Houses (Court Possession Orders)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th July 1946.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

10.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr George Wallace Mr George Wallace , Chislehurst

We have been discussing today matters of Colonial importance and tonight in the Adjournment Debate I want to bring hon. Members back to home affairs. I want to draw attention to the number of people made homeless by virtue of court possession orders made against them. I admit that I would be entirely out of Order in criticising any judgment of any learned judge, but my purpose is to underline the hardship under which these people are existing at the moment. This is an inevitable aftermath of the war. At the moment, as an emergency measure, local authorities are empowered to house these people in half-way houses, something on the lines of rest centres. But I ask hon. Members to note this fact —they are not empowered to store the furniture of those people. Being very much interested in this matter, I submitted Questions to the learned Attorney-General on 5th June. If hon. Members refer to HANSARD, they will see the replies that I received. At the Dartford County Court, which serves my constituency and others, 517 actions for possession were heard in 12 months, and in 22 cases the verdict was given in favour of the defendant, that is, the tenant. Bromley County Court, which serves another part of my division, heard 298 actions in 12 months, and in 15 cases the verdict went to the defendant, that is, the tenant.

I am concerning myself wholly and simply with the problem which an urban district council in my district, that of Chislehurst and Sidcup, is facing at the moment. On 6th June the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks) submitted a Question to the Minister of Health. The answer of the Parliamentary Secretary prompted me to make a remark which is un-parliamentary. I referred to the reply as "utter nonsense." I trust the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive my saying that, but it betrayed the depth of feeling I have on this matter. Although the Attorney-General pointed out that only 57 warrants for eviction were issued out of 815 cases, the danger which lies with local authorities, if they have any respect for human feeling at all, is in relation to the final order of the court.

Like many other hon. Members of this House, I spend the majority of my weekends listening to the trials and troubles of my constituents. That is one of the responsibilities we must bear in these times, irrespective of party, These people come to me, and I know at first hand the agony of mind under which they are living. People come, asking what on earth they can do. In some instances I get first the owner of a house and I tell him what to do. That is quite simple, but I know full well that I shall get his tenants coming to me later, so I get it that way too. It is for those people I am deeply sorry. Many have families. Many come from quite a decent station in life arid, mark this, not one of them in the cases to which I shall refer have been evicted through any fault of their own or turned out through any fault of their own. I advise them, "Play for time; ask for an extension and then another." I cooperate with the local authority, but we know a time will come when something will have to be done, and sometimes I have had almost to blackmail our local authority. These people are being re-housed, incidentally, at the expense of others living in overcrowded conditions. In Chislehurst and Sidcup we are almost 2,500 under-housed. There are three rest centres.

Since this local authority to which I was referring received official authority from the Ministry of Health from 8th December, 1945, to open up half-way houses, they have dealt with the following cases: total families accommodated in half-way houses over approximately two months, and then put into requisitioned property—because we must keep the rest centres open—31 families. Total families still in half-way houses at 29th June, 12.

At the present moment—and I am expecting more at the weekend—there are nine more families waiting for the final blow to fall. I ask hon. Members to picture the agony of mind under which these people are living. Then we must also bear in mind that although only 52 families have been accommodated since December, there are many others which are crowded in on relatives, living in overcrowded conditions.

Then what about their furniture? I ask hon. Members to go back to the difficult times when they themselves perhaps got married and started setting up their homes, to appreciate the value of the little sticks and stones and bits of furniture and ornaments that make the home for the family. In my constituency, owing to the fact that we cannot accommodate this furniture, these precious little pieces of furniture that count so much to these people are scattered in backyards, garages and in any old place where they can find room, simply because the local authority has not the power to take care of this very vital matter. It is interesting to note—and I would draw the attention of hon. Members to this, because I am not above criticising my own Ministers or their Departments—that on 8th December when we received in the Chislehurst and Sidcup urban district council sanction to carry on halfway houses, we also received sanction to store furniture but that was subsequently cancelled by a flood of correspondence and telephone messages. The local authority has tried to clarify the matter on more than one occasion. They want to know who is to be responsible for the cost? Are the councillors to be surcharged? Of course that counts with councillors a great deal. On 1st June the councillors submitted details to the Ministry of Health of questions that they wanted answered one way or the other. So far to date not a single word has been received in reply.

