy

I can speak only for my own Service, the Navy, but I have no doubt that it is equally true of the Army. I know that there are joint welfare developments in this respect.

The Rent Acts are only one of a variety of factors that influence a Service man's decision whether to let his house. The financial equation is also very much affected by the question of income tax relief on mortgage interest payments, and I should now like to mention this briefly.

Under the Finance Act 1977, people living in job-related accommodation are now permitted to retain tax relief on mortgage interest payments on a house intended to be used in due course as their main residence. It has now been confirmed that Service married accommodation falls within the criteria for "job-related accommodation ", and Service house owners who let their houses and move into married quarters will therefore be able to benefit from this concession.

This new ruling will complement an earlier concession allowing Service men to retain mortgage interest relief if posted away for periods of up to four years, and together they will considerably ease the position of many Service men who let their houses in order to live close to their place of duty.

In conclusion, I would reiterate that the position of the Service house owner is a matter of great concern to us and is the subject of continuing study in the Ministry of Defence. The Rent Acts are only one part of this, but they are undoubtedly a very important part, and I would not in any way underestimate the adverse effect of fears about regaining possession of one's house.

The Department of the Environment's review of the Rent Acts is clearly a matter of very great interest and, as I have said, the Service man's position has been fully discussed in this context. The indications are that the review will produce changes that will improve the position of Service house-owners, and it may in itself change some of the unfortunate attitudes that have prevailed in recent years.

I am certainly not complacent on this issue, no more than I am on the many other conditions of service which make up the way of life of our Armed Forces. They do a marvellous job for us, and my responsibility is to see that their best interests are kept very much in mind. But I hope that I have assured the House that we have faced up to the issue discussed this evening, and that the Service man can be confident that we have what is right for him firmly in mind.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

It was purely an accident that I came to participate in this debate at all. My presence here was quite fortuitous. I did not intend to intervene until I heard the Minister's reply. In this House we have become accustomed to listening to platitudes, complacent answers and evasions of responsibility, but the Minister's speech tonight beat them all to a frazzle.

I came into the Chamber half way through the Minister's speech. He was saying that the difficulties in which some Service men found themselves as a result of the Rent Acts, when they went abroad on service and let their property, were mainly caused by ignorance. These difficulties did not really exist; the Service men assumed that they existed because they misunderstood their true legal position. The Minister went on to say that the number of cases in which this situation existed was relatively small, but because there were some cases causing a certain amount of concern he had to come to the Dispatch Box to give a lot of unrealistic assurances.

The number of eases is not small. I have had correspondence with Ministers at the Department of the Environment on this matter, urging amendments to rent legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has been corresponding with the Army Department on precisely the same point. To say that it is only a small number of cases is extremely misleading, because the anxiety running through the Services is deep-seated, and many, many Service men are afraid to let their properties if they are posted elsewhere and prefer to keep them empty, thus denying the opportunity of temporary accommodation to families who need homes.

The Minister mentioned building societies. Why do building societies refuse to lend money to Service men unless the Service man can guarantee that he will not let his property if he is posted overseas? The building societies made a very careful study of the rents legislation and they know the difficulties that a Service man could face in regaining possession of his own property. They also know the effect of such lettings on the value of that property, and they are not prepared to put at risk the money they are lending to the Service man 'who wishes to buy a property.

The Minister said that Service men had misunderstood the legal position and that they feared more than they need. But why do building societies insist on an insurance policy against what the Minister said was a risk? Surely the Minister is contradicting himself. In one breath he says that there is no real risk, it is merely a misunderstanding of the situation, and in the next he says that there must be insurance against the risk. Either there is a risk or there is not. If not, there is no need to insure against it. Building societies lend money only if there is insurance against the possibility of a tenant's refusing to get out when the Service man wants his property back.

This situation has caused a great deal of alarm, anxiety and hardship to many Service men returning to this country. The Minister has indicated that under the Rent Acts there is a possibility of the Service man's not regaining possession when he has let his property on going abroad and he wants it back again on his return.

