HC Deb 26 October 1988 vol 139 cc319-26

Lords amendment: No. 5, in page 11, line 16, after "below" insert "in the prescribed form".

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 10.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Tenants and landlords have the right under the Bill to apply to the rent assessment committee for a determination of rent or of other conditions of the tenancy. However, without Lords amendments Nos. 5 and 10, only an application from a tenant under a short assured tenancy needs to be in a specific form prescribed by regulations. We believe that it would make for simplicity for tenants and landlords in making their applications, and for the rent assessment committee in processing them, if they are all in a form set out in regulations. That is what the two amendments achieve.

Mr. Home Robertson

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friends, together with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker), took the opportunity afforded by the previous amendment to have a fairly wide-ranging debate on the principles of the Bill. Lords amendment No. 5 is concerned with rents—another fundamental aspect of the Bill.

In response to my intervention in his earlier speech, the Minister candidly confirmed that Lords amendment No. 4 means simply that the widow of a successor tenant will be exposed to the threat of summary eviction. That is one of the things that the Government are proposing to do to encourage the private sector, private speculation and private landlordism.

The entire Bill concerns increasing rents and reducing tenants' security in the private sector. I suspect that that is in the vain hope that there will be a rebirth of private landlordism in Scotland. The Labour party does not want that.

Lords amendments Nos. 5 and 10 deal with the procedures for a tenant to refer the terms and rent of a new statutory assured tenancy to the rent assessment committee. According to the amendment, the application to the committee must be in a prescribed form. The fact that it will be in a prescribed form according to a prescribed procedure and timetable will be another obstacle to tenants who want to secure their rights under the Bill—given the limited rights that will be left to them.

It would be helpful if the Minister could say something about the interesting concept of an "affordable rent". The Government say that they want market rents so that private landlords can make a profit. On the other hand, the Government say that they will ensure that those rents are affordable and that there will be sufficient back-up to ensure that. Housing associations, Shelter and others have expressed grave concern about that.

Have the Government had any further thoughts about the concept of affordable rent? How on earth do they propose to ensure that tenants can afford the rents that are likely to be charged, given that a sellers' market already exists in Scotland? There is a gross shortage of housing in Scotland. Any hon. Member or councillor in Scotland who comes face to face with his or her constituents must be aware that an intolerable number of people are living in overcrowded accommodation. An intolerable number are stuck on housing waiting lists or in bad housing.

Because of the present housing crisis there is a sellers' market in Scotland. Given a free market, landlords will be able to charge high rents. What protection will be given to tenants? I shall return to this matter when discussing Lords amendment No. 17, which would ensure that tenants have the information that they need to assert what is left of their limited rights.

Given that the Minister was candid enough to come clean and admit that he is quite happy at the prospect of widows being evicted in Scotland, will he now come clean about the future high rents?

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Following what my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) said, I should like to quote a specific example from the Secretary of State's constituency. I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

A council house in the Wester Hailes estate had been bought from a tenant and sold on to a private landlord. One of the local councillors in that area had to deal with the subsequent tenant who was paying the private landlord £90 a week rent and rates for a flat which would normally go at £30 a week. That tenant was paying £28 more than the housing benefit limit just to have a roof over her head.

That house in Murrayburn Park in Wester Hailes is only one of a number of examples that are now coming to the attention of many councillors and Members of Parliament. Certainly the landlord would consider that £90 was an affordable rent, but the tenant did not. The local councillor, John Innes said:

This case is an example of the unscrupulous and unfair actions of private landlords exploiting those in desperate need of housing". The Minister may say that the affordability of rents will be regulated in some way, but that is not good enough. The tenant in that case had to move out of the house and had to be housed by the council because she was sending herself into virtual penury as a result of the rent that she was paying to her landlord—what the Government would describe as a "caring landlord".

Many people will find themselves in a similar position to that lady. A tenant may be charged a rent that is way above the threshold that the Government consider reasonable; under the Bill there is no set limit. Any advice given to tenants to register for a fair rent assessment is discarded because the tenant is understandably frightened of harassment from the landlord.

The article in the Wester Hailes Sentinel will be the first of many such articles and I take no comfort from that. It is news only because it happened in the Secretary of State's constituency. The laws over which the Secretary of State presides are inadequate. It is because the Secretary of State and his Ministers have, time and time again, rejected the requests that I, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) and others have made for tougher regulations on private landlords, that people are now in such difficulty.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) I await the Minister's reply with interest.

Mr. Bill Walker

I wish to respond to the comments made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) about a specific case. The hon. Gentleman will know, as all hon. Members know, that, sadly, people are exploited in many different ways. I have come across local authorities which have been very poor and bad landlords. I have had to intervene on behalf of people in difficult circumstances brought about by a non-caring, unsympathetic and very dictatorial landlord or local authority. That does not mean that all local authorities are bad. Nor does it mean that all landlords are bad.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South cited a specific case. I trust that he will agree that, on specific cases of that type, the Member of Parliament is often the best person to deal with the problem. I trust that the hon. Gentleman suggested to the lady involved that, whatever her circumstances, she should consult her Member of Parliament.

