HC Deb 21 December 1983 vol 51 cc483-6

'In section 41 of the Housing Act 1980 there shall at the end of subsection (1) be inserted the following words—

"and shall include in a written tenancy agreement such information as is reasonably necessary to draw to the attention of a secure tenant the tenant's rights under paragraphs (b) and (c) of this subsection.".'.—[Mr. Allan Roberts.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Allan Roberts

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

New clause 5 is tabled by the Opposition with the intention to assist the Government in their often-stated claim that they have done something for council tenants by passing into legislation a tenants' charter in the Housing Act 1980. The Government's housing policy is based on the belief that there are no housing problems and that it is not necessary to build any more houses for rent, so one can sell off the best houses for rent that are owned by local authorities and housing associations. One of the Government's problems is to convince council tenants who do not wish to purchase and those in housing need that they are doing something for people in housing need and for council tenants. In an attempt to stave off criticisms of their tragic record, the Government quote the tenants' charter provisions of the Housing Act 1980. One of the main provisions of that tenants' charter is in section 41 of the Housing Act 1980, which requires local authorities to inform their tenants of their rights in writing, including the repair obligations of landlords and all the rights of secure tenants included in the tenants' charter in the 1980 Act. Although that reads well in the 1980 Act, local authority after local authority has ignored the provisions, and the Department of the Environment and the Government have done little about that.

Shelter recently carried out a national survey on tenancy agreements. It took a large sample of agreements from different types of authorities, and carefully examined the steps that they had taken to meet the requirements of the Act to provide information to tenants on their rights. Shelter examined information published by 220 local authorities under sections 32 and 33 of the Housing Act 1961, which deal with the repairing obligations of landlords. The 1980 Act required local authorities to give notice in writing about those provisions.

Of the 220 local authorities, 24 per cent. did not mention a landlord's obligation to repair the structure and exterior of a dwelling; 30 per cent. did not mention a landlord's obligation to keep in repair the installations in the dwelling; and 63 per cent. did not specify which items of repair were a landlord's responsibility under section 32 of the 1961 Act. There are no teeth in the 1980 Act to enforce the provisions of the tenants' charter. Compared with the Government's assiduity in pursuing local authorities to ensure that the right-to-buy provisions are implemented, the Department of the Environment and the Government have virtually ignored the provisions of the tenants' charter.

Action is needed, and my new clause will provide that. It provides that local authorities must write into tenancy agreements the tenant's rights and the repairing obligations of landlords. It is an attempt to strengthen Conservative legislation. It would put some teeth into the 1980 tenents' charter.

Mr. Butterfill

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, had the provisions in the new clause been incorporated in the 1980 Act, when the present Bill becomes law that information would be out of date? There may be a danger that as years pass information will become out of date if there is subsequent legislation.

Mr. Roberts

It rests squarely on local authorities to update information and to provide tenants regularly with updated tenancy agreements. That should be the duty of a local authority landlord—and, indeed, every landlord.

I hope that the new clause is accepted so that the tenants' charter can be strengthened. During the Committee stage of the 1980 Bill, the tenants' charter received all-party support. Indeed, it was based on a Labour Government Bill published pior to 1979 which fell because of the general election. We would like to see the charter strengthened. Indeed, our Bill contained much stronger provisions than the 1980 charter.

The Government have not put any teeth into the 1980 Act and have done little to ensure that the provisions for tenants' rights are followed. Indeed, we suspect that the only reason that the Government provided security for tenants in the 1980 Act was that that was a prerequisite of the framing of the Act to provide the laws necessary for the right-to-buy provisions. The Government were interested only in the right-to-buy provisions and not in the tenants' charter even though they quote the charter to the Opposition and everyone else when we criticise their lamentable housing record and their policy on not building any new council houses.

The tenants' charter exists in word, but is not implemented in deed. Paternalistic housing authorities still operate, and not least in my local authority. As I said in Committee, the tenants' charter reminds me of Stanley Holloway's Magna Carta. It is because of that tenants' charter that was signed by the barons of old, that in England today you can do as you like as long as you do as you're told.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I support the new clause. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) said that tenants need much more than the rights it provides, and one cannot deny that. Despite the information that may be given to tenants—and it is a piecemeal operation by authorities which comply either with the letter or the spirit of the 1980 Act—they are still not clear about their rights. If the new clause were accepted it would give practical guidance to secure tenants that would be simple to understand. For example, if a secure tenant suffered nuisance in his home because of major building work he would know that he was entitled to compensation and would not have to accept the amount offered by the local housing committee. Various other provisions will immediately apply to secure tenants if the new clause is included in the Bill. It would put together a list of tenants' pre-existing rights.

Of course, other tenants need rights, and I hope that that will be dealt with in the future legislation on housing tribunals that was referred to by the Minister. There might be scope for specifying the rights of tenants in both the private and public sectors.

The Government's plans—which received all-party support — to provide for public sector tenants the information that they need to enforce their rights have not worked sufficiently well. I doubt whether tenants in more than a small percentage of local authorities are satisfied that they have information and simple instructions on how to obtain what we, as legislators, intend them to have—limited though that is.

No harm will be done if the new clause is accepted. It may not be perfect, but it will improve the current position. If it is not accepted, I hope that a similar provision will be incorporated into the Bill at a later stage.

Mr. Butterfill

I sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). I think that he misunderstood my point, which is that his proposed mechanism is wrong because it does not provide for the updating of information. It would freeze information for all time.

Section 41 of the 1980 Act provides that everybody should from time to time, publish information".

That provides for the updating of information. The problem lies with the operation of the 1980 Act, so the hon. Gentleman's proposed mechanism is wrong.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wyn Roberts)

I have listened with great interest to all the points that have been made. The Government also want secure tenants to know everything that they should know about their tenancies, their tenants' charter rights and their landlords' repairing obligations. I am still not convinced that the new clause is necessary. The landlord is already required to provide information in simple terms.

7.30 pm

Landlords must first publish in as much detail as they consider appropriate information about tenancy conditions which are normally set out expressly in the tenancy agreement or on the rent card. Secondly, they must set out information about the package of rights in parts II and III of the Act, known as the tenants' charter, and about the landlord's repair and maintenance obligations as set out in sections 32 and 33 of the Housing Act 1961. Having published that information, the landlord must give it to the secure tenants. Many put it in a tenants' handbook.

Hon. Members are worried, not about what is happening, but about what is not happening. Action is needed rather than further legislation. Tenants must also receive a written statement of any terms affecting their tenancy which are not already spelt out in the tenancy agreement or implied by law. I do not see the necessity to spell out the requirement further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) talked about the freezing of information. The tenancy agreement is not the appropriate place for information since tenancy agreement provisions should be set out in precise terms. Our requirement is specific. A statutory duty on landlords is set out in section 41 of the Act. If authorities do not meet their obligations, they fail their tenants badly. That does not happen because of lack of legislation, and I ask the House to reject the clause.

Question put and negatived.

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