HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc904-10
Mr. Bendall

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 51, leave out lines 13 and 14.

The amendment deals with the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. The hour is late and I hope for some assurances that this matter will be further considered.

Mr. Mayhew

I am most grateful to my hon. Frimd for the considerate way in which he has moved the amendment. We have had conversations about it. Detailed points are referred to in the amendment. My hon. Friend has my assurance that his amendment merits, and is being given, close attention. We shall do what we can to meet his concern—which he has carefully explained to me—within the bounds of drafting possibility. I know that he appreciates that. On the basis of that assurance, I hope that he will find it possible to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Bendall

On that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bendall

I beg to move amendment No. 32., in page 51, line 16, at end insert—

Mr. Bendall

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wheeler

I beg to move amendment

No. 78, in page 52, line 25 at end insert—

'HOUSING ACT 1957 (c. 56)
Offences under section 22(4) (using or permitting the use of premises in contravention of a demolition order). Section 22(4). £20 and £5 per day following conviction. £1,000 and £50 per day following conviction'.
Mr. Wheeler

In view of the hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I seek the permission of the House to include amendment No. 34 for discussion with this group.

Offences under section 4 (failure to provide a Rent Book or prescribed information in a Rent Book. Section 4(3). £50 on first conviction £100 on subsequent conviction. £500'.
Mr. Wheeler

Section 27 of the Housing Act 1957 created the offence of permitting for human habitation the use of premises that are subject to a closing order. Premises may be subject to a closing order for one of two reasons: either because the premises are statutorily unfit for human habitation; or because they form part of a house in multiple occupation which is not provided with means of escape in case of fire, usually because it is impracticable to provide one. I refer, for example, to attic rooms in large houses. The present maximum penalty for permitting the use of such premises in breach of a closing order is £100 with the possibility of a further maximum fine of £20 for every day on which the use continues after conviction. Those penalties, which were set in about 1910, were last revised by the Criminal Justice Act 1972 when they were raised from £20 and £5 respectively.

2.15 am

The principal reason for advancing the amendment is in connection with closing orders made in the interests of fire safety. The arguments equally apply in the case of the use of unfit premises. Under the provisions for the general increase of fines under the Bill those penalties would rise to £200 and £25 respectively. Those penalties are grossly inadequate to deter unscrupulous landlords who can charge rents which provide more than that sum in two weeks. If unscrupulous owners are to be deterred from using unfit premises, or premises which have not been provided with a means of escape in case of fire, the penalty should reflect the rent yield from such a house.

There is also an argument based on consistency. One should compare the penalties under section 27 with similar legislation. For example, section 7 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 imposes a maximum penalty on summary conviction of £1,000 for persons using premises without a fire certificate. It is submitted that the use of premises in breach of a closing order is not dissimilar and should be therefore subject to the same maximum penalty.

I go on now to consider amendment No. 34. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1962 imposes a duty on the landlord of any weekly tenant to provide a rent book or other similar document. The Act also provides that the rent book shall contain specified information, including the name and address of the landlord, particulars of the rent, other conditions of the tenancy and such matters as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State.

The maximum penalty for non-provision of a rent book or the information required to be provided therein was set by the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1962 at £50 for a first conviction and £100 for a second or subsequent

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As it is the wish of the House, we shall also discuss amendment No. 34, in page 52, line 25 at end insert—

conviction. Those penalties have remained unchanged. Under the general provisions of the Bill for increasing fines the penalty would rise to £200. Enhanced penalties for a second or subsequent conviction have been abolished. There is evidence that the Act is being flouted on a fairly wide scale particularly in the City of Westminster. That evidence has been gained by environmental health officers and tenancy relations officers. When investigating those matters they ask to see the tenant's rent book and they are invariably told that it does not exist. The existence of a rent book is important in the enforcement of the general housing and public health laws. Most of the provisions dealing with the service of the notices requiring works to be carried out authorise such service on persons who are defined as receiving rent. The rent book is the simplest and most effective way of determining who that is.

