HL Deb 14 May 1946 vol 141 cc183-96

4.15 p.m.

LORD MESTON had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will consider introducing legislation to enable compensation rent to be paid to persons whose premises were taken by the Government (whether by requisitioning or by lease) during the war, so as to cover the entire period between derequisitioning on the termination of the lease, as the case may he, and the date when the repairs are actually completed and the premises actually made habitable again. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question which stands in my name. During the war a certain number of properties were taken over by the Government. Some of these properites were taken over under requisition notices, others under leases for a fixed period of years—such, for example, as three years—or for the duration of the war, and I think I am right in saying that some properties were taken under the Defence Acts (not to be confused with the Defence Regulations) in which case the service of a formal requisition notice was not necessary. In all these cases, dilapidations have occurred, and I have no doubt that in the course of time the Government will pay for these dilapidations. But after the premises have been derequisitioned or the lease has come to an end, as the case may be, some six or twelve or even eighteen months may elapse before the premises are restored and made fit for habitation again. That lapse of time is caused by lack of labour and materials, the necessity for applying for licences and also the extent of the damage which has been done.

I do not wish to make any undue criticism of Government Departments, but I think everyone will agree that occupation by a Government Department, especially a Service Department, causes a great deal more damage than normal civilian occupation. During the whole of these six, twelve or eighteen months, the owner or former occupier of the property will have to pay rent for living elsewhere, and may also have to pay for the storage of his furniture. I must confess that on the last occasion when I spoke on this subject, I omitted to draw your Lordships' attention to another aspect of this matter. If the former occupier is himself a tenant of the premises, he will have to pay rent under his own lease to his own landlord after the requisition has been terminated. He will also have to pay rent for the premises in which he is living in the meantime, and he may also have to pay storage charges.

During the period of requisition, it is to be hoped that the requisition rent will cover the amount of rent which the tenant has to pay under his own lease to his own landlord, but when the requisition comes to an end one can envisage cases—in fact thousands of cases have occurred in different parts of the country—where a person has to pay rent under his own lease to his own landlord and also pay rent for the premises where he happens to be living and probably has to pay storage charges as well. I know that in some cases the Government have made ex gratia payments over three months or even up to six months, but I submit that in the great majority of cases these ex gratia payments are quite unsatisfactory and quite inadequate to meet the justice of the case. I therefore ask His Majesty's Government to introduce fresh legislation whereby everyone may be put on the same footing, and whereby those whose premises have been requisitioned or taken over under lease during the war shall be entitled to claim compensation for the entire period which elapses between the end of the requisition or the termination of the lease, as the case may be, and the date when the premises are substantially repaired and made fit for habitation.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Meston seems to me to have raised a very important question, and I would like to say just a word or two in reference to his remarks. I am quite prepared to believe—I do believe—that the Government have every desire to act honourably, fairly and justly towards those people whose premises have been requisitioned. And I am quite certain that there is no one in this House who would be less likely not to support a policy of justice and fairness than the noble Lord, Lord Pakenham, who is about to reply. Certain facts, however, were brought to my notice the other day, and I took the trouble to inquire into them and to satisfy myself that they were accurate. They completely illustrate the point which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, made, and I venture, therefore, to give them to your Lordships' House.

The case in question concerned forty-seven flats requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1941. They were derequisitioned on January 26 of this year. Compensation rent was paid up to that date. The lessees, long lessees in this case, have every expectation, according to the custom in these matters, of receiving three months' more compensation rent—or possibly six months' compensation rent, if the case is regarded by the Government as an exceptional case. When these flats were requisitioned by the Air Ministry they were very extensively altered, no doubt for security reasons. The result, I am told, is that this block of flats looks more like fortified barracks than residential flats. In addition, they were bombed. Three or four were, to all intents and purposes, destroyed and the roof over this block was seriously damaged. Now, I am informed that nothing can be done at all until a schedule of damage has been produced by the Air Ministry. That schedule, although repeatedly asked for, has not yet been produced. And, as I reminded your Lordships, the flats were derequisitioned on January 26, so that three months have already elapsed.

