§ 2.48 p.m.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE, DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT (LORD SANDFORD)
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Sandford.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]
§ Clause 29 [Application for qualification certificate: issue of certificate of provisional approval]:
LORD GARNSWORTHY moved Amendment No. 109FH:
Page 35, line 20, leave out ("it is shown to the satisfaction of the local authority").
§ The noble Lord said: The Committee completed Clause 28 last Thursday, and in speaking to Amendment No. 109FB I included two Amendments to Clause 29. As the ground covered by those two Amendments was then dealt with, I have not moved them to-day; so we come immediately to Amendment No. 109FH. At the same time, I think it may be as well to speak to Amendments No. 109FJ and 109FK. These Amendments are designed further to protect the position of the tenant. On this side we do not accept that it is enough for the local authority to be satisfied as to the work having been done or to be satisfied on a provisional basis that it will be done. It is the tenant who lives in the house and the tenant who pays the rent. It may be argued, as I believe it was argued in the other place, that rent allowances make a great deal of difference and that therefore the poorer tenant will have less reason to worry about the consequences of decontrol.
§ If that argument be advanced seriously in connection with the Amendment which I now move. I come back again to saying that the important issue in this legislation and in respect to the whole business of rented housing is the position of the tenant as tenant. If that be not agreed, is it suggested that, because he has a rent allowance, his status is to be reduced and that he is less concerned about the quality of the house he lives in than he would be if he paid the full rent? And what of the tenant who does not qualify for rent allowances?—the tenant who bears the full brunt of the charge? In that case, I understand that there is a further argument that in the 1969 Act the tenant was not given the rights that we now invite the Committee to insert into this Bill and that the omission has not occasioned substantial criticism.
This Bill means a vast extension of decontrol, and hindsight suggests that it may be a matter for regret that the 1969 Act did not adequately meet the position that I am attempting to meet this afternoon. That there is a possibility of some defect in the property not being spotted by the local authority was recognised by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment when he said in the other place (Standing Committee E, column 1063) on January 27 last:
The short point is this. The local authorities themselves have to decide whether the
proposals are satisfactory. The only point at which this could cause difficulty would be the rare case in which the local authority itself failed to spot some defect in the proposals which the tenant himself might bring to its notice and which would otherwise not be spotted.
That is the justification for asking the Committee this afternoon to ensure that the tenant is at all times notified and fully informed as to what is afoot.
I appreciate that the position can arise where the tenant, following an application to the county court, has the opportunity to persuade the court that the works proposed by the landlord do not fulfil the qualifying conditions for the changeover from a controlled to a regulated tenancy. But even there, we are quite unsatisfied as to the proptection of the tenant; and, if I may say so, I think the position in Clause 32(3) is itself somewhat disturbing. That subsection says:
An appeal shall not lie under paragraph (a) of subsection (2) above where—
§ To suggest that that ensures justice is, I think, like looking through a looking glass; it is a case almost of Alice in Wonderland; and in terms of everyday life it seems to be totally out of touch with reality. I am advised that Section 44(4) of the Housing Act 1969 provides that before considering an application for a qualifying certificate a local authority shall send a copy of the application to the person named in the application as the tenant. I believe that that applies where an application for a qualification certificate is made in cases where the dwelling has standard amenities and where it does not have them as in subsection (2).
§ The Government may say that to accept the Amendment would introduce delays that they wish to avoid. I can understand their saying that they may wish to avoid delays. If I may make a point here, it is that in this matter of dwellings, with subsidies and rents, I think the Government are altogether in too much of a hurry. I only wish that there had been some truth in the report in the 10 Sunday Telegraph that I mentioned last week of a possibility of delay in imposing the first rent increases on council tenants. There has been no confirmation of that. I do not know what little heart one can take from that. There has been no denial to date; and one hopes that eventually the report will prove to have been well-founded. It seemed to me at the time that report appeared that at last the inflationary effects of this Bill were being appreciated and that it was considered by many people to be an indication of the Government's intention. If the Government sought to make haste a little more slowly in that matter, they would perhaps avoid errors anti injustices on the scale that I think this Bill is making and which I think this clause as it stands would inflict. I beg to move.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
Part III of this Bill is concerned with houses being converted from controlled to regulated tenancies; and the purpose of a number of clauses in it is to simplify the procedures so that the tenant may benefit from the improvement to his house and the nation as a whole may benefit because old houses cease to fall into decay and may be improved. In this connection, it is of vital importance that rent allowances should operate so that those tenants who formerly needed a great deal of protection (because they might have been faced with much larger rent increases which they were unable to afford in the improved house) could be helped by rent allowances; so the two things must go together.
