With respect to any dwelling-house of which the rateable value on the appointed day did not exceed the respective amount specified in Section two (Decontrol of certain houses) of this Act which, by the operation of the principal Acts has already or may become decontrolled the following provisions may apply: if complaint is made by a tenant to the council of the county borough or county district in which the dwelling-house is situated that he is being required to pay an excessive rent in respect of such dwelling-house, regard being had to the situation, accommodation, and amenities thereof, the said council, upon being satisfied that the rent appearsprima facie to be excessive, may institute proceedings in the county court against the landlord thereof and the court may determine the appropriate rent which, having regard to all the circumstances, should be paid by the tenant and may, at the discretion of the court,. order the return of excess payments already made.—[Mr. Salt.]
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
The purpose of this new Clause is to do something to protect tenants who are at present paying excessive rents. One of the results of this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will be to continue the control in the case of 600,000 houses. Undoubtedly that provision is very much welcomed by the House, and I do not think sufficient appreciation has been shown of the action of the Minister of Health in bringing it forward. It will certainly be of incalculable value to the tenants now occupying those houses; but unfortunately there is a gap, and some 600,000 houses have been decontrolled. Those houses are of the smaller and cheaper class. The same reasons which caused the Ridley Committee to come to the conclusion that the 600,000 houses should continue under control apply to the houses that have been decontrolled. Everybody realises that the trouble is that there are not sufficient houses to let at low rents. The Marley Committee were optimistic, as many of us were, and thought that houses were being built at such a rate that there would be sufficient, and that then decontrol would be more satisfactory than the present system. In the City of Birmingham, for instance, when I joined the city council some 14 years ago, it appeared to me that a very short time, say three or four years, would be sufficient to provide the number of houses which it then seemed likely would be required. Unfortunately, to-day, we are no nearer the solution of the problem, despite the fact that Birmingham has built 47,500 municipal houses. I believe that is a greater proportion than is to be found in any other city in the Kingdom, and we are continuing to build between 2,000 and 3,000 houses a year, yet it is stated by the officials that it will be at least five or six years before we shall have met the needs of the present time in any way.
Unfortunately, advantage is taken of the shortage of houses to exploit tenants. We find that houses of a rateable value of from£4 to £5 are increased by an average of not less than 46 per cent., and that houses of a rateable value of £13 are increased by as much as 61.5 per cent. Indeed, there are houses in Birmingham to-day which had a pre-war rental of 6s. 6d. a week in regard to which, only in the last few weeks, notice has been sent to the tenants raising the rental to 25s. When one considers that men living in these houses are, to my personal knowledge, workers in the railway and postal services, many of them receiving less than£3 a week, men with wives and families, it will be realised how important it is that something should be done to protect them. The purpose of this Clause is to permit the tenant who thinks he is being called upon to pay an excessive rent to apply to the corporation or county borough, and if the officials believe that his case is one that should go before the county court, the authority will take the onus of proceeding with it. This Clause has the backing of the whole of the Birmingham City Council. Although it is composed predominantly of members of my own party, there is no division on it whatsoever on this question, and there is a unanimous desire that something should be done to prevent the exploitation of the tenants.
There is no likelihood that frivolous cases would be taken to the county court, since the corporation would prevent that happening. I have authority to say that one of the Judges in Birmingham has stated that he would welcome such cases in his court and that he has no fear of the extra work that is likely to be brought before him, as he feels that the position is one that ought to be looked into. If we can obtain from the Minister some assistance in this way, I believe that the publicity given to such cases would remove the likelihood of many of them occurring. At the present time there is a diminishing number of controlled houses, due to the fact that they are being pulled down, and owing also to the beneficent Acts that the Minister himself has brought in, affecting slum clearance and overcrowding, there is an increasing difficulty in supplying those houses that are needed. I think that if something were done in the way proposed by this Clause, it would be generally welcomed.
I will mention one particular point that not only affects the City of Birmingham, but I am assured that the Association of Municipal Corporations are in agreement with it, and that is that at the present time large blocks of houses are being purchased from the good landlords—and we have plenty of them in our own town— by big syndicates, which are taking advantage of the opportunity of sending up the rents by purchasing these houses. Consequently, the trouble to-day is being increased as the opportunity occurs. I think the Minister may well consider this Clause favourably, and as a little while ago it was stated that 25 per cent. of the Clauses had been met, this is another case in which he can keep the average up. I, therefore, commend this Clause to the House.
I beg to second the Motion.
I am certain that anything from the City of Birmingham will appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister, particularly when he remembers our very remarkable record, to which my hon. Friend the Member for the Yardley Division (Mr. Salt) referred, in the way of municipal house-building. I hope the House will not think that this Clause is designed to deal with something which affects Birmingham only, because, as far as I can make out from conversation with Members who sit for other industrial centres, they are experiencing exactly the same kind of thing. On account of the enormous immigration that has taken place into Birmingham, we are suffering from this problem rather more acutely than are some other places, but there is no doubt that hon. Members in all parts of the House can say from their own experience that this ramp, because that is the word for it, is taking place in many other towns as well.
There is nothing in the Bill which protects the tenant who is living in a decontrolled house from being faced with the sort of grinding rent to which my hon. Friend referred. He mentioned the case, of which all those who sit for Birmingham constituencies know, of a 6s. 6d. house the tenant of which was suddenly faced with a rise in rent up to 25s. That, of course, is exceptional, but I could give case after case where excessive rents are being demanded. Here is one of a rise from 10s. 5¾d. up to 21s.; I have one from 7s. 3¼d. up to 15s., and one from 6s. 8¼d. up to 16s.; and I could give many more. The point that I am making is that there is nothing in the Bill as it stands which will protect such tenants. What I would really like to see is the re-control of all these houses, but what we suggest is—and it seems to me a most reasonable and sensible suggestion—that the tenant who is faced with what he believes to be an excessive rent should be able to go to the local authority—that is an added safeguard—and explain the position, and that the local authority should then be able to take action against that sort of thing. All of us must know that it is not an easy thing for a tenant to take action against his landlord, but if he is able to go to court with the whole force of the corporation behind him, I believe it will be found that we can deal effectively with some of these excessive rent charges.
