HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc810-4

'In section 1 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (Unlawful eviction and harassment of occupier) in subsection (4) for the words "£1,000" there shall be substituted "£5,000".'.—[Mr. Wheeler.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The present maximum fine on summary conviction of £1,000 for this offence was fixed comparatively recently by the Criminal Law Act 1977, but it does not reflect the enormous value accruing to landlords who obtain possession through the use of unlawful means. Although it is recognised that the statute enables the matter to be tried on indictment where an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to two years is available, in practice it has been found that, because of the long delays experienced in bringing cases before the Crown court and the unwillingness to tenants who are more reluctant to give evidence in the more intimidating surroundings of the Crown court, very few matters of this kind can be taken to the Crown court.

The general rule appears to have been that the magistrates' court could be enabled to impose only a maximum fine of £1,000. There are one or two exceptions to that rule in relation to pollution, fisheries and revenue offences, where it is necessary to deal with the matters speedily because the defendant may leave the jurisdiction.

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The Government have recently been persuaded, in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, to breach that rule in relation to offences committed under the new provisions dealing with the licensing of sex shops. In the case of offences of harassment of unlawful eviction, the nature of the offence requires that the prosecution be dealt with speedily. In practical terms, that means through the magistrates' court. However, it is essential that the magistrates have sufficient power to punish offenders so that the maximum punishments available to them reflect the increased value of the property as a result of vacant possession having been obtained or sought by unlawful means.

I should be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend would look carefully at this new clause, because it is strongly supported by the London Boroughs Association and particularly by the inner London borough councils such as the council of the City of Westminster and the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) here, because his authority also has difficulty in this matter.

In London, as well as in other cities, we have a particularly difficult problem with bad landlords and vastly increased property values. There is a strong feeling, particularly in London, that some action should be taken to ensure that the law is respected and that the penalties available to the courts, especially to the magistrates' courts, are sufficient to deal with one of the most unpleasant evils that we are confronted with in inner London and some of our biggest cities.

I recognise that this matter strays, to an extent, into the preserve of the Department of the Environment but, nevertheless, I hope that the opportunity will be found to use the Bill to increase these penalties to deal with a great problem.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

I strongly support the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). My purpose in intervening is to confirm that in my borough, as in his, the facts are as he states.

So often, the House passes measures designed to protect the weak against the strong but which, when applied in practice to the day-to-day relationships of ordinary life, simply do not work. We have protected tenants against landlords who arrive at the front doorstep with savage dogs, or who throw bricks through the windows. However, in real life the sort of pressure to which a landlord submits a tenant is not, generally, so ferocious. Harassment tends to take the form of abuse such as letters demanding that the premises be vacated. Many tenants become nervous and upset as a result of this form of intimidation and become anxious to leave under almost any circumstances, even though they know that the landlord has no legal right to enforce his demand for possession.

When a fine, as in this case, is so low—other than in the circumstances that my hon. Friend has defined—it is, in contrast to the gain in value that the landlord will get for vacant possession of the premises, a flea bite. It is a minuscule tax, not a punishment. The increase in house values since 1977 makes the earlier figure out of date.

As my hon. Friend said, there is a desire for speed. Without speed, the law is ineffective and that means that in practice, higher financial penalties must be allowed to the magistrates' courts. The old limit has now been breached several times in the general top level of fines that can be imposed by the justices, and is no longer applicable for many offences where the financial stakes are so much higher than they were a decade ago.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister may feel bound to point out that the proposals that we are making would fall more naturally under legislation promoted by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington in urging that if we can possibly cut the red tape in this case and introduce these proposals into the Bill, which will more quickly enable the tenant to be aided, as he badly needs, we shall have served the cause of justice between landlord and tenant particularly in the inner cities.

Mr. Pitt

I support the new clause. I had hoped that we would have chosen a clause with slightly sharper teeth because it is my belief, and I think that of the hon. Members who have tabled the new clause, that whatever sum is substituted for a fine will have to be increased in the end, unless it can be so penal as to rob the landlord of any profit he may make.

Not only in the London boroughs that have been mentioned, but in the southern part of inner London where I have worked for six and a half years and in my own borough of Croydon, far too many landlords are using the excuses of the law to harass their tenants. I have a large wad of paper with me with details of the case of a Mr. Hallahan, of St. James' Road, Croydon. For the last six to nine months, he has been unmercifully harassed by his landlord, largely within the law. We cannot stop those who are within the law but we can, by the increase in the fines, if we accept the new clause, at least touch the Landlords who go so far that they go outwith the law, and fall within the purview of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

I wish that we could have had a new clause that gives the Protection from Eviction Act stronger teeth. because we need some strong sanctions to prevent the bad landlordism that is on the increase in inner and outer London. I am content to support the new clause because it will at least give some greater power to stop these people preying on their tenants. The tenants are mostly unsophisticated people on low income, often with no job or a job that carries little responsibility. These are the people who are preyed on and the increase in the fine would assist them in some small way. I look forward in the near future to some legislation that will give—stronger teeth to the Protection from Eviction Act.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) for taking the opportunity presented by the Bill to raise a matter about which he feels strongly. I have particularly noted the support that he has told us exists in the London Boroughs Association and among the inner London boroughs for his proposals.

