HC Deb 11 June 1980 vol 986 cc695-700
Mr. O'Neill

I beg to move amendment No. 117, in page 22, line 44, leave out 'or take in a lodger'. A similar amendment was moved in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) as a probing amendment. Unfortunately, the probes were blunt. The Minister stated : The reason why the different terminology is used is that a sub-tenant only becomes a sub-tenant when the local authority has given its consent. A lodger is someone who is living there whether or not he has legal consent. The purpose of the phrasing in its present form is to make it clear that a tenant shall not take in lodgers until the consent of the landlord has been obtained. When consent has been obtained the lodger would become a sub-tenant. It is not necessary to define ' lodger ' because it is quite clear that until a person has become a sub-tenant he is not entitled to live in the house and make payment for doing so."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 6 March 1980 ; col. 1043.] That gobbledegook caused some confusion. We were pleased to receive an assurance from the Minister that he would examine the drafting. He said that his intention was the same as ours. He said that if the existing drafting did not meet the problem he would be happy to consider tabling an amendment. Apparently his deliberations came to naught.

Mr. Rifkind

The amendment would dispense with the requirement for a tenant to obtain the landlord's consent to take in a lodger. The amendment is unnecessary because the Bill makes it clear that the landlord's consent should not be unreasonably withheld. There is a remedy for a tenant who seeks to take a lodger if permission is refused unreasonably. The taking in of a lodger might result in overcrowding and the landlord would then oppose it. We believe that the tenant's interests are suitably protected.

Mr. O'Neill

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move amendment No. 118, in page 23, line 3, leave out lines 3 and 4, and insert— '(2) The landlord may refuse consent under this section if it appears to it that a payment other than'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss amendment No. 209.

Mr. Rifkind

The amendments deal with a landlord's right to refuse consent to a tenant's application to sublet or take a lodger on the ground that an unreasonable charge has been or is to be made. The amendment provides that an authority may refuse an application only if it appears that an unreasonable payment has been or is to be made so that the onus is on the authority to refuse consent, rather than on the tenant. That is a more logical way to deal with the issue.

Mr. Millan

I am doubtful about the amendment, as I am about the Bill. It is difficult for a landlord to know what a lodger or sub-tenant pays. The Bill might be impracticable because it might impose an obligation on an authority to discover difficult information which is easily given in a wilfully inaccurate form.

The present wording follows previous housing legislation. If we change the wording the provision will not be worth having. It will put the landlord in a passive position. The landlord will not actively have to inquire about whether the payment is reasonable. That information will have to come to the authority's knowledge in some magical way.

9.30 pm

A lot of subletting and taking in of lodgers that occurs is against the terms of tenants' missives and local authorities take no action. In many cases, in my humble opinion, that is a good thing. Sometimes things happen reasonably, and it is better that local authorities do not know about them. We are, however, suggesting in new legislation that local authorities should be satisfied about these matters. One assumes that the local authorities would make some inquiry. It seems to me that the new wording almost invites them not to bother to make inquiry.

It is difficult to get this provision right. I am not convinced that there is not a third way that would involve saying "The landlord, on reasonable inquiry, had no reason to believe." I do not make a great deal of the issue, but I feel that it is undesirable to have legislation that is not practical. Sometimes, when following precedent, one can at least say that it has not done any harm. If, however, the wording is to be changed, it may be sensible to try to achieve something that will work. I do not expect an answer from the Minister. I hope that the draftsman and his officials will examine the matter.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Cook

I beg to move amendment No. 119, in page 23, line 31, at end add— '(8) Where the principal tenancy is brought to an end under section 11(i) of this Act, the landlord should offer other suitable alternative accommodation to a sub-tenant within the meaning of (his section.'. The amendment is similar in terms to an amendment that I moved in Committee relating to the position of the subtenant when the main tenancy ceases. I represent an area of Edinburgh that contains most of the lodging hostels in the east of Scotland. About 1,000 of my constituents live in such hostels. I am, therefore, familiar with the problems of the single homeless and the difficulty that single men, in late middle age, experience in obtaining suitable accommodation.