The Minister said that it was possible in law for a Service man to regain possession of his home from tenants to whom he had let, but that problems arose because of the complexity of the law and the length and costliness of legal proceedings. That is true, and the Foreign Office has gone to the extent of circulating its overseas personnel saying that if they find themselves in difficulty funds will be made available to help until such time as those Foreign Office personnel regain possession of their own property. We have the ridiculous situation in which taxpayers' money is used to mitigate the hardship caused by Acts of Parliament, but that that facility is not available to the Services.

I listened carefully to the Minister to hear whether he proposed to help Service people by adopting a similar measure to that already used by the Foreign Office. Perhaps the Minister will say why he has not given such help to Service men who find themselves faced with heavy expenses and litigation in the courts because they have let their property to somebody who, because of the Rent Acts, refuses to leave that property. The Foreign Office takes such a course. Why does not the Ministry of Defence also do so? Perhaps we may be told. We would rather be told that the Minister would be prepared to act for the people for whom he is responsible, in the same way as the Foreign Office looks after its staff.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is there not another question? Why should the Foreign Office interfere in the rights, duties and responsibilities between one private citizen and another as against the rights of any other citizen?

Mr. Rossi

As I understood from the memorandum that I saw, there was an adverse effect on the morale of Foreign Office personnel who, when serving overseas, had let their property. Because of difficulties with tenants who refused to move out when those personnel returned, the Foreign Office assisted its staff. The Foreign Office circulated its consulates and embassies saying, in effect, "We will bridge personnel over the loss incurred in such a situation ". This reassured overseas staff, but this has not been adopted for Service men and we should like to be told why.

This is only part of the problem. There are cases where a Service man wants to return to his home which he has let temporarily and where there is a ground for possession under the Rent Acts. When a man is posted abroad, he may let his property and be away for two or three years. However, when he is eventually posted back to the United Kingdom, he may find his house here inconvenient to him and may wish to buy a house in another part of the country.

Under the Rent Acts such man has no ground to repossess his property, because at the moment he considers living in another part of the United Kingdom he is considered a non-resident landlord who does not require possession of his property for himself and his family to occupy. That man requires his property so that he may sell it with vacant possession in order to have the money to buy another house elsewhere, but when we debated the Rent Bill in earlier years the fact that such a man might want to sell his property was regarded as the greatest crime one could imagine against the tenant in possession. By no means could any amendment be accepted whereby the Service man finding himself in that situation could regain possession of his own property.

What can a Service man do in those circumstances? He must incur two mortgages, one for the house in which he has a tenant—and the rent may barely cover it—and he must also face the problem of having to buy another house and undertaking another mortgage.

Two specific cases have come to my attention. They do not involve Service men but the circumstances could well fit those of a Service man. A man let his house when he moved to another part of the United Kingdom because the market was dead and he could not sell the house readily. He undertook responsibility for another house in another part of the country. He then found that he could sell his first house, but could not regain possession because he was no longer an owner-occupier requiring the property for his own possession. He wanted possession so that he could sell. The letting was only temporary while he moved elsewhere. There have been two such cases. In the first the tenant asked for £1,500 to get out and in the second the tenant offered to buy the house from the person concerned at £2,000 below market price.

As a result of our legislation we have enabled tenants to hold a pistol to the head of home owners and be able to blackmail them for money. Service men could be in exactly that situation if they did not wish to go back to their own houses, but wished, instead, to go to another part of the United Kingdom. The grounds for possession allowed under the Rent Acts will not help. It is a scandalous state of affairs that we have created.

We in this House have a collective responsibility for legislation, however much we on the Conservative Benches may have opposed these Acts and tried to amend them at the appropriate times. It is sickening to hear Ministers at the Dispatch Box trying to explain away a most disgraceful situation, as the Minister has tonight.

Mr. Ogden

I have listened most carefully to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), who is a most powerful advocate and has a right to complain. However, he is now doing his cause more harm than good by assuming that the Minister is not one of the most caring Ministers in the Government. This is a place in which we try to persuade Ministers to do more, but it does no good to our cause to say that the Minister does not care and will not look at legislation. There are things to be done, and the hon. Member for Hornsey is capable of making a good case for persuading the Minister to do them. The House will be interested in following his argument through.

