HL Deb 14 March 1960 vol 221 cc1087-98

3.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is a small and, so far as a Housing Bill ever can be, a simple Bill: a simple measure designed to deal with a specific and limited problem. It will have the effect of disposing, once and for all, of the remnants of requisitioning for housing purposes, and so bring finally to an end an emergency service which has lasted for just over 20 years. Under the Requisitioned Houses and Housing (Amendment) Act, 1955, the whole job of derequisitioning houses ought to be finished by March 31 this year, and something like 98 per cent. of it will, in fact, be finished. This Bill, therefore, is concerned with the remaining 2 per cent. It provides a little more time for those few local authorities who will not quite have managed to finish the job by the end of this month.

Although this Bill deals with the shortfall, it would be in the highest degree ungenerous if we did not recognise the magnitude of the task which has been accomplished. At the beginning of 1955 there were still some 62,000 properties held under requisition in England and Wales. Between the passing of the Act and the end of 1959 no fewer than 50,000 of those properties have been released and some 76,000 families have been resettled. Of the 76,000 dwellings which have ceased to be requisitioned over 80 per cent. have been handed back to their owners, in 34,000 cases with full vacant possession. In another 28,000 cases the licensees have been accepted as statutory tenants by the owners. In the remaining 14,000 cases the local authorities have either leased or purchased the property from the owners.

If your Lordships have followed this arithmetic you will see that it means that at the end of 1959 some 7,600 properties still remained under requisition, and 156 local authorities were involved. At first sight, this would appear to be a large number with only three months remaining before the right to possession comes to an end. But when we analyse these figures we see that 61 of these authorities had only one or two properties each to deal with; and 43 had fewer than 20 each. In our view, none of those 104 authorities—that is, the 61 and the 43—are likely to have any difficulty in completing the de-requisitioning by the end of this month.

The hard core of the problem, therefore, at the end of 1959 affected 52 local authorities, of whom all but seven are in greater London. But since the end of 1959 de-requisitioning has been going on all the time, and it is now quite impossible to give a precise forecast of what the position will be at the end of March. But on the authorities' own estimate it is expected that by the end of this month not more than about 1,500 properties, comprising some 2,000 dwellings, will still be held under requisition, and these properties will be spread over a small number of local authorities, nearly all of them in London. It will be seen, therefore, that the residual problem with which this Bill deals is very small. The vast majority of authorities up and down the country, in the face of many difficulties, will have completed de-requisitioning by the end of this month. This is a great achievement, for which they deserve to be given full credit, and I wish to give them that full credit on behalf of my right honourable friend. It will be only a few that will need and must be given a little more time. I say "must be given", because legislation is necessary for the protection of those licensee families who may still be occupying requisitioned properties after March 31. For unless the retention of these properties by the few local authorities concerned is legalised, the licensee families will, after March 31 of this year, become trespassers and liable to eviction. That is the background for this legislation and I will now turn to the Bill itself.

The Bill contains three main provisions. Clause 1 gives the Minister power to make limited extension of the period during which a local authority may continue to retain possession of requisitioned houses. This power will be exercised by orders made by statutory instrument. The period of extension may not exceed twelve months after March 31. An order made under the Bill may apply to all or some requisitioned properties at present held by a local authority and the properties may be varied by a subsequent order. A local authority will have to show that an order is really necessary, but it will not have to justify the retention of individual properties. An order will authorise that all houses under requisition on March 31, 1960—except for a few which will be excluded—may be retained until the date specified in the order. Under this clause there is also a provision that each local authority granted an order will be required to give notice in writing to every owner whose property is retained stating the period for which the property is authorised to be retained.

Clause 2 is concerned with financial arrangements consequent on the making of an order, and does two things. It provides for a 50 per cent. increase in the rental compensation payable to owners of properties which are retained after March 31. These owners will be faced with some deferment, however short, of their right to the return of their property as provided for under the 1955 Act. It is obviously fair that they should be given some consolation for the temporary loss of this right.

Clause 2 also deals with Exchequer contributions towards the costs of local authorities in dealing with requisitioned properties which they are authorised to retain after March 31. Under the 1955 Act Exchequer assistance was at the rate of 75 per cent. of the net cost of the management of the requisitioned houses. And there was also Exchequer assistance at the same rate of 75 per cent. towards the net cost of leasing or buying houses for the purpose of settling the licensee families. This Bill in Clause 2 provides that there shall still be Exchequer assistance for both these purposes, but at a reduced rate of 25 per cent. in place of 75 per cent.

My Lords, local authorities have had no reason to expect any Exchequer help after March 31, 1960. My right honourable friend caused two circulars to be sent out in the spring and autumn of 1957, and answered a Question in another place as late as last November, reminding local authorities that financial assistance would cease with the cessation of the 1955 Act in March, 1960.

But though it might be thought harsh and unreasonable to provide no assistance at all in this Bill, to 'maintain it at the same rate would be most unfair to the great majority of authorities who, though faced with equally great difficulties, will have succeeded in completing derequisitioning in the time set by the 1955 Act. In the Government's view, assistance at the rate of 25 per cent. for the few authorities needing more time is a fair compromise.

