HC Deb 19 July 1978 vol 954 cc686-714

12.29 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

I beg to move, That the draft Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 27th June, be approved. This draft order has been produced after a lengthy period of consultation and debate. It started with the appointment of the Porter committee of 1973 and that committee's report in 1975. The Government invited comments on the committee's conclusions and recommendations and, in October 1976, produced a consultative paper outlining their proposals. Following a further period of debate on this paper, the proposal for a draft Rent (Northern Ireland) Order was published in November 1977, and in the light of the comments received, interested parties were again asked to comment on possible changes in the proposals. Finally we had, in May, two half-day discussions in the Northern Ireland Committee, during which the proposals were generally welcomed by all the Northern Ireland Members who spoke.

The private rented sector in Northern Ireland has been in steady decline for many years, and now presents some of the Province's most serious and difficult problems. Only 12 per cent. of the housing stock in Northern Ireland is owned by private landlords, 60,000 dwellings out of a total of 480,000. In 1914 the percentage was about 90, and even at the start of the 1960s it was as high as 34 per cent. The houses are in a very poor condition—one half is unfit and should be demolished and replaced as soon as possible; the other half can be saved if it is kept in decent repair and modernised. Because of the long history of rent restriction, 50 per cent. of all rent restricted houses have rents of less than 50p per week and 75 per cent. have rents of less than £1 per week. The typical tenant is elderly and has an income below the Northern Ireland average and cannot, therefore, afford high rents. The typical landlord has inherited a small number of houses and has little or no money to finance expensive repairs, let alone substantial modernisation.

Faced with these problems, my objective is limited—to try to keep habitable as many of these houses as possible. I believe that over the next five to 10 years the private rented sector in Northern Ireland will contract even further. The worst houses—probably over 20,000—will have to be closed, demolished and replaced. Most of these houses are in areas which are already scheduled for redevelopment or housing action area treatment by the Housing Executive. The better houses must be repaired and modernised, and I envisaged this being done in a number of ways.

First, I hope that landlords will play their part with the help of higher rents and of house renovation grants. Second, I would like to see more tenants purchasing their homes from landlords with the help of a home loan from the Housing Executive. Third, I believe that the Housing Executive and housing associations will purchase and modernise many houses, particularly in housing action areas in Belfast. This is the general background to the draft order, and I think that it is important for an understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

There are four basic principles underlying the provisions of the draft order, namely, that tenants should be asked to pay higher rents only if the dwelling is in a reasonable condition; rents in the private sector should be in line with public sector rents; tenants in the private sector on low incomes should get the same financial assistance as tenants in the public sector; and, lastly, that tenants should have greater protection against bad landlords. Let me explain each point in more detail.

I believe that all hon. Members will support the general view that a tenant should be asked to pay higher rents only if his home is in a reasonable condition. After careful consideration of the many points of view, it was decided that rents should be increased only where a house meets a new standard which is set out in schedule 3 to the draft order. This is the existing fitness standard plus the provision of a hot water supply at one point in the house. It is, frankly, a very low standard for 1978—for example, a house would not need to have a toilet or a bath inside the house. The standard was set in an attempt to achieve an extremely difficult balance. If the standard is too low, tenants would be asked to pay higher rents for poor housing and without any prospect of the houses being improved. If the standard is too high, many landlords would be faced with the prospect of growing bills for repairs and no additional income from rent. If these houses are not repaired and improved, we would be condemning thousands of tenants to continue to live in very bad conditions.

I am, however, convinced that if we are to preserve as many as possible of these houses for as long as possible, we must make more funds available for repairs and improvements. This implies fairly extensive public acquisition and replacement of the worst houses in the private rented sector. In the case of the better quality houses, we must ensure a double injection of funds—from tenants in the form of higher rents and from the State in the form of rent allowances and house renovation grants.

I recognise, of course, that a large number of private rented houses do not reach the necessary standard to command higher rents and I am, therefore, reviewing as a matter of urgency the financial incentives to landlords which will enable them to bring houses up to this standard. I have not yet completed this review. But I can tell the House that I am considering 100 per cent. repair grants for the worst houses in order to ensure that they can at least be made windproof and waterproof.

Whether a house reaches the regulated tenancy standard will be determined initially by using a net annual value of £60 as a general guideline. If the net annual value of a house is below £60, the landlord cannot increase the rent until he gets a regulated rent certificate from the district council. If the house has a net annual value of £60 or more, the tenant can have the rent frozen if the district council issues a restricted rent certificate. In the proposal for a draft order, the guideline was set at £45, but I am convinced that the onus should as often as possible be on the more able party—the landlord —and that it would therefore be better to set the guideline at a net annual value of £60.

The second principle which I have used is that rents in the private sector should be in line with public sector rents. This is already the policy which is applied to housing association rents in Northern Ireland. It is essential, if we are to save the best private rented houses, that rents be increased without delay. For that reason, I have decided that initially the new rent will be arrived at by multiplying the net annual value by two and a half—a figure chosen following an examination of the rents and net annual values of comparable Executive houses. If the landlord or the tenant feels that the multiplier rent is wrong, he may appeal to a rent assessment committee, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, to have an appropriate rent fixed. Under article 33 the Department will also be able to prescribe increases from time to time to take account of changes in Housing Executive rents, the cost of repairs and any other relevant factors.

