§ 3.5 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 whether they will introduce measures to limit the percentages by which tenants' rents can be increased.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Lord Bellwin)
My Lords, the answer is, no. Private tenants are protected by the fair rent system under the Rent Acts. Responsibility for the level of council house rents must rest with individual local housing authorities.
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will really settle down and consider the position? I am sure that he has had letters from tenants' associations, and is he aware 1256 that the position today is a scandalous one in so far as middle class people are concerned? What does the noble Lord say about the case that was brought to his notice of an 85-year old woman who had lived in a house for 40 years who had to be turned out because the increased rent wanted was 500 per cent. higher than she was paying? May I ask the noble Lord to look into this matter again and see what can be done? It is a scandalous position.
May I also ask him this: the words "scarcity value", which people believed meant that if there was no place or few places available for rental, that created a scarcity value, in fact did not in the normal sense of the expression. This has been misinterpreted. Will he please see to it that a suitable term is inserted into the Rent Acts to say that, when rents are being assessed, the real scarcity value should be taken into consideration by the tribunal or whoever it may be and should be discarded when fixing what should be the amount of the rent to the tenant?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, there are two major thrusts in the question. The first relates to the rateable value limits under the Rent Acts. I am very well aware of the representations that have been made, not least by the noble Lord on many occasions, and by individuals. All I can say as to that today is that we are bearing those representations in mind.
So far as the scarcity factor in assessing rents is concerned, this is a very dangerous suggestion that the noble Lord has proposed. If scarcity was removed as a factor in arriving at fair rents then I would have little doubt that the rents themselves would be very much higher than they are at the moment. That is certainly true in relation to market rents. While that may be a cause of some satisfaction to many landlords who are also concerned about the level of fair rents being fixed, I do not think that it is quite what the noble Lord has in mind.
If I may just take another moment to say again what I have said on a number of occasions when this has been raised in the past, the fact is that the object of the establishment of fair rents is to try to get as fair a balance as possible between what tenants can pay and what landlords need to have as a reasonable return. If we do 1257 not get either right, then on the one hand the tenant is in difficulty, and on the other the supply of dwellings dries up. That is the dilemma, as I have said before.
§ Lord STRABOLGI
My Lords, arising out of what my noble friend has said, will the noble Lord confirm that with regard to the scarcity value with regulated tenancies, it is clearly laid down under Section 70(2) of the 1977 Act that this should not be taken into account? Will he confirm that it is the Government's intention not to rescind this particular piece of legislation?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I thought I had done so. I must have put it badly. That is precisely what I was trying to say. There is no intention at all of trying to remove the scarcity factor from the calculation of rents. If I put it the other way round, then I am sorry; I did not mean to do so. I shall read Hansard with much interest when it comes out.
§ Lord SHINWELL
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is unwise to dismiss this matter in a summary fashion? Is he aware that all over the place tenants' associations are being formed? They are not concerned about the public sector, because those people are being, if not adequately protected, at any rate protected to some extent. But those in the private sector are very apprehensive about what will happen because of the provisions of the Housing Bill. Will he take into account that the so-called "protection" provided through the rent assessment officers is no protection at all, because one cannot be satisfied about the impartiality of rent officers or rent tribunals? If he wants evidence, I can furnish all that is necessary.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I was not aware that I was treating the matter in a summary fashion at all. In fact, the number of occasions that I have answered the same point, or tried to do, I think would indicate that I treat it very far from summarily. It is a very important matter and I treat it with the respect and importance which it merits.
So far as the working of the Act and the fixing of rent levels by rent officers and rent assessment committees are concerned, the noble Lord says that he has evidence he would give of situations where 1258 this clearly is unfair or unreasonable. I would welcome his giving me such instances and undertake to see that they are properly looked at in detail. However, I think it only right to say that in general there is as much criticism from landlords as to fixed rents as there is from tenants. I repeat, if I may, for the nth time, that there is the dilemma of trying to get it right. If there is a better way than rent officers and rent assessment committees, let us have suggestions.
My Lords, may I try to rectify what is obviously a wrong impression gained by the noble Lord in relation to the Question I put. I did not say, "Is he aware …?" I did not say that the scarcity value is not an important factor. What I asked him was: What is scarcity value? According to the tribunals at present sitting, they do not take into consideration the fact of the scarcity of places to rent—and this is the important thing—which was created by people who are (perhaps I had better not use the words I want to use) utilising the present position to create scarcity values by refusing to rent a place at a reasonable rent and are consequently raising the price of the freeholds or long leaseholds by methods which mean that scarcity value, from a rental point of view, is thoroughly misunderstood. Will the noble Lord seek to rectify that?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I suggest that we are getting into very deep water because I had the privilege of sitting on the Francis Committee, where we studied rent regulation and the definitions of "scarcity" every Friday for 15 months. We tried to decide what was a proper definition of "scarcity" in this context. I should hate now to embark upon definitions of "scarcity" for your Lordships' benefit. I do not think you would thank me, but I think that the question which the noble Lord has raised on several occasions really relates to the earlier point I mentioned concerning the rateable value limits. I think that is the way to approach the matter, and I did say that we are bearing that in mind.
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, I think it would be convenient, after continuing Questions for 38 minutes on four very important subjects, if I were to say that at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. 1259 my noble friend Lord Belstead will be repeating a Statement on prisons.
§ Lord SHINWELL
My Lords, may I ask this question: why was it necessary to allow the other Questions to go on at great length when a very important issue was being raised and we are not allowed to ask questions about it?
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, I think each Question this afternoon was of considerable importance. It is difficult to weigh the importance of one against another, but we have continued for an equivalent time on each Question.