§ Lords amendment: No. 12, in page 14, line 26, after "is" insert "a fixed term tenancy"8.15 pm
§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Trippier.]
§ Mr. Tony Banks
These amendments relate to assured shorthold tenancies—a difficult phrase to say if one has paid a visit to the Strangers' Bar, but I have not so far this evening and will not for some time yet.
The Government know that we are very concerned about assured shorthold tenancies because we believe that this form of letting will destroy security of tenure in the private rented sector. There is a play on words here. Heard the first time, "assured tenancy" sounds like something 377 that might enhance the rights of tenants—a good thing; but the Government have perverted the English language, and assured tenancy actually diminishes certain rights.
These amendments tighten up the definition of assured shorthold tenancies, so I welcome them because they will ensure that such tenancies can be created only in extremely limited circumstances, when landlords and tenants are fully aware of the implications of the bargains they are about to strike. We discussed that at length in Committee but could not persuade the Government of our case. Fortunately, these Lords amendments provide what we sought then.
Lords amendment No. 12 includes in its definition the words "a fixed term tenancy", which clarify what an assured shorthold letting for a short period is, the minimum being six months.
Lords amendment No. 13 deals with the contractual terms of a tenancy. We are pleased to agree with it, as it provides that, if a landlord inserts a break clause into a shorthold agreement, the tenancy cannot be an assured shorthold tenancy. We are concerned that the wholesale creation of assured shorthold tenancies will lead to the destruction of security of tenure for private tenants.
The Bill creates two new forms of tenure—assured tenancy and assured shorthold tenancy. The first, we are told, will give some security with market rents; the other provides less security, but with correspondingly lower rents. The point that the Government have conspicuously failed to answer relates to assured shorthold tenancies. If a tenancy is for six months, how is the tenant to enforce his right to a reduced rent? The Government have told us repeatedly that landlords do not always want to twist tenants, and have always assumed that tenant and landlord come together as equally powerful parties. That might be so in legal terms under this legislation, but the reality is quite different.
We all know many examples of tenants' rights being ignored by landlords. Obviously, the former can go to law to try to pursue their rights, but the people we are talking about often do not possess the economic wherewithal to do that and may not understand what their rights are. That is why we have always tried to load the balance in favour of the tenant. That does not necessarily make us an anti-private landlord party, but experience and our constituency caseloads show us that things must be weighted in favour of the tenant.
There are far more private landlords who are crooked and unfair twisters than there are tenants who are prepared to dupe landlords. I agree that such cases happen from time to time, but they are rare. In the great preponderance of constituency casework of Labour Members—and, I suspect, of Conservative members in inner cities as well—it is the tenant who is at a disadvantage and the landlord who is deceiving and tricking the tenant. That is why we always want to be seen as the party of the tenant—whether the private or the council tenant. We are proud to be the party of the tenant and we are not prepared to accept the Government's criticism that we are wholly one-sided, because we speak from experience.
If the tenant asks for a reduced rent or applies to a rent assessment committee, the landlord's obvious response will be, "OK, you can get out at the end of your tenancy." 378 That is true of the other rights that tenants have. What about repairs, for example? Hon. Members will know of cases in which tenants have asked for repairs to be done but the landlord has ignored them. The roof may be leaking, for example. How do the Government think—
§ Mr. Heddle
I rise to ask whether it is reasonable for the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has been in the House for many years, to be reading the daily newspaper rather than listening to the words of so-called wisdom of his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)?
§ Mr. Winnick
I can show you, Mr. Speaker, or the Clerk that I have been making marks of rented accommodation that is available in London and the rents payable. I shall use that information at a later stage. I have been marking page 38 of the Evening Standard, as you can see, Mr. Speaker, and I consider it to be part of my responsibility to do so.
§ Mr. Banks
I am prepared to accept my hon. Friend's explanation, because no one would read the Evening Standard for pleasure. He can be paying it such close attention only in the interests of research—although I must ask him who won the 3.30. I know that my hon. Friend is more than capable of carrying out research and listening to me at the same time—and he can probably carry out a number of other bodily functions at the same time.
I was talking about the case of a tenant asking a landlord to deal with a property that is in a state of disrepair, with, for example, a leaking roof. What is the tenant's position in such a case? Although there has been much criticism of local authorities because of the state of disrepair of some council properties, the fact cannot be avoided that the greater disrepair and dilapidation has been in the private sector. Conservative Members know that that is true. The most distressing cases that one deals with at constituency advice centres are those that occur in the privately rented sector.
