HC Deb 06 November 1980 vol 991 cc1555-73

8 pm

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)

I beg to move, That the Regulated Tenancies (Procedure) Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 27 October, be approved. The regulations are concerned with the procedures followed by rent officers. Schedule 1 deals with the procedures for registering a fair rent and schedule 2 with the procedures for issuing a certificate of fair rent. They amend schedules 11 and 12 to the Rent Act 1977. I stress that nothing in these regulations alters the relations between the rent officer service and central government or affects the basis of assessment of fair rents.

The objective of the changes made by these regulations is to streamline rent officer procedures and to reduce delays without of course prejudicing the rights of either landlords or tenants. The proposals flow from a working party consisting primarily of serving rent officers whose report was received earlier this year and was placed in the Library on April 30. After consulting the Institute of Rent Officers on the report and modifying the proposals in the light of their comments, the Government introduced an amendment to the Housing Bill on Report in this House to give effect to the most important of the recommendations. This was debated on 19 May and agreed to without a Division. It now forms part of schedule 6 to the Housing Act 1980.

The amendment which was agreed to covered the subject matter of schedule 1 to the regulations we are now considering, namely, the procedures for registering a fair rent. The four changes to rent registration procedures which were originally in schedule 6 to the Housing Act and are now reproduced in schedule 1 to the regulations are as follows.

First, they amend the circumstances where a rent officer must hold a consultation with the landlord and tenant prior to fixing a fair rent. At present, the rent officer must hold a consultation if he disagrees with the rent sought by the applicant or if the other party makes representations on the rent sought. This is inflexible and leads to consultations which the parties have not sought and which frequently they do not bother to attend. This can be a waste of everyone's time, especially on re-registrations which form over 80 per cent. of cases where the issues are relatively strightforward. The regulations before the House instead provide that the rent officer, on receipt of the application, should ask the landlord and the tenant whether they want a consultation. If either does, he must hold one. In addition, he may also hold one at his discretion if he thinks it necessary. But there will be no automatic triggering of consultations regardless of whether the parties want one. This new procedure is expected to save a considerable amount of rent officer time that is now wasted, but I stress that it provides an absolute right for landlord or tenant to a consultation on request.

Second, schedule 1 provides that, where the applicant is the landlord and he has included in the proposed rent an amount for services and has submitted supporting evidence, the rent officer must send this evidence to the tenant when he notifies him of the application. If the tenant asks for a consultation the rent officer must then give at least 14 days' notice before holding it. This is a new procedure which will ensure that tenants on fixed fair rents will always have the opportunity to see, in advance of consultation with the rent officer, the evidence on which their landlord is seeking an increase in rent attributable to services.

Third, the rent officer may arrange joint consultations at which more than one tenant is present. As the legislation at present stands, there is no explicit power for this, but it can save a good deal of time where rents are being registered for a number of identical or similar flats in a block.

Fourth, there will be a right of appeal to a rent assessment committee in all cases where the landlord and tenant have individually made applications for rent registration. This is a broadening of landlords' and tenants' rights, because at present there is no right of appeal unless a consultation was held prior to the registration. This means, for example, that if the landlord applied for a fair rent of £10 and the rent officer agreed with that figure the tenant would not be able to appeal unless he had made representations about the proposed rent to the rent officer before the rent was registered.

If the tenant had not made representations—say, because he was away from his home at the time—there would have been no consultation and hence no right to appeal. The regulations remove this appeal. The regulations remove this anomaly by allowing a right of appeal regardless of whether representations were made, or a consultation held, on the application when it was before the rent officer.

In addition to reproducing the bur changes to rent registration procedures which I have described, schedule 1 to the regulations contains some small differences from schedule 6 to the Act. This is because in discussion with the Department on the detailed implementation of schedule 6 to the Housing Act, 1980, the Institute of Rent Officers has proposed a few minor administrative changes.

Schedule 1 to the regulations merely reproduces schedule 6 to the 1980 Act but with the minor administrative changes I have mentioned. Hon. Members may reasonably ask why we did not directly amend the original schedule 6 by regulations. The reason is that schedule 6 to the Housing Act 1980 is not in force and thus not yet embodied in the Rent Act 1977. Hence, there is no power to amend it at present by regulations. If schedule 6 to the 1980 Act was brought into force and then amended immediately afterwards, it would be administratively confusing. Thus, if the regulations before the House are approved, schedule 1 to these regulations will in effect replace schedule 6 to the Act and it will not be necessary to bring schedule 6 into force.