The third principle which I am seeking to follow is that private sector tenants should have the same assistance in paying rent as Housing Executive tenants enjoy. Accordingly, part X would introduce rent allowances. From the evidence which we have about the income of private sector tenants, it would appear that around 60 per cent. will be eligible for help with their rent either through supplementary benefits or the new rent allowances. Thus, the new levels of rent which would follow from the legislation should have an impact only on tenants who have reasonable incomes. I shall be concerned to ensure that all possible steps are taken to inform tenants about the availabilty of rent allowances.

The fourth principle which I am following is that tenants should have protection against bad landlords. Parts VIII and IX dealing with premiums and harassment of tenants are based on current law in Great Britain. There is very little evidence of tenants in Northern Ireland being exploited by unscrupulous landlords,, and the major difficulties have arisen over repairs, largely due to the very low rent levels which have not given landlords the income to pay for repairs. Now that rents are to be increased, the legislation will include in part VII a clearer definition of the responsibilities of landlords and tenants and give district councils new powers to require landlords to carry out repairs.

Whilst I do not foresee much further investment by landlords in rented accommodation in the lower half of the market, I see a continuing place for a small private rented sector, and I shall do all I can to encourage this. I do not therefore propose to bring into rent control furnished accommodation, houses built for renting since 1956 and houses converted for flats since 1956. I should of course have to look at this again if serious abuses were brought to my attention. At present, houses which have a valuation at 1939 values of £26 and over become decontrolled on vacant possession. To parallel, this, the draft order will free from control dwellings with a net annual value of £140 or more where the landlord obtains vacant possession.

The new legislation is complex, and I am therefore examining what steps can be taken to help tenants understand it and to ensure that they are able to take the necessary action to benefit from its provisions.

The proposals will, I believe, help to preserve in use many of the private rented houses in Northern Ireland. I have striven to find a reasonable balance between all the conflicting interests which are involved. However, it will be my intention to monitor closely the impact of this legislation and the underlying policies and to make whatever adjustments may prove to be necessary.

12.40 a.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I hope that it will be in order, in the presence of the Secretary of State —and we are very glad that he is here to attend the debate on this important order—and, indeed, in the presence of the Under-Secretary who has just addressed the House, if we express our sympathy with and concern about the other Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) and hope that we shall have better news of his health.

At the first of the two meetings of the Northern Ireland Committee on this order, the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) expressed the hope that the legislation would have the broad support of all parties, and it has our support. We are reaching the conclusion of a long journey, because as the Minister reminded us, five years have passed since the Porter committee was set up. Certainly changes have been made in the order since its publication last year, but still it embodies most of the Porter recommendations. We should like to congratulate and thank those who worked on that committee.

The order should make possible the survival and improvement of part of the private rented sector, but we understand it is the assumption of the Minister that by the mid-1980s half of the present private rented sector will have passed into the ownership of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive or of housing associations. We Conservatives particularly favour properly conducted housing associations. I trust that the Minister would agree that there should be no unnecessary demolition and that no more housing than is necessary should pass out of the private into the public sector.

In the Northern Ireland Committee, all hon. Members who sit for Ulster constituencies welcome the conferring of new responsibilities on district councils. It was the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) who said, In common with others, I welcome the powers that have been given to local authorities to determine the condition—the fitness or otherwise—of the various properties".[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 17th May 1978; c. 29.] Originally, it had been intended to entrust the new duties to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, but we believe that the Government were right to change their mind after representations. Yet in the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee, some confusion arose over the longer term. On 24th May, the Under-Secretary of State undertook that there would be a continuing role for district councils. He also implied that they would be on a year's probation. Admittedly he added, I am quite sure that the scheme will be a success and that We shall proceed on the basis of permanency".—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 17th May 1978; c. 52.] Perhaps the Minister could tonight be a little more precise about where he stands. I wondered whether it was necessary in that earlier discussion to treat district councils in these somewhat condescending tones.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is reviewing the incentives to be given to landlords. He will know that in Great Britain, landlords in housing action areas can claim grants to cover 90 per cent. of the cost of improvements up to £3,200 under the 1974 Housing Act. Some of us in the Northern Ireland Committee spoke of the need to bring the facilities of this legislation to the notice of those concerned. I am glad that the Minister has spoken about publicity tonight.

It has been difficult to induce tenants in Great Britain to apply for rebates. Indeed, I understand that only 55 per cent. of tenants on this side of the water who are entitled to these rebates actually apply for them. But the Minister has shown himself keenly aware of this problem, and I have no doubt that a publicity campaign of a suitable kind is being prepared to make widely known this new deal for landlords and tenants in Northern Ireland. This order rightly imposes obligations on both, but to both its offers opportunities.

12.45 a.m.

Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)

I would like to associate my colleagues and myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) regarding the absent Under-Secretary of State. We sincerely wish him a very speedy recovery.

During the debate in the Northern Ireland Committee some weeks ago my colleagues and I extended a warm general welcome to the proposal contained in the order. I am happy to do so again this morning. My colleagues and I have consistently sought parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and since the effect of the order will be to bring the proposals for meeting the problems of Northern Ireland broadly into line with those of Great Britain we are bound, in principle, to support it.

The policy of the Ulster Unionist Party on the need for the reform of local government in Northern Ireland is well known, so hon. Members will understand why we particularly welcome a decision to empower the district councils in Northern Ireland to certify whether houses meet the standards set up in the order. It seems that the original suggestion was that this function should be given to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. We were very much opposed to that suggestion, first, because the Housing Executive has great difficulty in fulfilling its present role—we, as public representatives, know that very well, and experience it day after day in Northern Ireland—and, secondly, because this is a function with which district councils in the Province are well equipped to deal.