5 pm

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

The woman did not consult me. I merely picked up a paper that is circulated widely in Edinburgh. The Member of Parliament thought that in general the provisions of the new housing legislation should help to prevent abuse. I do not disagree with the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker): if there are abuses in the public or private sectors they should be tackled. However, will the hon. Gentleman agree that this legislation does not adequately tackle such abuses? The case to which I have referred and that mentioned by the hon. Member for Tayside, North—which may be a recent case—have occurred after nine years of this Government being in office. What kind of legislative framework have the Government introduced to stop the abuse in the cases that have been referred to?

Mr. Walker

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because it gives me an opportunity to state that the case that I am reciting—I can think of many others—went to the local authority ombudsman and was dealt with adequately. If someone goes through a Member of Parliament, he can get things done. In my experience, it is wise not to make judgments based on something written in a newspaper. I have learnt from experience that one should accept a specific case as such and then go into the details to find out the real problem. I believe that many things are written simply to draw attention to a paper or to help to sell it. They are written with little intention of solving the problems of the individuals involved.

Mr. Galloway

The newspaper to which reference has been made could not have increased its sales with the story because it is a free sheet with a wide circulation in Edinburgh.

Having found evidence of had public sector landlords, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) could refer the case to the ombudsman. To whom will we refer such cases of gross exploitation in the private sector? There is no ombudsman in the private sector. In all his experience of abuse by local authority landlords, has the hon. Gentleman ever heard of a case in which a local authority charged £90 a week for a flat in Wester Hailes or on an estate like it instead of the £30 a week charged when it was in the public sector?

Mr. Walker

I am very glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because his intervention clearly relates to the time when he did not attend the Standing Committee while he was in Glasgow because of a little local difficulty. That meant that he missed some of the very important debates and he obviously has not had the opportunity to read thoroughly the reports of the debates.

With regard to the question of what one is charged for anything, I stress that nothing in life is free; someone pays for it. The distributors of a free sheet may have their reasons for wanting to increase circulation—for example, because more people will advertise. Whoever pays will have reasons for what they do. That is a general observation because I do not know the specific details. As I said to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, if we look carefully at the details we may find that things are not quite as they are presented. That is why we should refer the matter to the hon. Member of Parliament responsible who can deal with the specifics in the way in which we in this House cannot.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)


Madam Deputy Speaker

Is the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) giving way?

Mr. Walker


Madam Deputy Speaker

In that case, I call Mrs. Maria Fyfe.

Mrs. Fyfe

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) at a suitable moment if he asks me.

Will the Minister tell us what the Government are planning to do to ensure, in the Government's words, that rents are "below market levels" and at "affordable levels" for those in lower-paid employment? Over recent months the Minister has given repeated assurances that that would be the case. However, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has stated that there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that that happens. What will the Minister do to ensure that the rents will be affordable?

When the Minister replies to that, will he also reply to an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) about the clause affecting a bereaved spouse who remarries and then dies, leaving a widow or widower? A landlord might tell that person that he or she cannot stay unless they pay a higher rent. The Minister managed to get off the hook by refusing to answer that question. Perhaps he will answer it now as we are talking about rents. What will he do to protect people in that position?

If a Member of Parliament has taken up a problem on behalf of a constituent with a local authority, he does not have to go to the ombudsman to sort it out. In the vast majority of cases, the local authority will respond as well as it can, although it cannot always give people what they want because there are not enough houses. However, the authority will respond sympathetically and examine the question. If I write to a private sector landlord, he need not even bother to answer my letter because there is nothing in this legislation which requires him to pay any attention to any Member of Parliament or elected representative.

Mr. Heffer

I do not like to intervene in Scottish affairs, but this is not completely a Scottish affair. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said that he had to deal with bad local authority landlords. We have all had cases where local authorities have not dealt with repairs as quickly as they should have. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) said, we know that if we or the local council intervenes, action will be taken sooner or later.

I have been a Member of this House longer than the hon. Member for Tayside, North. For my sins, I have been here 24 years. On the basis of my dealings with my constituents, most of whom live in private landlords' houses, I would cheerfully hang, draw and quarter most private landlords. I would do that on the basis of what they do not do when Members of Parliament approach them and ask them to take action over repairs.

When the Labour party was in government, we had legislation under which we could go to the local authority and sometimes force a landlord to do repairs and charge it to him. That is not possible any longer. The position is not quite the same as it used to be. Landlords can now ignore Members of Parliament or anyone else and they do. There is no ombudsman or anyone else to take the case to.

From my experience of private landlords, I can state that the quicker we get rid of them, the better it will be for the ordinary people who cannot afford to buy a house of their own. I have a thing about private landlords, as I have had to deal with them for a long time. I hate most of them. There are a few exceptions who have, on odd occasions, actually concerned themselves with the people who live in their homes. However, that is not true of most private landlords, who seek to extract the maximum amount of money from their tenants and to give the least in repairs in exchange.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller). If somebody were in a position to purchase his house, I would advise him to do so because that would provide him with much greater security. However, not everyone is in a position to do so.

