HC Deb 09 November 1988 vol 140 cc405-11

Lords amendment No.34, in page 23,line 34, after ?if? insert ?(a)?.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr.Ridley.]

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 35 and 36.

Mr. McCartney

I wish to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 35. It is important to describe the background to rural deprivation. We have concentrated in this debate on inner-city deprivation—[Interruption.]

Mr. Boateng

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A number of hon. Members are trying to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), but it is very difficult to do so because of the off-noises on the other side of the Bar.

Mr. Speaker

I understand. Will those hon. Members who are not in the House but beyond the Bar kindly leave the Chamber and carry on their conversations elsewhere or come into the Chamber and listen to the debate?

Mr. McCartney

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your protection.

Before I was so rudely interrupted, I was about to say that so far in this debate we have concentrated on inner-city deprivation, the role of the private sector in the housing market and the lack of resources allocated to public sector housing. In this amendment, we concentrate on the rural poor and the housing crisis in rural England, Wales and Scotland.

In 1981, the Department of the Environment asked Mr. Brian McLaughlin to prepare a report on rural poverty among low-paid workers, in particular among agricultural workers and those who live in villages and hamlets. The report was so devastating in its criticism of Government policy that it was not published by the Department until 1986. It is known as the deprivation of rural areas report and it highlighted major social problems. It revealed that 25 per cent. of households in rural England live on the poverty line.

The gap between rich and poor in rural areas is widening. It has been especially noticeable since 1985. Nationally, about 11 per cent. of all households have a gross disposable income of at least three times that of those on supplementary benefit. In rural England, the figure is 26 per cent., so a minority—the rural poor—are living among many affluent people. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) is interrupting. If he is so knowledgeable about the problems of the rural poor, he should get to his feet and make a contribution to the debate. If not, he should be quiet.

For the last 12 months, Opposition Members have been attempting to improve the Bill to benefit the rural poor, but—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


10.30 pm
Mr. McCartney

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Just under 7 per cent. of houses in rural areas are unfit for human habitation. That appalling figure is higher than in most urban areas in Britain. There is a shortage of housing for the poor working classes in rural areas—agricultural workers, retired agricultural workers, the semi-skilled and the unskilled. Many people have been forgotten in the surge to improve rural housing. People indigenous to the rural community have been forgotton in the headlong rush of people moving out from urban areas, who have taken much of the refurbished housing stock at the expense of local people. Add to that reductions in rate support grant to rural district councils and county councils, and we find that a continuing financial and social problem afflicts many rural communities. There have been changes in housing benefit, and the safety net of inadequate public sector housing provision cannot deal with the mounting problems of homelessness.

Despite their inactivity of the past few years, the Government were moved this summer to consider the problem of the rural economy and rural housing. This month, in Rural Housing, David Clark wrote in an article entitled "Countryside homes": There is a real housing need in villages. Local people simply cannot compete on equal terms with the increasing numbers of more affluent incomers, whether they be commuters, retired or second homers. That comes through strongly in the recent reports from the Association of District Councils, and from the village appraisals and housing surveys produced by parish councils and rural community councils throughout the country, summarised in ACRE's new publication, Affordable homes in the countryside. That independent assessment tells the Government clearly that the crisis in rural housing is continuing apace.

In response, the Government published on 5 July the White Paper dealing with housing in rural areas, which relies heavily on the role of the private sector. The Minister will have to explain the consequences of his policies on security of tenure for private sector tenants in rural areas. Paragraph 13 of the Government's response says of the private sector: The Government is keen to establish a greater choice in the provision of rented housing in rural areas as elsewhere. Housing associations should not become the monopolists of the future. Private sector landlords and developers also have an important role to play. In the past the problem has been that the private sector did not envisage being able to make a sufficient return through the provision of lower cost housing at prices that local people could afford. In the rented sector the Government has launched several important measures to encourage investment. First, the Housing Bill will remove statutory rent control from all new lettings. Landlords will be able to charge market rents while tenants will have long term security under assured tenancies and a minimum of six months security on a short hold tenancy. Second, the Business Expansion Scheme is to be extended for the period up to the end of 1993 to cover companies providing housing let on the new assured tenancies. That is how the Government envisage the private sector intervening in rural areas.