I do not know whether this represents the shape of things to come, but it is worth noting that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) also welcomed the decision to give new responsibility to district councils. We hope that this will be a lead for the SDLP to realise that more power should be given to district councils in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I should mention at this stage that during the debate in Committee we paid tribute to the Minister for the lengthy period of consultation and discussion that took place on many of these matters with the Belfast city council and other councils throughout Northern Ireland. Clarification on some matters was sought by my colleagues in the Committee, and some answers were given by the Minister. Many points were raised by myself and my colleagues but, unfortunately, time ran out and the Minister did not give answers to all those questions during the four sittings of the Committee on the draft order.

I refer to one item, when we asked the Minister about the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, during the fourth sitting of the Committee, on 17th May 1978, when I said: The order says that the rent assessment committees are charged to have regard to rents for comparable Housing Executive houses. I ask the Minister who is responsible for fixing Housing Executive rents?"—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee; 17th May 1978, c. 34.] There seem to be two standards. I am sure that the Minister knows what I mean when I say that. There is a standard for the public sector and another for the private sector.

When the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of State was responsible for housing in Northern Ireland he was very concerned—and I am sure that the present Minister shares that concern—about the low rents in the private sector. It is on record that in the Committee the Minister of State said that the rents of many houses in the private sector were not even the price of a packet of cigarettes. Yet since the Porter report was first mooted in the House—almost five years ago—we have had five rent rises in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The latest rise was this month.

The Minister who is responsible for housing in Northern Ireland must agree that if action on rent rises had been taken as quickly in the private rented sector as it was in the public sector, many of the redevelopment areas would not be blighted today by vandals, or wrecked by the lack of landlords with finance to carry out repairs. Tenants would not have been intimidated to move away from those areas in which they were born, brought up, and had lived for many years.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

Perhaps the hon. Member would agree that the Minister's speech was the most eloquent condemnation of rent control that has been heard in this House for many years. The whole position in Northern Ireland has been created largely by Government interference.

Mr. Carson

I accept what the hon. and learned Member says. It was a complete scandal that private landlords were made to carry out repairs without finance being made available. This meant that their property was not a viable proposition. I remind the Minister that it would be well for him and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to put their own house in order now over the rents of public sector houses in the Province.

I extend to the Minister a cordial invitation to see the conditions in which people are living—the property that has been neglected by landlords because they have not had the finance to maintain houses in proper order or to bring them up to standard. I hope that he will come to my constituency and see the conditions in which the people are being forced to live in such houses. I can think of many examples, but I will not detain the House for too long. The Minister knows well that we could talk until day break about housing in Northern Ireland, but I will not make such suggestions tonight.

I want to draw attention to article 65(1) of the order which reads: Any document required or authorised by this Order to be served on a landlord of a dwelling house, shall be deemed to be duly served on him if it is served—(a) on any agent of the landlord named as such in the rent book; or (b) on the person who receives the rent on the dwelling-house. I consider this article to be restrictive. It could prove to be of little value if an agent gave up the agency of a dwelling or if a landlord ceased to collect rent. This is happening in my constituency at present.

Many of my constituents are living in the privately rented sector in accommodation which the landlord has abandoned. I know that the Minister knows of such properties. The agent often ceases to collect the rent because he is not receiving his commission, and he is no longer responsible for property which he may have handled for many years. Since repairs cannot be carried out because the agent says that he is no longer responsible for the property, many people suffer.

It will be noted that there is no cover for such people. I suggest to the Minister that he should insert after the word "received" in article 65(1)(b) of the order as it was in Committee the words "or would receive". This would give protection to the tenant who lives in that type of property, even though the agent refuses to accept responsibility.

The Minister says that he wants to protect the tenants in the privately rented sector. I fully endorse that view, but I also want to protect the landlord. The wording which I suggest would give such protection.

There was some disagreement in Committee over the function of the Belfast city council. The Minister did not give a categoric assurance that the certification of fitness for houses would be an ongoing function for that council. I hope that we shall have such an assurance at the end of this debate. I carefully examined the replies given by the Minister to the Committee. He said that if the arrangement worked out, it would possibly be an ongoing function, and he saw no reason why it should not be continued after one year. The people whom we represent in Northern Ireland would like an assurance on this point. I am sure that other contributors to this debate will be pressing the Minister to give an assurance that the giving of fitness certificates will be a continuing function of the district councils in the privately rented sector.

I should like to see the Northern Ireland Housing Executive given the responsibility to take over vacant houses in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will also apply to houses which are occupied but which have been abandoned by the landlord. This is not now the procedure in Northern Ireland. There are houses which are occupied, but about which neither landlords nor agents want to know anything. Those who are paying rent have no guarantee about the condition of that accommodation in the following year. If slates come off the roof and the property deteriorates and nobody accepts responsibility, I should like to see the Housing Executive in a position to step in and take over such occupied houses. That would give people the assurance that they can continue to live in those houses and that they will be maintained in proper order. I hope that the order will be successful.

1.0 a.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

We are returning to an order which we have previously welcomed in a general way but on which we had specific criticisms. Many of the criticisms made in Committee have been met and there have been a vast number of changes since the burial of the last order after those Committee proceedings and its resurrection tonight. We welcome most of the changes.

The order will bring a sense of justice and reality into the private rented sector in Northern Ireland, and that will be widely welcomed within the community. I await the further efforts of the Minister to improve the lot of the isolated rural properties and the costly improvements that some of them need. A special case must be met there. Nothing has been done to take care of that problem, but we live in hope.