There is, again, the argument of the need to be consistent in specifying maximum penalties for similar offences. Two similar offences come to mind, the first under section 121 of the Housing Act 1974, under which provision is made for a tenant to require a landlord to disclose his identity. The maximum penalty for failing to comply was then fixed at £200, and by the Housing Act 1980 was increased to £500. Secondly, section 7 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 enables any person to serve notice on an agent named in the rent book or any person who receives rent, requiring that person to disclose the full name and address of the landlord. In schedule 2 the Government propose to increase the penalty for failure to give that information to £500 from the present level of £5. It is submitted, therefore, that on the grounds of consistency and deterrent effect the penalty for non-provision of a rent book should be similarly increased.

Amendments Nos. 78 and 79 are largely consequential on amendment No. 33 which seeks to increase the fine for using or permitting the use of premises in contravention of a closing order. It is submitted that if that amendment is accepted these amendments should also be accepted in the interests of consistency. Historically, all three offences have their origin in the Housing Acts passed shortly after the turn of the century. These were subsequently consolidated in the Housing Act 1936 and again in the Housing Act 1957. All of them provided for a penalty of £20, to be followed by a fine of £5 for each day following conviction.

Section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, which I believe was inserted as an amendment by Lord Stow Hill as a result of representations from, among others, the London borough of Islington, raises the penalty in respect of the closing order offence to £100 and £20 per day. No action was taken at that time, however, to deal with the two similar offences. It is submitted that if the penalty is now to be changed, it is opportune to deal with all three.

The two offences referred to in amendments Nos. 78 and 79 are, respectively, the breach of an undertaking given not to use unfit premises for human habitation and the use of premises in contravention of a demolition order, such order having been made by reason of the unfitness of the premises for human habitation.

I should perhaps mention that it is possible procedurally, when the environmental health department gives notice that it considers premises to be unfit for human habitation, for the owner or any person having an interest in the premises to make representations as to why a closing order should not be made and to give an undertaking not to use the premises for human habitation. Such an undertaking is registrable as a land charge just as though a closing order had been made. Thus, for all practical purposes, the effect is identical.

This group of amendments arises from the serious situation that persists in central London and follows the experience of Westminster city council in endeavouring to enforce the law. It is strongly held that urgent action is required to improve the penalties. Westminster city council has the support of the London Boroughs Association in urging that the amendments be made.

Mr. Stevens

Once again, I wish briefly to give the fullest possible supoort to my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler). I wish to make two points.

I do not remember the last time that I saw a rent book that had been properly filled in, although, like other hon. Members, I see many in the course of a year. That is the prime defence of a private rented tenant and it is up to the House to ensure that the penalties for non-compliance with the law are such that landlords, especially larger landlords, should be minded to comply with the legal requirements.

I do not wish any hon. Member to suppose that my hon. Friend and I are pursuing a vendetta against private landlords. The contrary is true. The proposed increased penalties are maxima, and the minority of landlords who exploit their tenants would be subject to them. However, it would not necessarily mean that the courts would be obliged to impose those penalties in every case. For the tiny number of bad landlords, who are mostly to be found in the centres of our great cities, the present penalties are manifestly too low.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) and for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) for the way in which they have spoken to the amendments. They relate to maximum penalties for a number of offences under housing provisions. My hon. Friends will know that the responsibility for underlying policy in such matters rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I understand that if a local authority is satisfied that a house which is unfit for human habitation cannot be made fit at a reasonable cost the owner is given the opportunity to submit proposals for making the house fit or for its use for some purpose other than residential. The authority can accept an undertaking from the owner that he will carry out the necessary works within a specified period or that the house will not be used for human habitation until it is made fit and the undertaking is accordingly cancelled. If the owner is not prepared to carry out the necessary renovation works, the local authority can make an order under part II of the Housing Act 1957 requiring him to demolish the property or, in certain circumstances, a closing order.

Furthermore, under schedule 24 to the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980, local authorities can deal with houses in multiple occupation that do not possess adequate means of escape from fire. If the means of escape would be adequate if part of the house was not used for human habitation, the authority could make a closing order in respect of that part. Enforcement and other consequential provisions in part H of the 1957 Act are applied to such closing orders on part of a house in multiple occupation. The fines for contravention of a closing order also apply here.