Having obtained this schedule of damage from the Air Ministry the next thing (this I am told is the practice) is to obtain a licence from the local authority to enable the restoration of the buildings to be proceeded with and materials to be supplied. I am informed—and I can well believe it—that when all this has been done it will take at least twelve months before the flats can be restored to their state when they were requisitioned by the Air Ministry. The result of all this is that the owners are most seriously prejudiced. In this particular case I have verified the figures. If you take into account the rents of these forty-seven flats (tenants are waiting to come in), and if you take into account the mortgage interest, which is running all the time, the money which has to be set aside towards the redemption of the mortgage, interest, and on top of all that the ground rents, the loss to these unfortunate owners is no less than£22,000 a year. Your Lordships will readily understand that a case might well arise, when this sort of thing happens, that an unfortunate owner might be driven to ruin and bankruptcy, through no fault or error of his own.

Now, what the noble Lord, Lord Meston says, as I understand it, is that until the schedule of damage is delivered and agreed, and until the work is completed, this compensation rent should still be paid. I think, indeed, that he has been extremely modest in that request, because even if compensation rent were paid it would nothing like cover the£22,000 a year which I have mentioned in the present case, the amount by which the owners of the flats are damnified by reason of the present situation. But it would be a very great thing if the Government would accept the principle that compensation rent should be paid until such time as the noble Lord, Lord Meston, has indicated.

When this matter came up on March 26 this precise question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Meston. What he said then was: … strictly speaking, these ex gratia payments… are outside the ambit of the Statute. Perhaps, therefore, the Government may consider forthwith bringing in a new or amending Act which will put everybody on the same footing and enable the Government properly to make payments of compensation rent after the period of requisition had been terminated. I have not the slightest idea whether it is, or is not, ultra vires for the Government to make these ex gratia grants. If it is, I should entirely support the noble Lord, Lord Meston, in saying that the Government are in fairness—I was almost inclined to say in honour—bound to take early legislative action to enable them to do the right and proper thing for this class or person—a person who, through no fault of his own, has been most grievously affected by requisitioning by Government Departments.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I would support what the noble Lords who preceded me have said, and I would quote a further typical instance in another particular direction. There are many schools and institutes which were evacuated, particularly from coastal areas, owing to enemy action, or threat of enemy action, in the years 1939, 1940 and 1941. In order to keep going, many of these schools had to rent, and in some cases to purchase, premises in what were then known as "safe areas." Their own premises were requisitioned by one of the Service Departments, usually, let me say, the War Office, not so much the Air Ministry. The rent paid as compensation rent usually did not cover the tenant's original continuing rent, which he had to pay his landlord, even though the tenant himself had to take premises else where. There was one school in the South Eastern area where a head master was paying a rent of£350 a year, exclusive of rates. He had to leave, and his premises were requisitioned. He had to rent another place somewhere in North Wales, at a rent of£400 a year, so that his total outgoings were£750 a year.

The War Office assessed the compensation rent of his school at £200 a year, so that out of his resources the schoolmaster had to meet a deficit of£550 a year during the war. These premises were derequisitioned some three months ago. Compensation rent has stopped, but unfortunately it will be many months before that schoolmaster can obtain a licence and, after he has got the licence, obtain the labour and materials to get his premises back into the state which will allow him to receive his pupils again. All this means that during the war period he lost£55o a year, and the price of peace for that schoolmaster is a continuing loss, at the rate of£750 a year, until he can obtain his licence.

I am quite sure that the Government look sympathetically at cases such as those of householders, to which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, referred, and flats, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, and also these schools and institutes.