The new rateable valuation of £140, over which tenancies will not be protected, replaces the £26 rateable valuation at 1939 levels, but can the Minister tell us whether the new figure will be the deciding factor in the protection or otherwise of a tenancy? It seems that we are keeping two ways—one on the basis of age and one on the basis of rateable valuation—of deciding whether a tenancy in the private rented sector should be controlled. Some move should be made, if not now, certainly in the near future, towards a single method of determining into which categories dwellings should fall. Having two methods of arriving at a decision on a tenancy will serve only to confuse the landlords and the tenants. Confusion is never welcome and it leads to friction.

Are the powers given to courts in articles 13 and 14 in regard to gaining possession of dwellings greater or less than the powers given to courts under section 1 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1946, which is the normal vehicle used for proceeding against squatters and tenants who do not pay their rent? I understand that under the 1946 Act, a court may grant a warrant for possession but that it remains in force for only three months. I am sure that the Minister is as aware as we are that there are many stratagems for getting round this provision, and the unfortunate landlord who is saddled with a bad tenant finds that it is nearly impossible to get rid of him. When the squatter or tenant is taken to court, fines are very small.

In Belfast, fines of 5p, 10p and 25p are common. Tenants promise to pay and court orders are made which are carried out for a short period, but when they cease the unfortunate landlord has to go through the whole pitiful and apparently pointless exercise again. Such a situation serves only to bring the law into disrepute, especially in Northern Ireland where there are areas in which eviction officers cannot operate freely. I wonder whether the law is being strengthened in the order or whether we shall find ourselves on the same old merry-go-round again.

In Committee I asked the Minister about the £60 valuation. I did not receive an answer. I hope that he will be able to give the answer tonight, or tell me that he will write. How many dwellings owned by the Housing Executive have net annual valuations of £60 or under? I believe that they are a fairly high proportion of its stock. I wonder what the general public and the owners of dwellings will say when they discovered that the Executive is still to have one application of the law applied to it while another application is to apply to the person who lives in or owns private accommodation. That is something that should be cleared up, and I hope that the Minister will address his mind to it.

I have made some brief points and there are many more that will be raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I shall restrict myself to the few matters that I have mentioned and I hope for an answer this morning or in writing.

1.7 a.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

By any standards this is a major piece of legislation. It constitutes virtually a new rented housing code for Northern Ireland. It was entirely right not only that it should be the subject of a long preparatory period since the Porter report but that the order itself should have been under examination for many months.

The order has been subjected parliamentarily to the procedure of being considered in proposal form in the Northern Ireland Committee. There were two sittings in Committee and a total of five hours devoted to it. That has enabled us to deal with it relatively briefly in its final form on the Floor of the House. However, I must say—I am sure that the Minister would not dissent—that it would be wrong for an order of this importance—that is, substantive legislation of the first class—not to be passed finally upon the Floor of the House.

I recognise the assistance that the Minister and his Department have given to those who were studying the order both in the comment stage before proposals and before and after the discussion of the order in Northern Ireland Committee, especially the statistical material that was produced and that has been extremely valuable in working out the purport and effect of the order.

Rent restriction throughout the United Kingdom has been responsible over the past two or three generations for an incalculable total of misery. It is natural that we should think of rent restriction initially from the point of view of its effect upon the landlord. Landlords, many of them in no better circumstances than tenants, have suffered grievously from it. However, the total volume of deprivation that has been imposed upon tenants over the years since the inception of rent restriction in 1915 is beyond all computation.

However, it is not restriction in itself that has produced that effect but the fatal combination of restriction with inflation. Had the value of money remained what it was in 1975, no doubt the fixing of rent restriction at that early stage would have proved harmless. But it has been the deterioration—not steady, but ongoing—of the value of money, combined with the reluctance of Parliament to adjust the law on rent restriction, that has entailed these massive misfortunes—nowhere probably better to be observed than in Northern Ireland—upon the occupiers of houses.

In the interval between the two wars. one of the few beneficial side effects of deflation was that it brought restricted rents nearer to current values again as the 20 years proceeded. Certainly one of the brighter features of those years—the immense improvement in housing conditions and the explosion of house building—was, in part at least, a side effect of the rise in the value of money which was experienced in the middle of that period.

This is not a time of the morning for lengthy reminiscence, but I cannot help recalling that it fell to me in 1956, as a Parliamentary Secretary, to put before the House the first attempt since 1939 to deal with the problems of rent restriction. I mention that now not for the sake of reminiscence, but because the contrast is instructive in understanding what the order can and cannot do.

The method adopted at that relatively early time was the same as the basic method in the order. It was to adopt a rateable value standard in relation to which permissible rents would be raised, but to link the permission to raise the rent with a guarantee of placing or maintaining of the property in decent and habitable condition. That was the basic principle from the start. The same principle underlies the framework of the order.

What went wrong was that, so far from inflation slowing down after the Act came into force in 1957, it almost steadily accelerated from that day to this. Therefore, the attempt to bring rents back into line with current values—without which there can be no maintenance of the existing stock of housing and without which the addition to that stock is severely stunted —was completely frustrated. I know that the same could be true of the proposals 20 and more years ago in Northern Ireland under the then Northern Ireland Administration to remedy the evils of an obsolete rent restriction regime,

If this measure had been adopted and had succeeded on either side of the water 20 years ago, an immense quantity of decent housing, which has now lapsed into deplorable condition and even been destroyed, could have been saved and rendered service for many years still. What is more—this point was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson)—the pattern of our cities would not have had to be so drastically and, in some ways, inhumanly altered as it has had to be as a result of the total desuetude of the rented accommodation.

