HC Deb 20 May 1980 vol 985 cc319-24
Mr. Alton

I beg to move amendment: No. 168, in page 23, line 37, leave out from ' allow ' to end of line 38 and insert ' any persons to reside as lodgers in the dwelling-house.'.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 169, in page 23, line 43, leave out from ' house ' to end of line 45.

No. 170, in clause 35, page 24, line 16, leave out ' lodger or '.

Mr. Alton

These amendments would give council tenants unrestricted rights to take in lodgers, instead of the qualified right to take in lodgers with the express consent of the local authority. The restriction on subletting would remain.

I believe that in this Bill the Government are moving in the right direction by encouraging the use of property and encouraging people to take in lodgers. If the Minister believes that there is some danger without these amendments, and without the right of a local authority to intervene and interfere in a decision on the question whether a tenant takes in a lodger, and if he believes that there may be a danger of overcrowding, I remind him that part IV of the 1957 Act would prevent that in any case. Therefore, I ask the Minister why it is necessary to put a bureaucratic wedge between the tenant and his would-be lodger.

The Government's intention, as expressed in previous debates, is to try to remove as much bureaucracy as possible. Indeed, the Secretary of State is constantly at pains to point out how he has removed red tape and restrictions. These amendments will give the Government the opportunity to do the same again and to enable people to take in lodgers without the local authority interfering in the tenant's decision.

Throughout the Bill the Government are trying to put an emphasis on greater responsibility among council tenants. They are suggesting that there should be a series of new rights for council tenants. I commend that, but a tenant should be able to decide whether to take in a lodger without going to a local authority.

At a time when rents are rising by alarming amounts, when many tenants are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their rent bills, and when rent arrears are running at up to £2 million or £3 million in some of our cities, it is reasonable to try to encourage local authority tenants to find ways of cutting their overheads. Obviously, if council tenants choose to take in lodgers, that is one way of reducing budgets, and ensuring a contribution to the cost of living in those properties. It is also a way of ensuring that local authorities are receiving rents and not having to take recourse to the sort of proceedings that have been referred to in previous debates. Above all, it will ensure that houses, many of which are under-occupied at present, are put into full use.

All hon. Members can give examples of homes which are under-occupied and where, for instance, elderly people are living in their matrimonial home and have no intention of moving out, whatever encouragements they may be given to move into flats, hostel accommodation or sheltered accommodation. Many of those people are experiencing substantial difficulty in paying the rent. It would save them the problem of having to take recourse to rent and rate rebates, and it would save them having to apply for rent allowances, supplementary benefits and so on, many of which they regard as charity. It would enable them at the same time to use their homes to rather better housing advantage. In that way, many of the single homeless—often the most forgotten groups of people on local authority housing waiting lists—could be assisted by using properties that otherwise would not be used to their full capability.

The Minister was very helpful earlier in the debate, and I shall ask him once again, if he cannot accept the amendment now, at least to consider my arguments. It is very much in the spirit of the Bill that there should be an extension of local authorities' rights. It is also very much in the spirit of what the Secretary of State has said—that bureaucratic controls should be removed from people and that they should be liberated from the shackles of red tape; that they should not have to go to middlemen for decisions to be made about the places where they live.

It is in that spirit that I ask the Minister to look at the amendment between now and the discussions which will take place on the Bill in another place. If he will give that undertaking, I shall on that basis be only too pleased to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

In Committee we had a debate on this question which proceeded on rather different lines. It might help if I were to read what I said when responding to a different amendment which dealt with family lodgers. I said: I must set in context the whole purpose of this clause. It is our intention to give an absolute right to tenants to take in family lodgers. That is the whole basis of the provision … We believe that it is right that family members can be lodged without consent."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F; 28 February 1980, c. 731.] I have listened to what the hon Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) said and I am glad that he endorses the view we take, that the right to have lodgers is an important one. We have given, as I have just quoted, an absolute right to tenants to take in members of their families as lodgers. We believe that that is very important and the right thing to do.

We are trying to give tenants a greater measure of freedom. All of us who have served in local government will know that the petty bureaucracy exercised by many housing committees, under all political colours, does not regard the tenant as a particularly important person; he is a statistic. We have tried to take the view in this legislation that the local authority tenant has for the first time to be given certain rights, and one of them is the right to take in a family lodger.

I believe that there is a difference to be found when we examine the position of lodgers who are not members of the tenant's family. We are not putting an undue restriction on a tenant. All he has to do is to get the landlord's consent, and the landlord cannot withhold it unreasonably. I am certain that it would be forthcoming in the vast majority of cases. But the property is, after all, the landlord's, and if the tenant wants to take in commercially a lodger who is a complete stranger, it is surely reasonable that the landlord should have some say in the matter and be able to object, if he has good reason.

In the last resort, the need for consent may also be a protection to the potential lodger—if, for example, alterations were planned which would affect the accommodation, or if the lodger would be contributing and start off the chain reaction of overcrowding.

Mr. Allan Roberts

If the Minister thinks that the property is the landlord's, and that the landlord has some right over what happens to the property, why, in this legislation, is he forcing the landlord to sell against his will? Does not the Minister accept that when sitting tenants have bought, they will have the freedom to take in anyone they want, whether they are members of the family or not? Should not that same right be extended to those tenants who do not wish to buy?

Mr. Finsberg

We are back to Second Reading speeches on the principle of the right to buy. I do not intend to swallow that fly. All I will say is that the tenant who takes in a lodger will presumably have chosen not to exercise his right to buy.

I must return to the lucid—but I think wrong—argument put forward by the hon. Member for Edge Hill. I have said that it may be a protection to the potential lodger, for the two reasons that I adduced—that alterations were planned, or that the lodger might start the chain reaction of overcrowding.

Mr. Alton

How does the Minister square his argument with the status of the private tenant in the private sector who decides to take in a lodger and does not necessarily have to go to the landlord before deciding to do that? In many cases that discretion is given quite easily to private tenants, without any recourse to the landlord. Indeed, in those circumstances, all the arguments that I have applied to the council tenant could be applied to the private tenant.

6.45 pm
Mr. Finsberg

There is a great distinction, as we have tried to show, between the public tenant and the private tenant. In a substantial number of cases the private tenant will have a rent book which will have conditions. He may be a monthly, a quarterly or a hold-over tenant enjoying a lease which makes specific reference to sub-letting and to lodgers. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we ought not to confuse the issue, because in that sphere the rights exist in different ways. We are trying to balance, in the case of the local authority tenant, the management responsibilities of the local authority with the tenant's rights which we are trying to give him.

I have spelt out two reasons why I believe the protection is needed. There could be other circumstances where it would be equally reasonable for a landlord to refuse consent—where, for example, the landlord was about to serve notice seeking possession against the tenant himself. I do not think that the lodger would be particularly happy to have come into the home and then found that his sub-landlord was about to have proceedings commenced against him.

If the local authority has to be consulted and give its consent, not to be unreasonably withheld, that position would not arise. I think that giving an absolute right to take in lodgers who are not members of a tenant's family might not be in the best interests of those concerned. The tenant's freedom has, at every point in the Bill, to be balanced against management considerations. He can go to court if he is not satisfied. We have made that clear. I am certain that, in the case of non-family lodgers, we are right to require landlord consent in the first place.

I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman and that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Amendment negatived.

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