I turn now to schedule 2 to the regulations which deals with the procedures governing certificates of fair rent. These were not covered by schedule 6 to the Act. Although the Rent Act 1977 provides the power to change rent officer procedures by statutory instrument, we had originally intended to propose amendments to the certificate of fair rent procedure similar to those to the rent registration procedure during the remaining stages of the Housing Bill.

Subsequently, however, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary announced during the Bill's proceedings in another place that the Government's intention was to make the necessary changes by statutory instrument as soon as possible after Parliament's return from the Summer Recess. This is what schedule 2 does.

As the House knows, a certificate of fair rent is a very useful procedure for giving a landlord who wants to let or improve his property a clear indication of the fair rent he will get if he goes ahead with his letting or his improvement. The existing procedures have stood unchanged for 15 years since fair rents were first introduced by the Rent Act 1965. They have worked well and it is only minor changes that we want to propose now.

The proposals in schedule 2 have been fully discussed and agreed with the Institute of Rent Officers. There are five changes that we propose to the existing certificate of fair rent procedures, and I will describe them briefly.

First, rent officers cannot at present take any action on a case where the landlord supplies insufficient information other than by referring it to a rent assessment committee. This causes delay due to rent assessment committee hearings having to be held which are, in fact, unnecessary. The new procedures in the regulations empower the rent officer to request more information from the applicant so that cases need not be referred to the rent assessment committee simply because of a lack of information. This will bring the certificate of fair rent procedure into line with ordinary rent registration procedure in this respect.

Second, the new procedures provide that, where there is no existing tenant, the rent officer is not required to hold a formal consultation but can consult the landlord in such a way as he considers suitable. This will avoid the need for formal notices having to preceed the consultation and will greatly speed up decisions on simple cases.

Third, consultations are at present held automatically whenever there is an existing tenant, regardless of whether either the tenant or the landlord has asked for one. This often results in unnecessary consultations. Schedule 2 provides that landlords and tenants will always have an absolute right to a consultation if either so requests—and I stress this—but consultations will no longer have to be held automatically even when neither party wants one. This arrangement parallels the procedures for fair rent registrations in schedule 1 to the regulations to which I have already referred.

Fourth, at present all cases have a 14-day delay imposed upon them between the determination of the rent by the rent officer and the issue of a certificate of fair rent. Schedule 2 provides that, if the landlord indicates before the expiry of the 14-day period that he does not object to the rent which the rent officer proposes to specify in the certificate of fair rent, the rent officer will be able to issue the certificate of fair rent straightaway without having to wait the full 14 days. This will apply only where there is no tenant, and will again eliminate unnecessary delay.

Fifth, rent officers are not at present specifically empowered to save time and effort by holding joint consultations involving several similar or identical dwellings where this is sensible. The regulations provide that the rent officer may hold joint consultations in the same way as is provided for fair rent determinations in schedule 1 to the regulations.

It will be helpful both inside and outside the House if I say that these regulations will, if approved by both Houses, come into force on 28 November. This is the date on which we are planning to bring the main private rented sector provisions in part II of the Housing Act into operation. Subject to today's proceedings, we intend shortly to make a commencement order and to lay before the House the various negative resolution instruments needed to give effect to part II.

Finally, may I express my appreciation to the Institute of Rent Officers for its valuable and most constructive work over many months in suggesting ways in which unnecessary delays and inefficiencies in rent determination procedures can be ironed out.

I commend these regulations to the House.

8.11 pm
Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

On behalf of the Opposition I welcome the streamlining that the regulations are in- tended to achieve. The delicate relationship between tenant and landlord must be tackled with care. When the additional clause and schedule were introduced in May, they were not opposed and none of my right hon. and hon. Friends debated them. In that case, silence indicated assent. We shall not put any obstacle in the way of the Minister making progress.

Earlier this evening I had the pleasure of hearing Lord Bellwin making a speech remarkably similar to that which the Minister has delivered. I took careful note of a number of his arguments. That is why I was more relaxed than usual when listening to the Minister.

