With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
Nine months having passed since the Rent Act came into operation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have been taking stock of the working of the Act, and I now wish to make a statement on the position on his behalf as well as my own.
The increased rents allowed for houses which remain under control are enabling landlords to put them into proper repair, and all over the country this part of the Act is well on the way to achieving its object of preserving the houses and preventing future slums. Over the country at large the decontrol provisions of the Act are also operating without serious difficulty, and even in a few areas which are more difficult, such as London, very large numbers of tenants have already been able to enter into new agreements on reasonable terms or have succeeded for themselves in making other arrangements. [An HON. MEMBER: "In Hamp-stead?"] Thus, by bringing about better use of under-occupied accommodation, the second object of the Act has been accomplished, and the Government do not intend to repeal or amend it.
Measures imperative in the national interest to combat inflation have, I know, made it harder for some decontrolled tenants wishing to buy a house for themselves. It is also beyond doubt that there would have been nowhere near so many notices to quit served but for the Labour Party's threat of municipalisation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Nevertheless, out of the 800,000 households whose tenancies have been decontrolled, the proportion who may not have solved their housing problem by October and may, therefore, be liable to eviction, seems likely to be small.
But these families will be concentrated in a few areas, and the greater part of them are likely to be elderly people with limited means—the type of people whose problems, naturally, take longer to solve, and who might be exposed to severe hardship if they were not given a little more time to find suitable accommodation within their means. Under the existing law the county court is powerless to hold up an order for possession for more than four weeks or so, even though the tenant may have nowhere to go.
The Government propose an amendment of the law of landlord and tenant so that in appropriate cases of decontrolled tenants the court may grant a rather longer delay before the landlord can regain possession, if the tenant can satisfy it on three matters—[HON. MEMBERS: "Resign."]—first, that he has done his best to reach a new agreement with his landlord, and failed; secondly, that he has made every reasonable effort to obtain other accommodation, and failed; and, thirdly, that immediate eviction would mean greater hardship to him than a limited postponement of vacant possession would mean to the landlord. Any postponement will be solely for the purpose of granting more time to find other accommodation, and after 6th October an increased rent will be payable. Corresponding provision will be made as regards the sheriff courts in Scotland.
That is so, Mr. Speaker.
The necessary Measure, which will be of temporary duration and will apply to Scotland as well as to England and Wales, will be introduced immediately after the Easter Recess and passed into law without delay. The Government have declared their determination that the objects of the Rent Act shall be achieved, and also that they shall be achieved in a fair and reasonable manner. Both these pledges we intend to fulfil.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we do not accept the statement of his objects in relation to the Rent Act and, further, that we do not propose to argue in detail about a completely inaccurate and wholly incomplete statement of its present effects? Perhaps he had better bring a bell next time he intends to make that sort of statement.
Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that the Labour Party's plans for dealing with the housing situation came out before, and not after, the Government saw fit to introduce the Rent Bill? Is he still further aware that we welcome his conversion to the proposals which my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach) sought leave to introduce by way of a Ten Minutes Rule Bill on 11th February, and that we wonder why the right hon. Gentleman voted against it? As for legislation, we must reserve our comments until it appears.
The Minister referred to the proposal as being "of temporary duration." How long is that temporary duration to be? Is he aware that the old people to whom he refers have a horror of going near courts of law? Does he not consider that it would be reasonable for rent tribunals to deal with this question, upon a basis of justice?
The Minister has referred to cases which go to the county courts. Can he help those of us who are laymen, in the argument which is now proceeding among lawyers, on the question whether, under the Rent Act, it is necessary for a landlord to go to a county court to obtain possession, or whether he can evict without a court order?
Is the Minister aware that his statement will be acclaimed throughout the country as a most humane statement?—[Laughter.] I can wait. Is he aware that his statement will be acclaimed throughout the country—[HON. MEMBERS: "Take your hands out of your pockets."]—as a great humane statement and, further, that the Labour Party—[Interruption.]—will be stopped—[Interruption.]
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the statement that he has made today—[HON.MEMBERS: "Take your hands out of your pockets."]—is in accordance with the character that he has achieved in London in the last twenty or thirty years as a local government expert? Further, may I say this to him—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Is he aware that he has carried out his promise, contained in the speech he made in Hampstead a short time ago, to deal with the situation as and when he was satisfied that it needed dealing with? Is he also aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been worried about the effect of the eviction provisions of the Rent Act feel a great deal of confidence in the statement that he has made?
Does the Secretary of State, speaking for Scotland, subscribe to that part of the statement made by the Minister which says that houses which remain controlled and have had a rent increase are now being repaired by the landlords? If he does subscribe to that, will he tell us from where he has obtained the evidence in support of that? In that part of the statement which concerns Scotland, is the Secretary of State merely following his right hon. Friend, as he has done hitherto? Is his part of the statement the result of his examination of the problem, or of the result at Kelvingrove?
Broadly speaking, I agree precisely with what the Minister said in the earlier part of his statement. There are slightly different emphases in Scotland in relation to the question of how much work has been done in the repair of houses but, broadly speaking, the process is going on effectively in Scotland.
I can assure the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) that I have been studying this matter very closely ever since I made speeches in Greenock, Port Glasgow and two other places, saying that I was watching what was happening. I have been in close touch with my right hon. Friend and I entirely agree with what is proposed.
Does the Minister appreciate that the announcement which he has made this afternoon, limited though it is, is, nevertheless, an admission that many of the Labour Party's criticisms of his Rent Act were legitimate, and that many people were likely to be evicted in October in a hurry? Will he now confess that the Labour Party was right in being highly critical of many of the provisions of his Rent Act?
No, Sir. If the right hon. Gentleman will read the first speech that I made about the Rent Act after I became Minister, he will see that I laid stress upon the importance of finding the right measures to ease and smooth the transition. The failure of the Labour Party is that it was never prepared to face the rent problem at all.
Is it not a fact that this very satisfactory statement relates to what is quite a narrow point of law? Has not the county court always had discretion to suspend an order for possession when a controlled house has become decontrolled, and was not there some doubt about it under the Act? Has not my right hon. Friend resolved that doubt in favour of the tenant?
May I ask my right hon. Friend to take the opportunity to remind local authorities that, to a great extent, the solution of these hard cases is in their hands—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—if they would make way for the really needy cases by terminating the tenancies of council house tenants who have an income of more than £30 a week?
Local authorities certainly have an important part to play in the fulfilment of their housing obligations. I am advised that at present the county court can give a stay of possession for four weeks, but not longer. The Bill will enable the county court, in proper cases, to give a longer stay.