§ 2.47 p.m.
§ Read 3a (according to Order), with the Amendments.
§ Clause 10 [Amendments of Part VII of principal Act]:
LORD POLWARTH moved, after subsection (3) to insert:
(4) Notwithstanding anything contained in any enactment any person aggrieved—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this clause makes certain Amendments to the principal Act, the Housing (Scotland) Act, 1950. Part III of that Act provides that local authorities may make grants to owners of houses for the improvement of those houses. The object of this Amendment is to give the applicant a right of appeal to the Secretary of State for Scotland in cases where his application for a grant is turned down by the local authority or where he considers the amount granted is insufficient. A somewhat similar Amendment was moved in another place, but for certain reasons was not considered suitable. I hope that this Amendment may remedy that position.
§ Your Lordships may wonder why a right of appeal should be considered necessary. The reason is that the giving of these grants is purely permissive. A local authority may give grants; it is not obliged to do so. There are two kinds of cases where this matter presents difficulty. First, some local authorities have discriminated as between applicants in the giving of grants and 984 the amount of grants. A case was cited in another place of one local authority which gave individuals grants at the rate of 50 per cent., but when the local cooperative society applied for a grant only 25 per cent. was given. Whatever one thinks about co-operation, that is surely a case of discrimination.
§ The second type of case, with which I am more concerned here, is of certain local authorities which have refused, altogether as a matter of principle, to entertain applications for grants. This appears to be for two separate causes. The first is that a great number of these applications are in respect of rural cottages occupied by agricultural workers. These cottages are de-rated, and, therefore, when improvements are made to them there is no increase in rates to the local authority. The second and more serious reason is that certain local authorities have refused to entertain grants for what we may call purely political reasons, in that they do not approve of giving public money to individual owners. Surely this is a loophole in the Bill which was not intended to be there when it was introduced by the Government, their object being to increase by all possible means the amount of housing accommodation available. And this particular method by giving grants to people for the improvement of private property is surely one of the least expensive and one which makes the least demand on the taxpayer's pocket, because these properties, when improved, are no drain on the public purse for continuing rent subsidies. Not only that, but these grants are met as to three-quarters by the Central Government, and only one-quarter falls on the local rates.
§ In another place, the Secretary of State for Scotland undertook, on Third Reading of the Bill, to have discussions with local authorities, with a view to avoiding this discrimination which was taking place between individual applicants. I do not know how successful those discussions were, but I regret to say that the other point, the complete refusal to entertain a grant, has not been met. I see from the Ayrshire Post of July 3 that Ayr County Council have decided to cease giving improvement grants under that section of the Act, and are not even to entertain those applications for grants which had been lodged and were in the course of consideration. I am sure your 985 Lordships will agree that, particularly in one of the most progressive agricultural counties in Scotland, that is not a satisfactory state of affairs. I am sure that it is not the sort of thing that the Government, when they introduced this Bill, intended should arise, and it is with this in view that I introduce the Amendment. I beg to move.
Page 9, line 27, at end insert the said subsection.—(Lord Polwarth.)
§ 2.53 p.m.
THE EARL OF AIRLIE
My Lords, I rise to say a few words in support of the noble Lord's Amendment. As he has already explained, the purposes of this Amendment are twofold. They are, first, to provide a right of appeal, in the case of refusal by the local authority to approve an application for grant, and secondly, as mentioned in another place, to provide that an appeal may be made against the amount of the expense approved. It was suggested on Second Reading of the Bill that an appeal was not necessary because it would enable a local authority to side step their responsibility by making the grant very small. Like many of your Lordships I serve as a county councillor. At one time I was convener, or chairman, of a county council, so I have no desire to encourage undue interference from the central authority. But it seems to me that it is necessary for us to appreciate that there are, and will be, cases where a local authority, as the noble Lord said, will not be particularly interested in giving grants to agricultural subjects which, of course, are de-rated and therefore bring little or no benefit to the rates. The county which is the concern of the authority may well be largely urban in its character, and because local affairs may be handled largely from the urban point of view, rather than from the rural point of view, there may be this neglect of rural needs—which would be a great mistake.
I have no complaint in this respect to make about my own county, which is largely an agricultural county, but it is understandable that the council of a heavily urbanised county might not realise its full responsibility to the rural areas. It is a strong point that local authorities have a statutory responsibility for housing, and 986 where their burden is lessened by the modernisation of houses by private individuals then by that much their burden is correspondingly lightened. It is a fact, and should be noted, that in the case of privately owned houses the Central Government meet 75 per cent. of annual loan charges and seven-eights of such charges in Highland counties. It would appear, therefore, that there is a strong case for providing some means for a local authority's refusal to sanction a grant being reviewed by a higher authority. In another place, on June 2, Her Majesty's Government stressed their desire that much greater use should be made of "improvement grant provisions," and also stressed that no opportunity should be lost of bringing rural houses up to modern standards wherever there is a house which is structurally worth spending money on. I hope that the noble Earl, in charge of the Bill, will see his way to accept the Amendment, which, as a county councillor, I consider a most necessary one. I do not consider that the adoption of the Amendment would result in undue interference in the affairs of a county council. After all, we are asking only for the right of appeal, and the Secretary of State is always at liberty to turn down the appeal if he so wishes.