It is an offence to use a house knowingly in contravention of an undertaking that it will not be lived in or knowingly to permit such use. The present fine of £50 and £5 a day for a continuing offence under section 16(6) of the Housing Act 1957 was increased by the Criminal Law Act 1977, as was the fine for knowingly entering into occupation of a house subject to an operative demolition order under section 22(4). The Government remain of the view that there is no immediate need for those fines to be increased beyond what was provided in the 1977 Act, although my hon. Friends will know, as I have;aid already, that each of those fines will be subject to an increase when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State exercises the power conferred by this Bill to alter, by order, the levels of the standard scale in line with changes in the value of money. That power will apply to this maxima and can be expected to be exercised early next year.

The penalty for contravention of the closing order under section 27(1) of the Housing Act 1957 was not, however, put up on the 1977 scale by the Criminal Law Act. It was instead specifically uprated by section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, because there was evidence to suggest that in some areas it was not sufficient to deter landlords who could pay the fine and continue to make a good profit. Section 30 will now ensure that it is put on the 1977 scale. The penalty of £100 will increase to £200.

The amendment is concerned with the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1962, which makes it an offence for a landlord to fail to provide a tenant whose rent is payable weekly with a rent book containing prescribed information. A landlord found guilty of that offence is liable to a fine of £50 for a first offence and £100 for subsequent offences. The Bill already provides for these fines to be uprated to £200 for a first and any subsequent offence. That uprating is in line with our proposals for other fines currently at similar levels.

I accept that it is important that landlords should obey the law and be punished if they do not do so. It is equally true that other laws should be obeyed and that people who contravene them should be punished. Landlords are no exception. I do not accept that there should be a special increase in the fine for this offence. However, I emphasise that these matters are within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I have no doubt that he will want to give careful consideration to what has been said by both my hon. Friends tonight. I do not doubt that he will be happy to consider these matters in the context of a review of housing provisions, which many be regarded as a more appropriate vehicle for uprating of fines than this Bill.

2.30 am
Mr. Douglas Hogg

When my hon. and learned Friend puts these points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, will he also stress than non-compliance with the obligation to provide a properly completed rent book often prejudices the civil rights of tenants?

Mr. Mayhew

My right hon. Friend will read in the Official Report what my hon. Friend has said.

I realise that what I have said is not what my hon. Friends would like, but I hope that they will understand the basis of my arguments. In the circumstances, I hope that they will feel able to agree to withdrawal of the amendment.

Mr. Wheeler

I know that my hon. and learned Friend always tries to be helpful, and, in view of the hour, I do

Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (c.12)
Offences under section 39(2) (newspaper reports indentifying juveniles in court proceedings). Section 39(2). £500. £1,000
Offences under section 49(2) (newspaper reports identifying juveniles in juvenile courts). Section 49(2). £500. £1,000.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) for focusing the Standing Committee's attention on these two provisions. Sections 39(2) and 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 concern the unauthorised publication of newspaper reports identifying juveniles involved in court proceedings. These provisions apply to juveniles taking part as witnesses and victims as well as to those involved as defendants. They also apply to sound and television broadcasts under the operation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963.

The present penalty is £500, in line with the penalty in section 4 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 for publishing or broadcasting material likely to lead to the identification of complainants in rape cases. The section 4 penalty will increase to £1,000 under the general

For the words from "twenty pounds" to the end substitute " (a) for a first offence, £50;
10A. Section 8 (1) (obstruction of person exercising power of entry). level 4 on the standard scale". (b) for a second or subsequent offence, £100. £500
For the words from "one hundred pounds" where first occurring to "one hundred pounds" (a) for a first offence, £100.
10B. Section 8 (3) (other summary offences under Act). where secondly occurring substitute "level 4 on the standard scale" (b) for a second or subsequent offence, £100 or 3 months or both. £500 or 3 months or both.

As well as amending penalties in purely Scottish legislation, schedule 6 effects for Scotland amendments to penalties in Great Britain or United Kingdom Acts which are effected for England and Wales by schedules 2 and 3.

not propose to take more of the time of the House other than to say that these are matters of the greatest urgency and importance. I trust that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will cease to be slothful, will look at these matters, and will learn from the evidence and opinion of the council of the City of Westminster and of the London Boroughs Association that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with and that it should not be pushed to one side.

On the assumption that my hon. and learned Friend will do his utmost to convey this information to the Secretary of State, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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