I feel that it was a pity that when the Ridley Committee were sitting, they did not take any oral evidence from any of the local authorities. They took oral evidence from the London County Council, but that was the only local authority from which they did take such evidence.
That makes my case all the stronger. The Birmingham Council had the opportunity to submit written evidence, but that is not of the same value as oral evidence. This is a new problem, and I believe that if the local authorities had been given an opportunity of submitting oral evidence and of being questioned upon it, the Committee must have been convinced that this was a definite Problem which must be dealt with if other parts of rent restriction are to be dealt with. The Committee said that as regards privately-owned new houses, information as to rents was very incomplete, but it was sufficient to show that, in general, the rents charged were considerably higher than the rents of small decontrolled houses. That is the point I want to make. This new Clause is an attempt to deal with the problem on the simplest lines and it ought to appeal to my right hon. Friend. All the letters that one gets from industrial constituencies deal with housing conditions and the difficulties of finding alternative accommodation in face of the tremendous shortage, and of having to pay these big rents. It is fantastic to expect tenants to pay 50 per cent. of their wages in rent. I hope that my right hon. Friend will meet the city of Birmingham in this matter. By doing that he will meet a great demand of many industrial districts.
I am sure that hon. Members on this side of the House will pay considerable respect to any proposal moved by the hon. Member for Yardley (Mr. Salt). Upstairs in Committee he consistently supported us irrespective of party divisions, and we are, therefore, very pleased to examine without any party predilections any proposal he makes. In Committee we moved that the new decontrolled B class tenants should have the right of appeal to a county court, and that is, in essence, what is proposed in this new Clause. We were defeated upon that. We then moved that there should be tenancy courts set up where all questions of grievance and difficulty between landlord and tenant should be submitted for adjudication. By our second proposal we were giving consideration to the difficulties of those who had already been decontrolled. One of the difficulties we have with regard to this new Clause is that it provides concessions for only a certain small class of tenant. None the less, we have to face the fact that there are grievances here.
Under the new Clause the tenant who feels he is being charged an excessive rent may appeal to his council that they in turn should go to the county court and get a decision from a judge that an excessive rent has been charged, and the judge may fix what is called in the Clause the "appropriate rent." That is rather a heavy responsibility for the judge without any indication as to the limit which Parliament thinks ought to be imposed upon these decontrolled tenants. At a later stage we have an Amendment, which, I trust, will receive the support of all hon. Gentlemen who represent Birmingham, in which we ask that no more than a maximum of 10 per cent. should be imposed by way of increase on decontrolled B class houses. By the proposal in this new Clause it is left to the unfettered decision of the county court judge to decide what is the appropriate amount of increased plunder which the proprietor of a property should be allowed to exact from a decontrolled B class tenant.
Some surprise was evinced in certain quarters of the House at the figures which the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Cartland) cited for Birmingham about increases which have taken place where decontrol has been permitted. We have however, long had the official figures on the subject. The Ministry of Labour supplied evidence to the Ridley Committee stating that when class C houses were decontrolled in London those with an average rental of 8s. 6d. went up to Its 12s 6d. In the county boroughs, excluding Greater London, the increase was about one-third; for urban districts, excluding Greater London, the increase was over one-quarter per cent.; and in the rural districts it was about one-quarter. With these figures in front of us what justification can the right hon. Gentleman have for throwing another 400,000 householders to the wolves? It is true that there are some districts where there may already be a sufficiency of this particular type of house and that the landlord will not be able to exact anything in the way of an excessive increase. There is, however, here and there, all over the land a scarcity of houses, and immediately decontrol takes place an increase of rent will follow. That is indeed the purpose of this Bill; it is to enable the proprietors of these properties to increase their rents.
The hon. Members who have spoken for Birmingham say that they speak for a united Birmingham City Council. There is, therefore, no political association with hon. Members on this side of the House and they are endeavouring to protect a class of tenants who presumably support them politically. Whether that be so or not is a matter of indifference to this side. This is another step on the road to creating injustice. Already there are any number of anomalies; these Acts are riddled with them. In the view of myself, and of many of my hon. Friends, the mere continuance of these Acts at the present time solves nothing. The only real remedy would be to start afresh with something in the nature of tenancy courts. Whether these views will ultimately commend themselves to the Government or to Members of Parliament on the Government side I cannot say, and we are not discussing them now. What we are discussing is whether, when this Bill becomes an Act, the proprietors of these decontrolled upper-class houses shall be permitted to increase rents without any control whatsoever, either through city councils, representing public opinion, in the first instance, and the law courts later. That is the issue which the hon. Member who moved the new Clause has put before the House, and if we correctly interpret his point of view we on these benches propose to give it any support which we can in the Division Lobby.
I hesitate very much to oppose any proposition put forward by the hon. Member for Yardley (Mr. Salt), who adorns the constituency which adjoins my own, and I know that in the city of Birmingham rather exceptional conditions do exist, but I feel that in this case I have no choice but to oppose the proposed new Clause, because it will, if embodied in the Bill, introduce a far-reaching change based upon some exceptional conditions. It will mean that the councils will be perpetually bothered by a vast number of discontented tenants. That will be inevitable, although the work of councils is already excessive and Parliament is continually placing more and more work upon them. I know that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley has told us, the Birmingham City Council is prepared to undertake this task, but I am certain that very few other councils throughout the country will be prepared to face the vast amount of work which would be thrust upon them. When one considers the character of that work, I think that view will become more obvious. If this Clause is passed there will be some very indefinite considerations into which the councils will have to go. The Clause speaks of a complaint being made that a tenant has been required to pay an excessive rent in respect of a dwelling house:
regard being had to the situation, accommodation and amenities.