The Under-Secretary of State admitted that we are now bringing forward this measure with a much more modest aim. No longer can we aim at bringing restricted rents into relation with current values. We are aiming at something which is much more limited than that. The percentage figures for rented housing which the Under-Secretary quoted at the beginning of the debate for various points in the past compared with the 12 per cent. at present —half of which must go in the foreseeable future—illustrate the limitations on the benefit which this order can confer.

Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the improvement of conditions for thousands of families which this order should bring about. Even where the houses have to go within the next 10 years, the conditions of those who live in them should, in many cases, be improved as result of the order. There will be a modest amount of housing and of development which can be saved and rendered tenantable, perhaps for the lifetime of those now living in it, as a result of the order.

The Minister has had instruments to use which were not available 10 or 20 years ago. Without those instruments the objects of the order would be unattainable. He has been able to use an up-to-date rateable valuation. It would have been impossible to introduce the order and to attempt to rationalise permitted rents unless we had had the revaluation which came into effect 18 months ago—certainly in the last year or two. That action was not popular. Revaluation for rating seldom is popular. But it might as well be put on record that without that revaluation we could not now be approaching the task by the method which the order applies.

The Minister was good enough to supply me with most interesting information about the relationship between rateable values and Housing Executive house rents. The principle at which we are aiming is to bring private rents into line with comparable Housing Executive rents, and to do so by means of the yardstick of rateable value.

The interesting thing which the statistics disclose is that for different sizes of house, for different ranges of rateable value, the ratio between rateable value and Housing Executive rents varies widely. After debate and correspondence I think that the Minister and I agreed that ideally we should have a different multiplier for the different bands of housing.

He has conceded that; but I must tell him candidly that after reflecting upon it, I have been obliged to concede that for the simple purpose which the multiplier has—just to start the new process off—it would have been too elaborate to attempt the greater accuracy which would have been obtained by having a different multiplier for three or four bands of housing.

We are making a rough and ready approach to the equation of private rents with Housing Executive rents. Perhaps it is worth recognising that another agonising process which is going on—namely, the rationalisation of Housing Executive rents—is also contributing to provide the basis for the operation which this order will bring about.

Thus, the first instrument which the Minister has is the mechanical instrument of rateable value and Housing Executive rents and the ratio between them. He has, secondly, a working rent assessment machinery which will enable the rough and ready approximations of the initial upgrading of rents to be refined and to be kept up to date as time goes by, because it is no use doing something of this kind and then just walking away and leaving it to be obliterated again by the effect of inflation. The existence of a rent assessment machinery will be the means whereby we shall be able to avoid ever again falling into the pit dug by the process of inflation.

Thirdly, from the point of view of the tenant, there are available now the rent allowances, which make it possible for rents to be increased with the knowledge that nevertheless the increase in the rent which is necessary to preserve and maintain the housing will not inflict hardship upon tenants, especially elderly tenants and those on small incomes. So the rent allowance system is an integral part of the machinery which this order sets up.

Finally, from the point of view of the landlord, there is the system of grants for repair and rehabilitation. The Minister said that he is prepared to go up to 100 per cent. grants for landlords who avail themselves of the opportunity which this order gives. I think that a figure such as that shows how little profit there is for the landlord—even the landlord of houses put into tenantable repair—in the rents which will be permissible in terms of this order.

Certainly we would not on either side of the House be contemplating 100 per cent. grants for the landlord in order to put the houses into the state of repair necessary to claim the extra rent if that was going to be the basis of private profit. In fact it will be the basis of improved conditions for the tenant. This is simply in a sense a channel through which assistance in improving his conditions is conveyed to the tenant.

The Minister said that he had not yet arrived at his conclusion as to what the level of rents would be, but I should like to press him on this—not to name the date tonight, but to say to him that the success of this operation will depend considerably upon the impetus with which it starts, and it will not have that impetus unless the full new grants are available and known when the order comes into force.

So I hope that he will ensure that the new range of grants is not only available but fully publicised in advance of the coming into force of the order. The timing of this order is a matter of importance because there is a psychological element in the campaign upon which the Northern Ireland Office has to engage if we are to get the benefits out of this order that we ought to get.

The Minister mentioned that some houses in private ownership will still continue to pass out of control—that those which are out of control will not be brought back into control again and that, with change of tenancy, houses in the higher rateable value bracket will pass out of control. I am grateful to him for having arrived at this conclusion. It is a point which I pressed upon him from the early stages of consideration, and I did so partly from a recollection of 20 years earlier, that it is the prospect of at any rate some houses in the private sector—however relatively few—coming into the market and being let at market rents which in a sense sustains and gives a contact with reality to the whole operation. So I am delighted that he has done this and I am sure that he will not regret it.

The success of this order in attaining its modest but important aims will depend considerably upon the initial impetus that is given to it. That brings me to the last matter that I want to stress, which is information. Ideally, every landlord and every tenant who could benefit as a result of the order ought to be made aware of it in simple terms which he can understand. He ought to be made aware of his rights, his safeguards and his opportunities.

I suggest that the Department has several channels available for doing this. I suggest, if it is not already done, that the rating system should be used as an adjunct to the business of conveying this information—of propaganda, I am prepared to say. I suggest that the next rate demands which go out to privately owned houses after the order comes into force should be accompanied by a well-designed leaflet addressed to the tenant, or to the landlord where he is the recipient, setting out the provisions of the order and the method by which landlords and tenants can avail themselves of the opportunities. The rate demands have to go out and we may as well ride on the back of them and use them as a means, at the most susceptible moment, which is when people are being asked to pay rates, of getting the message across.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

Would my right hon. Friend consider adding to the catalogue of those who require information those tenants who now live in property of which agents have divested themselves? Those people will find themselves in a no man's land requiring information about who would be responsible in the immediate future for repairs and the paying of rent.