I do not know what the Minister is going to say, but it occurs to me, if we have the answer that legislation is not possible owing to congestion in Parliament—an answer which Governments give on varying occasions—to suggest that he should go into the matter and see if something could be done administratively within the law as it exists to-day. Actually, provided that you are not doing something that is thoroughly illegal, by administration you can usually do what you want within the law. This thought occurs to me: Would it be administratively possible to introduce an interim derequisitioning period, that is to say, that the Department which is evacuating the premises—for example, the War Office—should say that they are willing to vacate them on a particular date, but that there should be some Department that would say—with Treasury consent, of course—that derequisitioning could be postponed for a specific period, which specific period would be assessed at the time likely to be needed to obtain a licence and the work completed subsequent to the licence being granted for the rehabilitation of these premises? A deficit, of course, would appear on the particular Service Department Vote, in that they would be incurring redundant expenditure, but provided that the Treasury had given prior sanction for such redundant expenditure, I do not think that the audit authorities could in any way question such expenditure, nor do I believe that the other House nor this House would offer any objection. I only put forward that suggestion in order to see whether, if the noble Lord says that legislation cannot be introduced, we can at any rate meet the unhappy lot of these people by administration.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Meston, for returning to this subject, all the more so because the last time it was raised a number of supplementary questions were put to me which I was not then fully equipped to answer, although I do not think I positively misinformed the House. As I explained last time, I am in warm, but I am afraid rather improper, sympathy with the kind of case raised by the noble Lord, having had a small house of my own requisitioned throughout the war. With regard to the particular cases raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rushcliffe, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, being old members of Governments they will not expect me to commit myself offhand. I will simply say that they have made out heart-rending cases. I will certainly address myself to them, and I will see that the minds of others more important than myself are addressed to them. If I may put it in a rather colloquial way, I will see that there is "a stamp on the envelope." I hope that that will be sufficient for the moment.

I should remind the House that, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Meston, on the 26th March, I explained that, when requisitioned premises have been damaged, some allowance is made at the time of derequisitioning in respect of the time taken to make good the damage. This allowance is, of course, over and above the cost of making good the damage, which is met by the Government in all cases. I think that the House is clear on that point, that the compensation rent is quite separate from, and additional to, the compensation for damage, but I venture to reiterate it. The allowance is made in different forms in different cases. Sometimes, though the premises are no longer required, and the owner is able to go into them and repair them, they are nominally retained on requisition for a certain period, so that compensation rent continues to be payable. I am not quite clear whether the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, is aware of that arrangement, but that is the position. However, in most cases—in the case of private houses, for example—a lump sum payment is made which has, broadly, the same effect. But in all cases, as I was careful to explain, the calculation is related to the time it would take in normal circumstances to make good the damage, and not to the time which in the present conditions of stringency may actually prove to be necessary, which, of course, brings us to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Meston.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston's proposal goes beyond the existing arrangements in two respects. First, the noble Lord asks that in all cases the owners shall continue to receive rent from the Government until the repairs are actually complete—that I believe is what the noble Lord suggests—and the premises made habitable again. Secondly, he applies this proposition to leased property as well as to requisitioned property. I will deal first with requisitioned property. The owner has been receiving a compensation rent while he has been kept out of his property under a requisitioning notice, and at first sight it might seem reasonable that, as long as he is unable to get use of his property, as a result of damage done during requisitioning, he should continue to receive that rent. That is how it strikes the noble Lord, Lord Meston, but the problem is by no means so simple. The time actually taken to repair the damage will not always be more than the normal time; so I am assured. I am assured in some cases the time taken to repair the property has not been more than the normal time. But I must say, speaking from personal experience, that kind of case would appear to be somewhat rare.

What I must point out to the noble Lord is that there is a two-fold difficulty about meeting his proposal. First of all there is the administrative difficulty, on which I personally would not rest the chief emphasis, because administrative difficulties exist to be overcome, and, although this is a rather large one, I feel that, taken by itself, we would probably overcome it. Nevertheless, there is a substantial administrative difficulty if the noble Lord's proposal were accepted and the owner were compensated during the whole period it in fact took him to get his house repaired. The Government Department concerned would have to make frequent investigations to ensure that the owner was using his best endeavours to get the work done as quickly as possible, and differences of opinion would be sure to arise as to the point at which the premises became "habitable." You could not just say to the owner: "Until your house is ready you will receive compensation rent," because—


Substantially ready.


Even if you said substantially ready you could not allow the owner to proceed rapidly or slowly, according to his pleasure. You would have to make sure that he was proceeding at the maximum speed. There is an administrative difficulty which is rated fairly high.