To settle that point will involve a great deal of inquiry and a great deal of work, and if the council decide to take the matter to court it will throw further work upon the courts. I think it is most undesirable that we should impose vague and uncertain duties upon the courts, and still more upon the councils. As the Clause is drafted all those duties are purely optional. In the first place, the council, if satisfied that aprima facie case ha.; been made out, "may" institute proceedings, and then the court "may" determine what is a proper rent, and having done that "may" order repayment to be made retrospectively. To cast upon the councils and upon the county
courts vague duties of that sort—indeed, they are not imposed as duties; they are merely optional rights—would leave the councils and the courts in great difficulty, and in view of the fact that the Clause is retrospective, because it concerns houses which have already become decontrolled in some cases, it does involve a measure of recontrol, and to introduce any measure of recontrol at this stage would be, I suggest, fundamentally vicious. It will shake the confidence of investors in house property. Although it is true to say that the principal Acts have never touched houses built since the War, none the less once we start doing something which involves some measure of recontrol, people will not know where it is going to end. They will say that it is very likely that at some future date, perhaps under some other Government, measures of recontrol will be introduced which will affect not only pre-war houses and not only houses already built but, perhaps, houses which may be built in future. Any such measure will, I am sure, have such a discouraging effect upon the building of small houses as seriously to impair our prospects of properly rehousing the people.
I am afraid that I cannot congratulate the hon. Member for Tam-worth (Sir J. Mellor). Perhaps one may admire his courage in coming forward to defend the profiteers, because the only people who would be affected by this Clause would be people who are out to obtain excessive rents. It does not apply to the investor who is getting only a fair return on his investment, striking only at those who are imposing excessive rents such as are an absolute disgrace and should never be permitted. I rise simply to appeal to the Minister to accept this Clause, and to say that he ought not to have a closed mind on the subject. With decontrol taking place by stages, it is just as well that there should be a certain amount of experiment with regard to the future, and I think this Clause will provide a useful experiment in connection with decontrol. It strikes at cases where there has been an excessive increase of rent. The figures that were given by my right hon. Friend above the Gangway, and that are in the Ridley report, show that disgraceful increases have been exacted by owners of property when the property became decontrolled. I hope that the Minister of Health will take a courageous line with regard to this Clause and will accept it, so that we may see the possibility of creating machinery giving tenants a certain amount of security regarding their rent.
The argument has been employed that a terrible burden will be put upon county court judges. In another Committee I have been reproved because of my lack of faith in some of our judges, in their judicial capacity. I have been told that it is very sound to leave matters to these skilled lawyers, who can be trusted, because of their experience of the law, to take a judicial viewpoint and to give reasonable decisions. I hope that the people who lectured me will now show their own faith in the county court judges. I will point out to the Minister that the county court judges would not be faced with a large series of cases badly presented, but that the machinery is here provided for the local authority to consider cases and to come to a decision whether a rent is extortionate and whether to take the case to the courts. It will not be that thousands of people, when their rent is put up, will immediately flock into the county courts asking for decisions in their favour. The matter will first of all be considered by the local authority, who will take into account the circumstances in the district, the position as to supply of houses, and other factors, and will be able to decide what they consider a fair increase, if a case can be made out for an increase. The owners of property will have to persuade the local authority what they think is reasonable. When the matter gets to the county court judge, the pros and cons will be presented in such a fashion that it will be a comparatively simple matter for him to come to a decision and to fix the appropriate rent.
The further argument has been used that the proposed new Clause would be retrospective. That is one of the advantageous features of it. So many people have already been treated so badly in this respect that the proposal will provide a certain measure of justice for them. I hope that the Minister of Health will show real consideration of this Clause and will accept it, in view of its possibilities from the experimental point of view. We could very well do with some experiments in the fixing of rents. The Clause would apply only to people who have been badly treated since their houses were decontrolled. It would bring to them a measure of justice. I hope that there will be some appearance on the part of the Government that they are looking at this matter from a broad point of view, in the interests of the mass of the people.
The hon. Member who last spoke got into such a state about the investing public and how they would become so uncertain that nobody would invest in housing, and all the rest of it, and all because one of his Conservative friends is anxious to put an end to the practices of those miserable creatures who pray upon the housing needs of their fellows by charging extortionate rents, in the desperate housing position that exists in some districts. I hope that the Minister will show some of that courage which we are told he possesses, and some of the enlightenment which he was said to possess and which he managed to get across while he was Postmaster-General. I hope that he will realise that this provision may be a very valuable experiment in the control of housing for the people.
We have heard an astonishing speech from the hon. Member for Tamworth (Sir J. Mellor). I want to point out to him as shortly as I can the error of his ways. I assume that he is prepared to admit the figures which were placed before the House by the Mover of the Clause. Perhaps I might repeat for the benefit of hon. Members that rentals of£13 per annum were increased by 61.5 per cent., and that rentals of 6s. 6d. a week were increased to 25s. weekly.
The increase of the weekly rental of 6s. 6d. to 25s. was an approximate increase of 400 per cent. The hon. Baronet evidently proceeds upon the fallacious assumption that Birmingham is an isolated example. Let me point out to him that that is far removed from the case. I cannot speak for the position in the English area, but I can assure the House that the Scottish position is not one whit different. What is actually happening in Scotland, under the system of decontrol as we have it at the present moment, is that the tenant of a decontrolled dwelling is paying, say,£20 per annum. The proprietor comes to him and says: "Look here, I want £35 per annum." The tenant says: "I cannot pay it." There is no security of tenure and the result is that the proprietor turns to the tenant and says: "Pay or get out." The inevitable result is that, if the tenant cannot pay, he gets out, a new tenant comes in, and again when the new tenancy has been created the same vicious system is appliedad infinitum.
The hon. Baronet said, first of all, that it would involve a great deal of inquiry and work by the local authorities concerned, and thereafter upon the county court. If you accept all these premises, is it the hon. Baronet's attitude that the right to protect the individual tenant from victimisation and what has been described as nothing short of legalised blackmail is to be prevented in order to obviate any possibility of extra work? He told us, secondly, that the councils would be compelled to go into certain considerations. Does he suggest that those are improper considerations? To my mind they are most proper and relevant considerations. The local authority will be required to consider the question from the point of view of situation, of accommodation and of amenities. On his third point he completely let the cat out of the bag. He admits precisely the arguments which have emanated day by day from these benches. He said that the Clause would shake the confidence of investors. That is precisely what we have been maintaining—that, with the system of decontrol, in so far as rental charges are concerned, there is nothing apart from what the right hon. Gentleman has described as a positive financial ramp.