§ 2.55 p.m.
My Lords, I think the case for this Amendment has been made very clearly by the two noble Lords who have spoken, and I should like briefly to say a few words in support of what they have said. To their arguments I would only add that it does seem very hard, as between one set of people and another, that in one county agricultural cottages will not benefit from the Government's wish to have these grants spent, whereas neighbouring farms will get the benefit of the Government policy. That will mean, very often, that a farmer will not be able to get the agricultural labour that he wants, for nowadays the first questions a worker asks is, "Has this house modern conveniences?" If the houses which he has to offer to his men have not such conveniences the farmer often finds it is not possible to get men to work for him. That situation seems unfair, and I think the Government should find some method of meeting this case.
§ 2.56 p.m.
THE EARL OF HOME
My Lords, I am in sympathy with the purpose which the noble Lords who have spoken in support of this Amendment have in mind. The Government very much want to see this reconditioning of houses undertaken, particularly in the countryside. I have some reluctance, however, to accept the method which the noble Lords have proposed. It is the general policy of the Government not to clip the wings of the local authorities but to give them authority in their own districts, as the noble Earl, Lord Airlie, has recognised, and this seems to be a field in which it is reasonable to leave the authority with powers that they have. They have the necessary technical staff, with knowledge and experience of local conditions and, as the mover of the Amendment said, the balance of expenditure has to be met from the rates. What Lord Polwarth asked me to do is to provide an appeal to the Secretary of State; but that, in effect, would be to dictate to the local authorities how they are to spend the ratepayers' money. I very much prefer in the first instance at any rate, to deal with this matter administratively.
With that in mind we had a meeting with the local authorities' associations and they gave us an assurance that they would advise their members to work to the general plan of the Bill and would seek to secure that there should be no discrimination, on financial or on any other grounds. They undertook to get their members, so far as they could, to adhere to this plan. In addition to that, the Secretary of State is sending round a circular in which he draws the attention of local authorities to their powers and to the great desirability of safeguarding this national asset by the improvement of as many of these houses as can possibly be improved. I admit at once that a local authority which deliberately decides to give no grants is taking a very serious decision, from which grave social consequences may flow, because it is true that if one county council refuses to operate this Part of the Bill then agricultural workers in that county will not get the same housing conditions as prevail in almost every other county in Scotland. Therefore, the local authority concerned will be deliberately depriving agricultural workers in the main of good housing 988 conditions. I very much hope that common sense will prevail, as it so often does in these matters, among the county councils in Scotland. I believe that it will.
There is this isolated case which Lord Polwarth has mentioned, but I hope that we shall be able to deal with that by administrative methods. I must say that should a local authority fail to perform what the Secretary of State considers to be a housing duty, then we have the default clauses in the main Housing Act, which he can use. That is a cumbersome procedure and we should not like to see it used. Nevertheless, the default clauses are there, and they would enable the Secretary of State to intervene. In view of the assurance that we are going to take every administrative action to overcome this real difficulty, and with the knowledge that certain powers would remain with the Secretary of State which can be used if necessary, I hope the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to press this Amendment.
§ LORD POLWARTH
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for his reply. I appreciate the difficulty of meeting this case by amending the Bill, and I am glad to hear the noble Earl say that, if necessary, the point will be met by administrative action. For the benefit of the local authority which I mentioned, I would say that about 150 years ago there was a certain Ayrshire agricultural worker who in his spare time wrote verse. One of his main objects in life was campaigning for the improvement of the living and working conditions of his fellow-agricultural workers. He has even been hailed by members of the Party who control this local authority as one of their principal forerunners. May I hope that they will take a little heed of his efforts to improve the conditions of his fellow-workers, remember his shade, and repent. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.
My Lords, before the noble Lord is given leave to withdraw his Amendment, I should like to say that I am sorry that the Amendment has been rejected, because all it asks for is the right of appeal. I remember going over my father's accounts with him when he was repairing every cottage on his property. By keeping his cottages in repair, he never had any difficulty in 989 letting his farms. Probably that is one of the most important factors in farming.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 17 [Notices of increase]:
LORD POLWARTH moved to add to the clause:
(4) The sheriff, if satisfied that any error or omission in any notice of increase is due to a bona fide mistake on the part of the landlord, shall have power to amend the notice by correcting any errors or supplying any omissions therein which, if not corrected or supplied, would render the notice invalid, and may exercise the said power on such terms and conditions as respects arrears of rent or otherwise as appear to the sheriff to be just and reasonable; and a notice amended by virtue of this subsection shall have effect as a valid notice of increase served on such date, not earlier than the date on which the original notice was served nor later than the date of the amendment, as the sheriff may direct.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a small technical point. Under the previous Act, where a landlord gave notice of an increase of rent of restricted premises, there was a provision that if the notice suffered from a technical defect, such as a false calculation or something of that nature, it would not automatically invalidate the notice asking for the increase of rent. There was power for the sheriff to correct any technical error in the notice. Such a provision was in the original version of this Bill when introduced in another place, but I am sorry to say that in Committee stage an Amendment for the removal of this provision was accepted by the Government, and now there is no power for the sheriff to correct a technical error.
