HC Deb 20 May 1980 vol 985 cc306-10
Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

I beg to move amendment No. 49, in page 19, line 35, after ' tenancy ', insert ' for any residential occupier of the dwelling as defined in subsection (6) below'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 50, in page 20, line 27, at end add— ' (6)(a) A person is a residential occupier for the purposes of this Act if he is granted the right to occupy as a residence a dwelling by virtue of any contractual arrangement. (b)An arrangement is a contractual arrangement for the purposes of subsection 1 of this section regardless of whether con sideration for the said right to occupy as a residence is by payment of money, provision of goods or performance of services and regardless of whether either the said right to occupy or the consideration afore mentioned is the sole or principal purpose of the said arrangement or only a subsidiary part of the said arrangement or collateral. (c)For the purposes of subsection 1 of this section a person shall be considered to occupy a dwelling as a residence if either—

  1. (i) it is that person's only residence; or
  2. (ii) it is one of that person's residences; or
  3. (iii) that person has a genuine intention of resuming residence in that dwelling.
(d)For the purposes of this section, once the conditions of subsection 1 are fulfilled, a person shall be deemed to fulfil the conditions of subsection 3 unless or until a Court otherwise declares. (e)For the purposes of this section a person shall not be prevented from being a residential occupier within the meaning of subsection 1 by reason of the fact that he does not have the right to the exclusive possession of any part of the dwelling occupied by him.'.

Mr. Tilley

Amendments Nos. 49 and 50 go together. We had difficulty in deciding where amendment No. 49 should go. If the amendment were accepted, several consequential amendments would have to be made to the Bill and to the Rent Act 1977. The two amendments are far-reaching. Their purpose is to close most of the loopholes in the Rent Acts at a stroke. Greedy private landlords have been using those loopholes during the past five years to exploit, harass and oppress their tenants. That is particularly true in large cities and, above all, in London.

The Department of the Environment reviewed the Rent Acts. The review sparked off many submissions from housing and welfare agencies. They gave evidence that evasions were taking place. The Citizens Advice Bureaux made a survey of 134 of their offices. It discovered that within a period of six months they had received 740 complaints referring to evasions of the Rent Act. The complaints covered many different types of evasion, including phoney holiday lettings, non-exclusive agreements, and licences. My hon. Friends and I provided details of such evasions in Committee. The evasions had one feature in common, namely, that they give maximum profits to the landlord and minimum security to the tenant.

The amendment would give a new meaning to the protection of tenants under the law. In addition to the 740 complaints received by the Citizens Advice Bureaux, hundreds and thousands of people may not have known that such help was available. Some of those who knew that such help was available may not have dared to ask for it, for fear that they would lose their homes or incur greater rent increases.

I shall give one example that occurred in my constituency. The example was given by the Lambeth law centre. It states: Mr. E. was a tenant of a landlord, who owns several houses in Lambeth. She specialises in exploiting ' the Rent Act loopholes '. In one house there may be a tenant in ' bed and breakfast ' living on the ground floor, a ' licensee ' living on the middle floor, and someone on ' holiday ' on the top floor. The police have been called in on several occasions by tenants who have returned home to find paint strewn over the furniture. In Mr. E's case, he came home after his ' one year holiday' had just expired to find the front door locked and his belongings in the street The next day the front door was smashed giving the false impression that he had attempted to break back in. An injunction was obtained to restore him to the flat. The landlord refused to comply with the order and it was only when she had been found in contempt of court that she finally let him back in. That is an example of the type of thing that is happening.

In response to our approaches, the Government have said that there is insufficient evidence of such evasions for any change in legislation to be made. However, the Government have ignored the evidence. They have failed in their duty to carry out a deeper investigation. An investigation is necessary if the full evidence is to be brought forward. Such evidence could be found, if only the Government were prepared to look for it

6 pm

Two years ago, in a press release of August 1978, the Small Landlords Association, which had its headquarters in Lambeth, said: Increasingly, however, landlords are using licences as means of circumventing the penal provisions of the Rent Acts. That was a quite open admission of the way in which tenants' security was being undermined.