There is continuing pressure on the market in rural areas, but the ability of agricultural workers, retired agricultural workers and private tenants to affect that market is almost non-existent. It is nearly impossible for them to get a house to rent at a proper rent. It is virtually impossible for the rural poor to enter even the lower end of the house buyers' market. The average price of a house in East Anglia now exceeds £35,000.

Those who operate in the private sector will make substantial profits as they increase rent levels and see their property investments increase in value during a housing crisis. The amendment is an attempt to ensure that those living in private rented accommodation retain their existing rights and will not be subject to eviction by their employers without a court order.

The Government made it clear in the document that they produced in July on the housing crisis in rural areas that they would provide substantial opportunities for farmers and owners of accommodation in farming areas to take advantage of the business expansion scheme and other schemes and to utilise their accommodation by increasing their income from rents and by making sales on the open market. It is important that the Minister gives the House assurances that bear on the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, including the rights within that measure of agricultural workers.

In another place, an amendment was introduced by the Government to extend the range of excluded tenancies and licences to include those whose tenancy or licence was granted otherwise than for money or money's worth. The Earl of Arran said that the aim of the amendment was to allow eviction without a court order of the non-paying guest who lives completely rent-free. The relevant passage can be found in the House of Lords Hansard, at column 406 on 3 November 1988.

The amendment was tabled as a consequence of a commitment that was given to Lord Meston on Report. It catches the non-paying guest who lives in accommodation rent free, but it may exclude from protection from eviction employees who live in tied accommodation rent-free. For example, an employee may have a contract that states that his accommodation will be provided rent-free. He will not be able to point to an agreement that shows that he is getting accommodation in return for money or services. The courts may find that such a person is excluded from protection, which may result in him being evicted without a court order being made. That is unacceptable, and I do not believe that that was the intention behind the amendment moved in another place. I hope that the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State will give us that assurance.

A non-paying guest is not in the same position as an agricultural worker or retired agricultural worker. Unscrupulous property owners, absentee farmers or working farmers should not be able to use the amendment that was moved in another place to remove tenants and obtain capital gains at their expense. I hope that we shall receive a clear sign that it is the Government's intention to protect tenants who come within the terms of the 1976 Act.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

As a former farm manager who had some responsibility for farm workers' housing including tied cottages, I believe that there is a housing crisis in the countryside. Many tied cottages have become extremely valuable to the owners because there is no real alternative accommodation. Owners want agricultural workers to get out of their houses so that they can put them on to the housing market in rural areas.

When an agricultural worker takes a job, he will normally sign a contract of employment. Provision is often made in a contract for the worker to live in property that is owned by the farmer or landowner. I do not want agricultural workers to have less security of tenure than they enjoy now. In days gone by, many enlightened landlords ensured that the widows of farm workers who had perhaps worked on an estate or large farm for 30 or 40 years or more could remain in their cottages for the rest of their lives.

We are dealing with relatively low-paid workers and, because of the reduction in local authority housing stock as a result of the right-to-buy legislation, particularly in rural areas, there is often no alternative accommodation for farm workers who have lost the tenancies of tied cottages. Will the Secretary of State assure us that farm workers will be given the opportunity to remain within the tenancy until they can find an alternative tenancy in the locality?

In days gone by, when tenants of tied cottages changed their jobs, there was always local authority housing. Such opportunities no longer exist, yet it is important that such a tenant moves on because another farm worker may well need the house. The lack of alternative housing creates a serious situation for the agricultural worker and his family. I hope that the Secretary of State will say what security such tenants will have.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for drawing attention to the importance of rural housing in England. I hope that my hon. Friend, who I know is proud of his English constituency, will not object to me, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, taking part in this important debate on rural housing in England and Wales. After all, I live close to the English border. Indeed, I can see a number of rural houses in north Northumberland from my house.

I was particularly interested to hear my hon. Friend refer to the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 which was enacted under the previous Labour Government when my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Happily, he was able to steer that important piece of legislation through Parliament, affording some protection to tenants in tied housing in England and Wales.