With regard to the Clause, I am sorry to say that I honestly believe that, even if it becomes law, there will still definitely be victimisation, because this is what will probably happen: The tenant will recognise, first of all, that he has no security of tenure. It is, therefore, rather a difficult point to consider what security he has in so far as rental is concerned. If he has sufficient courage to make a complaint to the local authority with regard to excessive rent, the reaction may quite possibly be that the landlord will immediately serve a notice to remove, take the tenant to the court, and operate ejection. But, whether that is the case or not, I believe that there are cases which will be adequately covered by the Clause and I, and I believe all on this side, will welcome it and support it in the Lobby.
A proposal very much of this character was debated at considerable length in Committee and rejected by a large majority. That majority was not, of course, unsympathetic to the interests of tenants. Those of us who took a different view strongly upheld the opinion that, in the interests of housing, of tenants and of landlords themselves, the proposals are detrimental and would not in fact achieve the purpose at which they aim. My hon. Friend described the position as far as Birmingham is concerned, and he has been supported by other friends of mine, and it is a noteworthy thing—it may be of some interest to Birmingham, and especially to Birmingham Conservatives—that he has had the support of the right hon. Gentleman who is leading the Labour Opposition and, not by any means least, of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen). It only needs the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) to complete the picture.
As a matter of fact, this proposal involves three things which have been very carefully considered by respective committees which have looked into the matter. It is, in fact, a proposition which would make the local authorities throughout the country a tenancy court—that is why it has appealed to the right hon. Gentleman opposite—and it would make the county court in the nature of an appeal court against their decision and, to crown it all, it would involve what the hon. Member for Camlachie so jubilantly acquiesced in. retrospective legislation. As far as I know, there is not a single association of local authorities which has considered such a proposal. I would leave to the imagination of hon. Members what they would think if this was seriously put before them.
But I want to deal with the matter on more general lines. The question of putting back, at any rate into a measure of control, houses which have already been decontrolled, has been considered on a number of occasions, and I think the
most substantial objections were put forward by the Marley Committee, which could not be regarded as unsympathetic to the needs and desires of tenants. They discussed the proposition in very plain terms. They said, in the first place, that it would be open to the general objections applying to all retrospective legislation. Secondly, is would be logically difficult to stop at recontrolling old houses. The same reasoning would lead to the control of new houses. I was rather surprised at hon. Members when they criticised the argument that this would have an adverse effect on building operations and on the capital invested in them. Lord Marley and his colleagues, among other reasons which they advance, said:
For these reasons we feel that the psychological effect of the proposal would be to check the confidence of private capital and private enterprise in the building industry.
That is a very serious thing, and I am glad the committee recognised that it is a matter of vital importance to the building trade of this country.
The suggestion has been constantly that in one form or another recontrol should be brought about. The committee said, and it is a very noteworthy admission:
The difficulties we have just enumerated were appreciated by most of the witnesses appearing on behalf of tenants who suggested the recontrol of decontrolled houses, and they were disposed to withdraw their suggestion when the difficulties were brought out in discussion.
This same matter was considered by the Ridley Committee. I may be a particularly stony-hearted man, but the hon. Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) is not. He and his colleagues had all this evidence before them. The statements of the Manchester Corporation were brought before the Committee, and they came to the same conclusion as the Marley Committee. In fact, the only difference that the hon. Member for East Birkenhead had with the Committee was on the question of how decontrol should be brought about.
As we understand it, the Clause does not propose recontrol, but deals with an entirely different matter, and it is trifling with the House for the right hon. Gentleman to take up time in arguing on that line.
This is in fact another means of getting back into control houses that have already been decontrolled. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The final sentence of the Clause is this:
The court may determine the appropriate rent which, having regard to all the circumstances, should be paid by the tenant, and may, at the discretion of the court, order the return of excess payments already made.
If that is not going back to control, I do not understand the meaning of the word. That is certainly recontrol, and I should have thought that no one would have denied it. All that I am saying, in answer to my hon. Friends, is that at any rate all the committees that have considered this matter came definitely to the same conclusion, that, not in the interests of landlords, but in the interests of tenants in the long run, such a proposal would be unwise. Therefore, for all these reasons, I ask the House to reject the Clause.
Is it not a fact that the present Bill brings the lower class B houses into recontrol? And yet the right hon. Gentleman argues that recontrol is quite out of the question and to the disadvantage of the tenants. This Bill recontrols.
Yes, a limited class are retained in control, for the reasons that have been given. I am stating generally that both the Marley Committee and the Ridley Committee came to the same conclusion, and I say that for all these reasons, in the interests of the tenants themselves, I could not for a moment ask the House to accept the proposed new Clause. I appreciate the reasons that have moved my hon. Friends to put it down, but I hope they will see, on reconsideration of the matter and on the long view which we must take, that it cannot be accepted.
I rise to ask the Minister to reconsider what he has said, and to consider the appeal that has already been made so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley (Mr. Salt) and by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Cartland). I am somewhat astounded by the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Tam-worth (Sir J. Mellor), who seems to think that one of the greatest objections to our proposal is that it would bring a tremendous number of cases before the local authorities. Surely, if that be correct, no stronger argument could possibly be advanced in favour of the Clause.
I cannot understand the attitude of the Minister; it seems to me to be entirely illogical. The object of the proposed new Clause is purely to bring justice to those unfortunate people who to-day are being exploited because they live in decontrolled class C houses. The Minister himself admits that his own Bill is keeping in control the lower class B houses, and, even if the Clause would have that effect, it would only be doing exactly the same thing as the Bill is doing for those houses which have not yet been decontrolled. The state of housing in Binning-ham in particular, where I have a great deal of knowledge of what is going on, is really terrible. There is another effect which has not yet been pointed out, and that is that these people are too terrified even to complain when their houses are in a hopelessly bad condition. I will give the House one case, which is by no means the worst. It is the case of one of my constituents, who wrote to me as follows:
I am writing to ask you to please do your best for the likes of us in the decontrolled houses. It's appalling the conditions under which we have to live, and, as I understand, there is no law for us; if we complain to the landlord, we are told that if we are not satisfied we can get out.
