HC Deb 21 December 1983 vol 51 cc473-9
  1. '(1) There shall be established for the area of every local authority (or if the Secretary prescribes a group of such authorities) a body to be known as the Local Housing Tribunal (in this Act called The Tribunal) whose functions shall be to adjudicate upon and to enforce the rights of secure tenants of dwellinghouses held by landlords of secure tenants.
  2. (2) The Tribunal shall, when making an adjudication, be composed of three members of whom at least one shall be representative of the interests of secure tenants and the proceedings of the Tribunal shall be as informal as is in keeping with the just despatch of its business.
  3. (3) The Tribunal shall have a registrar and the Tribunal shall have all the rights and powers of a magistrates' court to adjudicate and its registrar shall have all the powers of a local authority in relation to the securing of repairs and the abatement of statutory nuisances (and which would otherwise be exercisable by a local authority if the secure tenant's land landlord were not a local authority itself) as are contained in the Housing Act 1957 in sections 9 to 15 thereof (as amended by section 149 of the Housing Act 1980) and the Public Health Act 1936.
  4. (4) The Tribunal shall have such other jurisdiction and powers in relation to the rights of secure tenants as may be conferred upon it.
  5. (5) The Secretary of State shall by Statutory Instrument make provision for the composition and conduct of the Tribunals for the purposes set out in this section.
  6. 474
  7. (6) The rights of secure tenants for the purposes of this section shall include all rights at common law and by statute which touch upon a secure tenant's right to live in a dwelling in good repair and free from nuisance or discomfort and include (without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing) section 99 of the Public Health Act 1936, section 32 of the Housing Act 1961, section 125 of the Housing Act 1974, section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 and section 6 of the Housing Act 1957.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. John Fraser

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

Mr. Speaker

With this we are to take the following amendments:

No. 19, in clause 24, page 24, line 44, after 'county court', insert 'or Housing Tribunal'.

No. 28, in clause 25, page 26, line 23, at end insert 'or Housing Tribunal'.

Mr. Fraser

There are two premises behind the new clause. The first is that there is a massive backlog of repairs to council houses. I gave the figures in Committee. Out of the stock of 4.5 million council homes, according to the 1981 house condition survey, 67,000 were unfit for human occupation, 1.5 million needed repairs of £1,000 or more, and about 0.6 million council dwellings required repairs of £2,500 or more. That is a considerable backlog of repairs to council houses. Nothing in the Bill in connection with the right to repair would have any effect on those figures. because all the repairs are well in excess of £200 per house. So there is a real need to deal with repairs and to get them done quickly. May I say that I am not pursuing a vendetta against local authorities, because the situation in the private sector is much worse. However, that is no comfort to people in council accommodation.

The second premise is that the council tenant is at a disadvantage compared with the private tenant. The courts have decided that an environmental health officer cannot use the powers that are available under the Housing Act 1957, and those available under the Public Health Act, against his own local authority. Let me give an absurd example. If a tenant in 1982 lived in a GLC flat which was in a state of gross disrepair, he could have gone to his local borough environmental health officer, and that officer could have taken proceedings under the Public Health Act 1936. If the local authority had been convicted of keeping the property in a poor state of repair, the environmental health officer of the London borough could have proceeded to have the work done in default of the Greater London council. That often happened in my constituency.

It is absurd that, as a result of the transfer of the GLC accommodation to the London boroughs, that power is no longer available to the environmental health officer because he would be acting against his own authority. In the same way as the private tenant is entitled to have a champion of his housing rights, so is the local authority tenant.

6.45 pm

There cannot be many hon. Members whose surgeries are not attended by people who come with a catalogue of complaints about the condition of their council accommodation. It happens often in my surgery. People come who are legless—I do not mean in the seasonal sense of the word, but in the sense that they have had limbs amputated—and who live on the sixth floor of a block where the lift has been out of order for several months. Such people come to my advice bureau, bring with them a polythene bag, and say to me, "Look at these clothes". They then show me shoes, coats and trousers that are covered in green mould. They say that they have been trying to get something done for years. Sometimes I am approached by people who live on the lower floor of a block of flats and tell me, "Sewage from the upper flats is flowing into my flat". I could give a catalogue of complaints from local authority tenants against their own local authorities.

Let me put the matter in context. Most local authority tenants are relatively well looked after. However, that is no comfort to the person who is not getting repairs done, and whose rights to get something done are much less than those of private tenants. I shall quote from a letter that I received from one of my constituents, dated November 1983. It says that the complaint was first written about 1977 and regularly thereafter. It is now newly -painted, but I can still see the daylight through it"— that is the roof— from my bedroom window … and so it obviously cannot have been repaired. The first heavy rain will doubtless cause the usual wet bedroom wall, the mould will grow apace and the risk of fire through contact of damp with electric wiring will continue and so forth. That is intolerable. There has to be a way, apart from tenants taking the law into their own hands, for local authority tenants to be able to bring their landlords to heel in cases where there has been neglect of repair.