The Minister commended the Institute of Rent Officers for its report published in April. He said that its recommendations were constructive. It is a pity that it is not possible to include many of those recommendations, but I understand that there is a limit to what can be done. The report is a credit to the rent officer service. All hon. Members have experienced the benefit and sympathy of rent officers.

Justice must be seen to be done. There are always aggrieved parties. People are often disappointed with an arbitration or adjudication. We must satisfy ourselves that as far as possible the system is fair and equitable. The proposal puts a little additional flesh on the bones of the Housing Act. That is to the good. If it works out as the Minister believes it will, it will make the service speedier and more efficient. However, we must ensure that the name of the game is not simply speed. According to the Minister, there is no intention of diminishing the rights of landlord or tenant. I should like to be satisfied that that is so.

One of the major changes involves the circumstances in which consultations can take place. I should like to be assured that in three or four months' time the rights and opportunities of tenants will not be diminished by these modest modifications. Many of my constituents are sensitive. Sometimes they do not comprehend. Sometimes they may not read about their rights or understand what they read, in spite of the best efforts by Government and rent officers.

When a tenant is notified by the rent officer that an application for a change in rent has been made he must put in writing a request for a consultation. The aggrieved tenant will be exposed more to his landlord when he takes the opportunity to exercise his rights. I am not talking about Rachmanism or about a plethora of bad landlords; I am talking about a normal elderly tenant who is told by a rent officer that his landlord is asking for a new rent of £10 or £12. That elderly tenant may not be in receipt of any aid and may be frightened about his security of tenure. That tenant may wonder whether, by challanging the landlord, his relationship with his landlord will be affected. By having to state in writing that they cannot afford the rent, tenants may be more inhibited.

I understand the need to put such a request in writing, but many people will have difficulty in expressing themselves in the formal language that is necessary. I am talking not about illiterate people but about people who are limited in their ability to express themselves. Will the Minister ensure that a form or outline procedure is publicised so that spelling out the reasons for objecting to a rent increase is made as easy as possible?

The rent officer could be encouraged to ensure that the facilities of his office were made available to tenants who wanted a consultation but who were limited in their ability to put their reasons in writing. That could very well be done if there were a form and if the tenant had only to sign it, perhaps in the presence of a rent officer.

The new regulations spell out that it is proper for the rent officer to carry on multiple consultations. I was surprised to find it necessary to be so specific. All the consultations that I have attended in my constituency have involved three, four and sometimes five or six tenants of the same landlord on an old estate. They have all been invited together because the same rent has been applied for in respect of all of them. The landlord's agent has sat at one end of the room, with the tenants at the other. I have been present strictly as an observer. The tenants have wanted me not to hold their hands but to be there for the assurance that it has given them. That is one of the pleasant duties of a Member of Parliament. If the Minister and his advisers have any doubts in that score it is right that the provision should be written into the regulations.

The rent officers' report, however, states quite clearly: In practice, however, rent officers do arrange multiple consultations for tenants of comparable properties with one landlord in common. It then goes on to give the reasons. We welcome that provision very much.

Reference was made in a note from the Department and in the Minister's speech to the time that is wasted through needlessly calling for consultations. Has the Minister any statistics upon which to base the claim that the consultations are often unnecessary? It is not my experience that they are. Tenants who have come to me with a query have not felt, even though they have been reasonably resigned to the equity of the landlord's case, and even though the adjudication has produced the result they expected, that the consultations failed to serve a purpose.

Consultation is not strictly the argument of a case by two advocates, but the process serves a useful purpose because it gives my constituents a much broader understanding of the whole fabric of the landlord and tenant relationship. The rent officers of whom I know in Edmonton have done a good job as advocates for the arbitration of the system they operate. Is the Minister simply assuming that many consultations have been a waste of time? I do not oppose the regulations, but, leaving aside the question of time and money, I feel that consultation provides a valuable element in the whole structure of the relationship between landlord and tenant, and I hope that it will not be diminished by the provision that consultation should take place only in certain circumstances.