In his Amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, is trying to say that the tenant should have a right of appeal where the landlord claims that he has carried out his works for which the local authority has given a certificate of provisional approval but where the landlord has not carried out those works. On considering this matter, the Government felt this Amendment to be unnecessary because in reality when the local authority came to inspect the property to see whether the work had been carried out, the tenant would have an opportunity to say to the inspector that certain things had not been done and that the position was unsatisfactory. This would be a way of resolving the difficulty. If he is still not satisfied there would be 11 nothing to prevent the tenant writing to the local authority to say so. On the last point raised, it is perfectly true that the tenant under this provision cannot challenge the qualification certificate once it has been issued. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, will feel able to withdraw this Amendment when I say that Amendment 109FKA on the Marshalled List seeks to provide this right of appeal and the Government would be prepared to consider this favourably.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I thank the noble Baroness for what she has said and I take the points she is endeavouring to make, that the local authority will check up that the tenant will have an opportunity to speak. I doubt whether the Government have appreciated the size of the job being placed on the shoulders of local authorities. I have figures in front of me regarding the experience of one of the Greater London boroughs. There really is a vast amount of work and it would be quite easy, I think—people being what they are—because of the pressure of work, for the local authorities not to vet as thoroughly as they might do. It seems to me that we cannot do enough, certainly not too much, to ensure the position of the tenant. The tenant is the person who will know whether he has been informed of what is required; he will know whether the job has been done. I regret that the noble Baroness does not feel inclined to accept the Amendment. I take some encouragement from what she said about accepting another Amendment, and I shall not press this to a Division. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 29 agreed to.
§ Clauses 30 and 31 agreed to.
§ Schedule 5 [Certificate of fair rent under Part III of this Act: application for registration of fair rent]:
§ On Question, Whether Schedule 5 shall be a Schedule to the Bill?
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
In speaking to this Question, I am seeking to provide an opportunity for the Government to give the Committee information as to what additional advantage for the tenant 12 this Schedule provides as compared with that provided by Schedule 6 to the 1969 Rent Act. There is no need for me to repeat what has been said before, but I am sure that guidance will be needed in this case to explain what it is all about. It could well be that the Minister will explain the position in rather simpler terms than those set out in the Schedule.
§ LORD SANDFORD
I welcome the opportunity which the noble Lord has given me of doing that. The essence of the matter is quite simple. Schedule 5 to the Bill broadly replaces Schedule 2 to the 1969 Act to which the noble Lord has referred. The only changes that occur are in the first three paragraphs of Schedule 5 which make slight procedural changes consequent on the new procedures for certificates of fair rent introduced by Clause 30. There is no change of any kind to the detriment of the tenant, and Schedule 5 continues the protection provided by the 1969 Act—namely, that of preventing the rent officer or the rent assessment committee from registering a rent higher than that certified in the certificate of fair rent to which the tenant originally agreed.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I thank the Minister for that reply. I think the Committee will appreciate that we shall need a little time to digest what he has said in order to see whether it meets the position as we should wish, and we shall do that when we are able to read his remarks in to-morrow's Hansard.
§ Schedule 5 agreed to.
§ Clause 32 [Appeal to County Court]:
§ 3.5 p.m.
LORD GARNSWORTHY moved Amendment No. 109 FKA:
Page 37, line 9, leave out ("subject to subsection (3) below").
§ The noble Lord said: I took some encouragement from the words of the noble Baroness. We on this side of the House are concerned for the tenant in a situation where he seems to get scant consideration under the terms of the Bill. Clause 32(3) limits his rights of appeal. He will not be notified of proposals to carry out works on his premises as a result of Clauses 28 and 29. He will not be notified of the application for a qualification certificate. As the clause stands, he is to be denied the right of 13 appeal where a qualification certificate may have been wrongly issued—and that against the background that he has not been notified of the application for the qualification certificate. There is far too much dependence on the local authority's being satisfied, and I wish for the same measure of consideration to be shown to the tenant as is being accorded to the property owner. I do not wish to labour the point unduly, but I would say that the subsection which is the subject of this Amendment should be omitted, and I move accordingly that it be left out. I do so in the hope that this course will commend itself to the Government. I have touched on Amendments 109FP and 109FQ; in the meantime 109FKA paves the way for their acceptance and I move accordingly.