Mr. Powell

Yes. That was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North. But the tenants occupying those houses will, alas, require more than information.

However, following the same train of thought I suggest to the Under-Secretary that he devotes his ingenuity to finding as many channels as possible whereby tenants can be reached with this information. In many cases they will be required to take the initiative. It will lie with the landlord in some cases and with the tenant in others, but tenant and landlord are not necessarily at arm's length.

We want to saturate the potential market with information about what the order has to offer as soon as possible after it comes into operation. So, whether we get from the order the advantages which even at this late stage in the old and evil story of rent restriction it still has to offer will very much depend upon the keenness with which the Department operates it.

I attach to the order my personal good wishes, as well as those of my hon. Friends. I hope that even at this stage the implementation of the order will bring considerable comfort and alleviation of conditions to thousands of occupiers of houses in town and country in Northern Ireland.

1.29 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I associate myself with the remarks made by the spokesman for the Opposition and by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) in regard to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn). I trust that we shall have a good report concerning his health and that he will soon be back to carry out the duties of his office.

No sane person could be in disagreement with the dedication of the people of Northern Ireland to getting rid of direct rule as quickly as possible. The fact that this debate is taking place at 1.30 a.m. is an indication of the system under which Northern Ireland is governed. We have before us a very hefty order, which undertakes to repeal certain Acts and to amend certain other Acts. At 1.30 in the morning we are expected, I suppose, to be as brief as we can within the period given to us. I suppose that we should be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, in that we are given more than an hour and a half to speak on this order.

In introducing the order, the Minister told us that he regretted that the standard set is deplorably low for 1978, and so it is. But one would think that, when that standard is set, it would be set in such a rigid manner that there would be no deviating from it. However, when we examine the order we find that there is a considerable amount of room for manoeuvre.

I refer to schedule 3. It talks about satisfactory provision for natural lighting and for ventilation. It does not define what that is. It goes on to talk about satisfactory facilities for the storage and preparation of food within the house. It does not define what those are either.

The schedule then contains this requirement: its internal arrangement is satisfactory. That could leave room for quite a wide discussion about whether the internal arrangement of any house is satisfactory. Many housewives would disagree about what is satisfactory in regard to the internal arrangement of a house.

But the amazing condition is this: it has a water closet available for the exclusive use of the occupants of the dwelling-house. It does not say that it should be within the curtilage of the house. That water closet could be anywhere. One could need to take a bicycle ride to reach it. The schedule does not define this.

I have had a very heavy lobby from the health authorities in Northern Ireland pointing out to me that, if we are to have this low standard, it should be absolutely rigid and that where this water closet should be situated and the maximum permissible distance from the house should be defined.

What is more—I raised this matter in Committee, and the Minister said that he would think about it—we should consider the safety aspects of the house, such as whether it should have one door or two doors. One would have thought that one of the standards that would have been required would have been two doors.

In the rural areas we have quite a large number of houses which have only one door. My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) enlarged on this point in Committee. We have a whole estate of houses in Carrickfergus which have only one door. That does not come up to any safety standard. Surely one of the conditions, even under a low standard, for this regulated tenancy should have taken in this matter of two doors. The Minister promised that he would look into the matter. He probably did so but felt that he could not agree. It would seem that it is a very low standard indeed and that it does not even have the priority that should be given to safety standards.

I want to stress the importance of these standards being made rigid so that there will be no leeway and that there should be a proper definition of what the internal arrangements of a house should be and what is reckoned to be satisfactory and what is reckoned to be adequate.

Then there is the question of drainage. Many of these houses in the rural districts have only soakaways. Are these soakaways to be accepted as satisfactory? An argument can arise, especially when it comes to the matter of grants. If the grant is to be 100 per cent., which we welcome, this is not giving something to the landlord because rather it will help the tenant. The landlord will not make money out of a 100 per cent. grant to put the house into a state in which it can be lived in with at least some degree of comfort. I think that the Minister needs to face up to that matter.

In Committee there was quite a discussion on the one-year provision in regard to the local council's authority. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) asked: Will the Minister clear up straight away a matter which has arisen several times? The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to a one-year trial period, as he called it—but at any rate a one-year period of initial operation. I understood the Minister to say that it was his intention, when the draft order is laid, that the limitation to one year will be withdrawn, and that there will be a permanent function in the draft order. It would be of help to the Committee if the Minister would clear that up at this stage. The Under-Secretary of State replied: I am surprised that what I said was not fully accepted. I said that there would be a continuing role for district councils following the passing of the order. I cannot be more specific than that. I have already given the undertaking to Belfast City Council in any event, before coming to this Committee. Again, when I asked about the continuing rule, he replied: That is precisely what I am saying, and I am now saying it for the third time."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee, 24th May 1978; c. 75–6.] So I concluded that the year would not be mentioned, but when I looked at the order I found that the year was still in it. Article 8 says: A district council shall, if an application in that behalf is made to it within one year after the commencement of this Order. and so on. So the year is still retained in the order. I should like the Minister to clarify the matter now and let us know if, whether the application is made within a year or not, the council will be the responsible authority for dealing with this matter. The point needs to be cleared up. I think the Minister felt that we were labouring something that did not need to be laboured, but we find that the year is still mentioned in the order.