I turn to the Minister's reference to those who fail to take advantage of a response to the note from the rent officer saying that if they wish they can go directly to the rent assessment committee. That is a valuable additional aid. I speak from the tenant's point of view, but I do not want to be biased, and therefore the matter should be seen from the landlord's point of view as well.

If landlord and tenant are on two sides of an argument, the issues between them are of utmost importance. I do not want to see the procedures changed to achieve greater efficiency and save time and money if that confronts ordinary people—I use the term without offence—with a greater obstacle to ensuring that their rights are protected. We on the Opposition side feel that the Government have acted reasonably in the matter, and we certainly do not seek to oppose the regulations.

8.26 pm
Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tam-worth)

I wish to bring to my hon. Friend's attention two points about the fair rent procedure. I register an interest as a consultant to a firm of chartered surveyors, which no doubt numbers among its clients landlords and tenants who would, presumably, benefit if the regulations were passed tonight.

I understand that the regulations are designed to reduce what some might regard as the inordinate time taken in determining fair rents. That inordinate time arises from the complicated procedure under which the rent officer service must operate. It is not unknown for the procedure to take three or four months, and therefore one benefit that will flow from our passing the regulations tonight will be the greater supply of homes to rent, because landlords will feel that the bureaucratic red tape that binds the rent officer procedure at the moment will be loosened a little. That in its turn should provide a ray of hope for those who are unable to buy their own homes or who do not qualify for a home to rent from the local authority or a housing association.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take a further and more critical look at the procedures under which the rent officer service must operate. The present system is unnecessarily cumbersome. The time lag between the submission of an application for registration of a fair rent and the determination of a fair rent is unnecessarily long. That undoubtedly serves as a deterrent to some landlords, and on that score I give the House one brief example.

I understand that the rent officer has to measure the property in question and then translate the dimensions on to a plan. This time-consuming process is irrelevant, because rental values of residential property are not determined on the basis of a price per square foot or per square metre. Residential values are determined by supply and demand, by the scarcity factor, which is built into the rent officer's determination, by the structural and decorative condition of the demised property and by the standards of amenities available.

I wish to bring to my hon. Friend's attention one further defect in the procedure for the registration of fair rents that has not been raised in the House previously—certainly not during the passage of the Housing Act 1980. There are four major land Acts affecting the public—the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965, the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, the Valuation and Rating Act 1956 and the Rent Acts. The first three stipulate that accountability rests with the authority responsible for administering the Acts. The official concerned is required to justify his calculations, to defend his decision, to accept that he may be cross-examined on appeal and to establish facts. If the appellant is successful on appeal he will be entitled to recover his costs.

That is not so, regrettably, under the Rent Acts. I share my hon. Friend's esteem for the Institute of Rent Officers, but, with great respect to that profession, the rent officer is not required to attend an appeal, to justify his calculations or to answer questions under cross-examination. The successful appellant is not entitled to claim his costs. He has to foot the bill. If the appellant is the tenant, inevitably it involves a great deal of money which he cannot recover in any way. The landlord can recover his costs because they are part of his management costs. The rent officer is not entirely accountable. His file will be closed with his decision, except possibly for the notes that he makes on site, which he would have to reveal to the panel if the case were taken to a rent assessment committee.

With those two comments, I invite my hon. Friend to answer two questions. Is he satisfied that, with the passing of these regulations, the whole process of the registration of fair rents will be as streamlined and efficient as it might be, or can we go further? Will he consider making accountability under the Rent Acts similar to that under the other three land Acts that I mentioned, and so enable cross-examine the person who ultimately either the landlord or the tenant to makes the decision?

8.31 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

As the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) declared his interest as a consultant to a firm of chartered surveyors, perhaps I should declare a non-financial interest, in that I spend a great deal of my time as an unpaid consultant to a considerable number of residential tenants who object to their landlords' high rents.

Both Front Bench speakers might learn with regret that the tenants object to the functioning of the rent officer service. In a written answer of 19 June, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said that the reason for their objection might be that, in the borough that both he and I represent, the average percentage change from the previous rent in determinations made in 1979 was no less than 75 per cent. That is substantial, and considerably higher than the increases that arose in Enfield, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham).