§ LORD SLATER
My noble friend in moving his Amendment gives one the impression that the tenant in this case is going to be subject to a contradiction of terms. In the first place my noble friend talks about the protection of the tenant—that the tenant shall have the right of pointing out a defect in work carried out to the property. The tenant, according to what my noble friend and also the Minister said, has the right to point out that certain work has not been done. Yet in the Amendment that is being moved we find that the tenant is not going to have any say whatever; he is not consulted before the certificate is given to the contractor who has carried out the work. Is this not a contradiction in terms? The tenant, in one category, is left out of the issue altogether and is not allowed even to raise his voice in protest regarding anything which the local authority may decide or, so far as the contractor is concerned, in the granting of a certificate. This needs to be looked at.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
As I indicated when I was speaking to the Amendment on Clause 29, the Government were prepared to look favourably upon this Amendment and the one to be moved by the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, Amendment No. 109FN that goes with it. Clause 32(3) provides that a tenant shall not have a right of appeal against the issue of a qualification certificate on the grounds that a certificate ought 14 not to have been issued, and indicates two particular circumstances. The effect of this Amendment is to give a tenant the right of appeal against the issue of a qualification certificate in these particular cases.
The Government have considered this matter again and have come to the conclusion that there is not sufficient justification for restricting the tenants' rights of appeal in this way. In cases where grant has been paid, the possibility of local authorities running into difficulties during the remaining two or three years of the qualification certificate procedure seems to be very small and not one that the Government feel would justify interfering with the rights of any tenant who genuinely believes that the qualifying conditions have not been satisfied. Where the landlord has spent money on improvements on the basis of a certificate of provisional approval is no reason for withholding a right of appeal where the tenant contends that the landlord has not adhered to his original plans and specifications. The Government accept this even though the 1969 Housing Act excluded the right of appeal in these circumstances. They do not believe that is any reason why Parliament should not now change its mind. For this reason the Government are happy to accept the Amendment.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness and delighted that she has had the privilege of announcing I think one of the more substantial concessions that the Government have made. It is probably the first concession of any substance, but I do not want to exaggerate its importance. I am most grateful, and I hope that the noble Baroness may have the opportunity and privilege, as time goes on, of accepting other Amendments of perhaps greater significance than this one. I am encouraged to think that what has been said from this side of the Committee has not been falling on deaf ears, as at one time we feared might happen. I suppose we ought not to rejoice too much, but should content ourselves with encouraging the Government to be as co-operative, helpful and forthcoming as we would wish them to be.
§ On Question, Amendment agreed to.15
§ 3.12 p.m.
LORD GARNSWORTHY moved Amendment No. 109FL:
Page 37, line 12, at end insert (" and be entitled to legal aid ")
The noble Lord said: No one has suggested that this is a simple Bill; indeed, quite the contrary. I doubt whether anyone would dare to suggest that tenants will begin to understand the full implications of its legalistic jargon, or such rights as the Bill may confer on them. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, told us:
We all recognise that this is a complex Bill and for anyone other than solicitors and barristers, for tenants, landlords, and local authorities, there will have to be explanatory circulars, pamphlets, leaflets … and a whole apparatus designed to make it easier for laymen to see what their rights are under this Bill and to see how they set about getting them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15/6/72; col. 1233.]
§ One could wish that the mountains of information which are likely to follow this Bill, if it becomes an Act, had been available beforehand so that the people who are to be most affected would have fully appreciated all that is involved. It may be that some of them do appreciate it; the returns in the recent local government elections seemed to indicate that, at any rate, some people were not too happy with the position. Clause 32(1) deals with appeals to the county court by the landlord in cases where qualification certificates have been refused to him. The appeal is to the effect that the certificate ought to be issued. Subsection (2) deals with the position of the tenant and sets out his right of appeal to the county court as to why a certificate ought not to be issued, or that it is invalid. As is to be expected, the county court may confirm or quash the certificate.
§ This is a lawyers' dwelling place, and the tenant will need legal expertise if he is going to exercise his rights. Since the situation is not of the tenant's creation but the result of well thought of Government policy—by which I do not mean "well thought out" in the sense that it is praiseworthy; but that it has taken a long time in the thinking out it seems nothing but common decency to ensure that the tenant will have expert help available to secure justice. We traversed this ground a little last week when dealing with Amendment No. 99A and I would not wish to weary the Committee 16 by re-treading every step. But on that occasion the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, went out of his way to stress the rights of the tenant to go to court. I think that my Amendments would go a long way to ensure that tenants are encouraged to go to court and would be helped; that if the case went to court it would be properly presented, and that at the end of the day the tenant would not be called on to pay a considerable bill. I offer the Government the concession that if they will accept this Amendment I will not move Amendment No. 109F0. In the meantime, I think that this is an Amendment of some importance.