Could not the local authority be the adjudicating party in respect of that time?


I have no doubt that steps could be taken which might meet the position. Equally, I have no doubt that they would involve a lot of labour. I simply mention to the House that this is regarded as an administrative difficulty, which, if not insuperable, is not negligible.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? In the case I gave, as I understand it, the work had not been put in hand. A licence from the local authority could not be obtained until a schedule had been received from the Air Ministry, and, as I am told, they have been constantly pressed to produce this schedule, and have not done so for three months. Therefore, the delay in starting the work at all has been entirely the fault of the Air Ministry itself, and not the fault of the unfortunate owners of the property.


The noble Lord will not wish me, naturally, to pronounce on the particular case.


No, no.


There may or may not have been some delay. I naturally cannot offer an opinion on that. But as regards the obtaining of licences, I am assured that there is no difficulty about obtaining a licence, but there is sometimes a difficulty about obtaining top priority. If it is a question of rebuilding the house completely, then it is easier to obtain a high priority. In some other cases it is not always easy to obtain as high priority as the owner would wish. Certainly I am entitled to say, however, that as between houses which have been damaged and have been derequisitioned and as between other houses exactly similar which have not been requisitioned, the preference, if in doubt, would go to the house derequisitioned. That, I understand, would tend to be the administrative practice. However, the noble Lord has raised a special case which he will naturally desire to be looked into.

The proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Meston, however, is unacceptable, mainly, indeed, for administrative reasons, but also on the grounds of equity. The delays and difficulties due to the shortage of labour and materials are common to all classes of owner whose property needs repair, including cases of war damage, and the case before us is only one example of many types of loss due to war circumstances which I am afraid are outside the field of public compensation. I am sorry to say that, but there it is. The case does not stand on its own. The Government feel, in making an allowance based on the time it would normally take to effect repairs, that they are giving equitable treatment to owners of derequisitioned premises and holding the scales evenly between them and other classes of property owner. That is really the pith and burden of the reply. To the extent that this does not fully compensate for not getting the use of their property, the difference is attributable to causes common to the whole community.

As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question dealing with leased premises, I may say that the shortage of labour and materials of course applies to them too, but the more important point is that the lessor's rights are determined by the terms of the lease he entered into, and he has access to the courts to enforce them. Whatever those rights under the lease are, the Government as lessee must honour them; but there is no reason why the owner who has granted a lease to a Government Department should, when the lease is terminated, get something more than the lease provides for, when the owner who has granted a lease to anyone else does not. If the noble Lord's proposal were adopted you would be conferring a special favour on those who had granted leases to Government Departments. That is how the matter is viewed officially. I am afraid, therefore, that as regards both requisitioned and leased property the Government sees no justification for introducing such legislation as the noble Lord proposes.

The only remaining point is whether the lump sum payments made ex gratia in requisitioning cases ought to be made the subject of legislation. This is a legal point. The Government do not think this is necessary. It is common practice and convenient, when supplementary payments such as those now in question are made, not to attempt to set out a precise code in a Statute but to make such payments as seem fair through the machinery of a Vote. It is therefore correct to describe them as extra statutory but not illegal payments. In the view of the Government, therefore, there is no need to introduce legislation. I am sorry not to have been able to meet the noble Lord more generously, but I am convinced that if these proposals were adopted he would be putting one class of property owner in a position superior to other classes.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, but I understand the gist of the matter is that the Government are not prepared to go further in any case than to make an ex gratia payment of six months' rent. If that is the position, I may take the advice of those who are experts in such matters—


Is the noble Lord in order? He has not moved for Papers.


I thank you.