These concrete cases are not the only cases with which I am concerned. Hon. Members will realise the number of young couples in the Services who married during the war. They do not get a home together and they move into a couple of furnished rooms. Everything goes all right, the husband gets demobilised, and eventually a baby arrives. Then what happens? The landlady, in far too many cases, tells them to clear out, and then I have another headache and so has the local authority. I will just give this personal case. Very recently two old people came to see me for accommodation. These old people were bombed out during the war and went to live in Balham on the Underground tube station which received a direct hit. Those old people saw women and children being carried away in the swirling flood of sewage and being drowned. They saw an advertisement in one of my local papers offering rooms in exchange for service. They came to the district at the age of 70 to give this service in order to get shelter. A few weeks ago they were told by the person who owned the house, and employed them, that they were too old to be any good any more, and had to get out in a week. I have been slanging the Ministry of Health but I must say that when I put that case before them, they moved in 48 hours. With the cooperation of the local authority, that great injustice was remedied.

Who is to be responsible for these people? Is it the local authority—is it to be another headache for them—or the public assistance authority? If it is the public assistance authority, I want to draw the attention of hon. Members to this. My mind goes back to November when an ex-soldier, discharged on medical grounds, with his wife and two children were thrown into the street in Chislehurst, in the pouring rain. When I contacted the relieving officer, I was told that that man could go into an institution and every day would have to apply for permission to go to work, and his wife and children would have to go into another institution. That is the law of this country in 1946. I defy anyone to contradict, because I have checked up on my facts. It should horrify this House and the country, particularly the people who are so concerned about signing petitions about this, that and the other, when this human problem is on their doorstep and is being ignored through some panic policy of one or two people. Is the local authority to be responsible, having the care of half way houses, and the public assistance authority having the power, as I understand they have, to take charge of the furniture? I do not think our institutions are so packed that they could not take more of these sticks and stones.

Hon. Members are as deeply interested in this as I am, and our anxiety goes beyond mere political feeling. Every time I see one of these people, my anxiety increases, and it will do so until these people are properly cared for. This matter should be in the headlines of the whole Press tomorrow. We have to get emergency action for these people. Many of them are middle class people. It is not fair; they have not deserved this, and have done nothing wrong. This is, the result of enemy action, and until this problem is abated—and I think it will take at least 12 months to solve it—we must do something for them. If I get a wrong answer tonight, the matter will not be allowed to rest there. This country must be awakened to its responsibilities to these people. I think this type of case, which seems to have slipped the headlines and has not been drawn to the attention of the public, is being grossly overlooked.

10.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

I think the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. G. Wallace) who raised this matter deserves congratulations because it is one of those very human problems to which it is necessary that we should direct our attention from time to time. Nothing is more heartrending than the task of dealing with people who cannot find accommodation. I believe this jurisdiction is very humanly administered by the average county court. It is extremely difficult to obtain an order, certainly in the part of the country from which I come, Mersey-side, where the judges take extreme care before any possession order is given. There are many tragic consequences from that. One is the case of ex-Servicemen coming hack and trying to get their homes, but being unable to obtain orders from the court, which results in very tragic circumstances. My own belief is that jurisdiction is humanely exercised. It would he very dangerous if any idea should get abroad that people dispossessed by virtue of orders of the court would have any sort of priority on local authority lists, because that might defeat the purpose which the hon. Member has at heart. If the idea got abroad that people dispossessed under orders of the court were to have priority, a great many more possession orders would be made. I think that judges would be much more ready to exercise this jurisdiction if they felt that the dispossessed people had a priority on the local authority lists. The evil or unfortunate consequences to which the hon. Member has referred are, in fact, a great deterrent to the granting of a possession order.