The sad irony is that that Labour Government were not able to put similar legislation on the statute book for Scotland. My hon. Friend was able to protect farm workers in England and Wales, but in Scotland farm workers still have to cope with the old oppressive tied housing system, under which it is all too easy for tenants and their families to be evicted.

I am disturbed to hear that the amendment could undermine the protection that has been made available for tenants of tied housing in England and Wales. The 1976 Act was an important development in respect of such employees. It was said in another place that this provision was intended to deal with the problem of non-paying guests in farm cottages. Given the terms of contract to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) referred, a high proportion of farm workers could be described as non-paying guests in the sense that they do not pay rent—but they give something in lieu of rent, by selling their labour very cheaply.

The agricultural wages boards set wages far too low, and all too many farmers, in England and Wales as well as in Scotland, pay only the basic wage. Their employees are provided with "free" accommodation as a perk, if it may be so described. It is often not really free, because the employees often pay dearly for what is often very bad accommodation by selling their labour far too cheaply. It is both offensive and misleading to suggest that such tenants are non-paying guests. They pay through the nose, or, more appropriately, by the sweat of their brows. Easing the eviction of tenants and their families in those circumstances would be an intolerable step for the House to sanction.

10.45 pm

A further problem will face the tenants of tied accommodation who work in farming and in other industries, with the introduction in Scotland of the poll tax in April. Hitherto, employers have paid the rates due on tied accommodation on behalf of their employees. In future, there will be a tax on the occupiers rather than on the property. There is no guarantee that tenants will have any more in their wage packets, yet they will suddenly find themselves having to pay the poll tax, while the farmer no longer has to pay any rates. The farmer will end up better off while his employees will be worse off.

I am profoundly disturbed that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, this provision could represent another retrograde step by the Government and undermine the already weak position of farm workers in rural areas. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to several disturbing aspects of rural poverty and housing pressure in England and Wales, and I hope that the House will give them serious consideration.

Mr. Alan Roberts

Phrases such as "wicked Tory Government" trip off the lips very easily, but we believe that in this instance the Government may be mistaken in introducing legislation based on the concept of someone having a bare licence—for example, for putting up a friend who sleeps on the floor and where no money changes hands. However, this provision inadvertently applies also to tied tenants, and particularly to those in rural areas. We hope that the Government will consider all the points that have been made by my hon. Friends and by others in respect of this proposal and the related Lords amendments.

My hon. Friends have made it clear that they are very concerned about housing problems in rural areas, about tied tenants, and about the homelessness that will be created as a result of this Bill. It will be difficult for those affected to be rehoused—especially since the supply of public sector accommodation has dried up under the right-to-buy provisions. Rural property acquired under that legislation has not been replaced by either the public or private sector, and considerable housing stress and poverty now exists.

That is true not just of inner city constituency such as that which I represent. The local authority area of Sefton in which my constituency is situated embraces many rural as well as city areas, and as a consequence I am approached with problems by people from the rural parts of Sefton which I pass on to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) and the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn). I hope that the Secretary of State will take on board our genuine concern and will respond by accepting our proposals.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

I congratulate Opposition Members on taking us for a delightful rural ride. We have been over the questions of the community charge, rural poverty and many other aspects of an important problem concerning rural housing, which I found fascinating to listen to. We were given the view from Brecon Beacons, the view of the Cheviot hills from East Lothian, and even the view of rural Sefton, which was a touching picture.

I have to say, however, that these attempts to spin out debate are not relevant to the amendment. The amendment is entirely concerned with whether those who pay no rent—I emphasise the words "no rent"—should be enabled to be got rid of without a court order. The reason for the amendment was correctly described by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) as being not to apply court order powers to non-paying guests. From that it was deduced that there must be many others who paid no rent to whom it would apply. I am delighted to tell hon. Members that tenants under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 will not be affected by the amendment; nor will assured agricultural occupants, under the Bill. The whole agricultural sector is not affected by the amendment. I can therefore give hon. Members the assurances that they seek.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments 34 to 36 agreed to.

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