In case my noble friend is proposing to accept this Amendment, may I ask him to deal with the question whether legal aid would be allowed for the landlord, too? As I visualise the position, the tenant would be taking the local authority to court, but the landlord would appear to have a great interest in the result and, presumably, would have to be legally represented. Many landlords in this country have far less means than their tenants, so that if the tenant is to get legal aid presumably, if they qualify for it, landlords will be in a similar position.
§ LORD SANDFORD
I am glad to be able to say straightaway that we can certainly accept the spirit behind this Amendment; but also I would seek to show that the Amendment is not necessary. It may serve to clarify the matter if I remind the Committee that what we have in subsection (2)(a) and (b) are not grounds for legal aid but grounds for making an appeal. The first question is: is legal aid available to the parties concerned? The answer is, "Yes, it is, but on exactly the same grounds as it is always available; that is to say, by the determination of the means of the party concerned, which is a matter to be settled by the Supplementary Benefits Commission." The second question, whether there are grounds for starting proceedings at all, is a matter to be settled by the legal aid committees up and down the country. With the assurance that in these cases legal aid is available to all concerned, on the normal grounds, I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured and will not feel it necessary to press the Amendment.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has just said. I wonder whether he could be a little more forthcoming. He says that the Government are prepared to accept the spirit behind this Amendment. I would not want this in any way to be misunderstood and I certainly would not wish to misrepresent him in any way. Do the Government have it in mind that at some stage they are going to do something, even if it is only issuing a special leaflet to inform tenants of their entitlement to legal aid if they qualify? Do they have that in mind? If so, do they really think that that is enough? We are not talking about the kind of person who is familiar with court procedure. We are not talking about the kind of person who thinks of flying to court. We are dealing with a body of people who, by and large, as the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, would say, do not resort to lawyers except in positions of extremity where the situation is very, very serious indeed.
When we are talking about legal aid being available on determination of means I am sure that the noble Lord is not without sympathy or understanding of the class of person involved. By and large, they will be elderly people who are not seeking to push themselves forward to get involved in the processes of the law. Quite frankly, if the Government are interested, as I am sure they must be, that landlords do give a fair deal, then there should be a willingness to do something quite exceptional. I take the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hawke. He inquires whether landlords would get aid as well. What comfort he may get I do not know, but the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has given him much the same reply that he gave to me. In the case of tenants something more might be done than just saying, "If you apply for legal aid and you are entitled to get it, you will receive it". I must leave to the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, whether he feels that is good enough for the landlords, but I am grateful for his intervention.
§ LORD DAVIES OF LEEK
The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has stated that the Government are prepared to accept the spirit of the Amendment. A landlord would be entitled to legal aid if he qualifies. If this be so—and the Minister 18 admits that landlords do qualify it would not be any great concession to accept the Amendment and to say exactly what my noble friend on the Front Bench has asked: that they be entitled to legal aid. More and more ordinary people are getting involved in the processes of law in this complex and intricate civilisation in which we are living, and on both sides of the Committee there must be men and women who know how frightened sometimes people are of these elaborate forms that look concise but which are really elaborate and deep. Consequently, I would ask the Government to be good enough in this case to include this phrase. It is not making a real concession because it is admitted that the position is open for both the tenant and the landlord. If that be the position why not he good enough to include these words and make this a little simpler to understand for those of us who are laymen?
May I add a word? I appreciate the point that has been made, that legal aid is available; but what does an individual do when he is considering the question of an appeal? He does not necessarily go to lawyers himself in the first instance in order to decide whether or not he should appeal. He considers what the position is likely to be. The average person is not aware of the fact that he is entitled to legal aid if he does appeal. A person may very well be prevented from proceeding to appeal merely because he is ignorant of the fact that if he does go to appeal he may be in a position to be assisted. It is not a big concession that is being asked. After all, what do we try to do with our Acts? We try to make them sufficiently intelligible to the average man and woman. I know it is difficult at times, but in a legal office one appreciates this kind of thing because persons come to one entirely ignorant of their rights and wrongs.