The difficulty arises primarily because local authorities in Scotland have neglected their duty to the single household. When the House passed the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, it exempted single people from the provisions of the priority categories in the statute. Many homeless people are living in hostels in large cities because local authorities have failed in their duty towards them. If there is an increase in the number of lodgers and sub-tenants as a result of this Bill, the amendment will go some way towards meeting the desperate needs of many of these people. But it will be counter-productive to make a provision that will give these people, for a temporary period, some form of accommodation if they themselves are liable to be rendered homeless whenever the chief tenancy ceases without any obligation on the local authority to find them alternative accommodation.

It is high time that the House placed an obligation on local authorities to take seriously their housing duties to single people. It would be a useful innovation if we were to impose, in the limited case of sub-tenants, accepted sub-tenants of a chief tenant of a local authority, a duty to find them suitable accommodation should they become homeless.

When the Bill was discussed in Committee, it was not only Labour Members who expressed interest or concern for this group of people. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) made a rare intervention in our debate to indicate considerable sympathy for what I was saying. I felt that it would be useful to raise the matter again on the Floor of the House so that Conservative Members could indicate their support in this area of concern and the need to find a solution.

The Minister objected to the amendment in Committee on the ground that it went too wide. There is a genuine problem. There is a requirement to find a form of words that will achieve the objective I am seeking on a more narrow basis. I was left with the task of drafting an amendment that expresses the objective I wish to achieve that is shared by the hon. Member for Edniburgh, South.

Unfortunately, I have scant drafting assistance at my command, and during the time between Committee and Report I have been unable to find a suitable form of words which would commend itself to the Minister and would not immediately b; denounced either by him or by my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) as being defective in three items.

I have, therefore, tabled the amendment very much in the form in which it was placed before the Committee in order to take the opportunity to stress to the Minister that this is an area of concern. I am glad that he does not dispute that. It is a concern which is shared by Conservative as well as Labour Members. While I recognise that he may be unable to accept the amendment tonight, can the Minister give an undertaking that he will consider it to see whether there is some way in which the objective which I and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South share can be given effect to in the other place?

Mr. Rifkind

I recognise the concern of the hon. Member, which he has expressed both tonight and in Committee. He appreciates as much as I do the practical problems involved in this area.

First, if there was an automatic right to rehouse there would clearly be an enormous discincentive on local authorities not to grant permission for sub-tenancies to be created.

There would be the additional problem that a sub-tenant would have a great interest in the tenancy's being brought to an end, because he would then be immediately transformed from being a sub-tenant to someone who gets to the head of the waiting list and receives a guaranteed offer of accommodation by the local authority. Clearly that is not the hon. Gentleman's objective, but it is a real problem. I must confess that I am not aware of any way in which that sort of problem can be resolved.

This is something at which we shall continue to look. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestion which he feels may meet his objective without creating the sort of difficulties that I outlined in Committee and have indicated again tonight, we shall consider it carefully and sympathetically. However, there are practical problems involved, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises them.

Mr. Cook

I should like to put one option to the Minister. Many of the most awkward cases arise when the chief tenant dies. I have encountered a number of such cases myself. They arise in particularly distressing circumstances, because often the sub-tenant has lived with the chief tenant for a long time. Indeed, the sub-tenant may have thought that he had some kind of security and right to succession, only to find on the death of the chief tenant that he has not.

Will the Minister be prepared to look more sympathetically at an amendment which is confined merely to those cases in which the chief tenancy expires by the working of clause 11(1)(a), which is the subsection whereby the secured tenancy lapses by reason of the chief tenant's death? That would obviously remove his anxiety that it would give the sub-tenant a motivation to end the tenancy—unless he seriously considers the possibility of murder—in order to achieve secure and suitable alternative accommodation. It would also deal with some of the most difficult cases that arise.

Mr. Rifkind

Murder would certainly lead to the sub-tenant getting alternative accommodation, and he would no doubt have security of tenure as well. But I do not think that is what the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

The problem is that there would be something arbitrary if the position of the sub-tenant was dramatically affected by reasons independent of himself—in other words, if he got alternative accommodation because the chief tenant died but did not get it if the tenancy was brought to an end for other reasons. I appreciate why the hon. Gentleman's thoughts are moving in that direction, and I agree that it deals with one aspect of the problem.

I shall look at the points which the hon. Gentleman has raised. If he has any subsequent suggestions, not of the particular kind that he briefly mentioned, we shall be happy to look at them to see whether they can be reconciled with the objectives which I think we both share.

Mr. Cook

I shall consider the matter further, but in the meantime I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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