This is the case of a five-roomed pre-War house for which the tenant is actually paying, with rates, 18s. 7d. a week, whereas for an exactly similar house next door the rent charged is 9s. 9d. per week. I sent my agent to make for me an absolutely unbiased report on the state of affairs, and this is the report he has sent me:
The house is in a very damp condition. The floors in the kitchen and scullery are stone, and apparently laid straight on damp earth. Consequently the wet creeps up above the tiles. Dry rot has set in the floors of the front room. The windows in this room will not open, and the frames appear to be falling to pieces. The fire grate in the front room is broken, and it is impossible to light a fire. In the top back room the walls are damp, and there is a z-feet square hole in the ceiling which exposes slates. The middle room upstairs is also shockingly damp, and the ceiling continually drips water in various
places during a rain storm. The only apparently decently habitable room is the front room upstairs, but this too is very draughty and cold. The landlord is charging a rent for this house of 15s. a week plus rates, while the house next door, which is exactly the same but controlled, is only 9s. 9d. a week.
He goes on to say—and this is the most significant sentence in the whole report—that the tenant:
is anxious that we should do nothing to force the landlord's hand, in case he takes advantage of the situation and orders them out.
How is it possible to justify a policy which, in the case of two men, working probably for the same wage in the same factory, living next door to each other, allows one to be paying 15s. or 16s. a week for a hovel of that type, while the other is paying only 9s. 9d. a week, probably for a perfectly good house? Since the Government have adopted the policy of bringing these houses back into control, I cannot see why we should allow this grave injustice to go on in regard to one type of tenant. The situation in Birmingham, I think, is pretty well known. It is appalling to get the letters that we do get from young people who want to get married, or are married and have young families coming on, but have no home to go to, because there are no houses available. There are 9,641 lodger cases in Birmingham to-day still trying to get houses, and 1,692 young couples trying to get houses. To this are added 14,000 living in these decontrolled houses who are clamouring to get into muncipal houses, in order to escape from the persecution that they are undergoing. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider this. It is a most serious matter, which, in bare justice, calls for reconsideration.
I, too, would ask the Minister to reconsider his decision. I am beginning to doubt his sympathy. He suggested that the reason, or one of the reasons, for his attitude is that the Clause would not do what hon. Gentlemen who have spoken want it to do. He reiterated the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Tamworth (Sir J. Mellor), that this would throw work upon the local authority, and turn it into a sort of court. He further suggested that the local authorities would not welcome this work, and gave as his reason that no association of local authorities had asked for this. I think that, if he had put it to an association of local authorities that this was the only thing they could have in order to remedy what was happening at the present time, in spite of what may be the difficulty of the task they would have been willing to undertake it.
I can assure the hon. Members from Birmingham that the conditions in their city are not exclusive to Birmingham. Some little time ago, at the instigation of the Minister of Health, the public assistance committee of the Lancashire County Council were requested to make an inquiry into the excessive payments being made to individuals in receipt of Poor Law relief. The committee found that in 9 cases out of 10, where payments had to be made in excess of the allowance which is provided, it was in order to meet claims for excessive rents. We found that people who were, of necessity, coming to the public assistance committee were living in houses rented at 17s. to 20s. a week. Time and again these people have been told by relieving officers that they must get cheaper houses, but there were none available. I am convinced that, in a great many of those cases, if powers such as are asked for in the Clause had been available, we could have proved that the excessive rent which was being paid out of the rates, through the public assistance committee, was going to a landlord who was demanding an extortionate rent. The position of these people is such that they cannot move. One word of advice which I would give to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright) is that he should send the report he has received from his agent to the sanitary authority in Birmingham. Whatever happens to this Clause, that sort of thing should not be to continue.
The suggestion has been made that the county court judge is not the best possible person to determine what the rent should be. I would, perhaps, agree. I am not enamoured of the judgment of county court judges in this respect. But I am prepared to accept their judgment against the alternative in this Bill, which is the landlord's judgment. The county court judge is more likely to be just than the landlord, who is deciding for himself. I appeal to the Minister at least to make it possible for these cases, which are numerous in almost every district, to come before the court, and to find some measure whereby justice can be obtained. As my hon. Friend below the Gangway suggested, it would, at any rate, be an experiment. Somebody said that it would not work. If you put it into an Act of Parliament, we shall see whether it will be worked. I believe local authorities would be prepared to make it work, in order to overcome the difficulties that they are facing.
I have, on every occasion, I think, on which I have addressed the House about this problem of rent restrictions, called attention to the evil, as I see it, of making this matter a subject of litigation. If I did my duty by my own profession, I should perhaps, speak and vote in favour of this Clause, but I have held the view for a very long time that lawyers and judges, however distinguished, are not really the best people to undertake the task of looking into questions of this sort, which would depend almost entirely for their solution on, first, economic considerations, and, secondly, on matters of great human interest which everybody who has had anything to do with this problem feels are at the root of every case. I have taken the view that these Acts of Parliament, which we are seeking further to amend by this particular Clause, have produced a very large measure of injustice and are continuing to do so. I am not considering justice from the point of view of particular individuals so much as the larger question of the feeling of a great number of people that the inequalities produced by this legislation make a series of injustices, some people feeling that they are getting advantages as a result and others that they are getting their position worsened.
If it be granted that there are a number of cases—and an illustration was given by the hon. and gallant Member for Erdington (Wing-Commander Wright) a few minutes ago—which we all know about, which shock us, let us see what we are proposing to put in its place and how we are proposing by this new Clause to remedy the matter. One thing ought to be reasonably certain—I am sure that I can appeal to the sense of justice of hon. Members sitting in all parts of the House—namely, that this matter should not be left to the vagaries of particular cases. We should try to get for the benefit of the tenants and the benefit of the landlords—I am speaking, as I always do, for the small landlords, owning perhaps one, two or three houses—some sort of standard, so that people may know what they are about. We want to be perfectly certain that in aiming at the far too many people who are making use of their power over property to draw resources for themselves out of the necessities of their poorer brethen, we are not at the same time hitting other people whom nobody wants to hit.
I do not like the expressions "good landlord" or "bad landlord," because I am not a believer in the view that you can divide human nature into all black and all white; but one cannot shut one's eyes to the fact that there are a number of people who may intend well but who do become blinded by self-interest. That is not confined always to the individual who is receiving the rent any more than to the individual who is paying it. When I look at this Clause in order to see what it is going to effect, I am struck by the fact that there is no standard here by which the thing is to be measured.
