HL Deb 23 January 1975 vol 356 cc248-56

4.40 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how the Rent Act 1974 has worked in practice. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I have put down this Unstarred Question on the Rent Act because I believe that now that the Act has been on the Statute Book for five months it is time to review its working. This may seem a very short time after which to consider reviewing it, but at the time of its passage through this House and another place it was much criticised. In particular the fear was expressed that, once security was given to all tenants of furnished accommodation, then there would be—as the Francis Committee, set up by the Labour Government between 1964 and 1970, which looked into rented accommodation, predicted—a decline in the total amount of accommodation to let.

Housing, next to food, is the most important factor in a person's life, and it is essential therefore that legislation should take account of this fact. Furthermore, a variety of housing is required. Not everyone wants to, or can afford to, own a house. Not everyone wants to be a tenant all his life, particularly as tenants continue to pay rent but do not acquire any capital appreciation. But many people, particularly the young, whether married or single, need rented accommodation. The young married couple need it because they cannot afford to buy. Often young people, whether married or single, need rented accommodation only temporarily because of the nature of their work, for, after all, young people are the most mobile. Students want "digs" for a time in their university town. It seemed to me it was right that we should debate at least one aspect of housing and consider the effect of the Rent Act on the housing situation generally. For today there is a situation in which there are more empty properties, both flats and houses; more homeless families; more squatters; longer council house waiting lists, and at the same time a static population. To this extraordinary situation the Rent Act has been a contributory factor. Indeed, it reminds me of the situation described in that well-known novel written in Oxford, Alice in Wonderland—but, alas! this situation is not a comedy but a tragedy.

As a member of the Opposition I have not the means to make a comprehensive survey of the detailed work of this Act, although I hope that the noble Baroness when she comes to reply will confirm that its effects are being monitored by the Government so that we may all know precisely what they are. In preparation for this debate I have consulted all the estate agents I have been able to reach, and the unanimous view of those both in Oxford and in London, when asked, is that fewer flats are now available for letting than were available last year. Once the announcement of today's debate appeared on the Order Paper I received a number of letters from total strangers, each giving examples of flats being deliberately kept empty because of the Act. No one interested in housing can have failed to read the articles in the Observer by Christopher Booker and Bernie Gray. They claim that there are now more empty flats and houses than at any time since the end of the war, including an estimated 100,000 empty houses and flats in London alone. They make it clear that the Rent Act has contributed to this situation. Even the most casual look at the correspondence columns of the national Press give example after example of people being unwilling to let.

It was said during the passage of the Bill through this House that Shelter had estimated that as a consequence of it there would be 5,000 fewer units of accommodation in London to let each year. I have read with interest their latest Report, Bed and Breakfast, which shows clearly that this kind of accommodation is being used extensively by local authorities for homeless families. It is estimated that in March 1973 15,000 people were being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation or temporary accommodation. By March 1974 the number rose to 30,000. Today it is thought that there are 50,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. I hope very much mat the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will not take the view that because I cannot give precise figures my argument is not sound. It may well be that some of the information I have received is not completely accurate, but it cannot all be wrong and the quite extraordinary unanimity of professional opinion about this situation suggests that basically it is correct.

So the question is: Is there anything constructive we can do about the present situation? I do not propose this afternoon to ask the Government to repeal the Rent Act—not simply for the completely practical reason that I know perfectly well they would not consider such a course. Far more important, I believe that, having given security of tenure to a group of people, it would be quite wrong to attempt now to take it away. However, I would make five practical suggestions and propose three Amendments to the Act which I hope the Government will consider seriously. My first suggestion is that they should produce a simplified form of the Act. It was bad enough that this important measure was on the Statute Book for two months before anyone was able to obtain a printed copy of it. It was left to my honourable friend Mr. Rossi to produce a book which included the Act and an explanation of it, and in so doing I believe he performed a great public service. The Government ought to produce such a booklet. During the passage of the Bill through this House they promised me that one would be produced. I hope they will do so because it will be invaluable both to tenants and to landlords. The fact that there is no understanding of this Act at all has created a climate of fear so that no one will let. Many people who have spare accommodation to let in their own homes are frightened to do so because they fear they will not be able to regain possession of part of their home should they so wish. So that is my first suggestion.

My second suggestion concerns students. I was pleased to see a report in The Times last week that the Government are considering amending legislation to this Rent Act so that all students will be excluded from its provisions. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will have something to say on this matter this afternoon. The Act recognises the special position of students, because all students who are living in colleges or in halls of residence and are not tenants but are there under licence do not have security of tenure, for the sensible reason that, of course, the university and the colleges could not continue if their rooms were permanently occupied by one group of students. But this does not apply to the many thousands of students who live in "digs" or who nowadays prefer to share flats. On 1st July, during the Report stage of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said: Clearly I cannot commit a future Parliament, but what I can say is that when the adequate framework for a registration system has been worked out it would be our inten- tion to take the first opportunity of introducing enabling legislation."—[Official Report, col. 84.]

I hope very much that we shall see some such provision, because there has been a crisis in the university world this autumn. Others will have more detailed figures, but certainly there were reports of at least 1,000 homeless students at the start of the academic year in London alone. I have looked at the position in Oxford, with which I am familiar, and am glad to say that after a difficult start the situation appears to be easing. But I think this is because the colleges are in the special position of being able to add to their buildings and many of them have bought up houses already converted into bed-sitters. This is not a possibility open to universities without endowments. The fact is that landlords and landladies would be encouraged to let to students if they thought the students had not permanent security of tenure, and that they in turn could regain possession of their rooms or flats.