§ Mr. Heddle
The hon. Gentleman has just reminded the House that his party is the party of the tenant. Will he confirm that it is in the private sector that the tenant has the rights and protection of the law against disrepair and that it was this Government who recently introduced the same rights for tenants with local authority landlords to protect them in cases where properties have been allowed to fall into disrepair?
§ Mr. Banks
The hon. Gentleman's comments fly in the face of reality. I realise that he may be more interested in what my hon. Friends are doing than in listening to what I am saying. I was saying that, although rights will be given under the Bill, and although rights exist under other legislation, many tenants do not have the economic capacity or general awareness to pursue those rights. That is the point that I am trying to make. That is why, throughout the passage of the Bill, it has been the Labour party which has tried to tilt the balance in favour of the 379 tenant, to make the situation as straightforward and simple as possible and to ensure that the tenant has many rights without having to resort to the law.
§ Ms. Primarolo
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a tenant in the private sector withholds rent to secure repairs, that tenant will fall foul of a possession order, under the mandatory provisions of the Bill? What the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) has just said about protection on repairs is a load of rubbish. That protection will be superseded by the mandatory eviction provisions in the Bill.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend is more direct in her language than I am, but I do not dissociate myself from her words. She has made a good point. A court will have no discretion over eviction for rent arrears. We shall debate later the provisions that deal with the right to buy, which include a scheme whereby tenants who want to buy their homes from the council can hold money back, if there is a delay, and put it into a fund that will effectively qualify as their mortgage payment in the future. The Government want to load everything against the local authority. They see the local authority as the enemy of the people.
§ Mr. Banks
I do not know how much attention the Minister has paid to the Bill at various stages. We have found that not only the Bill but the general drift of legislation is based on the assumption that the local authority is the enemy of the people. I do not want to speak on a subject outside the scope of the amendment, but, as we are the party of the tenant, we consider the Government to be the enemy of the local authority. In their eyes, the local authorities can do nothing right. The House knows that taking all housing away from local authorities is on the Government's agenda. I ask Conservative Members to speak if that is not true. I see that no Conservative Members have risen to speak, so it is obviously true. We have discovered another item on the hidden agenda.
§ Mr. Soley
The previous Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who was sacked—although not for this reason—said that the Government took the view that councils should no longer be providing accommodation. That was also implied in the White Paper in October 1987, and other Ministers have said the same in Committee. They believe that local authorities have no role as providers of housing.
§ Mr. Banks
Too few people in this country know of the true intentions of the Conservative Government. Labour Members who have attended public meetings about the Bill have noticed a large number of elderly tenants there. We do our best to explain fairly and impartially what the Government seek to achieve. Unfortunately, that seems to frighten the audience more then if we made things up as we went along.
Many elderly tenants come to the meetings because they can remember what private landlords were like and they know that it was the local authority who removed them from the ghettoes of the private landlord. Even the worst local authority is infinitely better than the worst private landlord. That is why people are worried about the 380 Bill, which has nothing to do with the provision of additional housing but everything to do with trying to take the provision of housing away from local authorities.
§ Mr. McCartney
I have a copy of the Government's discussion paper on housing in rural areas which was issued on 5 July 1988. Paragraph 1 says:Local authorities would increasingly act as enablers who would facilitate the provision of new housing by others".Paragraph 3(1) says that there is a need toextend the role of the housing associations in rural areas so that they can take over from local authorities some of their responsibility as the providers of new housing for rent".The Government made it clear during the summer that they would remove local authorities from their role as providers of housing.
§ Mr. Banks
I accept the point that my hon. Friend has made, which we are diving home time and again. I only wish that more people outside the House, such as the council tenants who sit reading The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and The Star could read in those newspapers about what the Bill really intends, rather than reading about the latest fashion that has been draped over Princess Diana.
§ Mrs. Mahon
My hon. Friend referred to the elderly. I recently held a surgery in the town centre of Halifax where two out of three council tenants are elderly people. My hon. Friend's point about the past was repeatedly emphasised by elderly people who said, "Please tell the younger ones about the private landlords." The experiences that they related to me were quite shocking. I ask the Minister to consider the experiences of those elderly people, who do not want a return to the bad old days of the private landlord.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Her experiences echo mine. Younger council tenants, and younger people generally, may not be aware of those circumstances. They have had their minds dulled by the propaganda of the Right-wing press and have not had the experiences that their mothers, fathers and grandparents have had.