Many people do not proceed with matters of a litigious nature because they are frightened of the possibility of ruining themselves by so doing. Unfortunately, some very exaggerated views are expressed—I am sorry to say sometimes even in our own Parliament—about the fees which are charged. These remarks are not justifiable; but they do frighten people away from entering into litigation of any kind. We try to make our Acts 19 sufficiently intelligible that an individual who reads them may have an idea of what they are all about. We do our best to try to put them in such terms that the man in the street can appreciate what is intended by them. I say as an aside that sometimes that is impossible because of the intricacies of the matter; but here a very simple request is being made. Why not put these words in? A Bill of this sort goes to the very root of family life and very many people are interested enough, I am quite certain, to read it. If they see this wording in the Bill they know that, if their means are insufficient for the purpose, they are not deprived of the possibility of going further. Quite frankly, I do not think it would be a question of redundancy but rather a question of clarification of the law which would help an ordinary lay reader to understand what it is about. I hope that in those circumstances the noble Lord will change his mind.
§ LORD SANDFORD
I am sure everyone in the Committee is agreed that this is an intricate, difficult and complex Bill which will need to be explained to those whose interests are affected by it, but I am not persuaded that many lay people will be much assisted by trying to arrive at their rights and an understanding of how the Bill is going to operate by reading it raw—neat. Lawyers will do this, and it is primarily for them and for the courts that we need to be sure we get the drafting right. But as I have said on other occasions—and my noble friends have said so, too—we fully recognise the need to explain the Bill to tenants, landlords, local authorities and others who have to operate it in a whole variety of ways. We fully recognise the need for circulars for local authorities, for pamphlets and booklets for tenants, tenants' associations, landlords and so on. This is where we must bear in mind the fact that we are dealing here with the elderly, the poor, and the needy—landlords as well as tenants. We shall need very much more careful and sensibly-phrased explanations than we could ever incorporate in something as complex and intricate as this piece of legislation.
The second point I want to make is that the Goverment have already accepted the plea made by the noble Lord that legal aid should be available. But we cannot 20 accept the Amendment. Perhaps I should put it this way: were we to accept that an Amendment should be incorporated giving effect to this proposal, the bare six words here would not suffice, because we should have to make clear that legal aid was available to landlords as well as to tenants, and available on normal grounds, namely that the means of the person concerned justified it. We should also have to make it clear that grounds would have to be established for taking proceedings at all. We should have quite a substantial clause if all that were included. I submit that the best thing is to leave this matter as it is, with my assurance that legal aid is available on the normal grounds, and, having said that, that we should leave it to our explanatory documents, circulars and pamphlets, to make clear to the parties concerned that legal aid is available to them, to state the conditions under which it is available and how they are to set about getting it.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I appreciate that he has been patient and is repeating words that he used earlier. However, I wonder what significance there is in reminding the Committee that the Government accept that legal aid will be available as it normally is. There is no concession here at all. The position is in no way changed by virtue of what the noble Lord has said. He has given nothing. If it be that to refrain from saying that would have meant that he was taking something away, then I think we should all be disturbed, in the sense that there is a clear recognition on the part of the noble Lord, speaking on behalf of the Government, that here is a special class of citizen, elderly and needy. He has reminded the Committee that ordinary people will not be able to understand the Bill, that it will need lawyers to do so—lawyers who can advise them. I think that something special has to be done in this regard to bring home to the people who are going to be most affected that they have a right to have legal aid and will not be placed in the position of going to the county court on their own or of having to fill in yet another form asking for aid.
I wonder whether anybody has begun to reckon up the number of forms that such persons are going to have to fill in, so as to get what are said to be their 21 rights as citizens? It is getting rather horrifying. Where is this information to be made available? So often one finds that these explanatory pamphlets—and I have been into Post Offices and asked for pamphlets of this kind and examined them—say "may be" and not "shall be". Sometimes when they go further and do give an indication of exactly what is due, it almost needs a chartered accountant to understand it. I am most grateful to my noble friends Lord Janner and Lord Davies of Leek. Lord Janner speaks with a wealth of professional experience behind him. He made a strong plea and I feel that this Amendment deserves to be pressed, unless the noble Lord is able to say that at a later stage the Government themselves will introduce an Amendment to give substance to the spirit which he himself feels so strongly.