Photo of Mr George Wallace Mr George Wallace , Chislehurst

I gave figures which rather disproved the hon. Member's argument. Out of 517 actions in Dartford, the tenant only gained the verdict in 22 instances. At Bromley, out of 298 actions, the tenant only gained the verdict in 15 instances.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

I was speaking for the part of the country from which I come, and which I represent. The hon. Member's figures were not commensurate with the number of warrants, which was much higher than the figures of successful actions. Warrants are extremely rarely granted. My point was that if the average court was given the impression that a dispossessed tenant would have priority, it would increase the problem. I do not disagree for a moment with the point the hon. Member has put forward about the care of the furniture and things of that sort, I think that is a valuable suggestion which is well worthy of consideration. But surely, the right solution is to drive on with the provision of houses? It is easy to make a purely party point by saying that one regrets the Government's policy in the matter of housing, but I do not think it is desirable that one should deal with this matter on a party basis. I feel that the real answer to the hon. Member's point is that, by every means possible we should drive on with the provision of houses. That is really the only permanent solution of this problem.

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Sparks Mr Joseph Sparks , Acton

I do not propose to take up much time, but I would like to say one or two things about this matter. I am very glad that the Attorney-General is here, as this is a matter which deserves and needs some correlation, if possible, between the various Departments concerned. The granting of these court orders for possession is causing considerable distress in many areas of Greater London. In some of these areas one sees scenes almost similar to the aftermath of air raids— people going into rest centres and into public institutions, where families are broken up. Some are living in air raid shelters, I understand, and in some cases seek refuge for the night in police station cells. I ask myself which is the greater hardship—for a family to be turned out on the street in those circumstances, or to deny the owner occupation of his house.

It is difficult to adjudicate in cases of this kind. Before warrants for possession are issued—and that is no guidance whatever to the tragedy involved in this problem—there ought to be some ground for believing that the local authority has accommodation for the dispossessed family. As I have already said, the issue of warrants for possession is no indication of the extent of the tragedy, because before these warrants are issued large numbers of families are broken up. The wife and children go to the mother in the country, the husband stays in London and the furniture is put in all sorts of places. My only complaint is that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General says that this is a matter for the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Health say it is a matter for the local authorities, as they have requisitioning powers, and the local authorities say that despite their power they have not the accommodation. These families who are dispossessed by court orders are in dire need of assistance and help. I hope that as a result of bringing this matter to the notice of the House tonight something will be done to rescue them from their plight.

10.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Key Mr Charles Key , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I think it would be a great pity if the impression got abroad that the problem with which we are dealing is widespread. As a matter of fact, analysis shows that this is particularly prominent in certain areas where returning people seeking accommodation, are of the owner-occupier class who, having left for some reason—service in the Forces or work elsewhere—are now returning to their normal occupations and seeking their own accommodation. In those circumstances, the judge has to deal with the question on the basis of greater hardship so far as the applicant is concerned as against the tenant. I believe in the majority of cases the judges would certainly take the line that it is wrong to expect, or to take it as a basis of consideration, that the dispossessed tenant, if he is to be dispossessed, has a claim of greater priority for the provision of accommodation by the local authority, over those who are already on the long lists of the local authorities.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

The hon. Gentleman says that it is a question of greater hardship. He must know that a very large proportion of tenancies have no cover at all and the judge has no discretion—furnished tenancies, service tenancies, many tied cottages. Also there is the very large number of cases where two people have been forced into one house by a court order.

