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.
I have had on many occasions the opportunity of replying to debates raised by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) but I must confess that I have rarely found myself so completely in disagreement with some of the statements and, if I may say so, misapprehensions which he has voiced tonight.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman felt that he was unfairly treated about his Question but, with great respect, the key phrase in it is:
… What precautions are taken against landlords charging excessive rents …
and that is a matter over which the National Assistance Board has no authority. Quite rightly, it went to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. I think that the hon. Member knows my right hon. Friend well enough to know that he does not find it necessary to "pass the buck". He is always ready to answer for his Department when the occasion arises.
The hon. Member raised two quite separate issues. The first is the level of rent fixed by the landlord and the conditions under which he does it, which is properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The second, and quite separate, matter is the very important issue of the level of the allowance which the National Assistance Board makes towards the rent of a person on National Assistance. As he knows, the Rent Act, 1957, freed from control all dwellings with a rateable value of over £40 in London and Scotland and over £30 elsewhere, all owner-occupied houses and all new tenancies, the last being the category that is relevant to the case which the hon. Member has raised.
Rents of decontrolled property, however, could not be increased before 6th October, 1958, except under a three-year agreement. On the initiative of the Board, a record was kept until 1958 to see what impact the provisions of the Rent Act had on rent allowances paid under National Assistance. I cannot give the hon. Member figures up to this date, but the figures then, which cover the operative period, give a fair analysis and I have no reason to believe that they would be substantially different in form today. At that time a total of 1,100,000 rent allowances were being paid: 368,000 tenants were in council property not subject to rent control; and these rents had varied from time to time. This leaves over 700,000. The total number of cases recorded, over the whole period in which increases under the Rent Act had been reported in respect of decontrolled accommodation, was only 4,000. By far the majority of the increases which were allowed by the Board have occurred within the statutory limits applied by the Rent Act to controlled premises.
In the case mentioned by the hon. Member, the lady is aged 30 and has two children. She had been living with a man who was a tenant of the premises. Presumably he contributed to her maintenance and was at the time the controlled tenant of the house. In March, 1958, he left her, but the landlord allowed her to remain in the premises although she had no direct title to the tenancy. But her tenancy, being a new one after July, 1957, was thereafter not subject to control. The rent remained at much the same level, which was 13s. 8d. a week, until October this year, when it was increased to £2. The dwelling is a terraced house of four rooms.
The hon. Member will appreciate that, whereas the National Assistance Board has responsibility for the rent allowances which it grants, it can have no responsibility for nor authority over the rent which the landlord charges. In the circumstances of this case, the Board considered the £2 rent to be too high, and it advised the lady to that effect. But to give her reasonable time to find alternative accommodation, and in accordance with the sympathetic manner in which the Board deals with these cases —something of which I am sure the hon. Member approves—it undertook to allow her rent at £2 a week for a period of four weeks while she looked for alternative accommodation. She found it well within that period, in Haslingdon, at 16s. a week.
In view of what I am sure were the sincere misconceptions of the hon. Member about the manner in which the Board pays these allowances I should like to give evidence of another example of the Board's practice.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady thought it necessary to give details of the case I have mentioned. I carefully refrained from mentioning any details of the domestic situation. I mentioned the case only as an example. Incidentally, the information she has given me is not the same information as I got from the local office at the time. Can she say whether any efforts are made to query a rent of that kind?
If the hon. Member will let me develop my argument he will find that I am not dodging any of his questions. I want to give an example of the manner in which the Board deals with matters of this kind.
Recently, a case for possession came before the Salford County Court, and there were some extremely critical notices in the Manchester and Salford Press about the high rent of 34s. being charged for one room. The merits of the case before the court are not my concern, but I am concerned with the widely publicised allegations that the National Assistance Board made available to this family the full amount of 34s. for this one room, when, in fact, the Board's officers considered this rent far too high and assessed the accommodation and allowed only £1 a week for rent.
There is no evidence that the Board blindly accepts any rent charged. Its officers are instructed to consider whether a rent is a reasonable one for the purposes of making an allowance. It is not true to say that its officers make no inquiries, far less to say that they are instructed not to do so. The Board's officers do not accept and provide for high rents in respect of either controlled or decontrolled property without question, though they may, as in the case raised by the hon. Member, have to provide a high rent for a limited period to avoid hardship. No one would suggest that, at a moment's notice, a recipient of National Assistance should be expected to find alternative accommodation.
Nor does the Board meet increases under the Rent Act which are obviously improper, or where the property is obviously in a very bad state of repair. In the few cases which have come to notice it has advised the tenant about the remedies open to him and where to get advice. It cannot, however, set itself up as a technical adviser, or encroach on the functions of the local authority. Its main concern, whether the rent is controlled or decontrolled, must be to ensure that persons dependent on assistance are in a position to pay a reasonable amount for their accommodation. If the rent is beyond what can be considered reasonable for the individual applicant and the district in which he lives he will ordinarily be asked to make other arrangements as soon as possible. If necessary, the rent may be provided in full for a limited period while he is looking for some alternative. The Board has no information to suggest that excessive rents charged to its applicants in decontrolled property are becoming a problem.
The Board's annual report for 1958 shows that, out of 1,100,000 householder applicants renting accommodation, 12,000 were paying rents of 50s. a week or more. Most of these were probably in respect of furnished accommodation, and in high rent areas like London and the seaside, and the number will also include cases where a very large family requires considerable accommodation. Twenty-nine per cent. of National Assistance tenants are in local authority dwellings. As the hon. Member knows, the Landlord and Tenant Act runs until 1961, and was designed to protect existing tenants of decontrolled property who were unable to reach an agreement with their landlords. In such cases the tenant has to be taken to court before he can be evicted, and the court may in certain conditions suspend a possession order and prescribe the rent payable.
The number of cases of National Assistance applicants who have been so taken to court under the Act to date is 350. Nearly 200 of these have found alternative accommodation after being told by the National Assistance Board's officers that the rent was considered excessive or that the accommodation was not in sufficient repair to warrant it. About 20 have ceased to receive National Assistance altogether. More than 100 oases are at present unresolved, in that the period of suspension granted by the court has not yet expired, and to that extent they are under the court's jurisdiction. There is still a limit upon the rent which they can be called upon to pay.
I hope, therefore, that I have been able to prove to the hon. Gentleman that the Board's officers do have instructions; they do make investigations; and within their powers they see to it that excessive rents are not paid, either on the basis of excessive rents alone, or where the premises are in a bad state of repair; and, further, within their responsibilities, they give all the advice that they can in directing members of the public to seek the remedies available to them by going to the local authorities.
In fairness to the officers who carry out this work I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that certain of the statements that he made tonight were not in fact the practice or the habit of the National Assistance Board.
I am very glad to have that information. I hope that the hon. Lady will accept my assurance that a lot of the information that she has given is new, and I hope that it will become widely known.