I find it difficult to understand why this should be done, especially as in the parallel English Act there remains such a provision. The matter may not appear of great importance, but there are a number of property owners who are not in a position to employ a factor or solicitor to handle their affairs and an error in a technical document of this sort might easily be made. There is no question of any unfair advantage to the landlord as opposed to the tenant, because it is only the landlord who has to lodge any document of this description and in any case it is stated in the Amendment that any alteration shall be
on such terms and conditions … as appear to the sheriff to be just and reasonable.
I beg to move.
Page 15, line 26, at end insert the said sub-section.—(Lord Polwarth.)
THE EARL OF HOME
My Lords, this is a small point, although it aroused an amount of attention in another place. The reason why I do not want to accept this Amendment is that I do not really think that it is necessary. Let the noble Lord consider what will happen. The owner of a house will make a declaration that he has put it into good repair. The tenant may come along and object to the declaration, and give his reasons for saying that the landlord has not put the house in a satisfactory state of repair. The tenant is very unlikely to make a technical objection to the declaration, and I have no doubt whatever that if there is simply a technical error in the owner's declaration, the sheriff will call attention to it and adjourn for the time being to deal with the point. It is not worth cluttering up Acts of Parliament with words that are not necessary. I think the sheriffs can be trusted to do their work sensibly and I cannot accept this Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdraw it.
§ Clause 39 [Interpretation of Part II]:
Page 32, line 16, lease out ("Increase of Rent and Mortgage Increase") and insert ("Rent and Mortgage Interest").—(The Earl of Home.)
§ On Question, Amendment agreed to.
§ First Schedule [Proof of past repairs by landlord]:
Page 36, line 19, leave out from ("work") to ("has") in ling 20 and insert ("(the nature of which shall be specified in general terms in the declaration)").—(The Earl of Home.)
§ On Question, Amendment agreed to.
§ LORD POLWARTH moved, in Paragraph 7 (3), after "area" to insert: "or rateable value." The noble Lord said: 991 My Lords, the majority of the rent-restricted houses affected in Scotland are in the form of tenements—that is to say, there are a number of dwelling-houses under one roof. For the landlord to obtain an increased rent he has to prove so much expenditure on each dwelling-house in that tenement. This is quite simple until it comes to the question of common repairs, such as renewing roofs, chimneys or stairs. As the Bill stands, the cost of these repairs must be divided between the dwellings on the basis of floor area. The object of my Amendment is to make an alternative basis of division, the rateable value of the different dwelling-houses in the tenement.
§ The objections to floor area are these. First of all, it will be a considerable work for factors and agents to measure the areas of floor. Secondly, in the case of owners who do not employ agents there is a considerable likelihood of error creeping in, as any noble Lord who has attempted to measure a room for a carpet will agree. Finally—and this is the most potent reason—it is an old-established practice in Scotland in such dwellings, where there are different owners under the same roof, for the cost of common repairs to be divided on the basis of rateable value, which is a known and exact figure, as opposed to that of the floor area. I see no need to introduce an entirely new basis. It merely complicates the Bill, and I think the proprietor should have the option of taking the basis of the rateable value, as proposed in this Amendment. I beg to move.
Page 37, line 38, after ("area") insert ("or rateable value").—(Lord Polwarth.)
§ LORD MATHERS
My Lords, I feel well disposed towards this Amendment and think that the noble Earl speaking for the Government might reasonably 992 accept this alternative form of measuring rod for dealing with the matters that come within this clause. I hope he may be able to do that. I am speaking at the fifty-ninth minute of the twelfth hour. In the efforts I have made on this Bill, I have not put down any Amendment on my own account and I am speaking in order that I may have a half-share in securing this alternative, in co-operation with the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth. I hope the noble Earl will be able to give an affirmative answer to what has been proposed.
My Lords, I hope the noble Earl will be able to accept the Amendment, because I am sure that if the two alternatives are there the rateable value will be the one to be most used.
THE EARL OF HOME
My Lords, I had hoped to be able to give the noble Lord opposite a half-share, but it now seems to have turned out to be a third. I have listened to the arguments of my noble friend Lord Polwarth, and it does seem to me that to take the rateable value as an alternative basis has the merit of simplicity, and leaves the floor area basis if anybody wants to use it. Therefore, although this is a late stage of the Bill, as the same sort of proposal was put forward by Mr. Douglas Johnston in another place on behalf of the Opposition, I think it is only common sense to accept the Amendment.
§ On Question. Amendment agreed to.
Page 37, line 39, after ("areas") insert ("or rateable values").—(Lord Polwarth.)
§ On Question, Amendment agreed to.
§ Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.