I summarise the legislative position by quoting from a document entitled "The Laws that Leak" compiled by the Garratt Lane law centre, before that body was the victim of Tory cuts in Wandsworth. It said: The maze of statute law created by Parliament during this century has recently been consolidated in two further pieces of legislation—the 1977 Rent Act and the 1977 Protection from Eviction Act. However, this has done little to make the statutory framework more effective: it remains incomprehensible to most tenants and many lawyers and lay advisors, a mystifying accumulation of different legislative regimes, uneasily grafted onto old common law distinctions. It is an uncertain guide to rights and responsibilities on the one hand and a welcome resource for landlords seeking to evade its operation on the other. Parallel to this work of Parliament and compounding the confusion is a body of case law resulting from the activities of the judiciary—this case law, rather than merely clarifying the fine points of legislation, has had, in several instances, the broad effect of undermining its intended impact by juggling with the concepts on which it has been built. The result is a system, the complexity of which stems as much from its own inconsistencies as from the variety of situations it is seeking to regulate. It is to meet that situation that I have framed these two amendments. Their purpose is to cut through the legal maze by saying that the legal definition of the tenant who has a right to protection shall be the commonsense definition In other words, the protected tenant should be the person who lives in the dwelling after agreeing to pay a regular amount to the owner of that dwelling for the privilege of living in it. That is the commonsense meaning of "tenant" and that is what I believe its legal meaning should be. Indeed, I use the phrase "residential occupier" to cover that.

As it stands, the Bill creates new loopholes for landlords to exploit—the short-hold tenancies, the assured tenancies, and so on. I hope that at the eleventh hour the Government will accept the spirit, if not the letter, of the amendment. I hope that by now they realise that by putting this Bill through, particularly in respect of the private sector, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction at the next general election when the embittered tenants who have suffered as a result of the Bill will express their anger in the ballot box.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

I confess that I listened to the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) with some surprise. Nothing in clause 27 has anything to do with the Rent Acts or with private tenants. The whole basis of the hon. Member's speech, ending in his peroration and his appeal to the private tenant, has absolutely nothing to do with secure public sector tenancies. Therefore, he will forgive me if I find it a little difficult to respond to his point. I could repeat the speeches that I made in Committee on holiday lets and so on, but they would not be relevant to his argument.

The amendment that has been proposed is a major one in that it deals with one of the most basic clauses of the Bill—defining the secure tenant for the purpose of the right to buy. I need not remind the hon. Member that only the secure tenant has that right and therefore it is very important to get that definition correct. We have retained a basic framework of the definition that was in the Labour Government's Housing Act—that an individual tenant who occupies a separate dwelling as his only principal home should be a secure tenant. The amendment seeks to alter fundamentally that definition by importing a totally new concept of "residential occupier" and giving that term a wide definition. The hon. Member will recall the hours of debate in Committee on some of the individual issues that he has raised. I do not propose to discuss them again today, because they are not relevant to this section of the Bill.

I wonder whether the hon. Member realises that his amendment would, for example, make secure all those who lived in local authority hostel accommodation. I think that even the hon. Member was convinced at the end of my Committee argument that that was not sensible. Security is, in most cases, unnecessary for hostel dwellers and would create enormous problems for the landlords. Similarly the amendment would make secure sharers who may have an individual licence, but share all but a bedroom. Again, it is not appropriate that tenants should be secure in these conditions because the arrangements are temporary and because of the sheer practical difficulties that landlords would experience as a result. How would people succeed in sharing the accommodation in practice? It simply would not work.

The right to buy would, under the amendment, be extended to all those tenants. I do not believe that the lion. Gentleman intended that, because I cannot see him joining the bandwagon of those who wish to extend the right to buy. However, if he temporarily uses that bandwagon for his amendment, I always welcome a sinner. But I cannot advise the House to accept the amendment. I hope that the hon. Member will understand that his very good speech did not add much because it was not relevant to the clause under discussion.

Amendment negatived.

Forward to