§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]
§ 1.5 a.m.
§ Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)
I want to take this opportunity of discussing the effect of controlled rents on the relationship between landlord and tenant. I will try to be brief, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) hopes to have a chance to intervene in the debate.
Happily, there is no conflict between the majority of landlords and their tenants, but, as in any other fields of human relationship, there are exceptions. Most often, because, regrettably, it is the most usual, we hear about the bad landlord. But no one would argue that for this reason all landlords must be rogues. Nor, as I shall show, would one be justified in assuming that all tenants are angels. There are bad tenants, too.
I have come across enough examples to be convinced that there are tenants, no doubt kindly and considerate people normally, who become unscrupulous in exploiting the favourable position in which they are situated, at grave cost both to the pockets and to the health of their landlords.
Just as it is possible for a bad landlord to harass his tenant, so, with the existence of controlled tenancies and virtual security of tenure, it is possible for the bad tenant to make life hell for his landlord. The landlords whom I have in mind are not the big investment companies and business enterprises. I am thinking of the small landlords who own no more than one or two properties.
The Fair Rent Association, with which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be familiar and to whose industry in studying this problem I would pay tribute, tells me that about 10 per cent. of our total housing stock is subject to controlled tenancies. More than half of those are owned by small landlords, and a high proportion of them are widows and retired persons. Probably they bought one or two houses during their working lives to provide them with 1124 homes or a small addition to their income when they came to retire.
They now find that they cannot get possession if they want to and that the rents which they receive are wholly inadequate to cover outgoings and meet the costs of essential repairs. Of the many examples that I could give, I take just one from my own constituency. In East Howe, in Bournemouth, there is a property owned by a man who lives in the lower part. The rent for the upper part is controlled at 25s. a week. The landlord has to pay rates out of that which amount to 13s. a week. Being a single person, he is taxed on the remainder at 8s. 3d. in the £. Obviously, that does not leave much over, but he is responsible for all repairs inside and out. Recently, he has had to draw on his savings. He is now 57 years old, and he will be retiring shortly. When he does, his income will be reduced considerably, and he will be much less able to meet the outgoings on his property.
Many other cases will be known to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members. I could give many examples of persons who are retired, some of them on supplementary benefits and allowances, who are much worse off than their tenants. They find that the rents of their properties are pegged at such a low figure that it is impossible for them to meet essential costs.
In a debate in another place on 7th December last, Lord Kennet referred to…the well-known fact that if you hold rents down it is difficult to get repairs done."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 7th December 1967; Vol. 287, c. 846.]The national position is much worse even than the example I gave from my own constituency.
The average rent received by landlords of controlled tenancies is much lower than the one I quoted. It is more like 17s. per week, and this is supposed to provide for costs of repairs, management, insurance, and so on. It is well recognised that council house rents have had to go up to take account of rising costs. Council house rents are, on average, three times as high as the rents of private controlled tenancies. Is it any wonder that so often, in the case of these older private houses essential repairs do not get done, the property deteriorates, and slum conditions develop?
1125 To a conscientious landlord who wants to look after his own property, this is one of the most distressing features of the present control system. Something must he done urgently to remedy the situation. The Minister has the necessary power ready to hand in Section 11 of the Rent Act, 1965. He has the power to convert controlled tenancies to fair rents. I hope that this will be pressed on with much greater determination than has so far been displayed. I know that it is only a short time since this Act came into force and the procedure came into operation, and I know that the Government have claimed that more time is required; but, although it may not be possible to put this into operation everywhere, I am sure that the Minister would agree that rent officers are ready to tackle it in some areas. I hope, therefore, that I can have an assurance from him that in those areas where it is immediately possible Stage 2 will be introduced without delay.
I stress this, because, if the rents were put right, not only would there be the prospect of improvement to our stock of older dwellings, but the main cause of friction between landlord and tenant would be removed. Apart from that, it would be elementary justice. It is quite wrong, in my opinion, that one section—often the poorer—should subsidise another, often not only better off but better able to look after themselves. There are many tenants who are younger than their landlord or landlady. They all too often, from the examples which I have been gven, seem to indulge in a form of intimidation which amounts to cruelty. At the very least they can create a situation of nervous tension in their relationship with their landlord. At the worst, they can be responsible for driving their landlord to despair.