4.46 p.m.


had also given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will arrange that, on the derequisitioning of premises by Government Departments, the owners and former occupiers of the premises will be notified of the derequisitioning and given an opportunity of returning to their premises before any further requisitioning is considered. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question which stands in my name. This is a matter which lies within a very narrow compass. I do not wish to say anything at all by way of criticism of the Government in carrying out their very difficult task of finding dwellings for displaced and homeless persons, but I would point out that it sometimes happens that the owners and former occupiers of premises are themselves homeless and displaced persons. I understand that in some cases when a Government Department derequisitions premises the practice is for the Government Department to inform the Ministry of Health of the fact. If the premises are large premises, such, for example as a large house, the Ministry of Health then promptly requisitions the premises again for some purposes such as a nursery. If the premises are small premises, such as a small house, then the Ministry of Health informs the local authority, who thereupon requisition the premises for housing homeless or displaced persons. In the meantime, the owner or former occupier of the premises is not even notified of the fact that the premises have been derequisitioned in the first instance, and is given no opportunity to return to them again.

I must not mention cases of which I have not given the Government prior notice, but cases have been brought to my notice of owners and former occupiers who are themselves homeless and displaced persons and would like to return to their own homes but are unable to do so because their houses have been requisitioned a second time. I submit that that is very hard, and while fully appreciating all the difficulties of the Government I hope that they will be able to take a different view of the matter.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord if, when he replies, he can throw some light on the time limit which other Government Departments have allowed subsequent to the derequisitioning of premises and the final declaration by the Government that no other Department wishes to occupy such premises? There are not only in towns but in rural areas many premises that are now being derequisitioned, and the owners are unable to obtain occupation because these premises are put, as it were, on offer to all other Government Departments who might be interested. I am not arguing as to whether that policy is right or wrong, but let there be some time limit. I would suggest it should be fourteen days after derequisitioning during which the Government can declare that some other Department requires those premises. We all know we are threatened with prison, fines and a good many other penalties if we do not fill up forms within seven days. I am not suggesting the Government should have only seven days, but twice the grace they give to ordinary citizens. At any rate, let them impose some limit upon themselves.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to reply on behalf of my noble friend Lord Henderson who, I am sorry to say, is indisposed. I hope I shall be able to deputise for him half as efficiently as he did for me when I was ill a little while ago. The present practice is for a requisitioning Department, when they no longer need small houses and flats, to offer them to the Ministry of Health so that they may be used for housing inadequately housed persons. I am dealing first with small houses and flats. The local authority has been instructed by the Ministry of Health first to ascertain whether the house is required for occupation by the owner or his family. If so, the property is derequisitioned. That is in the case of small houses and flats. Consideration is also given, on their merits, to any other proposals by the owner for the occupation of the house. If the property is required by the Ministry of Health the requisition is transferred to that Department; there is no re-requisitioning. If, on the other hand, it is not required, it is derequisitioned by the requisitioning Department. The Ministry of Health usually decide upon their action within a period of three weeks. This period cannot very well be shortened, as time must be given to enable the local authority to make contact with the owner and for the owner to make his decision. That is in the case of small houses and flats.

Before other properties are derequisitinned, including large houses, steps are taken to ascertain whether other Departments need accommodation in the neighbourhood. This procedure avoids unnecessary new requisitioning and helps the Government to surrender first the type of premises most urgently needed for other use. In the case of large houses, the Ministry of Health, before using them for any purpose, gives consideration to any applications from owners for release for personal occupation. Departments are given a period of ten days in which to decide whether they need accommodation surplus to the requirements of the requisitioning Department.

Finally—this is the third case—hotels, holiday camps, and educational establishments do not come within this procedure but are derequisitioned immediately they are no longer required by the occupying Department. Departments have been asked to ensure that these matters are dealt with urgently at all stages—I hope that will afford comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye—and to give as much notice as possible to owners and former occupiers of the intention to de-requisition premises. The time has not yet come when the practice of asking other Departments whether they require requisitioned premises no longer needed by the requisitioning Department can be discontinued, but the matter is kept under close review. It will be observed from the above that small houses and flats (notified only to the Ministry of Health), hotels, holiday camps and educational establishments are already excepted.


Could the noble Lord say whether the ten days which all Departments are given runs concurrently for all Departments, or whether it is ten days for one Department, ten days for another, and so on through the whole line of Departments?


The noble Lord will appreciate that, speaking for a Department which I do not represent in this House, I am unable to give him a firm answer. I think in the circumstances, in the absence of a tic-tac system, I will let the noble Lord know by letter.


I thank the noble Lord for his reply.