I do not wish to speak at length about the general shortcomings of the rent officer organisation. Before anyone chides me I readily acknowledge that that was established by a Labour Government 15 or 16 years ago. In my view, it has been unsatisfactory for all that time, and is not becoming more satisfactory. I wish to refer to the modifications of schedule 12, which relates to the procedure under which certificates of fair rent may be issued by a rent officer. I shall concentrate especially on the circumstances in which the certificates are issued to landlords in cases where a tenant is not involved. That is an area of the operation of the Rent Acts that has been quite unsatisfactory and has not worked as well as the Minister suggested.

In circumstances where a tenant is not involved, the landlord negotiates or argues with the rent officer about the rent that he, quite naturally, wishes to maximise. The rent officer finds himself in the role of adjudicator between two parties—the tenant who wishes to keep down the rent and the landlord who wishes to maximise the rent. There has been a number of examples in my consituency, and others that I know of in other constituencies, where there has been considerable dissatisfaction following the issue by a rent officer of a certificate of fair rent on empty premises. That has imposed a rent well above what was felt to be the going rate by people living in the area who were interested in rent officer determinations. That is an unsatisfactory situation which will not be made any better by the speeding up of the process through these regulations.

It is absurd to have a system—which normally operates on the concept of two people arguing with one another, with the rent officer as the adjudicator—whereby in certain circumstances there is only one party to the argument. I do not know how we might set about building in some party who has an interest in keeping the rent down. It may well be that any local organisations that wish to make representations would be entitled to do so, or tenants' organisations in neighbouring blocks or streets or, in some cases, even a neighbouring house. They have an interest in these determinations, because once the certificate of fair rent has been issued on an empty property, it is fed into the experience in that area next time the rent officer determines a rent in that block, street, or area. That is an example of the operation of the Rent Acts where one party is pressing to increase the rents and no one is pressing to keep them down, yet it establishes precedents that will tend to be binding on everyone else. In my view there is a ratchet on that, because, putting it at its lowest, rent officers in my area are not notorious for keeping the rents down.

I talked about an average 75 per cent. increase in the borough of Camden in 1979. From the tenant's point of view, that is better than the experience in Kent, where the average increase in 1979 was 103 per cent. That is a substantial increase, even in times of inflation. Therefore, more consideration should be given to this matter.

There is another source of dissatisfaction in the area that I represent. I believe that it also exists in the area represented by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg). That relates to the procedure for appeals when rent officers have made their determinations. I am sure that everyone accepts that in one way or another the rent officer is some form of professional or has some basic experience in valuation. However, there is another ratchet in this system, because, if there is no tenant in respect of the certificate of fair rent, no one can appeal, at least not at the time of the determination. If, in other circumstances, people appeal to the rent assessment committee, they can expect a judgment by what I regard as a biased court of appeal.

The London rent assessment panel, from which the rent assessment committees are drawn, consists of 35 lawyers, 35 valuers and about 30 laymen. Even the laymen include eight bank managers, as well as company directors and accountants. It would be interesting to undertake an analysis to discover exactly how many members of the London rent assessment panel have ever paid rent. I suspect that more of them are in the landlord class than in the rent-paying class. If lawyers and valuers are involved in valuation matters or matters concerned with landlord and tenant, most of them will almost perforce be normally employed on, or have their basic experience in, the landlord's side.

Certainly in my area, there is a substantial body of opinion among tenants to the effect that they will not get a fair deal, and cannot expect to get a fair deal, from rent assessment committees two-thirds of whose members are lawyers, valuers or chartered surveyors. After all, the caring professions are normally medicine, nursing and, so on, and if a distinction has to be made, presumably valuers, chartered surveyors and lawyers fall into the category of the uncaring professions. Many people in my area get that sort of response from the rent assessment committees. I do not have up-to-date figures. but the last time I looked at them there was no doubt that, even with the 75 per cent. increases from the rent officers, in the London area the odds were that a person's rent would be increased rather than decreased by the rent assessment committees. There was a positive disincentive for tenants to appeal.

I still say, despite everything that the Minister has said about the concept of the rent officer services and their operation, that, where it is a matter of issuing certificates of fair rent where there is no tenant in residence, there is a direct bias against the interests of the tenants. The structure and personnel of the rent assessment committees are seen and felt to be biased against the interest of tenants, and while that system prevails I cannot support any tinkering with the stystem. We need major changes, and we should make sure that there is a proper distribution of membership of the rent assessment committees so that they include a substantial proportion of members who know what it is like to be a residential tenant, rather than members who simply have experience of operating on behalf of landlords.

