§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will not regard me as unduly intrusive if I venture to ask you—and I can do so quite shortly—to give a Second Reading to another Scottish measure. The object of the Bill, which I think your Lordships will realize is an important one, is, as the Memorandum by which it is prefaced says, to provide in Scotland for the control of rents of houses or parts of houses which are let furnished or with service. The control proposed by the Bill will be exercised by a tribunal of three, appointed by the Secretary of State in any area to which the provisions of the Bill may be applied. The aid of that tribunal may be invoked by either party to a let, and may also be invoked at the instance of the local authority if it sees fit. A register of the cases which are dealt with by the tribunal will be kept, and that register will be open to public inspection. It will be an offence under the Bill for anyone to charge more than the registered rent, or to seek to extract a premium for granting or renewing a let.
The Bill purports to be a remedial measure, and in such a case, as, I have had occasion to say in your Lordships' House before, one is inclined, if not impelled to ask two questions: First, does a mischief exist which requires a remedy? Second, if it does, is the proposed remedy suitable for the purpose which it has in view? Your Lordships can justly claim to be satisfied on both these points before agreeing to the Second Reading of this or any similar Bill, and I hope to be able to meet this test. As regards the existence of a mischief which requires remedy, I fear that 470 that is beyond the range of any doubt. Having regard to the existing shortage of houses in Scotland, and having regard to the clamant demand for further accommodation, the temptation to charge an exorbitant rent has in many cases proved to be irresistible. The large majority of lessors (as we call them in Scotland) are, of course, honest and fair-minded citizens, who would scorn to stoop to such a practice; but there is also a minority, and I fear a substantial minority, who merit the description which my right honourable friend gave of them in another place when moving the Second Reading of the Bill—namely, Shylocks.
Let me give your Lordships one or two examples of what is going on. These examples are taken from information supplied to the Department of Health for Scotland during the last two years. In one case a tenement flat, the assessed rent of which is £40, has been let in rooms at £231 per annum. Another house, assessed at £60, has been let at £360 per annum, while yet another, assessed at £7, has been let at £120. A three-room-and-kitchen house, assessed at £18, has been let at 13 guineas a month, while a house assessed at £17 10s. has been let at £206 per annum. There are bad cases. I do not want to name places, because that might affix a stigma which it is not proper to affix to a whole community, since this is the work of a minority. But take, for example, a seaport town, where a partly-furnished room, let to a naval man's wife coming for her husband's leave, was let at £3 a week. In another case a single room in similar circumstances was let at £2 10s. a week. I shall not weary your Lordships by giving further examples, but there are many which I could mention, and they are all equally deplorable. I think, therefore, that I can reasonably claim that a mischief requiring a remedy exists.
Before I leave that point, however, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to add one thing further. In Scotland, unfortunately, the existing law is impotent to deal effectively with these cases. This reinforces my argument that a mischief exists. Sections 9 and 10 of the Rent Restrictions Act, 1920, have been invoked, but have been invoked in vain; for north of the Border, unlike this side of the Border, a local authority cannot prosecute, and any prosecution must be at the instance of the Crown. Now, when 471 the Crown did initiate a prosecution, what happened was that the High Court in Edinburgh held that, in order to bring the prosecution within the ambit of the words "extortionate rent," there must be not only an excessive rent, not only a grossly excessive rent, but a transaction which has been brought about by what the Court called "unfair means," by which I take it is implied force or fear or some similar sinister means. When that decision was given, my right honourable friend—and your Lordships may be disposed to agree—thought that the time had come when Parliament should be invoked to grant further powers to deal with this deplorable state of affairs.
Hence this Bill. Now I proceed quite shortly to the second question: Is the remedy proposed a suitable one? Is it likely to be adequate? Is it likely to be effective? I venture to suggest that the answer to these questions is in the affirmative. The remedy proposed is simple and straightforward. But I should tell your Lordships that, before this particular instrument was selected, every other possible alternative was carefully examined, only to be turned down and rejected for good and sufficient reasons, which I should not be justified in detaining your Lordships by mentioning in detail. The truth is that the only satisfactory way of dealing with this mischief is by having each case considered upon its own merits. That is what this Bill proposes to do. Each case will be submitted to the tribunal of three, that tribunal being selected by the Secretary of State, who is not obliged to appoint a tribunal of lawyers. He will select the most suitable men for this purpose. The tribunal will then fix a reasonable rent, and any attempt by a lessor to extort a larger rent will be a punishable offence.
I would just add three further observations. A similar measure to this has, according to my information, been passed some time ago in Northern Ireland, and further, according to my information, is working very well there. In the second place, the associations of local authorities in Scotland have been consulted, as is my right honourable friend's custom—an agreeable and useful habit, if I may say so—and they are all in favour of the Bill. Lastly, the proposals which are now made 472 were endorsed by large majorities in another place in the few Divisions which occurred, while the Second Reading passed unchallenged. In these circumstances I invite your Lordships, not only with hope but with confidence, to accord the Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Alness.)
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I should like on behalf of my noble friends to congratulate the noble Lord upon this Bill, and to comment on the fact that this is another instance of Scotland getting in first. I wish the authorities in England had been equally alive to the scandals of a similar kind which exist in some parts of this country. I happen to know very well the circumstances of a county not far from the borders of the Metropolis, and some of the illustrations which the noble Lord has given apply exactly to what to my own knowledge is happening not more than twenty miles from London. I hope that your Lordships noted the ingenious legalistic phraseology for which we were indebted to the noble Lord, when he said that in these cases the temptation to charge an exorbitant rent had proved to be irresistible. I think that is well worth remembering—a charming description of the temptations to which this particular brand of Shylock is exposed. I hope that this Bill will be read a second time. I am not so sure, having read them, whether the limitations in the Bill will not diminish some of its value. I see it is subject to a contract being entered into, whatever that may mean in Scottish law. That appears to me to limit the cases to which the Bill will apply. Nevertheless the Bill is certainly a most important step in the right direction, and I commend it to the notice of the Minister of Health and other Ministers in Whitehall.
My Lords, I would like, with the permission of the House, to thank my noble friend for what he has said, and to say in regard to this Bill what I said in regard to the last one, that with your Lordships' help and approval I hope to take the Committee stage at the next sitting.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.