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Housing (Shorthold Tenancies)

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 30 January 1979

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3.43 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for the letting of properties on fixed terms; and for purposes connected therewith.
Once again I seek the leave of the House to introduce my Bill, which the House has allowed me to introduce in previous Sessions.

In the part of London which I represent, there are tens of thousands of empty properties which would be perfectly suitable for letting if the owners could be confident that they would in due course obtain vacant possession of those properties when they wanted them. There are also tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in central London who are looking for just the type of accommodation that could be made available if Parliament were prepared to make a minor adjustment in the Rent Acts. I hope that something will be done as a matter of urgency so that these properties—many of which are deteriorating as they are vacant—may be brought into general use.

The reason why I am coining the word "shorthold" is that I do not want my proposal to be confused with the idea simply of reversal to the old form of short lease, which obviously gave rise to problems which Parliament does not wish to countenance.

I fully accept the value of the principle of security of tenure. Therefore, in using the word "shorthold" I am trying to devise a new form of tenure in which every possible protection is afforded to the tenant against any kind of exploitation or abuse.

What I envisage is a lease of perhaps one to three years. A longer period would certainly be possible. Both parties should understand from the start the nature of the arrangement into which they are entering. In the previous Session's Bill I provided a number of safeguards. I should like to list them briefly within the context of a speech under the Ten Minutes Rule.

First, the landlord must let the tenant know, not less than 90 days before the end of the arrangement, whether it is his intention to seek repossession or to offer the sitting tenant the opportunity to continue in the property. The landlord must offer renewal to the sitting shortholder or withdraw the property from this type of letting for a period of not less than six months.

I suggest that the properties should be let at the fair rent as determined according to the normal procedure under the Rent Act 1968. I provided in my Bill in the previous Session, and would be willing to do so again, a maximum limit on the deposit that the landlord might ask and the amount of payments in advance.

As to the quality of the premises, I am not in the least interested in bringing on to the market rat-holes or stagnant basements without proper ventilation or facilities. I say that no letting should be approved by the rent officer unless he is satisfied that it is a self-contained property, that it is provided with all the standard amenities, and that it is up to a sufficient standard to qualify for an improvement grant. Here we are not considering properties which just scrape past the health and safety byelaws; we are considering properties which provide a thoroughly decent home under an arrangement of the kind that both parties seek to reach if permitted to so under the law.

I have specified that the tenant's responsibilities as to maintenance should be only for the interior decoration, repairs and maintenance. The tenant would not be exposed to sudden horrifying bills when the structure of the property was found to be unsound. Moreover, I have specified that the rent officer should be satisfied, before approving a lease, that both parties are aware of their rights and obligations under this form of tenure.

If any hon. Member would like to suggest any other safeguards which should be included in a Bill empowering landlords and tenants to enter into shorthold tenancies, I should be glad to give them favourable consideration. We want to establish a workable and satisfactory form of tenure which will become a commonplace feature and bring back into use tens of thousands of vacant properties.

I know that the Minister has severe reservations about the shorthold idea. They arise partly from the fact that he does not appear to have studied my proposals in detail. For instance, in a letter which he wrote on 18 December 1978 to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker), he said:
"The problem about shorthold, which its advocates have not really faced, is—what is to happen to the many tenants who do not want to leave when their fixed term expires? Experience shows that they will either stay on, facing exploitative rents, or be evicted."
I have shown that it would not be possible for them to be confronted with exploitative rent demands because they would be in the same position as any other tenant within the protection of the Rent Acts.

If the arrangement came to an end at the conclusion of the period agreed at the start, I do not think that the word "eviction" would be appropriate. Should the owner of the property want vacant possession at the end, after giving the 90 days' notice, the tenant would find no difficulty, if a law on the lines I propose were enacted, in moving into similar premises elsewhere offering much the same kind of facilities.

I am sure—as many experts have said lately—that there would be a surplus of accommodation, certainly in central London and in many other parts of the country too, if only these empty properties could be brought back into use. The tenant would be the party in the strong position. The landlord would be scraping round to find a suitable tenant and would not be in a position to dictate.