Another important matter that must be raised is the yardstick of the Housing Executive for rents. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that a very large number of the district councils have already passed a resolution objecting to the raising of the rents of Housing Executive houses, for the simple reason that these houses are not up to the required standard. It is the policy of the Housing Executive when it raises its rents to do so irrespective of the standard.

I am thinking now of two houses on the border of the town of Ballymoney. A stone's throw from these two cottages there is a private development, with all the amenities. The electricity runs down the road, the water runs down the road, and yet within a stone's throw of Ballymoney these two cottages have neither electric light nor a piped water supply or any amenities whatsoever, yet the rents of those two cottages are going up, and the occupants have been told that they are going up in anticipation that they will have these facilities. This is 1978. These two cottages are not away on the back side of the desert but within the Bally- money boundary, and they are also beside all the facilities, yet the rents are going up. Is that to be the yardstick which is to be used in regard to these rents?

I think that there is something wrong with saying that the Housing Executive should be the standard, because there are really two standards. The Housing Executive is busy closing down houses and declaring them unfit for human habitation in order to get on with its vesting of certain areas. A percentage of houses in certain areas must be declared unfit in order that the Housing Executive can get on which its redevelopment, yet it has property which is worse than that which it is condemning and closing, and the rents of that property are being put up. The Minister must take this into consideration when asking us to approve an order which says that the standard is to be that of the Housing Executive.

In some areas the Housing Executive is attempting to bring houses up to standard, and yet the amazing thing is that there are cottages and houses in my constituency, with bathrooms and all the facilities, which will in some cases have less rent to pay than houses which have none of these facilities. This rationalisation of rents, as worked out by the Housing Executive, amazes me. I have taken up these cases with the Housing Executive and argued with the Executive about them. Now I find that this is to be the standard in the private sector. It seems to me that it is not the right way to deal with these rents and the level at which they should be set.

The Housing Executive, as the public landlord in Northern Ireland, has spieled to the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of the elected representatives and the only elected bodies that we have in Northern Ireland are opposed to these rent rises of the Housing Executive because of the standard and the state of the houses. Let no one come to this House and tell this House that the Housing Executive is doing a good job, because the fact is that the Housing Executive is doing a very bad job, especially in the realm of repairs. The Minister admitted that in the Committee. I feel that it is a wrong policy to make the Housing Executive rents the standard, and I feel that this is where the Minister's order will come unstuck. These points were made in the Northern Ireland Committee, but evidently they fell upon deaf ears and there is no change in the order.

I think that every Member from Northern Ireland gives a general welcome to the order, but these are some of the points at which the Minister, before the order was finalised, should have taken a hard and close look. Evidently these are not matters on which the hon. Gentleman was prepared to take action. If he had taken action along the lines suggested in the Northern Ireland Committee, the order would have been more successfully worked out.

In Northern Ireland we have houses that are in a very bad state of repair. Any suggestion, any scheme, any plan to improve them is most welcome. But the Minister should remember that in working out this scheme he should pay at least some attention to the elected representatives from Northern Ireland when they put these matters to him.

There are hon. Members from Northern Ireland who did not think it worth while to stay for this debate. Some of them said to me "What is the use? We have put these matters before, and they have not been heeded, so why should we press the Minister again at this hour of the morning, when what we say will fall on deaf ears?"

The Minister should be prepared to look more closely at the suggestions made in the Committee, especially the main suggestions. I regret that tonight he has not seen his way to give on any of them and that the order has not met the wishes generally expressed in the Committee.

1.46 a.m.

Mr. Carter

May I first thank all hon. Members who have expressed concern for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I shall pass those expressions of concern on to my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison), in a contribution which was broadly one of welcome for the provisions, hoped that there would be no unnecessary demolition. The order's objective is to retain as much as possible of the property that we have left in the private sector in a good state of repair so that it can be habitable, providing useful accommodation for as many people as possible. We shall therefore naturally try to retain as much of the property as we can.

To all hon. Members who spoke about the question of the permanency of powers for local authorities, I repeat what I said three times in the Northern Ireland Committee. This is a permanent feature. There is no going back on any previous statement. There is a permanent role for the local authorities in this field in Northern Ireland.

I must say in passing that it will be for the local authorities to prove that they can do the job. People have held out to me and the Department the prospect that the local authorities are capable and willing and prepared to do the job, and I sincerely hope that they will do it. The councillors will play a vital role. It is for them to ensure that their officials go about the task of protecting tenants and implementing this legislation. It is not for my Department.

Mr. Powell

So the hon. Gentleman is in fact saying that the reference to the one year in article 8 is a limitation not on the duration of the powers of the district councils but upon the application by the parties under that article. Is that the case?

Mr. Carter

Perhaps I may put on record an accurate description of what I have just said and the relevance of the one year to it. Article 8 has the specific function of creating a restricted tenancy. Such a tenancy can be created only during the first year. However, this does not mean that the council function ceases after one year. Article 63 provides for a district council to inspect a house at any time to see whether it is up to standard. I hope that that satisfies hon. Members on that matter.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

What happens, however, if in the Minister's opinion district councils are not measuring up to his expectations and are not discharging these responsibilities well? Does he propose to remove responsibilities?