I have here a letter from London which gives an illustration of some of the forms of intimidation which take place. I will quote parts of it:There are outside doors left ajar causing draughts from which we suffer. The dustbin lids are not replaced securely. The lavatories are blocked. The deliveries from postman are sent away on the ground that they have arrived at the wrong address. The wireless is kept on so loud that it can be heard from further away. The conversation is carried on in a loud and offensive manner.It is all rather small and petty stuff, but there is more that I could quote along the same lines.
1126 I have a case here from London where the landlady is aged 72. She has only her pension to live on with the addition of a small rent of 19s. 10d. The tenant is an alderman who is rather overbearing in his attitude. He caused the lady considerable distress, and this led to her having a nervous breakdown. There is another case from Derby, where the landlady and her two spinster sisters—they are aged 66, 68 and 70—have had a wretched experience with their tenant He holds a B.A. degree and is an inspector of electrical engineering, yet he subjects these ladies to continuous abuse and rudeness which causes them a great deal of distress and anguish.
I could give many examples from my own constituency. There is one from Capstone Road, where the tenant constantly thumps above the head of the landlord, and indulges in malicious talk. There is one in The Grove, Moordown, where constant complaints are made against the landlord and his wife. There is another in Shelbourne Road, where the landlord has been reduced to a nervous wreck.
It appears that the tenants are always ready to call for help from the public health department and to lodge complaints against landlords. All these forms of intimidation are comparatively minor in themselves, but over a period of time, when taken together, they amount to persistent nagging, and in some cases to persecution. Where the landlords are elderly, they do for the most part find it impossible to endure, and I ask myself why they should be put in this position.
Many of the younger ones find themselves under increasing pressure, and the strain often proves too much for them. I do not exaggerate, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise, when I say that the tyranny of the tenant is all too much of a reality for many a landlady who is the innocent victim of a situation not of her own making. Some of these people came into property ownership because they could not find any other way of getting accommodation for themselves and their families. This applies particularly to young married couples, and I have met many examples of people being forced to buy rent-controlled property comparatively cheaply, in order to get a roof over their head. They take over a 1127 sitting tenant, with a controlled rental, to give themselves a chance to live in one of the two flats into which the house has been divided.
For the most part landlords are reluctant to resort to any form of legal action. This is because they know that it will run them into considerable expense. Solicitors are not very ready to come forward to help them because they know how difficult it is to prove the case, and in any case such action would probably result in a worsening of the relationship with the tenant. They also have great difficulty in trying to sell their property, because the existence of such an artificially low rent makes it a bad investment and, therefore, buyers are not readily available.
Tenants, however, are not always so backward in complaining, although some local authorities, such as mine, do not like to intervene in what they regard primarily as a dispute between two private people. But even when tenants have claimed protection again harassment, as I have found from the catalogue of examples given to me by my authority, their complaints have often been unjustified.
I hope that the Minister will take steps to try to even things up a bit as between landlord and tenant. I have a number of questions that I would like to put to him. Could the sort of harassment described in Section 30 of the 1965 Act be taken to apply to the landlord as well as to the tenant? Since the main difficulty seems to arise where the landlord and tenant are living under the same roof, could an owner-occupier come within the definition of a "residential occupier" as referred to in that Section?
At the very least, would the Minister take an early opportunity to make it clear to local authorities that they should be as ready to inquire into complaints made by a landlord as they are in respect to complaints by a tenant? Lord Kennet, in the debate on 7th December last, said that the Government had undertaken a general and comprehensive review of the problems and legislation affecting older houses and were bearing in mind the difficulties of landlords as well as those of tenants.
Tonight I have had time only to touch on the fringe of some of these difficult- 1128 ties, but they are very real. This is a sensitive enough area of human relationships even without the existence of controlled tenancies. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the problem, and I hope that he will take this opportunity to make it clear that he condemns harassment and persecution by either side.
§ 1.21 a.m.
§ Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)
I want to call attention very shortly to the position which arises when there is not necessarily any dispute between a tenant and a landlord. I have the case of a house which is in my constituency which has a rent which is £17 a quarter. My constituent, who lives with her sister, writes to remind me that in 1962 I went down to look at the house. She now says that she and her sister can go on on longer as a landlord and that the insistent and continual demands for repairs are totally beyond their capacity to meet. She says that it is a large house, with seven large rooms. It is equipped with every convenience and is exceedingly well-appointed with two large bathrooms, upstairs and downstairs. She says that it can, and should be, converted into two good flats. This lady is 83 years of age and her sister, who suffered in the war, has a full disability pension.
