Rent Assessment Committees: Procedure and Information Powers

Clause 38 – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 13th June 1988.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 9:15 pm, 13th June 1988

I beg to move amendment No. 223, in page 30, line 21, at end insert: `(5) Proceedings for an offence committed under this section may be instituted by any of the following authorities:

  1. (a) councils or districts and London boroughs;
  2. (b) the Common Council of the City of London;
  3. (c) the Council of the Isles of Scilly.'
. The amendment has had a chequered history which deserves a mention. It relates to clause 39 and sets out procedural matters in rent assessment committees. Clause 39(2) states that where an RAC has received an application to fix a market rent, it can serve a notice on the landlord or tenant asking for information. The RAC may need to know, for example, the length of the tenancy, its terms and the details of the premises. It is possible that a landlord will seek to frustrate the proceedings by failing to provide the relevant information. Clause 39(3) states that if that person fails to provide information it will be a criminal offence. That is only right, because if the RAC is to have any credibility, it needs to have powers to ensure that its proceedings are not frustrated.

Who should prosecute such an offence? That is the crucial point. At present, councils, districts and London boroughs have powers to prosecute for similar offences under paragraphs 7(2) and (3) of schedule 11 and sections 149 and 150 of the Rent Act 1977. In Committee, I thought that we had convinced the Government of the need to incorporate this power into the Bill, which will be the primary reference point for the new private rented sector.

I had the memorable experience of being congratulated by the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe)—who I am delighted to see in her place after having enjoyed herself in the vast, deep wastes of Finland. The hon. Lady has not told us what she was doing there. Perhaps she was studying igloo construction in case the nuclear winter hits us and we have to live in them. No doubt, when she replies she will tell us exactly what she was doing, if it is repeatable in the House. I remember the hon. Lady saying: I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Newham, North-West for drawing attention to this omission in the Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 4 February 1988; c. 625.] I was grateful for such a gracious compliment. Unfortunately, it has not turned itself into a Government amendment on Report.

In an earlier exchange, the Minister said that section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972 covers what we want. I said that I would check, but my advice is that it does not. In her letter to me, the Minister said: This enables an authority to prosecute in any legal proceedings where they consider it expedient for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants in their area.[Interruption.] I realise that the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) has just acquired a new pair of glasses, but I did not realise that he needed a hearing aid as well. Perhaps he should try to get one before the charges for all of them go up.

The legal departments of most borough councils consider that section 222 of the 1972 Act relates to a number of the inhabitants of an area rather than one inhabitant. I do not want to push this matter too much, but perhaps the Minister could obtain some advice or look at the matter again and make it clear that section 222 could be used in respect of one inhabitant in an area. That would meet the terms of the amendment. If we wait a little longer perhaps someone will come to the Minister's assistance with that information. I hope that she will say that the terms of the amendment are acceptable to the Government or that section 222 covers a single individual.

Photo of Mr John Wheeler Mr John Wheeler , Westminster North

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I regret the need to interrupt the proceedings of the House but I have only just succeeded in reaching the Chamber, notwithstanding the fact that a Division was called. I discovered that the doors to Norman Shaw North were locked and hon. Members were unable to escape from the building to come and vote. Could the Serjeant at Arms be instructed to ensure that the doors are unlocked?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

That is probably one of the most genuine points of order that has ever been put to me. I shall certainly ensure that the Serjeant at Arms is so instructed.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

I thank the hon. Member for Newham. North-West (Mr. Banks) for welcoming me back to the House. I was on an official visit to Sweden and Finland to examine housing and planning matters on behalf of the Government.

When the hon. Gentleman raised the issue in Committee, the Government agreed to consider it. On examining the matter further, we concluded that it was unnecessary to give local authorities a specific power to prosecute offences under clause 39 because of their general power to initiate prosecutions in section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972. That empowers local authorities to prosecute proceedings when they consider it expedient for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of their area". I have checked and I assure the hon. Gentleman that that provision also relates to a single inhabitant. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 5 May explaining why we did not think that an amendment was needed and I therefore hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.