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.