My Lords, my third suggestion is that the Government should consider amending that part of the Act which gives security of tenure to a tenant on a second fixed term letting where the landlord is resident. This does not go against the principle of the Bill. It seems to me that it would be in line with what the Government were saying, at any rate when the Bill was passing through this House, because they gave the impression that in future tenancies were to be divided not between those let unfurnished and those let furnished, but between those where the landlord was resident and those where the landlord was not resident. In the former case there would be no protection for the tenant.

I understand that the Bill was amended during the Committee stage in another place to give security of tenure to a tenant on a second fixed term letting where the landlord is resident. I believe that such an amendment as I have suggested, by encouraging landlords and landladies to let, would help the good tenant and, if I may say so, the British tenant, as there is increasing evidence that resident landlords and others prefer not to let only to foreigners. If I may illustrate my point, I think that every Member of your Lordships' House will know of people whose families have grown up and who therefore have spare rooms in their homes. Particularly in university towns but in other towns as well, often they are quite glad to let those rooms. If we suppose that they let their rooms to students, they will do so from September to July. Under the terms of this Act, if they let these rooms for the next academic year on a second fixed term letting, those students have security of tenure for the rest of their days. It may well be that a couple, who had let a room to such a student because their family had grown up and they had a spare room, would decide five years later that they no longer wished to let that room or would discover that they had an elderly relative to whom they wished to let the room. They could not do so, however, because the tenant would have security of tenure. This is such a simple and obvious case that I find it very difficult to believe that it was ever the intention of those who framed the Act that this kind of situation should arise. I quote this example because I think it is typical of thousands of cases up and down the country. I believe that because of this particular provision there is a great deal of unoccupied accommodation that could be used by many people who want furnished accommodation for a short time only.

My Lords, I believe that my amendment could be met by deleting from the Act paragraph (5)(b) on page 26. This comes under Schedule 2. I may not be right because I am not a lawyer, but that is the subsection which I understand applies to this particular provision for security of tenure on a second fixed term letting where the landlord is resident. Therefore I should like to ask the Government whether they would consider this particular point.

My fourth suggestion is another amendment which arises out of a particular case that I came across quite recently. It is a more technical amendment than the last. Under this Act, if the owner of a house dies leaving a tenant in part of a house, under Schedule 2, paragraph (2)(c), the executors have only one year in which to settle matters, otherwise the tenant has full security of tenure, so far as I can see, for ever. May we consider the length of time that takes place after somebody dies. In the particular case I heard of, a widower died and his son was the executor. By the time the family had recovered from the distress of the death, some four to five weeks had elapsed. Then they began to look at the house and the property. They knew about the tenant, who was a very good tenant and who had been there for a long time. They were then advised by their solicitor that if they did not take steps to remove the tenant immediately, they might not get him out within the year; he would then have security of tenure and no member of the family could have the house. We are all well aware of the long time that probate takes, of the very long time it takes to settle all these matters, and of the distressing circumstances involved in taking somebody to the county court or to the rent tribunal. Therefore it seems to me that it would be of benefit to everybody if this period of time were increased from 12 months to 24 months to make it easier for families to settle these cases. I have made these three particular proposals about the Rent Act because I hope the Government will view them as constructive suggestions. They are meant to be constructive and they are meant to help the situation.

My Lords, my last proposal has nothing to do with the Rent Act but with the problem created by it—that of empty properties. My suggestion is that the Government should consider a scheme of short leases so that empty properties will be let immediately and will not stand empty, thus encouraging squatters. I believe that many people would let their property very quickly if they believed that they could regain possession of it after a short period of time.

My Lords, time on this Unstarred Question does not allow me to go into this scheme in detail, or, indeed, into the detail that I should have liked on my other suggestions, but I should be very happy to talk to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and her advisers on any of these matters if she would like me to do so. I have made these suggestions because I believe them to be constructive. I do not believe that they go against the principle of the Act. I believe that all of my suggestions will help tenants. I think that all of them will help and encourage landlords to let their property and, as a consequence, will help all those who are now desperately seeking accommodation but who are unable to find it.

My Lords, this debate must take place against the very serious economic background that we face to-day. I hope very much that when the noble Baroness replies she will not say that the answer to all housing problems is to municipalise all houses. If I may say so quite frankly, I think this is far too simple an answer to far too complex a problem. Nor, indeed, do I believe that even if it were to take place it would work, because the Government issued a very important circular to local authorities on local authority expenditure and I think it is worth quoting to the House what they have to say about housing. They say: The Government continue to give high priority to housing".

They go on to say: There must, however, be restraint in expenditure on housing repairs, maintenance and management which has increased substantially in recent years. Local authorities are therefore asked to hold this expenditure to the same amount per dwelling as in 1974–75".

Then the circular goes on to say: The Government recognise that additional responsibilities such as the care of the homeless and the cost of managing acquired dwellings in scattered locations away from housing estates will add to management expenditure and that these factors will be particularly relevant in certain areas. However, they look to authorities to provide for this by making savings elsewhere ".

It seems to me that the two paragraphs are somewhat contradictory; but, leaving all that aside, the one thing that local authorities need to do in this critical situation is to have good management. Half of the houses standing empty to-day are local authority houses, and the fact is that unless there is very good management indeed we shall have ever longer queues, even more homeless families, ever more large families trying to get into houses and large houses under-occupied by a few old people. And, above all, if greater responsibilities are to be thrown upon local government they must have the people to manage effectively the properties that they already have.

I do not think—and I say this with all sincerity—that it is a good policy to drive out the private landlord so that he no longer exists and at the same time say to local government: "You must econo- mise on management, although of course we are going to ask you to look after a great many more houses". This is not a policy which will help this critical situation. I ask the House, and I ask the Government particularly, to consider the practical suggestions that I have made, for above all this is a time to consider the individual and not the doctrine.