New clause 6 would extend the maximum fine for the offences of unlawful eviction and harassment of an occupier from £1,000 to £5,000. My hon. Friend rightly notes, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), that these are matters of policy which fall within the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I have an interest, however, in the structure of fines.

It is important that we retain a consistency, so far as this is possible, in the pattern of maximum fines for one offence and another. That has been established to some extent by the Criminal Law Act 1977 and carried further in the Bill. It is therefore important to avoid the temptation of providing one-off exceptions unless there are overwhelming reasons for doing so. The sum of £1,000 is the maximum financial penalty normally available to magistrates' courts. It represents the normal dividing line between the jurisdiction of magistrates' courts and Crown courts and the general limit beyond which defendants should be entitled to jury trial.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, these are offences that are triable in two ways. They can be tried summarily by the magistrates, in which case £1,000 is the maximum fine; or they can be tried on indictment in a Crown court, in which event there is no limit to the fine that may be imposed upon conviction. The only offences triable either way like this for which maximum fines of more than £1,000 are available on summary conviction by magistrates are those in pollution and merchant shipping legislation where environmental damage can be immense and where it is necessary to undertake proceedings speedily against the foreign vessels concerned before they leave our jurisdiction.

I have noted what my hon. Friend says about the need for speedy action in the case of harassment. If it was decided to proceed against the accused person seeking trial on indictment at the Crown court, it would be possible, I suppose, once proceedings had begun, for an injunction to be obtained to restrain the continuing action that is complained of and that the injunction could be enforced by way of imprisonment if it was defied. I should have thought that the need for speedy action in those circumstances could be met.

There has been reference to the provision in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill—what might be called the sex shop provision—for a £5,000 penalty on summary conviction. We have said that steps will be taken in another place to increase that amount. I do not believe, however, that this is on all fours with the present offences. Summary trial only has been provided for dealing with the sex shop offences and unlimited fines would not therefore be available.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington has been in correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services. In that correspondence, my hon. Friend has drawn my right hon. Friend's attention to examples of incidents that give rise to concern. My noble Friend the then Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office asked for advice upon these incidents from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. The Metropolitan Police have been able to give my officials some preliminary observations on their policy in this area and have undertaken to provide reports on the detailed incidents to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Enforcement in this area of the law is not an easy matter. Nor, if there are problems of enforcement, does it necessarily follow that a legislative solution such as this is the answer. What is clear, however, is that my noble Friend the present Under-Secretary of State must be given the opportunity to examine police advice on incidents drawn to his attention before this aspect of the matter can be taken further.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the Government take seriously the matters that he has raised and understand his desire and the desire of other hon. Members who have spoken to achieve remedies. Responsibility for general oversight of the Protection from Eviction Act rests with my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I am sure that he will pay full attention to what has been said in this debate.

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Mr. Wheeler

Speed in dealing with this problem is essential and time is passing. There is an increasing number of problems in inner London associated with bad landlords, some of whom are foreign nationals with no commitment to the interests of British people who live in London. Many of the people upon whom great ills are perpetrated have a deprived and inadequate background and do not find it easy to go to court and to give evidence or make statements.

The Secretary of State for the Environment has not been particularly forthcoming in dealing with these matters. There is great concern that the Government generally do not look upon the problems of London with the necessary—care and concern. That is why this opportunity is taken to press the matter. I am afraid that it rests with my hon. and learned Friend to decide whether this new clause should go into the Bill.

Mr. Mayhew

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I do not challenge his contention that these people are not adept in court procedures and find it difficult to provide statements. That is just as relevant to a trial in a magistrates' court as it is to a trial in a Crown court. There cannot be any fine imposed upon someone accused of these serious offences unless it is the result of conviction in one court or the other. However, the present fine of £1,000 will be eligible under the Bill for uprating to take account of the decline in the value of money in recent years.

Once the Bill is on the statute book, it will be open to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to place an order before Parliament to increase these maxima and other maxima. It is his intention as soon as possible next year, if this provision is enacted, to use that power. In that event, it is our expectation that the maximum of £1,000 will be increased to about £2,500. If that course of events comes about, it is foreseeable that by the middle of next year the maximum would be increased to half of the sum that my hon. Friend would like to achieve.

I should like to be able to say more to my hon. Friend, but I am afraid that I cannot do so. I understand the way in which he puts the case. I have done my best to explain the difficulties that lie in our way. I have given the undertaking that my noble Friend will be considering the detailed representations made to him by the police about the incidents that have been brought to his attention. I hope that what I have said will be of some, although I recognise not of entire, comfort to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Wheeler

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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