Clause 3 applies to properties retained by orders under the Bill the provisions of the 1955 Act, subject to modifications which are contained in the Schedule. There are four main changes. The first is that Section 3 of the 1955 Act is modified to secure the automatic release of requisitioned dwellings fourteen days, instead of four weeks, after they fall vacant, subject to two exceptions. The first enables the local authority to issue a new licence to the statutory successor of a licensee who dies, and the second ensures that an owner is not obliged to take back part of a property which was not a separate dwelling when first requisitioned while the local authority still hold the remainder.

The second change set out in this clause and the Schedule concerns the Minister's power to authorise the continued retention of vacant accommodation. This power to authorise the continued retention of vacant accommodation is abolished. The third change is that the powers of Section 4 which enabled owners to accept licensee families as statutory tenants in return for payment of special compensation are discontinued. It is surely reasonable to assume that owners prepared to accept invitations under the 1955 Act will already have done so. The fourth change is that the power enabling the owner to apply to the county court for possession is discontinued. This power was hardly ever used and now, with only a few months on average to run, it is even less likely that this power would be invoked. But provision is continued in Section 6 of the 1955 Act for the Minister, if he is satisfied that retention would cause severe hardship, to direct the local authority to release a requisitioned house without giving the option of offering to buy, which was in the 1955 Act.

My Lords, I hope I have made these provisions clear. I think there is little more that I need say in explanation of the Bill. The Bill, one might say, provides for a short mapping up operation. It is necessary to protect the small number of licensees who will otherwise be in jeopardy after March 31, and it is necessary to assist the small number of local authorities whose derequisitioning operations for one reason or another have not quite kept up to schedule. I commend this Bill to your Lordships and beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Waldegrave.)

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl has quite correctly and clearly explained the purposes and contents of the Bill. With much of it I have no particular quarrel. I have no quarrel, for instance, with the four conditions which are being made by way of variation in the Schedule. Nor do I quarrel with the increase of 50 per cent. in the rent payable to the owner, which I gather is not necessarily going to be reflected in the rent charged to the licensee; that is entirely in the hands of the local authority.

I agree that this Bill is a necessary Bill because a number of local authorities have not been able to derequisition their properties within the period contemplated in the 1955 Act. The noble Earl paid a tribute to the vast majority of local authorities who had been able to do so, and I do not think that he cast any aspersions on the limited number who had not. The fact is that this is a problem which most local authorities have had in varying degrees. Most local authorities had been compelled to requisition properties immediately after the war and even during the war, and they have been able to release them as time went on, but there have been a limited number who, with the best will in the world, have not been able to do so. Most of those are in Greater London. No blame should be attached to them.

They have two problems. One is that by reason of the congestion and the conditions in Greater London they have had more cases of requisition than elsewhere, but in addition they found it more difficult to deal with the problem because in the main the problem of derequisition is one of acquisition of alternative accommodation, either by way of lease or by way of purchase of freehold on some other property. In many of the areas in question there would be very few suitable properties which the local authorities could acquire. In a borough which I know very well indeed, having represented it for many years, the borough of Southwark, there are practically no dwellings which could be acquired for this purpose. I have no brief for Southwark; I do not know whether they are in default; but I can well imagine that if they had a large number of families living in requisitioned properties they must have been at their wits' end to find alternative accommodation for those families. So I want to stress the fact that those local authorities who are in default are in default through no blameworthy reason; they are the victims of the conditions in their area.

But if that is accepted, then I really must protest against the vindictive way in which they are being dealt with by way of penalising them, both in the grant that they are to get in the future in the way of rent deficiency and also in the way of acquisition of any properties that they may be called upon to buy. If the Government want to be petty with this limited number of local authorities—and they are limited; we are dealing only with something like 2,000 dwellings altogether, and the number of authorities must be very small—they might say, "We will penalise the authorities who have been tardy" (on the assumption that they have been tardy and not on the assumption that they have done their best and not been able to carry out their obligations under the terms of the 1955 Act), "by making them pay a somewhat larger grant towards the deficiency; that is, the difference between what they have to pay to the owner by way of compensation and what they are getting back in rent. But to penalise them to the extent of 50 per cent.—and it is worse than that because they now have to pay a higher rent which they will probably not be able to recover—seems to me to be petty-minded. The whole thing will come to an end at the most in twelve months. There are very few authorities: those that are affected are the poorer authorities. I think the Government might well have left things alone and carried on and paid them the grant as heretofore.

What I find even worse is the reduction of the grant towards acquiring property. You could argue that the Government have been paying this deficiency grant for so many years and it is time they stopped. You could argue, I think rather weakly, that it is not fair to the other authorities—I do not know why it is unfair to them; they are not paying it; but you could argue it. I cannot see how it affects the Government or anybody else if the same grant is made towards acquisition. If the acquisition had taken place a year ago the Government would have paid 75 per cent. of the cost. Simply because the acquisition takes place a year later I see no reason why the Government should now pay only 25 per cent. The Government have not suffered in any way, nor has anybody else. I do not know whether this point was taken up strongly in another place or not; I have not been able to study the Committee report. But I feel that this is a matter which we ought to discuss further in Committee. I am sure the Government would not wish to be vindictive against these unfortunate authorities who have not been able to derequisition all their properties within the time limit.