§ LORD DIAMOND
I wonder whether I may support what my noble friend has said so persuasively. He is far more familiar with the detail of this Part of the Bill than I am, but, as I see it, we are dealing with a situation in which, first of all, there is a removal of rights which a tenant has long enjoyed. Secondly, there is a difference of opinion as between a tenant and a landlord. In the normality of cases the tenant, as the Minister has explained, will be an old age pensioner, a person of poor means, someone frightened of the law and terrified of authority—generally a person needing help. In the normality of cases the landlord will be a person accustomed to the problems affecting a landlord; indeed a landlord may often be a large company, sometimes relying on external legal advice in the ordinary way, but often having an internally-employed solicitor. So we are altering the current balance in a very substantial way against an uniformed tenant in favour of a well-to-do, well-informed landlord.
§ LORD STRATHCLYDE
I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, will allow me to intervene for a moment.
§ LORD DIAMOND
§ LORD STRATHCLYDE
I am really at a loss to understand this. The noble Lord tells us that these people we are trying to help are poor, needy, undereducated perhaps, and in need of help. What are they going to learn? Is the 22 noble Lord telling the Committee that these people are going to be able to read and understand the Bill? The Amendment seeks to put these words into the Bill. It is the lawyers who are advising the people concerned who will be reading the Bill, and they should already know that legal aid is allowed. It seems to me rather a waste of time.
§ LORD DIAMOND
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his helpful speech, because he has explained that the tenants will not read the Bill. That is the core of the matter. If they could or would, that would be all right; but it is common ground on all sides of the Committee that they will not be able to read the Bill or, if they read it, to understand it fully. Therefore I move on to the next point, which I should have thought was also common ground between the noble Lord and myself. I do not think that what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said has advanced the matter very much. I want to press him on this issue, because what he has said does not advance the matter at all. He is not proposing to vary at all the provisions as regards the rights of citizens to legal aid. Therefore a citizen who under this Bill is singled out for deprivation of rights will have no more benefit under the legal aid system than any other citizen. I think that he should have, and that the Government have a responsibility in this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, recognises that the Government have a measure of responsibility and has said, "We will therefore inform them in our circulars in full detail." Now, who?—that is the first thing I want to ask. Is the noble Lord giving us an assurance that the Government will see to it, either by regulation or otherwise, that every person affected under this clause will get detailed and simply-expressed advice in the form of a circular, or whatever it may be? Secondly, will there be included in that circular at least the statement that this person can go to the citizens' advice bureau to get free advice on his rights under these provisions? Thirdly, will the circular include a statement to say, if it is correct—not being a lawyer, I do not know whether or not it is, but I hope that the noble Lord will correct me if it is wrong—that under the new legal aid provisions a person can go and get advice only from a solicitor (that is, not go to 23 the court) and get it free up to whatever figure is mentioned: and it is quite a small figure? This will enable that person to get the advice he needs without taking matters beyond that.
I am merely asking the Government what they are going to do under the existing provisions which are open to everybody. I should have thought that the Government would want to do something more when they were introducing a Bill which deprived certain sections of the community of their existing rights. I should have thought that the Government would be willing to say that every tenant affected in this way, who felt that he had been dealt with unfairly and wished to appeal, could get free advice from a solicitor as to whether or not he had a good case, without having to fill up dozens of forms as to income levels and so on. That could not cost the Exchequer more than pence.
I am pressing the Government therefore to say that in recognition of the fact that they are introducing a Bill to remove certain rights from certain citizens they are prepared to foot the bill for that citizen to get the minimum advice, not going to court, not starting proceedings—that may have to be subject to the normal rights affecting legal aid—but at the first stage. That free advice, for example, could be, "You have a good case; we advise you to go to law and you are entitled to legal aid and this is how you get it". Or, it could be, "You have a bad case; we do not advise you to go to law ". The citizen can be satisfied in that sense. I am asking the Government what they are prepared to do in the proposed notification of everybody affected, and whether they are prepared to go one small step further in protecting the unprotected.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ LORD SANDFORD
The Committee has before it an Amendment the acceptance or rejection of which will not alter at all anybody's rights one way or the other. All we are discussing is whether or not it would be a good thing to put the Amendment in the Bill. I have shown that although the Bill requires a great deal of explanation and exposition at all sorts of levels, on the whole this matter is not something that can be dealt 24 with by adding to an already extensive Bill, but it is much better to rely on circulars, explanatory booklets, et cetera.
At the moment we are in the process of considering the Bill in Committee. I do not think that we can go very far in discussing how we draft and what we do with explanatory booklets. I am glad to take the opportunity to confirm that we can do a great deal better than just relying—if this is what the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, thought we were going to do—on the Post Office and the possibility that various forms can be collected from the Post Office. We shall be doing much more than that: we shall be issuing circulars to local authorities. We shall be publishing booklets which will be available free of charge at all rent offices, and no doubt many other people will be doing many other things.