Mr. Rossi

I was just assuming a collective responsibility on the part of the House for this iniquitous legislation. I assume that the Minister has part of the collective responsibility of government for remedies or steps to be taken or not taken to put matters right. While the Minister may care for the Service men who are his responsibility, in the part of his speech in which he expressed that care, he did not indicate any positive steps that he was prepared to take to try to persuade his colleagues in other Departments to bring forward the required amendments as a matter of urgency.

The Minister referred us to the review of the Rent Acts that is taking place and expressed certain pious hopes about that review. I am grateful that, after three years' effort on our part, the Minister for Housing and Construction has at long last agreed that there should be a review so that this sort of problem and other difficulties faced by other sections of the community who are equally adversely affected by legislation can be looked into.

The Minister did not have to tell us tonight that the Rent Acts are obscure and complex; I have pointed out that fact more than once. I did not have to be told that legal proceedings under the Acts are lengthy and costly; I have pointed that out mote than once and have suggested many ways in which the situation could be improved. I do not have to be told that one of the problems is the attitude of mind that has been instilled in tenants by the Acts so that they are reluctant to move when they should; I warned the House of this when the last Act was but a Bill before us. It does not give me any feeling of assurance that the Government are tackling the problems when Ministers repeat to me things that I have been urging on them for many years.

We take a crumb of comfort from the fact that the Acts are under review. We shall keep a close watch on how the review progresses and the speed with which the Government take remedial action to remove some of the worst excesses that result from the operation of the Acts.

However, the review does not absolve the Government from taking immediate action to help Service men in the same way as, for example, the Foreign Office has assisted the people for which it is responsible. There could be a short sharp Bill to exclude from the operation of the Rent Acts Service men's properties in the United Kingdom. It could go through on the nod, with every assistance from us. There would be no need to worry about the legislative or parliamentary timetable, because we would speed the Bill through with all the help that we could give it.

All that we need is a two-line Bill saying that Service men's property in the United Kingdom is to be excluded from the Rent Acts.

Mr. Ogden

Then the Foreign Office would want the same arrangement. It does not have exclusion.

Mr. Rossi

Taxpayers' money is being used for Foreign Office personnel and there is no reason for them to be treated any differently from Service men. My complaint is that Service men do not get the same treatment as Foreign Office personnel. Let us exclude, in my two-line Bill, all servants of the Crown, whether they are in the Armed Forces or not. I heard a Labour Member say that my list of exemptions was getting longer. Let me tell him that if I were introducing the legislation there would be relief for many more categories of people who are suffering injustice.

I mention students immediately. We had an appalling situation in September, when thousands of students were sleeping in common rooms or corridors, or were unable to take up courses at university because the last Rent Act denied them their usual accommodation. That is what happened.

Mr. Ogden

So it does not lie with the building societies.

Mr. Rossi

I have had evidence of that every September term, every new academic year, since the passing of the Act.

I should be happy to extend the list, but we are talking only of the issues raised in the debate. I invite the Minister to say that he will bring forward a Bill to give these benefits to Service men. On behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends, I can assure him that we should wish such a measure God-speed through the House.

Mr. Duffy

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply. The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) prefaced his remarks by saying that he entered the Chamber halfway though my speech. I must be charitable and suggest that that to some extent explains his speech, one that had no place in the debate. The hon. Gentleman has done a great disservice to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who is responsible for the Adjournment debate.

I think that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will realise, even without reading Hansard tomorrow to see what I had said, that he did wrong in intervening. This was not the occasion for him. If he reads what I said earlier, he will appreciate that I was at pains at the outset to establish a consensus. This was an occasion when no side of the House needed to try to make out a case for caring more than the other. We care equally. Moreover, this was an occasion when feeling need not have intruded too much, much less party warfare rage, but that is precisely what the hon. Gentleman was about. He had no place in the debate. It would have been better if he had kept away.

Mr. Rossi rose

Mr. Duffy

I shall do the hon. Gentleman a much greater courtesy than he did me as I shall reply to as many of his points as I can. I shall reply as factually and as seriously as I can. At no time will I attempt to misrepresent what he said—

Mr. Rossi

It is not for the hon. Gentleman to say who has a right or not a right to take part in the debate. There is freedom of speech in the Chamber for every Member.