We propose in the new clause, first, that a housing tribunal should be established at local level. The tribunal would be informal. Indeed, it could be adapted to deal with similar problems in the private sector. It would be a simple, cheap and speedy way of achieving a settlement about repairs between the tenant and the local authority.

Secondly, the tribunal would have an officer, a registrar, who would not merely be a clerk to the tribunal, but an enforcement officer, using powers akin to those of the environmantal health officer under the Public Health Acts. There is plenty of precedent for that. For instance, the Director General of Fair Trading acts as the registrar of the Restrictive Practices Court. So there is no reason why the registrar should not fulfil housing repair enforcement functions.

Thirdly, the tribunal would have the right to adjudicate upon all laws relating to the repair of council housing, whether it be Housing Acts or Public Health Acts. All those powers would be vested in him.

Let me give an example. If someone came along and said that under section 32 of the Housing Act 1961 there had been a failure on the part of the local authority to deal with structural repairs to the flat or block in which the flat was situated, not only could the tenants assert their rights under common law or under section 32 of the Housing Act, but the tribunal would have the right to compel the repairs to be carried out, a right which a magistrates' court possesses under the Public Health Act 1936. So there would be both the jurisdiction and the power for the court to act. Indeed, there could be an adaptation to deal with a comprehensive range of powers and to deal with all the matters that cause tenants concern about the state of repair of their properties.

Finally, we should have a more effective system of local authorities getting major repairs done in default. There are cases where people have had to wait for years. Once that power exists, and once a tribunal can force a local authority to carry out essential repairs, the Government would be obliged to provide more money to local authorities. I see the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) smirking. I do not think that water coming through someone's roof is a matter for smirking. Perhaps smirking is his only contribution to housing.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

rose —

Mr. Fraser

I did not mean the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), but the hon. Gentleman sitting next to him.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

In view of the dreadful situation that the hon. Gentleman is describing, may I ask him what on earth his local councillors have been doing all these years?

Mr Fraser

The example that I gave involved an authority with a housing stock of tens of thousands, many of the properties having been inherited from the Greater London council and many bought from private landlords.

I am not trying to pillory local authorities. I am saying that if there is one case in a thousand demonstrating a lack of repair and the local authority failing in its responsibility, the tenant should not be without a remedy. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South must not complain about my sense of justice.

Mr. Allan Roberts

In my constituency there are 27 Labour councillors campaigning on these very issues. They get nowhere because the Conservative council. run by councillors from Southport, does not look after council tenants and refuses to do the necessary repairs.

Mr. Fraser

My own local authority supports my proposal. Lambeth operates an informal system of giving housing notices under the Public Health Acts against its own housing authority, but they have to be marked "For information only" because they have no legal force.

Everyone agrees that there are times when housing management slips up. There are times when Governments of all persuasions restrict the amount of money that can be spent on repairs and management. Once a housing tribunal is set up which is able to record and make awards in cases of a lack of repair, the Government have to recognise the scale of the problem. Once they start to recognise that, the resources will follow.

We are talking about condensation or damp at one end of the scale and, at the other end, the failure to repair or the lack of amenities arising from system building. I have heard former Conservative housing chairmen in the House demanding that their own local authorities should get millions of pounds to remedy, say, Bison flats.

The Opposition are putting forward a simple system of adjudication as between a local authority tenant and his landlord, which will put him on a par with a private tenant in getting repairs done. Anything less would be an injustice to the local authority tenant and would tempt a local authority to treat its housing authority less well than it would treat a landlord in the private sector where there had been a complaint.

I am sure that the clause is acceptable. It is logical. It will not be dear in administrative terms to carry out. It will ensure that we bring about some improvement in the state of our housing stock. When it comes to repairs, the old adage about a stitch in time saving nine is very wise. If, at an early stage, we could get leaking roofs and other repairs dealt with quickly we would save a great deal of money in the long run.

It is wrong that the rights of the local authority tenant should be less than those of the housing association tenant, the county council tenant and the private tenant.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I support the new clause because it enshrines a simple and important principle. It gives tenants — local authority tenants especially—a ready, unfrightening and informal way of redressing grievances against their landlords. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the house will support it.

There are a number of detailed aspects of the clause that are especially welcome. It includes as one of the three members of the proposed tribunal a representative of the interests of secure tenants. That is an important step forward and one that will ensure that tenants' interests are taken well into account by the tribunal when making its decisions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) pointed out, the clause also enables an independent agency to enforce environmental health legislation on behalf of council tenants. When this matter was raised in Committee, the Government's answer to our attempt to apply environmental health officers' powers to local authority dwellings was that the local authority which employed the environmental health officers could not take action against itself. That argument falls completely if the clause is accepted. The clause institutes a completely independent agency which will have the power both to ensure that inspections are carried out and to enforce subsequent action.