I cannot at this stage prescribe exactly what the majority or even some of the local authorities will be doing. They are all experienced in looking after the interests of all their tenants, both private and council tenants. There are many other local detailed provisions that they can make to assist tenants. Many authorities have set up housing advisory centres. These will be particularly valuable in the exposition and explanation of what people's rights are, particularly the rights of elderly people who are perhaps no longer in full command of all their faculties. It is upon the whole complex of this service of housing advice on which we shall be chiefly relying. I believe this is far more effective than trying to import into the Bill details which are already well known to the legal profession, whose main duty it is to interpret the Bill in its raw form. With that explanation and with the repeated assurance that we are fully alive to the need to make people's rights clear—and this Amendment does not alter those rights one way or the other—I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his Amendment.
§ LORD DAVIES OF LEEK
With due respect to the noble Lord and his argument that this is well known to the legal profession, those of us who have lived a long time know that many things are known to the legal profession that the layman knows nothing about, and much to his sorrow. He finds out about that 25 when he is sometimes met with the fact that the legal profession might not have taken up a case for compensation withal the legal limit of time. I have had that experience in my day with miners whose compensation has been neglected by the legal profession, and the miners have lost their compensation. The argument that it is well known to the legal profession may not necessarily be a protection for the tenant who is not well versed in the intricacies of law. I can put this into words of three letters. There is one word with five letters, that is, "legal". You could say, "Ask for legal aid". There is only one five-letter word in that phrase. What is the difficulty in the semantics? I beg the Committee to do something about this because of least it would show that this noble Chamber has the spirit of the matter at heart and are thinking of the tenant who is having the whole process of his life changed.
I should like to make a final plea to the Minister. What he has not appreciated is that when Acts affect people they are frequently read by large circles of people. I have known many clients come into my office with the Act in their hands. Take the Leasehold Reform Act, for example. People look at that. The important point about bringing this matter to the attention of the layman is that it makes it clear to him that he can take advice. It is perfectly true that a person who reads an Act of this nature may become confused; but if he sees in the Act that he is entitled to legal aid in certain circumstances then his mind is relieved and he goes to a lawyer to find out what it is all about. I respectfully suggest that there would be no harm done if some words could be put in. I appreciate the point that has been made about normal circumstances. One understands that, but there is no reason why some words should not be inserted in the Bill.
A large number of people will read this Bill because their home is at stake. If they know that legal aid is available to them they will go to lawyers instead of trying to sort the matter out in their own way. I agree that it is not essential for the law; but it is essential from the point of view of bringing the possibilities of understanding the law home to the layman. In those circumstances, I hope that 26 the noble Lord will reconsider his decision.
§ LORD STRABOLGI
I should like to support what my noble friends have said. As my noble friend has said, the problem is to get over to the public their right to legal aid in this matter. What the lawyers know is irrelevant—we are directing this at the public. I am concerned about the mechanics of doing this. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said that the Government would do all that they could to put this matter over to the local authorities and, through them, to the public. The problem is how this will be done. Anybody who is concerned with the mechanics of this will know that if you write a plain man's guide, as was done in the last Government to the Rent Act of 1968, a green guide, the people who are writing that are given a copy of the Act. Anybody who has done this will know what I mean. Civil servants, working with a Committee, will work from the Act. They are not going to go through all the copies of Hansard of both Houses, all the lengthy deliberations of Committees and Reports in both Houses of Parliament, to pick out every little point, concession and guarantee that has been made by Government spokesmen over long months in both Houses of Parliament. What they are going to do is to look at the Bill and give a simple explanation of that Bill in plain man's terms. If this phrase about legal aid is not in the Bill, I will guarantee that it is not going to be put into the plain man's guide. That is one of the reasons why I think it should be put into the Bill.
§ LORD SANDFORD
All I can say is that I have already confirmed twice that we will make a reference to everybody's rights under legal aid in the explanatory pamphlets. I cannot do more than that.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
I much appreciate the support of my noble friends Lord Davies of Leek and Lord Janner once again—and my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has been motivated into giving further support. I took the point about leaflets, and I certainly had not thought that literature would be distributed only through the Post Office. Incidentally, I mentioned the Post Office because I went to a Post Office in the Provinces not very long ago asking for 27 some of these leaflets and had to wait 10 minutes before one of them could be located; they thought they had none in stock. But I am grateful for the indication as to the extent of publicity that will be given.