What are we proposing to do? I beg hon. Members opposite to pay attention to this point, because I am sure they do not want to set up a series of injustices or inequities, as this Clause would do, They are, first of all, leaving it to be a matter of opinion of the local authority, which presumably must judge, in the long run, by a majority. That is the way in which it expresses its opinion. We all know that opinions differ and must differ in differing cases, just as there will be differences when different people happen to be sitting. Upon a particular day a certain number of people may be present at a meeting of the local authority, and on another day a certain number of different people may be present or, at any rate, not all the same people, and you will get in similar circumstances different results. Whatever can be said for the system of a rent court under which the same court, the same tribunal, is to deal with the matter, I venture in all sincerity to submit that there can be no good results spread over the whole, by and large, or achieved by a tribunal which consists of differing members on differing days.
How are you to get rid of that difficulty? The logical thing to do when a decision has been reached is to say: "You shall do so and so." The Clause does not say that. Nothing of the sort. It is then left to the discretion of the local authority as to whether they will or will not proceed with the next step. The word is "may," not "shall." There is nothing in the Clause from the point of view of legal construction which would enable the court to do that which the court can sometimes do in an appropriate case, namely, turn "may" into "shall."
Does the hon. and learned Member not appreciate the fact that the final and determining factor, in so far as the fixation of rent is concerned, is not so much the local authority but the judge to whom the local authority may apply?
Of course, I appreciate it, but I am looking to see, first of all, how you are going to set this remarkable machinery into operation. The judge has no power to do anything until the local authority, with its differing members and its differing yardstick, on differing days, comes to the conclusion,prima facie, not that the rent is excessive, but appears to them to be excessive. In these words there is a lawyer's paradise. If I had been intending to draft this Clause in order to assist my own profession I do not think that I could have done it better. That is the first step, and when you have done that, the next step, as a logical result, surely should be that the local authority should have the duty definitely cast upon them of having to put the machinery into operation, instead of saying that they "may" do so. The decision as to whether they will do it or not is to be left again, I suppose, from day to day according to the people who happen to be present.
Some of us know that landlords, builders and all sorts of people sit on local authorities. It is right that all classes of the community should be on the local authorities, but what would hon. Members opposite say if, on a particular day, it turned out that those people who were ardent housing reformers happen to be engaged on a housing conference somewhere and are not present at the meeting of the local authority, but on the following day they are present, and on the following day you get a different result. [Interruption.] It is not a fantastic case. The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) said, "Pass the Clause, and we will make it work." Do not let us give the local authority the troublesome and difficult task of operating under a Clause which is as full of holes as a colander. If and when proceedings are instituted and the court has the proceedings before it, there will probably be legal advisers on both sides, and we shall then see that melancholy spectacle which we all remember after the War when the courts were packed with cases on this question, with the result that much money was spent on litigation which had far better in those days been spent on houses.
The Clause says that "the court may determine the appropriate rent." Who is going to judge? The court. The court is to say, upon evidence, what it thinks on a particular day. County court judges exercise their duty and perform their tasks under the Rent Restrictions Acts with every endeavour to produce uniformity of results as well as they can, and they do it to a large extent, because their jurisdiction under the existing Acts is laid down with some certainty. It is true that we get varying decisions in different parts of the country in regard to some matters which are left to the discretion of the county court judges. As this Clause stands, it would leave the decision to the county court judge, without any guide except the words, "which, having regard to the circumstances appears to him to be a fair rent." That may enable an injustice to be done.
At the best you are taking the opinion of one man, instead of looking at the true position arrived at under the Acts as they stand. Whatever else may be said about the present Acts, they do provide a system which we have learned to understand. A standard is set up by them and people know what increases they can make and although they may have given rise to a great deal of difficulty, they do, at least, achieve some amount of certainty and uniformity. Finally, when the county court judge has exercised this jurisdiction, so difficult for an individual, he may or may not decide whether he will or will not order the return of some part of what he thinks is excess rent.
I do not think that a particular county court judge would be in any difficulty about it. What I am pointing out is that there is a large number of them and that you will get fresh inequalities throughout the country. Of that I am morally convinced. I am not saying that this system may not work if you proceed to define what you are going to do and set up some sort of standard but in this Clause it is proposed to abandon the standards which were set up under the Act of 1914. We are asked to give the go by to all that and to leave ourselves without any guide or yardstick. However much we may desire—and we all desire—to see that the necessities of tenants or would-be tenants are not made use of by undesirable people who happen to own property, I suggest that a Clause of this sort is not going to help the solution of the difficulty.
It would be out of order to attempt to indicate how I think the problem should be dealt with. I have indicated already with sufficient clearness I think, that I see no ultimate good likely to come out of the system which arose during the War, but I must not dilate upon that subject now. But as I see it, this Clause would make confusion worse confounded. It is not a practical remedy; it is not a certain remedy. It does not put the duty where the duty ought to be put, even if this should be the right method. I suggest to my hon. Friends, whose reasons for moving the Clause and calling attention to the problem we all appreciate, that it ought to be withdrawn and that another attempt should be made on some other occasion to get this thing into something like working order.
I support this Clause which I regard as a despairing effort to do something for the protection of the tenants of decontrolled houses. It seemed to me that many of the arguments of the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken suggested a part of the name of the constituency which he represents. I thought they were very watery indeed. The hon. Member argued very learnedly as a lawyer, but does he really contend that in these cases the council and the county court judge would not be able to determine what was a fair rent in circumstances such as we have heard enumerated this evening by hon. Members from Birmingham and Nottingham and other towns all over the country? I was in Bournemouth last summer and I found there houses which were formerly let at 12s. 6d. a week now let at 25s. a week. I have been told of an instance of two houses side by side, one of which is controlled and is let at 9s. a week while the other is decontrolled and is let at 15s. 6d. a week. Surely very little legal argument is needed in a case of that sort. It is a matter of common sense and not of abstruse legal argument.
A local council which is dealing day by day with matters of this kind will know exactly what are the normal rents appertaining to a particular district in its area. If, by chance, a house becomes decontrolled in that area and the rent leaps up by 100 per cent. it will not take the council long to determine that that is an abnormal rent and one worthy of being reported with a view to the judge giving a decision upon it. The hon. Member for Tamworth (Sir J. Mellor) made what some of my hon. Friends would probably regard as a very reactionary speech but I do not think it was a reactionary speech for him, because he was speaking for the class he represents, namely, the investor class. He spoke about shaking the confidence of investors by accepting a Clause of this kind. I think we are more likely to shake the confidence of investors by allowing a feeling of uncertainty to he created in the minds of those who want to invest in house property, as a result of the actions of rapacious landlords Sooner or later it is bound to be recognised that something must be done to deal with them.