My constituent states that she has been called upon to put in a new heater for the bathroom, although a new one was supplied four years ago. She has had to putty the windows and put in a new cistern, and these repairs will be much more than a year's rent.
Would the hon. Gentleman say why it is not possible to turn a controlled tenancy of this kind into a regulated tenancy? This is not like the case of a London house, because in London there is still a housing shortage. In many parts of the country, including this place in my constituency, there is no great shortage of housing. Here is a house which could be turned into two good flats. Here we have a reasonable position between the tenant and the landlord, but nothing can be done because of the continued control.
What are these two old ladies to do? They are caught up in a position where they can do nothing. If the Lord President of the Council—when he was Minister of Housing—meant what he 1129 said when he stated that he wanted to establish a fair rent as between landlord and tenant, surely this is the time, and this is the sort of case in which the Minister could proceed at once to establish that fair rent by existing control and substituting a regulated rent.
§ 1.25 a.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)
I would certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) that the problem we are discussing is comparatively small. Most tenants and landlords get on well and have a good deal of common understanding. There are cases of tension and difficulty, often no doubt with faults on both sides, and often human problems of adjustment which are not easy to translate into terms of legal right.
The hon. Member quoted a figure of 10 per cent. of housing stock as still being an old control. That is probably as good an estimate as is possible, but all these estimates are a little uncertain and my right hon. Friend is hoping to have a survey later in the year which will give a much clearer idea of the size of the problem of old control.
I am afraid I cannot be encouraging about the introduction of Section 11 of the Rent Act, 1965. It is quite right that it can be introduced for dwellings in any area, or dwellings in any band of rateable value in any area. It could not be introduced for a particular house or class of house except in terms of rateable value, but my right hon. Friend feels we should have more experience with the rent regulation system to see whether it can be extended to any area, to any category of controlled dwellings, or to controlled dwellings generally. This can be done by affirmative Order.
There are safeguards for landlords. The dice are not as much loaded against the landlord as the hon. Member implied, because it is possible to go to the courts to get possession in certain circumstances where there is a genuine ground for complaint about the behaviour of the tenant. The expeditory procedure which can be applied to possession cases of this kind produces fairly quick results. In excep- 1130 tionally urgent cases, it is possible to get an expedited hearing taking on average a little over two weeks.
The hon. Member raises an interesting point about the interpretation of Section 30(5) of the Rent Act, 1965. It is not for me to interpret the law but for the courts, and any doubt about what the Section means should be decided by the courts. But, for what it is worth, I will give him some idea of my view. It is probably true that an owner-occupier living in a house of which he has sublet a part is probably a residential occupier within the meaning of the Section, but I think difficulties might arise: the first is the threat, which isto interfere with the peace or comfort of the residential occupier or members of his household, or persistently withholds services reasonably required for the occupation…These must be done to make the occupier give up his occupation or refrain from exercising a right or pursuing a remedy in respect of the premises or part of them. In some cases, it would be difficult to show that a subtenant was harrassing a residential occupier, but if there were any harassment, that would be over the property occupied by the subtenant. There might be difficulties, but they would be a matter for the courts.
My right hon. Friend cannot tell local authorities what to do here. They must decide for themselves, though no doubt they will judge from this debate whether they are carrying out their duties properly. Most of the cases of friction which reach the Ministry concern furnished premises, for which the rent tribunal has more discretion over security of tenure than the court has in the case of unfurnished property.
There are other obvious difficulties about the size of controlled rents, but I would not have thought this particular problem was any worse in the case of controlled rents than in the case of registered ones. In the case of people "flitting" without paying rent, it would be better. By definition, the old controlled tenant has lived in a place for at least ten years, he is settled and is not in the habit of moving on without paying his rent.
I recognise that some of these human problems are difficult and that there 1131 might be faults on both sides which a little mutual understanding could overcome. As my noble Friend said in another place, we are considering the problem of the repair of old property. We will bear in mind what has been said tonight in our present review.
§ The debate having been concluded, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.
§ Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting of the House at twenty-seven minutes to Two o'clock till this day at Ten o'clock pursuant to Order.