8.41 pm
Mr. Stanley

I appreciated the expressions of gratitude from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) on the role played by the rent officer service. They have a difficult function to perform, underlain to some extent by what was said by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson). They have a balance to strike between two conflicting interests. They have to do so impartially, and with regard solely and wholly to the statutory provisions under which they function. Hon. Members who have served in the Department of the Environment recognise that this is one of the important, largely unseen and unrecognised services that make an important contribution to our society.

Having considered the recommendations of the working party, I assure the hon. Member for Edmonton that there is no material, or in any way significant, diminution of the rights of tenants in the changes that we are making to the consultation procedures. I remind him that even under the present legislation, which has been in force since 1965, there are circumstances in which a tenant will not get a consultation now. If the rent officer agrees with the rent proposal that is put to him by a landlord and no representations are received, there will not be a consultation. So, even under present circumstances, it could be argued that there might be reluctance in certain cases for tenants to exercise a right to consultation, because there is no automatic consultation.

Depending on the circumstances, tenants have security of tenure, but many of the tenants to whom we are referring are tenants with security of tenure under the 1965 fair rent legislation, which is basically long-term security of tenure. In those circumstances it is not unreasonable to look to one of the parties specifically to request a consultation in order to avoid situations in which a rent officer has to hold a consultation that neither party has requested, and, in some cases, where a consultation is arranged and neither party appears, resulting in a waste of a rent officer's time.

The hon. Member for Edmonton asked me whether we had any statistics of abortive consultations. The advice that I have had is that we do not have that group of statistics, but the rent officers who took part in the working party reported that their experience was that many abortive consultations were held. The Institute of Rent Officers supports that view. Certainly there are occasions on which abortive consultations are held.

Mr. Graham

If a consultation is abortive, surely it means that the consultation has been called either by the rent officer himself and neither of the parties have turned up or that it has been requested by one of the two parties and neither has turned up. We have to accept that when the rent officer calls the consultation and neither party turns up, apparently both are satisfied to leave it to him. Although he has called a consultation he has, in effect, misjudged the need for it, because both parties have declined to come. The alternative is that one of the two parties who has asked for the consultation has had second thoughts. Is that not the case at present?

Mr. Stanley

That could be the case, but there are circumstances in which, for example, a landlord on a review of rent could put in a rent application rather higher than he would expect to get. He might wish to err on the side of a high rent. He might well be prepared to settle without consultation for a lower rent, but simply because the rent officer disagrees with the application that a landlord has put in, willy-nilly it is necessary for the consultation to be held, even though both parties may be happy to settle for the judgment of the rent officer. So clearly there is an element of inefficiency there.

I believe that nothing that we are doing here materially detracts from the rights of tenants, but I assure the hon. Member that when we make changes of this nature in a sensitive area we shall want to observe them very closely and see how they work out in practice. If further changes seem to be necessary, we shall be very open-minded.

I turn to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle). I was grateful for his contribution, which was made from personal experience. I shall look further at the points he made about accountability and particularly the comparisons that he made with other legislation. Perhaps I could come back to him later when I have looked at it.

On the other question, on whether I am satisfied that this is the most efficient possible means by which we can make changes in the rent officer procedures, I believe that these changes to the present procedures will materially help to reduce inefficiencies. However, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Edmonton, in this area the sole objective cannot simply be efficiency. A careful balance must be struck between landlord and tenant, and we are concerned with the rights of both and not simply with the administrative procedure which is the most efficient possible. We must try to balance those two interests. We shall see how these procedures work out in practice and if there is scope for improving them further and ending the delays of rent registration the Government will discuss this further with the rent officer service.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South asked about the certificate of fair rent on empty dwellings. I note what he said. He may have a different experience in his part of London, but it is not my impression that there is a general sense of dissatisfaction with the certificate of fair rent procedure. It is a useful administrative device, which allows a landlord with an empty dwelling to obtain an indication of what the fair rent would be if that property were occupied. That is an important facility to make available to landlords as part of our objective of getting more private rented accommodation available and more empty accommodation brought into letting.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that when the rent officer makes his determination in terms of the certificate of fair rent on an empty dwelling he is obliged to make the registration fully in accordance with existing stautory provisions. I see no grounds for attributing any suggestion of bias in the way in which the rent officer approaches that task, any more than I would accept that there is an element of bias when he makes his determination of a fair rent. I see no logical reason why that need be the case, and I am confident that the rent officer service carries out determinations in a detached and dispassionate way, within the framework of the legislation.