This new Clause has been submitted by a representative of Birmingham who told the Minister of Health that the city council of Birmingham were composed in the main of members of his own party. Surely, if they are not afraid to undertake to work this system and if they are not afraid of shaking the confidence of investors, the right hon. Gentleman has no need to be afraid. The hon. Member for Tamworth and other hon. Members opposite do not like to see 100 per cent. dividends recorded in the newspapers. It is not good for the ordinary working man to see that sort of thing. You have invented bonus shares so that you can keep your dividends down to what they used to be, only they are paid on twice the amount of capital. It is not good for business to have this 100 per cent. increase in rent and it is not good for the investor. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) said that he did not like the term "good landlords and bad landlords." I do not think that anybody in the House does, but they are here. The peculiar thing is that it is sometimes the same man. I have not the slightest doubt that some of our most regular churchgoers have that side of human nature about which he spoke, because he said that he believed you Could not divide human nature. It is possible for one side of the man to go to church on Sunday and for the other side of him to be drawing in the shekels from poverty. This Clause is to protect the poor fellow who may be going to church from unwittingly going to damnation. It is something more than a practical proposal; it is something which has an application which is nearly divine.
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health said that he was afraid that it was re-instituting control. I cannot see that. Surely there is a margin between what is a reasonable rent and an increasing rent. The arguments of the right hon. Gentleman were very feeble indeed. I am not going to appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sick to death of hearing people appeal to him. I wonder why they waste their time. They are only making him more adamant. The right hon. Gentleman reminds me of a character that we used to have on a North country paper when I was a little younger than I am to-day. We used to call him Uncle Toby. He was supposed to be kind to feathered friends. I do not know whether he was so or not, but it was said that he was. The right hon. Gentleman has many appeals made to him, and it is made to appear that he is very kind indeed. When it comes down to tintacks—and these are not feathered friends but human beings—people cannot get relief in the matter of the rents they have to pay. Therefore, he may be like Uncle Toby because somebody says that he is kind and he is not. If he does not accept the Clause to-night—and it is a practical Clause, and the last chance that we shall have of saving the poor fellow who is in a decontrolled house from being skinned alive—he will miss an opportunity and will do a dis-service to the tenants of the decontrolled houses of the country.
Colonel Sandeman Allen:
At first I was very much in favour of this proposal; I liked the principle of it; but the more I consider it the more I dislike the machinery. I am afraid that the political views of councils may have a considerable bearing on the number of cases which are brought before the courts, and I would suggest that councils with what may be called progressive tendencies might tend to form themselves into anti-landlord councils. There is that danger, and the result would be an excessive number of cases being brought into the courts which would he extremely damaging to the whole of the vesting side of the housing business. I am sure the hon. Member for Yardley (Mr. Salt) looks upon the Birmingham City Council as being something in the nature of protective smelling-,:alts in this matter; they would see that this danger did not arise. What may be considered excessive in one county may be very low in another, and it cannot be argued that the decision of one court can be taken as the data for all courts in fixing rents. The danger is a very real one that the political side may enter into the question and that an excessive number of cases may be brought before the courts. The result would be that landlords who are not charging excessive rents, who are decent landlords in many cases, would be penalised quite unnecessarily. I trust the House will weigh this matter very seriously before dealing with the new Clause.
I seem to be like King Charles's head to the Minister of Health in this matter. He referred to me on the Second Reading and upstairs in Committee he mentioned me once or twice, and now on this proposal he has mentioned me by name again. In my opinion the general findings of the Marley Committee do not cover this point. They expressed the opinion that they could not bring houses back into control. That is not the proposition here. The proposition here is to limit the rise in rent of houses which are decontrolled. The rise in rents is in some cases most exorbitant. On the Second Reading I gave the case of a six-roomed house in Silvertown which was being let at one guinea upstairs and one guinea down. Yesterday I had a case where a guinea is being charged for upstairs in a pre-war 10s. house and another£1 for downstairs. That was given to me by a member of the public assistance committee who heard an application for relief from one of the tenants concerned. I submit that these are exorbitant rises in rent, and that the Marley Committee never endorsed such a thing. It is in the interests of the landlords, whom the Minister of Health so ably represents, that some check should be put upon these rises.
We know that out of the more humane treatment which workless people have received since the War, landlords have been among the greatest beneficiaries. They have had their rents regularly all the time, but they are not satisfied. The moment a house is out of control the rent jumps to a height which is not reasonable, and in the interests of society generally there should be some check. The Minister is also concerned with overcrowding, and he knows that high rents will cause overcrowding. I have been looking up the figures for West Ham, and I find that in 1935 there were in West Ham 5,764 overcrowded houses. It is true that 1,911 of the houses were overcrowded only to the extent of the Conservative invention of half a person, but 3,853 of them were overcrowded by more than that. Decontrol will add to that overcrowding, and if there is on top of decontrol exorbitant rents, the overcrowding will become worse than ever. As Minister for Health, the right hon. Gentleman ought to give serious consideration to this' matter generally.
I wish to refer to the arguments that were used by the Minister against this Clause. I think that if the House considers these arguments, it will recognise that the right hon. Gentleman had not a very strong case against the Clause. In the first place, in order to frighten the hon. Member for Yardley (Mr. Salt), the right hon. Gentleman said that it must be recognised that the Opposition were supporting the new Clause, and that even the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) supported it. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister is seeking the co-operation of the trade union movement, and to use such an argument in order to frighten hon. Members off is very cheap stuff indeed. The right hon. Gentleman's second argument was based on the fact that the Marley Committee's report in 1931 did not support the principle of this Clause. The Minister is forced to go back to 1931. He knows very well that the Marley Committee's report, or the report of any other committee in 1931, was based on entirely different circumstances from those which we are facing to-day. Therefore, that argument was a very weak one.