There is one other point I should like to make on this Bill. Is not the Government making rather heavy weather of the limited number of dwellings that will remain requisitioned? They are asking that a local authority should make an application in respect of all the properties that it wants to retain, that the Minister may make an order in respect of all the properties or in respect of some of them or in respect of a class of them. But there are only 2,000 altogether, spread all over the country. Why cannot the Minister make a straight order extending the time for twelve months, and after that there should be no further extensions? I know that that was said in 1955; but five years may have been a long time to look ahead. To-day, we are looking ahead one year, and it is really much simpler and would reduce a good deal of the administration and other work, and suspend the operation of Parkinson's Law, if you could automatically increase the period for twelve months for these relatively few houses.

But I come back to the question of grant. I am sure the Minister has no desire to penalise local authorities who have been unfortunate; but that is what he is doing, particularly in relation to acquisitions of property which they will be compelled to make, although to a limited extent, in order to enable them to carry out the remaining derequisitions. I would urge the noble Earl to put this point strongly before his right honourable friend and suggest to him that local authorities should receive the same grant, at least in respect of acquisitioned property, as they have been getting hitherto.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, may I intervene just for one moment? I wish to put only one small point to the House. Like all your Lordships, I am sorry that this Bill has had to be introduced—it would have been much better if we could have done without it—but I understand the circumstances of which the noble Earl has told us. But it is only right that somebody in this House should express a word of sympathy with those owners of requisitioned houses who had every expectation of getting back their houses at the end of March and were intending to live in them. It is a severe hardship because those people have had their properties requisitioned for fifteen years since the end of the war. It should not have been so long, but it has happened that way. Little is said of the hardship that they have suffered, but a great deal about the hardships which some of the tenants have undoubtedly also suffered. I only want to make that point because I do not think it should be overlooked.


My Lords, that does not justify the imposition on the unfortunate local authorities, and therefore the ratepayers of the particular areas, of what amounts to a penal provision.


My Lords, I was not addressing myself to the noble Lord's question.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that your Lordships have, on the whole, seemed to give this Bill a welcome, though I realised and fully anticipated that the noble Lord who spoke for the Opposition would not like certain provisions in the Bill. I should like to answer one point that he made at the outset of his remarks. The rent increases will not, of course, necessarily be passed on to the occupiers, and I think it should be mentioned that the rent increase will be part of the cost of managing the property and will be subject to the Exchequer assistance, although it is reduced assistance to that given under the 1955 Act.

I think it is extravagant language and not really justifiable to say that this is vindictive, that we are being petty, and that we are trying to penalise local authorities who, to use the noble Lord's words, with the best will in the world, with these insuperable problems, have been unable to complete their task. Surely the question is quite the other way round. The final date for holding these properties under requisition was quite clearly given as March 31, and one might almost say that the fact that you get anything at all in the way of financial assistance after March 31 is almost, if not legally, an ex gratia payment. You have no right to expect anything at all after March 31; you were reminded of that, and, if it shows anything at all, it is that the Government, far from being petty minded about this, and vindictive and trying to operate the 1955 Act with its full rigour —because some means could have been found of protecting the licensees without giving any assistance to the local authorities, who had placed them in jeopardy—this is the act of a generous and sensible Government.

As this point has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I must say, on behalf of the Government, that I cannot accept that it is only the authorities with the most intractable problems who will to this minor extent be found to be defaulters at the end of the period. We all know the old pastime of comparing one's bomb damage with that of one's neighbours. I cannot—nor do I think it would be wise—discuss individual authorities here. But I do not think it will be found that authorities who have suffered the worst bomb damage and have had the most intractable problems will necessarily be the ones who will, in this small measure, be in default at the end of the period.

I think that it is only right, proper and fair to say, as my right honourable friend said in another place, that there are probably three main reasons why this shortfall takes place. The first is that a local authority may have started rather too late on the derequisitioning programme. The second is that a local authority may not have put the matter of derequisitioning to the fullest measure of priority—they may have miscalculated the amount of energy and priority that would be needed and now find themselves in the position of a shortfall. The third reason, which I think we should not burke, and which in a small measure is certainly true, is that certain of the local authorities took a calculated political risk. If you take a calculated political risk or gamble and win, all well and good; if you lose, you must grin and bear it. It is idle to say, as the noble Lord said, that we can now give a straight order for twelve months and say that after that there will be no more. That was done in 1955. The date was clearly given, and after that there was to be no more. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, answered that out of his own mouth. The noble Lord, Lord Clitheroe, mentioned the fact of hardship to owners who have been waiting to get their properties back. As the noble Lord will be aware, and will find in the Bill, there are provisions whereby owners who can prove hardship can make representations to the Minister before he makes an order continuing the requisition. With those answers, I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at nine minutes before four o'clock.