Mr. Duffy

—notwithstanding the judgment that I accorded the hon. Gentleman, which I believe has temporarily deserted him.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that I had accused Service men of ignorance. In fact, I have not used the word. I merely said that among Service men there is a less than complete understanding of the way in which the Act works. I think I said that that applies to me, too. I should be surprised if there is one Member—except, of course, the hon. Gentleman—who addresses himself with complete confidence to any such housing problem that any constituent brings to him at his monthly surgery.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

That is why I asked what advice was available from within the Service.

Mr. Duffy

That is why I am coming back to it. The hon. Member for Hornsey challenged my statement of fact that the number of cases that have been brought to our attention is small. He cited just two cases. He minimised the contribution—

Mr. Rossi

The hon. Gentleman must quote me correctly. I quoted two cases of possible hardship that can arise under the Rent Acts and said that those cases did not involve Service men. I said that I had referred the Service men proposition to the Department of the Environment and that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has for a long time been taking up with the Army the problems that he has found affecting a number of Service men.

Mr. Duffy

I shall match my own words, which will be on the record in the morning, against those of the hon. Gentleman.

I recall to the House that after rejecting my statement of fact that the number of cases that have come to the Department is small, he moved in the next breath to cite just two cases.

The hon. Member for Hornsey then went on to minimise the role of the building societies. Although the building societies were concerned initially, that was because of the risk to the house owner. Experience has proved that they are trying to be helpful. It is wrong to attack them as the hon. Member did

Mr. Rossi

Give way.

Mr. Duffy

I have given way enough and have done so for the last time.

Mr. Rossi

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to say that I attacked the building societies when I did not?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

That is entirely a matter of debate and not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Duffy

The hon. Member for Hornsey strayed into the wrong debate but I shall try to reply. I shall give him some of the stick that he gave me, although it is plain that he cannot take it.

I have been surprised by the hon. Member's want of judgment and lack of courage tonight. He accused me of uttering platitudes.

Mr. Rossi

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to answer an argument that he has not understood?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That again is entirely a matter for debate and not for the Chair.

Mr. Duffy

The hon. Member's tactics will not permit him to get away with some of the remarks that he has made. I can understand his having grave reservations about what he has said but it is no good his trying to wipe it off the record.

The hon. Member accused me of uttering platitudes. He asked what we had been doing but he ignored the action that we hope to take—the simplification of the rent legislation and speedier repossession. He also ignored the fact that guidelines are to be issued shortly to the local authorities. He ignored the review that has been set in hand by the Department of the Environment.

I shall take up three or four of the hon. Member's arguments. It is the normal practice that where there is a breach of contract the remedy should be through the courts. One cannot eliminate the problem of unsatisfactory tenants. If the hon. Member could tell me in writing how to do that. I and the Ministry would be grateful. I remind the hon. Member that there is financial assistance for Service men posted abroad to ensure a legally binding agreement with his tenant.

I thought that I had answered satisfactorily his next quarrel with me. A General Defence Council Instruction was issued in 1975 advising on the operation of the Rent Act. That instruction should have been seen by Service men in the three Services. When the House rises I hope that I shall have the opportunity of passing this copy lo the hon. Member.

Mr. Critchley

How widely circularised is that information? From my inquiries in Aldershot and elsewhere I feel that it is not widely known.

Mr. Duffy

Perhaps I may write to the hon. Gentleman about that after I have undertaken certain inquiries.

I emphasise that the Rent Acts offer a guarantee of repossession as long as the proper notices are issued. Where the Service man wants to sell the house and move elsewhere, the court treats the case on its merits. It is by no means true that the Service man cannot get his property back. It is a matter for the court to decide.

Many of the points raised should have been addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, that does not mean that they do not concern us. They do, and that is why I have tried to reply to them, as well as to extend to the hon. Member for Hornsey the courtesy that he was not prepared to extend to me. I assure him, as well as my hon. Friends, that we have drawn Service men's problems to the attention of the Department of the Environment, and we shall continue to do so.

The Rent Acts are under review, and we are pressing the Service man's interests, I thought that I had made that crystal clear. I have no doubt that I did so to every hon. Member present except the hon. Member for Hornsey. I shall not allow the Service man's interests to be ignored. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) for having said that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Ten o'clock.