I take issue with the noble Lord when he says that this Amendment would make no difference to people's rights. We have probably reached a point where we are not speaking the same language. We on our side feel that we are much more in touch with the class of person concerned than possibly other people may be. May I put it to the noble Lord in this way? Of course these people are entitled to apply for legal aid. It means filling in another form. They have already filled in a form in order to secure entitlement to rent allowance. I should have thought that if a tenant is receiving a rent allowance, automatically everybody would have understood that he or she was in no position at all to face up to paying for legal representation. At some stage, I should think, the Government, with all the professional advice they have available, could have said, "Well, we accept the spirit of this. We see that a
§ very special class of person is involved. They have already established their poverty." Because, let us make no mistake about this: these people are not going to receive help unless they are poor. As I say, they have already established their poverty. Then why call on them to fill in another form and to submit to another means test?
§ I have said before, and I have no doubt I shall say it quite often as the practice tends to grow, that we are becoming the most means-tested society in the world, and it is about time that we gave a little thought to examining whether we could not do without a little of the form filling once people have established they are living at a level of poverty. This is an issue of some importance where the Committee ought to give an indication of its feelings and I must press this Amendment to a Division.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 109FL) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 56; Not-Contents, 77.29
|Airedale, L.||Faringdon, L.||Platt, L.|
|Amherst, E.||Gaitskell, Bs.||Popplewell, L.|
|Amulree, L.||Garnsworthy, L.||Ritchie-Calder, L.|
|Annan, L.||Geddes of Epsom, L.||Royle, L.|
|Ardwick, L.||Gladwyn, L.||Rusholme, L.|
|Avebury, L.||Granville-West, L.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Bacon, Bs.||Greenwood of Rossendale, L.||Samuel, V.|
|Beswick, L.||Hale, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Brockway, L.||Henderson, L.||Shinwell, L.|
|Buckinghamshire, E.||Jacques, L.||Slater, L.|
|Burntwood, L.||Janner, L.||Strabolgi, L. [Teller.]|
|Burton of Coventry, Bs.||Kennet, L.||Summerskill, Bs.|
|Champion, L.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, Bs. [Teller.]||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Chorley, L.||Watkins, L.|
|Crook, L.||McLeavy, L.||White, Bs.|
|Davies of Leek, L.||Moyle, L.||Willis, L.|
|Diamond, L.||Nunburnholme, L.||Wootton of Abinger, Bs.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Pargiter, L.||Wright of Ashton under Lyne, L.|
|Douglas of Barloch. L.||Phillips, Bs.|
|Douglass of Cleveland, L.|
|Aberdare, L.||Clwyd, L.||Drumalbyn, L.|
|Ailwyn, L.||Colgrain, L.||Effingham, E.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Cork and Orrery, E.||Elles, Bs.|
|Alport, L.||Cottesloe, L.||Emmet of Amberley, Bs.|
|Balfour, E.||Courtown, E.||Ferrers, E.|
|Balfour of Inchrye, L.||Craigavon, V.||Fortescue, E.|
|Belstead, L.||Crawshaw, L.||Fraser of Lonsdale, L.|
|Berkeley, Bs.||Croft, L.||Gage, V.|
|Bethell, L.||Daventry, V.||Gisborough, L.|
|Blackford, L.||de Clifford, L.||Gowrie, E.|
|Camoys, L.||Denham, L. [Tellers.]||Grenfell, L.|
|Grimston of Westbury, L.||Loudoun, C.||Reay, L.|
|Hailes, L.||MacAndrew, L.||St. Helens, L.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.(L. Chancellor.)||Mansfield, E.||St. Just, L.|
|Mar, E.||Saint Oswald, L.|
|Harvey of Prestbury, L.||Margadale, L.||Sandford, L.|
|Hawke, L.||Merrivale, L.||Savile, L.|
|Hertford, M.||Milverton, L.||Shannon, E.|
|Howard of Glossop, L.||Monck, V.||Somers, L.|
|Hurcomb, L.||Mowbray and Stourton, L. [Teller]||Strange, L.|
|Hylton, L.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, Bs.||Napier and Ettrick, L.||Sudeley, L.|
|Ilford, L.||Northchurch, Bs.||Templemore, L.|
|Ironside, L.||Nugent of Guildford, L.||Thomas, L.|
|Kilmarnock, L.||Oakshott, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Limerick, E.||Rankeillour, L.||Young, Bs.|
On Question, Amendment agreed to.
§ House resumed.