HC Deb 30 January 1996 vol 270 cc765-6
6. Mr. Etherington

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he proposes to provide redress for leaseholders in private residential accommodation from unfair treatment by (a) freeholders and (b) managing agents. [10373]

Mr. Gummer

We utterly condemn the behaviour of unscrupulous freeholders, and the measures in the Housing Bill will attack wrong where it occurs and thereby ensure that the bad are driven out and that decent freeholders can continue to offer a valuable service.

Mr. Etherington

Given that answer, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking to the House that no matter how people may try to evade legislation as it is introduced, as they have until now, he will not allow the Government's dogmatic attitude about regulation to prevent them from getting justice?

Mr. Gummer

That proposal has already been introduced by the Government. It is tailored directly to meet the real needs of those who have suffered as a result of a small minority of unscrupulous freeholders, one set of which I named in the House yesterday, and we shall ensure that the legislation sticks.

Mr. Ashby

Would my right hon. Friend consider amending the Housing Bill to add a clause whereby costs can be awarded against unscrupulous freeholders who refuse reasonably to negotiate with leaseholders in the lands tribunal?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that my hon. Friend will see that I have suggested that we might move cases to the lands tribunal where there is an argument between the leaseholder and the freeholder about the costs. I hope that, after consultation, that will seem to be the right way forward, because it will make the whole process cheaper for the leaseholder who needs so to do. Freeholders who behave in the way in which some have behaved will be liable, for the first time, to criminal sanctions, and that is right.

Mr. Raynsford

The Secretary of State has acknowledged that a number of unscrupulous freeholders and their agents are threatening leaseholders with extortionate service and repair charges, backed by the threat of forfeiture. By all accounts, those pressures are intensifying and will put many leaseholders at risk in the months ahead while Parliament considers the Housing Bill. It is not good enough to wait until that reaches the statute book. The Secretary of State will know that I wrote to him more than a week ago, asking him to introduce a short, streamlined Bill that can go through the House immediately—it would have the support of the Opposition—to give instant protection to leaseholders in difficulty. Will he agree to that request—yes or no?

Mr. Gummer

I note that when we started to legislate, suddenly the Labour party decided that it would have a go. The fact is that it is very complicated legislation, which we have to get precisely right, and the Opposition can help us. If they will allow the Housing Bill to go through the House quickly and expeditiously, as they should—the Bill will give fairness in housing, look after leaseholders and deal with houses in multiple occupation, all of which are good measures—the hon. Gentleman will be seen not to be hypocritical.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, all too often, leaseholders who attempt to exercise their statutory right to extend their leases or to buy their freehold face a great deal of elaborate and extremely ingenious obstruction from freeholders and their legal advisers? Is he further aware that he will have widespread support in the House for any measures that he introduces to ensure that the will of Parliament as expressed in the existing legislation does not continue to be thwarted in the present way?

Mr. Gummer

I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I hope that the Labour party will not continue to obstruct the Housing Bill, which will introduce reforms for HMOs and reforms that ensure that those in need get social housing before those in less need. I look forward to the Labour party's support, and then we will get the proposed legislation through.

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