No eviction can be summary. A landlord must have a ground for applying to the court for an order for possession. That is important.

It is for the landlord and tenant to decide what is affordable. The Department is working with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations on factors to be taken into account and on collecting local information on rent levels. It might assist the House to know that we are conscious of the vital need to provide as much information as possible to tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities once the Bill comes into effect. Therefore, we shall be making widely available a booklet explaining the rights of assured tenants and those who remain regulated tenants; all existing private sector tenants will keep all their existing rights.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths

Will the Minister assure the House that the leaflet advising tenants will be more accurate than the leaflet on the poll tax, which was a deliberate deception, pretending that higher levels of rebates would be given and giving inaccurate figures of the levels at which the community charge will be set?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We are a little in advance of our business.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall not anticipate the future debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the booklets will be thorough. They will explain the rights of assured tenants. A separate booklet will explain the rights of all existing private sector tenants. That includes all existing protected and statutory tenants under The Rent (Scotland) Act 1984.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that, in his eagerness to make some rather cheap remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) refused to answer the question that was put to him. Will the Minister answer the question? We know that a tenant in the public sector has recourse to an ombudsman in the case of maladministration, gross overcharging or whatever, but can he tell us in simple terms what a private sector tenant will do in the event of such maladministration or gross overcharging?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

All existing tenants will have exactly the same rights as they have at present. That will be spelt out in great detail in the booklet. Who will be the best person to take a matter up with depends on the circumstances of the case. A matter concerning housing benefit would be best dealt with by the Department of Social Security. The booklets should be ready before the new provisions come into force and will deal with matters in an easily understandable question and answer form.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

How does the Minister expect a landlord and his potential tenant to arrive at an agreed rent? Can he imagine a tenant knocking on the landlord's door saying, "Look here, Mr. Landlord. I cannot afford your £90 rent. I can afford only £30 a week. Will you agree to that?" How will such agreements be reached between landlords and tenants? Is not the reality that a person who does not have £90 a week will remain homeless?

5.15 pm
Mr. McAllion

In the course of the last debate a question arose about the right of succession of spouses. The only new response was that landlords would have to negotiate with the spouses to ensure that eventualities such as those that we described would not come to pass. As I understand it, Lords amendment No. 5 deals with the notice that would have to be given to fix the terms for the renewal of an assured tenancy. Indeed, if the tenant was unhappy with the terms of the assured tenancy he could refer that notice to a rent assessment committee to determine whether the terms were reasonable under a contractual assured tenancy.

Could a tenant who was unable to negotiate with a sympathetic landlord a contract which included the spouse's right to succeed to a tenancy, take the matter to the rent assessment committee, saying that it was reasonable for that to be included in the terms of the assured tenancy, or would this legislation preclude such tenants approaching the rent assessment committee?

This is an historic day, because this is the 10th anniversary of the election to the House of my hon. Friend for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). His was a famous by-election victory. The Conservatives were expected to win but, as always in Scotland, the Labour party won. I would be grateful if the Minister would address himself to the question whether such a tenant could go to a rent assessment committee to ask it to determine whether it would be reasonable to set aside the terms of the agreement.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

This is the third time that I have spoken on the amendment, so with the leave of the House I shall say that, if the landlord puts forward proposals that a tenant considers unacceptable, I would strongly advise him to find a different landlord. The premise upon which the legislation is based is that the private rented sector will be revived, making more choice available.

Dr. Reid

Can the Minister give me one instance from his experience of a hire purchase company telephoning somebody with a hire purchase agreement to ask them whether they agreed with the rate of interest to be charged because the company was anxious to reach that figure by agreement, not by diktat?

Mr. Galloway

There have been many historic misstatements in the course of the Government's life, from the unemployed being enjoined to get on their bikes to look for work to the one that has just been uttered by the Minister with responsibility for Scottish housing. With a dire shortage of housing and a gross over-supply of people looking for the right kind of housing, people who are vulnerable economically are being told that they should eat cake if there is no bread—if they cannot reach agreement with their landlords, they should look for another. If ever any statement suggested that the Minister lives on a completely different planet from most Scottish people looking for housing, it was that.

Here we are down memory lane again finding landlords with sheepskin coats, big gold rings, chains—and alsatian dogs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) says—spivs, who are all too amenable to pleasant negotiations with the poor people who happen to be in their clutches and have to live in their crumbling tenements, flats and houses. They are all too ready to sit down and negotiate an affordable rent, the speed of repairs or how bright the light on the dark and dingy stairs should be. They are all too willing to meet the tenants or their representatives at any time to drive a fair bargain with them. If, at the end of the day, despite the eminent reasonableness of the spivs in sheepskin coats, no agreement can be reached, the tenant need only pack up his bags, get on his bike and look for another landlord with whom to reach a compatible agreement. That is a fantasy —a nightmare offered by the Government. The pitiful excuses for the legislation that the Minister is offering us are enough to make me want to demand his resignation.

Question put and agreed to.

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