People are worried about the Bill because they do not have the Government's confidence and faith in private landlords. The Government seem to have infinite faith in the ability of private landlords not only to meet our housing shortage but to do the decent thing by tenants. I do not know how they can maintain that position, because it seems to fly in the face of experience.
§ Mr. Trippier
If the hon. Gentleman returned to the matter that we are discussing, he would discover that amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 16 are designed to assist the tenant. They meet points raised by the Opposition either in the House or in another place to which we have responded positively. We have not heard much about that.
§ Mr. Banks
I made it quite clear to the Minister that I was speaking in favour of the amendments. I said at the beginning that we welcomed the fact that the Government gave way in the end; of course we welcome it. However, we need to spell out the implications of the Bill and the problems of tenants because we are the party of the tenants.
§ Mr. Soley
My hon. Friend should not give the Minister too much credit. To be fair, this Minister was not in the job at the time, but Ministers dealing with the Bill in Committee consistently refused to give genuine safeguards against serious harassment. Every organisation with experience of housing knows that the dangers of abuse are far greater under the Bill. The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) knows that, too, especially in relation to the business expansion scheme—about which he has anxieties—which will also be covered by the Bill. Although the Government moved a little way when pushed by the Lords, the amendments go nowhere near solving the problems that my hon. Friend describes.
§ Mr. Banks
I just thought that the Minister was getting a little upset. As he is a new boy in this job, I do not want to get him too upset too early. There will be plenty of time to get him really upset. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will realise that my welcome was not excessive. Of course we welcome the amendments. We are very reasonable people. Reason is on our side, and it would be unreasonable and churlish of us not to admit that the Government have given way to pressure from the Opposition. It is the role of the Opposition to exert such pressure.
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) said that tenants had rights under the Bill. I was referring to the tenant who finds that the property in which he or she lives is in a state of disrepair and who goes to the landlord to ask him what he proposes to do about it. The landlord can say, "I shall kick you out of the property and get myself another shorthold tenant straight away." That can happen under the Bill.
If the tenant is so bold as to complain about the state of repair of the property and to seek to get the landlord's obligation to undertake repairs enforced, what progress is he or she likely to make? The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire knows better than I how long it takes to get a county court hearing for a case of breach of covenant of repairing obligations under section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. Would the hon. Gentleman care to hazard a guess? Once a survey has been carried out and an application made for a hearing, months of delay may follow. In my constituency, tenants with excellent solicitors have not been able to obtain a full hearing until 18 months after their original complaint. That is crazy. The tenant may have rights, but unless those rights can be speedily, cheaply and easily enforced, they do not amount to much. Therefore, although I welcome the amendments, they beg an awful lot of questions.
Lords amendment No. 13 is welcome because it provides that a clause in the contract terminated before the end of the initial six-month period would ensure that the tenancy would not be an assured shorthold tenancy. Lords amendment No. 14 is less welcome, because the Government appear to be displaying paranoia that is unnecessary in the circumstances. They appear to be worrying about assured shorthold tenancies that have come to an end during their term either because the tenant has left or because some other change has taken place. 382 They are ensuring that if the tenancy starts again it remains an assured shorthold tenancy and does not become a full-blown assured tenancy.
Amendment No. 15 emphasises the distinction, so that when the original tenancy comes to an end, an assured tenancy is not created but the new tenancy is still an assured shorthold tenancy. Why does the Minister feel so strongly about those two amendments? I have been knocking around with the Bill for some time, but I still find some aspects difficult to understand.
Amendment No. 16 seems to play word games, and I cannot see the point of it or of amendment No. 17. Perhaps the Minister will explain exactly what amendments Nos. l6 and 17 achieve. I am sure that he has an excellent brief from his civil servants and I shall be pleased to hear precisely what the two amendments do.
Opposition Members would not wish to be churlish. We are pleased that our arguments have been listened to, and even if the amendments do not go half as far as we would want them to, we are prepared to accept them.
§ Mr. Trippier
It is clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that he does not intend to divide the House. I shall briefly address the questions that he puts.
Amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 16 are designed to plug the loophole in the shorthold procedure which could work to the disadvantage of tenants. Clause 20 provides that, to qualify as an assured shorthold tenancy, a tenancy must be granted for a certain term of at least six months. We do not want landlords to be able to circumvent that requirement by granting six-months tenancies with a power to determine the tenancy—in other words, bring it to an end—at some point before the minimum six-months term is up.
Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 17 are aimed at the case where an assured shorthold tenancy ceases at some time during its life to qualify as an assured tenancy because the tenant no longer occupies the property as his principal home.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West has given the impression that Ministers—specifically, those in the Department of the Environment—are not in favour of local government or of housing in any way being managed by local authorities. The vast majority of Ministers in the Department of the Environment come from a background of local government and we are very strongly in favour of local government where it is efficiently run. The sad fact is that in many cases it is not efficiently run, as I tried to illustrate in an earlier debate.
§ Mr. Soley
In view of what has been said by the Minister's predecessors, that is an important point. Is the Minister saying that he wants local authorities to continue to have a role in the provision of housing into the future, and if so, that the Government have given up their attempt to make local authorities get rid of all their properties? Does he want local authorities to be providers or only enablers as in the terms of the White Paper? That was the distinction drawn. What is the Minister saying to the House?
§ Mr. Trippier
I am saying—and the Government have said and other Ministers have said—that we want local authorities to be principally enablers.
§ Mr. Trippier
Principally enablers. It is stretching credulity to breaking point for the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) to suggest for one moment that the whole of the public housing stock run by local authorities will be transformed and transferred within very short order. I have already touched on that point. There is a balance to be achieved. I have already said in a previous debate that I think that there is an important role for local authorities to deal with the problem of homelessness. The more we can encourage the private sector, principally housing associations, to concentrate on those low-cost housing—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, North-West sneers at that.
§ Mr. Trippier
You were smiling and sneering. The same question is given to this side of the House by your hon. Friends as to what they would feel about housing—
§ Mr. Trippier
Therefore, if there is a role in relation to homelessness for local authorities and housing associations, it is clear that if we are successful with this Bill in promoting private homes for rent through housing associations it will allow local authorities to concentrate on those people who are homeless and to give greater attention to that sector. I shall repeat that point again on Friday.
§ Mr. Soley
I do not wish to stray out of order, Mr. Speaker. The debate has been about the ability of local authorities and other people to cope with aspects such as homelessness in the past, but we have passed through that debate and this debate has been about certain aspects of security for tenants. The Minister, however, in his remarks has indicated a very different position from that indicated by other Ministers both recently and in the more distant past. I am anxious to get the Government to clarify what they are saying.
I noticed that, on my intervention, the Minister slightly altered his words to say that he did not expect local authorities to get rid of housing in short order—I think that that was his phrase—but may I take it that the Minister recognises and accepts that the aim of the Government as laid down by previous Ministers is to get rid of all provision of council housing when they can? That has been stated in so many words and sometimes very explicitly by the hon. Gentleman's predecessors. He seemed to move away from it just now and then in his closing remarks he seemed to move back again.
May we have the position made clear? Is the hon. Gentleman of the view that at some date in the future, perhaps a long time in the future, the view of the Government is that local authorities will not be providers of housing at all? Or is he saying that there will always be a role for local authorities in providing housing? All the evidence from the Government so far—their actions, their statements on the record here and the written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)—is that the Government took the view that local authorities could give it all up sooner or later. The Minister moved away from that and then waffled a bit. I want to know what his position is.
§ Mr. Trippier
The hon. Gentleman and I have been Members of the House for long enough to know precisely 384 the game that he is seeking to play. I could not make it any clearer to him. Perhaps he would care to consider Hansard tomorrow and see what I have said. I have made it absolutely crystal clear. In contrast to that of the Labour party, the Government's policy for the next Parliament is stated clearly in the Conservative manifesto. Therefore, all that is said on housing—I re-read it this morning—could not have been clearer. We are exposing local authorities in their control of housing to competition, and providing the opportunity through this legislation for tenants to give their local council the sack. The hon. Member for Hammersmith does not like that because he and many of his hon. Friends believe that the council estates are their sole preserve. [Interruption.] We have heard it again from his hon. Friends on the Back Bench. I have never heard such arrogance.
§ Mr. Soley
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to trade arguments with the Minister. We shall have an opportunity to do that when it is appropriate and in order to do so. All that I want to ask at this point is this. If the wording in Hansard suggests that the Minister has in fact stated a position different from that which Ministers previously stated, will it be in order for me to raise the matter tomorrow or at the earliest sitting of the House after the Official Report is made available?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is hypothetical at the moment. The hon. Gentleman can check the record and no doubt we can deal with it at the time.
§ Question put and agreed to
§ Lords amendments Nos. 13 to 17 agreed to.