The right hon. Gentleman's third argument was that the court referred to in the Clause would be impracticable. I listened with amazement to the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, and particularly to those of the hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson), about the inefficiency and instability of local authorities and the inadvisability of placing any such power in the hands of a local authority. I have listened to speeches by the right hon. Gentleman, by every Scottish Minister and by hon. Members on all sides of the House -telling us of the great services rendered to the community by the local county and borough councils, and the work which the members of them are doing. Hon. Members should remember that when we ask that a tenant should be allowed to place his case before such a council, we are asking that he should be allowed to place it before the elected representatives in that area. There is no county council or borough council in the country which has not connected with it a small group of men and women dealing intimately with housing problems and meeting the tenants from day to day. Those people are fitted to give advice to the tenants on this matter.
It has been said that the hon. Member for Yardley is asking that the tenants should be protected from bad landlords. I was amused at the argument that we cannot speak of good and bad landlords, that while a landlord may want to squeeze a little more out, there may be circumstances surrounding it which put a different light on the matter. I would suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman who used that argument that in the same way you cannot speak of good and bad tenants, and that a tenant may say to his landlord, "Look here, I will pay you 7s. 6d. less every week, but my intentions are of the very best." I do not think the hon. and learned Gentleman would accept that argument. Therefore, we can dispense with that sort of cheap, legal frivolity.
This is a question of very great seriousness, and it would not have been raised unless these cases did exist. In Glasgow itself there are 73,000 people living in miserable houses and in insanitary conditions because they cannot pay the rent of this class of house. That is the only reason, and it is not because they do not desire those houses, not because they think them too big, not because they do not want their children to live in better surroundings. The principal barrier before those 73,000 people who live in one-room and one-apartment houses in Glasgow is that they cannot afford the present rents for better houses. Who are the tenants of these houses? They form the majority of the electors in the Hill-head Division of Glasgow. They are the black-coated workers, the men who have to have a respectable appearance and live in a respectable district in order to retain their employment. They are the people who will be most affected by this freedom extended to landlords to charge any increase they like.
I would ask the House to recognise that the alternative to this Clause is to leave to the landlords the power to impose any increase they like. The Clause asks that a tenant should be allowed to place his case before the experts that we know exist in county and borough councils, so that those experts should, if they think it necessary, be allowed to take the case to court. The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater said this would involve great legal proceedings, but I do not believe —and I appeal to the common sense of hon. Members on all sides of the House and ask if they believe—that if a tenant submitted his case of overcharge to a local council of experts, and the council decided that they would take the case to court, that there are half a dozen landlords in the country who would face that charge in the court. Certainly they would not. They would immediately make the concession, in view of the tenant's strength and of the support that he would have. Therefore, on the ground that there is no alternative to this Clause but to leave the landlords of this country with a free hand to charge any increase they like we ask the House to pass this Clause.
Housing is a national problem and should be treated by this House with the utmost stringency and respect and no particular section of the country should be allowed by any Act of Parliament complete freedom to use the urgency of this question to their own pecuniary advantage. This new Clause reflects great credit on the members who brought it forward. It is something for hon. Members who come from a Tory stronghold to bring forward such a proposal. It is very seldom that we get from Liberal or Tory strongholds legislation which gives the ordinary people any advantage. It is a pleasing change for us to be able to support a proposal of hon. Members opposite and I ask hon. Gentlemen who believe in giving the tenants some protection to support it.
The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom- Johnson) seemed to think the county court would be crowded by the large number of cases that would be brought for its decision. In most of these working-class areas where this class of property is situated, there are rows of 100 houses, or perhaps areas of 1,000 houses similar in character, and one case taken to the court would give a decision for the whole of the houses. I want to deal with the principle of a fair rent as applied to smaller houses. I can understand that in the years after the War everybody wanted to get back to pre-War conditions, with ideas of Free Trade and allowing supply and demand to settle prices, and the idea that if a higher price were charged for an article than was justified by its cost of replacement it would stimulate further production and so bring about an equilibrium. We have long passed those days. Nearly every Bill that has come before the House since 1931 has been concerned with prices in the interests of the profit maker. We have just been dealing with a Bill to restrict prices for bacon so as to increase profits. We have an Act of Parliament which gives a Milk Board—not a court, but a concern of interested people—power to fine any of their members£100 a day for selling milk under price.
I am not going to pursue that point except as an analogy. When it comes to rents, the Government say that it is against their principles to control profiteering and to keep prices down to a reasonable level. This new Clause is an attempt to introduce legislation against profiteering in houses. Many people are concerned about the old type of weekly property owner who was often a tradesman who had invested his life savings in a few houses against his old age. We have a different type of landlord now. It is a type of small moneylender who has been restricted in his operations and is finding a new outlet for his capital and his rapacity in buying up houses wholesale and offering to the owners prices which would not be justified by the return of controlled rents. Those are the people who are creating so much distress and misery in our working-class areas, those who by hook or crook get out the tenants and then raise the rents.
We have heard of instances from Glasgow and other industrial areas, and I can speak with a knowledge of London, which has had a great influx of industries, not only new industries but industries which have moved down from the north. We have still a great famine of houses, and small houses in my district which pre-war were let at 8s. a week, including rates, and for which the controlled rent to-day would be a little over 11s., are being let, when they become decontrolled, for 25s. a week to people with three or four children whose wages do not come to more than 50s. or 55s. a week, when allowance has been made for lost time, holidays and the rest. This is blood-sucking. Decent working-class families will not have families unless they can get a house with accommodation for their children at a reasonable rent. Wives are going out to work. when they ought not to have to do so, in order to satisfy the rapacity of landlords. Profiteering in houses is going on to a disgraceful extent, but yet, in the name of not interfering with the operations of supply and demand and with the right of the property owner to do what he likes, this Government, which can devise elaborate schemes for raising the price of food against the people, will not move a hand to save the people who are being bled to death by profiteering landlords. In the end those landlords will be a disaster to this country through the effect which they will have upon the population and upon the spirit of our people.
I thought I was in order, but your judgment is perhaps better than mine. My argument was intended to show that the profiteering which is going on and which this Clause would restrict is a danger to the country to-day. If the Minister does not like the exact machinery of the Clause he could accept the principle of the fair rent court, so that this extensive profiteering might be restricted in some way. He should show some zeal for the people who are suffering today from the excessive price of their food, as a result of Government action, and restrict these excessive rents.