Mr. Dobson

I am not suggesting—at least in general—that there is bias on the part of the rent officer service. However, if it is of benefit to the process of adjudication for an officer to hear both sides of the case when there is a landlord and a tenant and it is worth the tenant's being represented, there is surely a structural fault if the party who would like to have the rent kept down is not represented in other cases. I have been told by rent officers that tenants will frequently draw to their attention certain elements affecting the officers' judgment of the value of a property which they have not noticed, because they are not omniscient. The certificate of fair rent issued when there is no tenant leaves out the possibility of disadvantages being drawn to the attention of rent officers.

Mr. Stanley

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. He is questioning the existence of the certificate of fair rent on empty properties. By definition, that procedure is usually operated on a dwelling that is untenanted, and there is no way in which a tenant is able to make representatations. The hon. Gentleman is calling into question the use of that procedure.

The counter argument in support of the retention of the procedure is that landlords with empty properties will wish to know what is likely to be the fair rent, particularly if the property is let with the existing security of tenure under the Rent Act 1977, which may prevent them from getting repossession for a long time. It is of critical importance that we should give owners the facility to establish in advance what a fair rent would be on a dwelling should they decide to let it.

The hon. Gentleman's comments about rent assessment committees were interesting echoes of a debate some months ago, in a Committee with which a number of us were involved for a long time. The hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) made similar observations about the composition of rent assessment committees, and I must give the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South a similar reply to the one that I gave then.

I do not accept that there is some sort of class basis that produces class blinkers on those who are called to serve on rent assessment committees and results in their loading determinations in one direction. The composition of committees was established by a previous Labour Government and has continued under successive Governments. The function of the committees is to fix rents in the light of the statutory criteria that are laid down. I have just as much confidence in the ability of the rent assessment committees, as currently composed, to carry out what is a statutory function as I have in the members of the judiciary generally, regardless of their individual backgrounds, to perform their independent functions as members of the judiciary. Therefore, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said.

The critical requirement on rent assessment committees is to have a balanced composition of people with relevant interests to carry out a statutory and not a social function. It is a statutory determination of rent. The judgment that was made, when the legislation was first put through in 1965, on the right balance of rent assessment committees, has been justified during the past 15 years by the general confidence in which rent assessment committees are held. Certainly when the Housing Bill was going through it was not our view that we should make any change in the composition of rent assessment committees.

Mr. Graham

Will the Minister deal with the point that I made about the difficulties that some tenants might have because the request for consultation must be made in writing? Schedule 1 refers to the circumstances in Which this request can be made. Paragraph 3(1) states: the rent officer shall serve on the landlord and on the tenant a notice inviting the person on whom the notice is served to state in writing, within a period of not less than seven days after the service of the notice, whether he wishes the rent officer to consider, in consultation with the landlord and the tenant, what rent ought to be registered for the dwelling-house. I can see the value of that statement being made not verbally but in writing, so that there is no dubiety about what is wanted. I do not want to make heavy weather of the inability of some people who may be elderly, frightened, nervous or unsure of what they must do. They must have guidance in prescribed form or directly from the rent officer, and that advice must be publicly available. I am uneasy about rights that have not been eroded but could in practice inhibit some of my constituents from taking advantage of them.

Mr. Stanley

The reason for the provision to make this request in writing is to introduce an important element of certainty where a request for consultation has been called for. I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said. I assure him that I shall look at the mechanics of the way in which a tenant or a landlord would exercise his request in writing. I shall want to satisfy myself that people have a simple process whereby they can exercise that important statutory right.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Regulated Tenancies (Procedure) Regulations 1980, a copy of which was laid before this house on 27 October, be approved.