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The subject which I want to bring to the attention of the House this evening arises from a practice amongst landlords of charging excessive rents to tenants when they know that they are in receipt of National Assistance. I put dawn a Question on this subject last month to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, and I was surprised and very disappointed to find that he passed it on to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I protested about that to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who, in reply, said that—
—as it appeared to relate to restraints on landlords in respect of rents charged by them, it quite clearly comes within the sphere of responsibilities of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and not within mine.
I hesitate to think that the Minister was just passing the buck in doing that, and I prefer to believe that it was a complete misunderstanding as to the reason for
my Question. Anyhow, the Question was answered by the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 23rd November. I had asked him—
—what precautions are taken against landlords charging excessive rents for decontrolled houses from people in receipt of National Assistance.
The Minister's answer was:
The value of a house does not depend upon the tenant's source of income.
I should very much doubt that. The Minister continued:
The fact that a tenant is in receipt of National Assistance does not enable a landlord to obtain a higher rent than he could otherwise do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1959; Vol. 614, c. 9 and 10.]
As a matter of fact, that is exactly what happens. In the latest regulations of the National Assistance Board issued in June this year, it is stated that the allowances made in such cases may ordinarily be the full amount of net rent paid by the householder provided that it was related to the average fair rent in the district.
This loophole for landlords was foreseen when the Rent Bill was under discussion. Several Amendments were moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler) and our former colleague, Mr. Blenkinsop. They pointed out what was likely to happen in this case. The normal tenant of a controlled house was entitled under the Rent Act to object to the maximum rent under that Act being charged if certain repairs were not carried out to the house, but in a house occupied by a tenant in receipt of National Assistance, the maximum rent under the Rent Act was paid automatically, because the tenant was not paying the rent; the National Assistance Board was paying it. Apparently the officers of the National Assistance Board had no instructions to inquire whether the necessary repairs had been done. Indeed, I believe that they were instructed not to make these inquiries and that the maximum rent was to be paid automatically.
The position is even worse in respect of decontrolled houses because apparently in that case the sky is the limit. If the landlord finds that a tenant, who is tied to the house for various reasons and is unable to move from it, is in receipt of National Assistance, he sets any figure he likes and says to the tenant, "Do not worry. You do not have to pay it. The National Assistance Board pays it." The landlord gets his money.
That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. The most recent case with which I have had to deal is that of a widow whose rent was raised from 12s. to £2 a week as soon as the landlord discovered that she was in receipt of National Assistance.
What is the effect of this on the National Assistance Board? The 1957 Report of the National Assistance Board informs us that the average rent that year increased from 13s. 2d. to 15s. 4d. and that the Board paid 246,000 extra rent grants, with an average increase of 5s. 3d., because of the Rent Act. The 1958 Report informed us that the average rent was raised again, this time from 15s. 4d. to 18s. 9d.
It should be remembered that this is normally the poorest type of house property. The Board says in the 1958 Report that 300,000 allowances were increased for rent, with an average increase of 6s. 8d. The Board is paying full rent in 1,067,000 cases and part rent in 169,000 other cases. It is therefore paying rent allowances in 1,236,000 cases.
From what I have said it is evident that in many of these cases this is nothing but a bonus for landlords. Where those landlords are taking advantage of it, I would describe them as unscrupulous landlords. I want to ask the Minister what instructions the National Assistance Board's officers have in this matter. Is there any limit to the rent which they pay for a decontrolled house? Have they any instructions about repairs in the case of controlled houses, or do they just accept the evidence of the rent book and pay that amount automatically? If the answer to the last question is "Yes", will the Minister consider revising the instructions which those officers have in this matter?
It is most unusual for an hon. Member on this side of the House to offer the Minister something which will save money. We are not allowed on the Adjournment to suggest legislation, but often the matters raised from this side of the House would involve some expenditure. In this case it would mean, I suggest, an economy if the matter were dealt with properly. It would mean either a saving of money to the National Assistance Board or, perhaps, the Board could use that money in order to give more relief to people who need it rather than money to these landlords who are taking advantage of the present position.