HC Deb 06 December 1978 vol 959 cc1401-4
10. Mr. Brooke

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether the report on his Department's review of the Rent Acts will include recommendations relating to harassment.

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

We have increased the maximum fine on summary conviction for harassment to £1,000 in the Criminal Law Act 1977 and at the same time strengthened the civil remedies in the Administration of Justice Act 1977. I cannot yet say whether there will be further measures emanating from the review of the Rent Acts.

Mr. Brooke

Given the small proportion of complaints against harassment which reach the courts, does the Minister feel that the laws against harassment are operating satisfactorily?

Mr. Freeson

There are some outstanding cases which reach the media, and we are concerned about them. A number are closely intertwined with alleged loopholes. I say"alleged ". Some concern loopholes in the legislation which we are looking at in the context of the review. We must bear in mind that many incidents of harassment are dealt with on a negotiating basis. Some local authorities have successfully established tenant-landlord relations officers who help a great deal in liaison, negotiation and settlement of disputes between landlords and tenants in the inner areas of London and in other parts of the country.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Will it be possible in the forthcoming housing Bill to deal with some of the loopholes to which my right hon. Friend referred? Is he aware of the extent to which the decision in Somma v. Hazelhurst has made the application of the Rent Acts almost a voluntary exercise on the part of landlords? Will he take steps, as a matter of urgency, to remedy the situation?

Mr. Freeson

We do not have it in mind to draft the prospective housing Bill to deal with matters arising under the Rent Acts review. As I have indicated today and on previous occasions, in the context of the Rent Acts review we are looking at various items of evidence about loopholes in the Acts which relate to harassment and other matters. In due course we shall no doubt be legislating on that basis.

Mr. Scott

Is there not a substantial argument for a new court of first instance specialising in landlord and tenant matters, with the emphasis on reconciliation? Will that consideration be included in the Department's review?

Mr. Freeson

Yes, indeed. We have already published our intention to consider the idea of a landlord-tenant tribunal. We have also indicated that in the review we shall be looking at the possibility of merging tribunals with rent officer facilities, but no conclusions have yet been reached. There are problems in this area. I should hesitate at this stage to say that we have come to a firm conclusion on the matter. Certainly it has played an important part in our thinking during the review.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Will the Minister promise an early report aimed at restricting the landlord's right to harass and evict?

Secondly, will he block such loopholes as were exposed in the astonishing case of Somma v. Hazelhurst, where the landlord obtained eviction because of a so-called licence permitting him to move in and use a one-bedroom flat tenanted by a young couple? Surely that is an abuse of the Acts. Will my right hon. Friend close the loophole?

Mr. Freeson

The case to which my hon. Friend referred is one of the areas of concern which come under the general heading of loopholes which we are looking at in the review. We are concerned with the loophole cases which come to our attention, but it would be wrong to overstate the extent of the problem. The Rent Act as a whole, for the majority of tenants benefiting from it, is working well and smoothly. However, that does not mean that we should not look at particular cases which come to our attention.

Mr. Beith

Will the Minister take the opportunity of the review to extend Rent Act protection to local authorities which are not housing authorities? Why should the tenant of a county council which owns a number of properties not have the same protection against eviction as the tenant of a private landlord?

Mr. Freeson

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to public sector tied cottages or service tenancies. If he is referring to local authority tenants, I can tell him that we are going to deal with that aspect, as we have clearly indicated on a number of occasions, in the context of the prospective housing Bill. We propose to introduce security of tenure for public sector tenants.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the Minister for Housing and Construction understand that in this sector of the property market there are many aspects of concern about the diminishing availability of houses to rent? For the right hon. Gentleman now, after the life of an entire Parliament, to go on talking about a review which has been in existence for over three years is a scandal of complacency.

Mr. Freeson

The review has not been in existence for three years. [HON. MEMBERS:"How long? "] If the hon. Gentleman had checked the record of our announcements about the review of housing policy he would have established that we announced our intention to undertake this review and formally to initiate it arising from that housing policy review. Indeed, we referred to it in the Green Paper, which I am sure all Opposition Members will have read word for word.

On the general point about the reduction of rented accommodation, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's concern and no doubt his implicit desire to see such accommodation retained and possibly extended. Therefore, I trust that he will stop going round the country calling upon local authorities to sell rented accommodation.