The clause provides an easy form of arbitration in respect of two aspects of the Bill. This was considered in Committee as well. The Government had doubts—and they admitted them — about the effectiveness of arbitration through the courts. The two aspects relate to the right to repair provisions, which we shall debate later, and to the heating charges provisions, which make such charges challengeable by tenants if the Bill becomes law. The form of arbitration that the proposed housing tribunal provides would make life a great deal easier both for tenants and for local authorities.

Throughout the Committee proceedings the Government made great play of their commitment to the tenants' charter provisions in the Housing Act 1980. They claimed that they were all in favour of giving the tenants of local authorities especially the greatest number of rights that they could possibly have. They claimed, although I suspect that we shall be able to reveal how fraudulent the claim is, that their provisions in clause 24 for a tenant's so-called right to repair gave tenants a substantial new right.

The new clause would give a real right to tenants—a right not just to challenge their landlords but to ensure that their landlords carried out their legal responsibilities for keeping properties in decent repair and in a habitable condition. We ought to welcome that. We should want to give tenants that real additional right. The clause gives that right. The Government must accept it as a worthy suggestion since they claimed throughout our proceedings in Committee that that was their earnest, heartfelt desire. This proposal is an easy and ready way to give tenants extra clout. It gives them rights and the power to enforce those rights. I am sure that the clause will be accepted by the Government.

Mr. Butterfill

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that this principle had been raised in Committee. So it was. In Committee, we also considered the essential difference between the tenants of housing associations and tenants in the private sector as against secure tenants. Secure tenants have the right through the ballot box to change their landlords. Neither of the other two classes of tenants has that opportunity. If repairs are not being done properly, the correct procedure for secure tenants is to make representations to their ward councillors and other councillors to ensure that they carry out their duties.

What is proposed in the clause is another tier of useless and expensive bureaucracy.

Sir George Young

I note that the threat of reselection is already so great for Opposition Members that they have to read into the record letters written by members of their general management committees.

Mr. John Fraser

In case the hon. Gentleman thought that I was acting in my own interests, I ought to tell him that I have many more members of my GMC who are also members of the local housing committee than tenants who write such letters to me.

7 pm

Sir George Young

I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said about repairs. I hope that we can look forward to the enthusiastic support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on clause 24, which will improve the position on some of those repairs. The need for local housing tribunals has a fairly long history. Criticisms have been voiced in many quarters about the present arrangements for settling disputes between landlords and tenants.

Although both the hon. Members for Norwood and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) spoke mainly about repairs, the new clause covers all rights of secure tenants, not just repairs. If there is to be a housing tribunal to deal with all rights, it does not make sense to confine it to public sector tenants. However, I realise that there are problems about the long title of the Bill, and I suspect that that is why the private tenant is excluded from such tribunals.

Nevertheless, if the Government should consider setting up tribunals to settle disputes between landlords and tenants, it would not be sensible unless they covered both the public and private sector. The difficulties of the present system for settling disputes are much the same in both cases, although I accept that private sector tenants have the additional weapon—denied to the public sector tenant—of going to the environmental health officer.

The Government are considering the question of establishing housing courts or tribunals. The Select Committee on the Environment, in its report on the private rented housing sector, recommended that the Government should consider the idea of a housing court. In its response to the Committee in November 1982, the Government said that they would further consider that idea. The Department has been doing so, for both public and private sector landlord-tenant disputes. We have been helped in our deliberations by papers received from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Institute of Housing, and the Shelter Housing Aid Centre and I understand that Justice will be forwarding its views. Of course, we shall also consider what has been said tonight.

Nevertheless, as I am sure the hon. Member for Norwood recognises, this is a somewhat complicated subject, and some issues need to be examined very carefully. Although the present system is subject to criticism on grounds of its formality and complexity, it has to be remembered that some of the matters dealt with by the proposed tribunal would cover a very wide range of issues, some of which could raise complex legal questions, and some of which—such as repairs to blocks of flats—would involve large amounts of money. In such cases, legal expertise is bound to be important, and there are dangers in departing from the established court system. In addition, although it is said that the present system is expensive both for tenants and landlords, the alternative would not be much cheaper without significant Government expenditure.

Therefore, many issues need to be considered carefully. One possibility that Ministers are considering is that of issuing a consultation paper to invite wider comment by all interests concerned. I do not think that the House would expect me to give an undertaking to come forward at a later stage with an amendment to this Bill on a matter with far-reaching consequences. I certainly cannot undertake to do so. However, having given the topic an airing on the Floor of the House, hon. Members will know that the Government are seriously considering the issue of housing tribunals. Accordingly, I hope that the hon. Member for Norwood will consider withdrawing the motion, on the understanding that we are looking at his idea, although in a somewhat wider context.

Mr. John Fraser

If I was a magistrate, I would put the Minister on probation. That means that I shall withdraw the motion, while requesting a right to return to the subject on some future occasion. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to