Photo of Mr Charles Key Mr Charles Key , Poplar Bow and Bromley

I say, quite definitely, that the basis on which the decision is made is that of the consideration of greater hardship——

Photo of Mr Charles Key Mr Charles Key , Poplar Bow and Bromley

In dealing with this matter and the problem that arises out of it, there are two questions to be tackled. The first is with regard to the provision of the necessary accommodation for the dispossessed tenant. In that case the officer of the local authority, acting on behalf of the Ministry of Health, is given the power where accommodation can be found to requisition that accommodation either to provide housing of the normal type for the dispossessed or as a temporary measure to provide what are known as rest centres or half way houses. I wish to explain that whilst we use the local authorities, with their knowledge of the local area, as agents, the expenses of that requisition are covered out of national funds and not out of local funds. In reality, we have assumed a responsibility where property can be requisitioned. In addition, we have recently given local authorities the power of requisitioning even parts of occupied houses, for the purpose of retaining tenants in accommodation there.

The second problem that arises out of this question is the storage of furniture. It has been said that this question was raised on 6th June by a Question in this House, to which I gave a reply. On that occasion, I asked my hon. Friends who have raised the matter tonight, if they would give me individual cases where the need has arisen for providing the necessary storage for furniture, and where there had been failure to provide it. I said that if evidence could be given we would be glad to consider it in dealing with this problem. Although I repeated that, in answer to a supplementary question, what I have to say is that no individual case has been brought to the notice of the Minister, of failure to find the necessary storage for furniture.

Photo of Mr Joseph Sparks Mr Joseph Sparks , Acton

May I say that there is ample evidence with the borough councils of the difficulty of accommodating this furniture, and with other local authorities besides? The information is there.

Photo of Mr Charles Key Mr Charles Key , Poplar Bow and Bromley

Yes, but what I want to point out is that the two hon. Gentlemen who raised this matter from this side of the House tonight, were both asked the question on 6th June. I asked them to provide us with evidence of individual cases, but, so far, not a single case has been provided. I want to make it plain that the local authorities have not the power, so far as my knowledge of local government goes, to provide the necessary storage for furniture. The legal power does not rest with the local authority, and the Ministry cannot give the local authorities that power because the law does not provide it, but, if the evidence can be given of the inability to provide the necessary storage accommodation, we shall then be in a position to go into that problem, and, in the cases where, as happens at the present time, local authorities will have under their control accommodation that is being used for storage of furniture of people made homeless as a result of the war, the possibility of the still further use of that accommodation could be considered. But the point we have to make plain to the local authorities, in answer to the question in this case, is that they have not the power to do that at the expense of the rates. They could, possibly, carry it out at the cost of those people whose furniture was to be stored, but it would not be possible to make it a public charge.

The problem we are up against is that no legislative power to do this business of storage of furniture arises, and the problem is not of such magnitude that special powers should be taken to do it. I have said that no evidence has been brought forward. I feel that the problem is a temporary one, brought to a head at this particular time, because this is the time when people are returning to their homes. It is, therefore, of a transitory character, and if evidence is given of the necessity for dealing with that transitory matter, temporary arrangements can be made. If there is a necessity for seeking special legislative powers that is another matter, but we have to explain to the local authorities that these are powers that they do not possess now.

Photo of Mrs Mabel Ridealgh Mrs Mabel Ridealgh , Ilford North

Would the Parliamentary Secretary say whether this case, which I will quote, is a case where the judgment has created greater hardship? This is one of my constituents whose family of 10 have been living in an eight-roomed house, and judgment was given against them, in favour of a young roan who has just been married and who is to have the whole house, Would the hon. Gentleman deal with that as a greater hardship?

Photo of Mr Charles Key Mr Charles Key , Poplar Bow and Bromley

That is not a problem for me to settle. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Obviously, it cannot be a problem for me to settle; it is a problem for the judge, and the judge must be the person responsible.

Photo of Mr George Wallace Mr George Wallace , Chislehurst

Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to do anything at all for these people of an emergency nature, because something has got to he done, even if it affects only a certain area? Human happiness is involved, and something must be done.

It being Half past Ten o'Clock,Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.