Mr. Carter

I am looking on the optimistic side. We have taken this decision on the basis of recommendations that have been made by hon. Members and by Belfast city council, which will bear the brunt of the role of inspection and control. I sincerely hope that the whole scheme is a success. Clearly, if the order were not being properly implemented we should have to look at it once again. However, I do not anticipate that at all.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) complained, as did several other hon. Members, about the lateness of this legislation and said that it should have come about earlier. At least, I took him to be saying that. He suggested that had we taken action earlier perhaps some of the houses which we have lost would have been saved. I can only agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, since publication of the Porter report, I think that we have acted with considerable speed. We had to go through a necessary process of consultation, which I am sure would have been welcomed by hon. Members. I do not think that the Department can be accused of being at all laggard in coming forward with the necessary legislation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems of delivering communications to both landlords and tenants. I accept that that is a problem. But in the course of the first year or so, or maybe longer, we shall have to discover precisely what sort of problem that poses. We know that there are absentee landlords, and this problem will have to be dealt with. Only in the process of the operation can we discover just what sort of a problem that poses. The hon. Gentleman also suggested that the Housing Executive should step in at the earliest possible moment and take over houses which were abandoned by landlords and were not being maintained. That is the intention of the order. Indeed, as has been pointed out, if we cannot obtain contact with landlords the Housing Executive will clearly have to step in to save the properties which are still capable of being saved.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said that we should have only one unregulated tenancy area. That is precisely what the order aims at. We are within the band of NAV that we have selected—that is, above £60—for creating an area of regulation, and everything which falls outside that will either be decontrolled or will fall into the hands of the Housing Executive. What we are attempting to do is to create one single area in Northern Ireland of private rented property which is regulated.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems of eviction. The process of eviction is not changing at all with the passing of the order. A landlord will still have to go to a county court, and if the specified conditions which are laid down in the order are not being complied with the court will produce an eviction order. I am sure that the court will see that that order is carried out in a speedy fashion. The hon. Gentleman also wanted to know how many houses in the £60 NAV bracket were in the ownership of the Housing Executive. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information tonight but I shall write to him with the information which he requested.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) thanked myself and the Department for having provided him with a whole range of information and statistical evidence. Clearly, on a piece of legislation as important and as complex as this, the Department had to do whatever it could to provide people concerned, including Members of Parliament, with as much information as possible. I am glad that we have been successful in at least one small area.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the use of rent control. I think that we could have a quite lengthy discussion on the philosophy of rent control and its effects, real or imagined. The truth is that times have changed in Northern Ireland. We no longer have a housing shortage, but it is certainly true to say in any event that the problems of housing in the private rented sector in particular in Northern Ireland are not at all like those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Member concluded with a welcome for the 100 per cent, grant proposal. I shall be looking for some sort of coincidence with the introduction of the order and an announcement about the 100 per cent. grant. I fully accept the right hon. Member's point. It clearly would not be to anybody's advantage—tenant or landlord—if we were to produce some form of gap between the introduction of the order and the announcement of the 100 per cent. grant. He concluded on the note, which he has stressed before, that we should have as wide a range of publicity as possible. The point that he particularly referred to was the sending of notices with the rate demands; I mentioned that myself in Committee. We shall do as much as we conceivably can to make everybody aware of what is contained in the order, what people's rights are and, indeed, what their obligations are, tenant and landlord alike.

Mr. Wm Ross

I heard the Minister say a few moments ago that there was no longer a housing shortage in Northern Ireland. In those circumstances can he tell us the difference between the terms "housing demand" and "housing desire", which are the terms that we hear bandied about in Housing Executive offices nowadays?

Mr. Carter

That is an open-ended argument. I shall not go into it tonight. We should all like to live in palaces in 40 or 50 acres of ground. The plain fact of the matter is that we have limited resources, although I am bound to say that in Northern Ireland resources in housing are not our problem. We have a sufficiency in houses and in many parts of the Province, particularly in some parts of Belfast, we have a surplus. The trouble is, as I have told the House before and as I said in Committee, that the surpluses are in the wrong place.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), in what I thought was something of a departure from the general welcome that he gave to the order in Committee, criticised us for sitting here at almost 2 o'clock in the morning—I I think that it was about half-past 1 o'clock when he was speaking. He may have forgotten that we had already spent five hours on this order, at a far more congenial time of the day—from halfpast 10 till 1 o'clock. I think that that is a particularly generous amount of time to have spent on an order of this kind—far more generous, in fact, than would have been spent on a good deal of other Northern Ireland legislation.

The hon. Member criticised the standard as being too low. Perhaps it is, but that standard is set against the general problem of what is left of the private rented sector in Northern Ireland, and we are making a stab—that is all that we are making at the moment; we hope that it is a productive stab—at retaining what is left of the private rented sector. I am bound to say at the same time that even though these standards are low, if they are disputed, in terms of a higher rent, an appeal is possible. If the rent assessment committee accepts the proposition that two doors are required, or that a toilet should be no further than five metres from the front or back door, that clearly will make an impact in terms of any rent that is finally set.

That is not to say that standards are set in the order and cannot be departed from. It will be for practice and custom to emerge that will finally set the seal on what standards are satisfactory.

The hon. Member went on to talk about a subject that is somewhat outside the scope of this order—Northern Ireland Housing Executive rents. As I have said before on a number of occasions, if any right hon. or hon. Member can provide me with information that would convince me that the Housing Executive is charging unreasonable rents, or an unreasonable rent on a specific property, I shall be glad to have it. Having offered that invitation on a number of occasions, I have not yet had one letter or response of any kind from anybody.

I commend the order to the House, and I hope sincerely that at last we have made an attack on the problems of the private rented sector. I hope that people will live in better conditions in what is left of that sector in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Rent (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 27th June, be approved.