HL Deb 17 February 1977 vol 379 cc1748-52

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect to publish their proposals to amend the Rent Acts in order to increase the supply of rented accommodation and relieve the hardship to many young workers and married couples unable to find accommodation.


My Lords, my right honourable friend hopes to announce conclusions from the current review of the Rent Acts in the course of this year.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness accept that this is a very urgent matter? Would she agree that not all landlords are sinners and that not all tenants are saints? Would the noble Baroness also agree that there are in the country today thousands of under-occupied houses which their elderly owners could easily let off in floors, but that they are terrified to do so for fear of harassment from tenants or non-paying tenants? The only way they can get them out is by long, tedious and rather costly legislation and many of them are terrified to go through the court procedure. We are being denied many homes which should be available to the people who are so desperately in need.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hornsby-Smith, that all landlords are not sinners and all tenants are not saints. With regard to empty houses, I think it is much more complex than she has said. In the Census of 1971 the number of empty houses recorded was high—long before the 1974 Act, when there was no restriction on furnished lettings. There are a great many problems in connection with this. There is a whole change in the current housing situation, an increase in home owners, but it is in order to go into all these problems that this Consultation Paper has been devised and it is for this reason that the Government are inviting comments on it.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether she said that this Paper would be published in the course of this year? Is this part of the review of housing finance, the report on which was promised last October, as I recall, and then promised about Christmas time? I thought it was then due about Easter, but are we now told that it is to be much later this year?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, this question is separate from the housing finance review which in fact goes much wider and much deeper. They will be two separate consultations, but nevertheless the noble Lord is quite right in suggesting that there is a link between them. We are certainly doing all we can to ensure that this particular review which is the subject of the Question is expedited.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is not a matter of getting back to the simple position of a contract between two principals as to occupations and vacation, upheld by the law? I cannot see why two people should not be able to make an arrangement which would be legal and upheld by the law, and if that were the case it would be possible to let endless premises.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, this is part of the problem. Where in fact there have been contracts and agreements and they may not have been honoured on one side or the other, one has then to go through the whole procedure of court proceedings. Many of the points which have been raised on this Question are the subject of the discussions which will take place on the Consultation Paper.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that millions of people have had their tenancies secured which otherwise would not have been the case had the Rent Acts not been brought into existence; and that, in spite of the fact that there are difficulties, as everybody realises, tenants must have a considerable amount of security from the bad landlords? Nobody suggests that all landlords are bad, but tenants must be protected from those who want to exploit the position.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct. The main result of the 1974 Act has been the drop in the number of evictions, and this has been pinpointed by the Shelter housing aid organisation and also the local authorities.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that, before there is a publication following on the Consultation Document, her Department will publish the review of housing finance, which is essential to anyone who takes a serious interest in this important subject? Following upon her noble friend's question, will she not confirm that, although there have been fewer evictions, there are undoubtedly far more homeless families?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the last point is a matter of how one defines "homeless" and the whole question of the way in which the statistics are gathered. I will certainly do all I can to pass the message on to my right honourable friend. My Department is well aware of the need for publishing the housing finance review as soon as possible, but there have been cuts in public expenditure, we are going through an economic crisis, and, as the noble Baroness and noble Lords will be aware, all this has had a tremendous effect on the whole of housing and construction.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us by how much the total pool of accommodation in rural areas—houses both let privately and houses occupied by agricultural workers—was reduced in 1976 owing to farmers selling houses because of the threat of the Rent (Agriculture) Act?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I cannot answer that question without notice, and I think it rather goes outside the Question.

Viscount ST. DAVIDS

My Lords, will the noble Baroness not confirm that there is a slight difficulty over the figure of reduction of evictions, because it is quite obvious that the lesser the number of flats to let the lesser the number of evictions, and there will come a point when there are no flats to be let, when statistically the eviction figure will fall to nil?

Baroness BIRK

No, my Lords; it is not even quite as simple as that because in fact, according to the After 6 survey, the number of furnished lettings which are now being advertised is more than 75 per cent. of the number which were advertised even before the 1974 Act, and that figure is concerned only with advertisements. The drop in evictions is an absolute drop.


My Lords, I am disturbed that at no stage in this exchange have I heard any mention from the noble Baroness of the importance of this subject to the problem of unemployment. Do the Government realise that greater flexibility in the housing market is a significant matter in trying to relieve unemployment, because of the need for the mobility which one needs to find jobs, particularly perhaps for younger people?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I take the point raised by the noble Lord. I do not think we should have a debate on this now because there is an Unstarred Question to be dealt with next week and, with respect, I would refer the noble Lord to his noble friend's Question, which was quite specific.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, whenever she may publish this document, it is only half doing the job to put a statutory obligation on the local authorities and not do something to revive the contribution which the private sector can make and which in the past it always has made? Does the noble Baroness not agree that the legislative and the court procedures are putting a dampening effect on that contribution, and in order to revive it the Government really should do something?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Lord really is quite amazing! What does he think is the point of having a Consultation Paper? If he has not seen it I will send him a copy. That is exactly what it says—in order to see how we can improve the arrangements within the private sector. That is what it is about. He really should read the Consultation Paper.


My Lords, I hope we may now move to the next Question, which is equally important.