The other objection which I know the Minister has is that the principle of short-hold is in conflict with the principle of security of tenure. I emphasise that not everybody seeking accommodation, certainly in central London—and, I believe, in many other parts of the country as well—wants life-long, permanent security of tenure. In Kensington there are many people who are in London for a time, such as students or people in the early stages of their careers, who want a reasonable place in which to live but who are not satisfied with the available landlady accommodation, which does not give them the same security as I would like them to have under the shorthold system. They would like decent small flats.

The same applies to young married people who have not yet enough income to start house purchase and who do not want to apply for council accommodation, perhaps, because in due course they mean to move from London and make their careers elsewhere. They deserve to have the right to make reasonable agreements to cover their need for accommodation while they are living in London without resorting to squatting, which is what all too many of them have to do. They take the law into their own hands because Parliament has failed them.

Concerning the principle of security of tenure, I remind the Minister that he has also said that he is ready to consider exempting lettings of flats over shops and similar categories of accommodation from full Rent Act security, so that even here we are not facing a conflict of principle between the parties. All that we seem to be facing is some kind of obstinacy on the Minister's part, because he is not prepared to contemplate any significant change in the provisions of the Rent Act 1974.

When that Act was passed, I said that there were many things in it which were necessary and right, and they are not now matters of controversy. The problem is that it has created a very large number of empty properties which are decaying but which could be brought into use. This needs Parliament's attention, and it should be tackled on an all-party basis. If a provision such as I am seeking to make is to succeed, obviously the owners of the properties would have to be confident that, in the event of a change of Government, there would not suddenly again be a change in the law which would result in the contracts being broken retrospectively and the owners being unable, in the end, to get repossession, although at the start of the tenancy they confidently expected that the law would allow them to do so.

I hope that I have said enough to recommend the proposal to the House. I trust that, in the name of common sense and, indeed, of humanity, the House will give me leave to reintroduce my Bill.

Is the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) seeking to oppose the Bill?

3.52 p.m.

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I oppose the Bill because it would be used by the big property companies to circumvent the security of tenure granted by the Rent Acts. That, I readily grant, is not the intention of the mover, the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams). He is a sincere, upright and honourable Member. I do not doubt his goood intentions. But there are—I am sure that he will admit it—wily and unscrupulous property boys who would use this as the thin end of a very thick wedge. These landlords would quickly put all their flats on this sort of shorthold basis as soon as they became vacant; in fact, they would have their tenants by the shortholds. These gentlemen would soon find loopholes in the hon. Gentleman's safeguard. His safeguard is that if the landlord proposes to offer the property again for a further period of shorthold tenancy, he must give first refusal to the sitting shortholder.

This restriction indicates that the hon. Gentleman himself sees certain dangers from the "dirty tricks departments" of large property companies. What would they do? When the first period of short-hold terminated, they would remove their property from the market. Then, as soon as it suited their purpose, they would get round the safeguard for the previous tenant by letting to a new one. This evasion would be extremely difficult to check and control. Therefore security of tenure, already evaded by various devices, would be eroded on a growing scale.

I refer, for example, to the so-called holiday lettings in Manchester, Hackney, Hornsey, Camden, Kentish Town and other popular resorts, not to mention non-exclusive occupation agreements following the notorius Somma v. Hazelhurst case—which needs to be put right very quickly—or provision of board in the form of a weekly delivery of cornflakes.

In no clause does the Bill provide that its provisions would be confined to owner-occupiers. It is wide open to the big property companies. Consider the case of an owner-occupier, not a commercial landlord, who, on account of his job, has to move to another town or country for, say, 12 months. He may fear that if he lets he will be unable to repossess his house when he wants to do so. That is a mistaken fear. Today, under the consolidating measure—the Rent Act 1977—if the house is his main residence, whether furnished or unfurnished, he can ensure repossession by making a fixed-term agreement with the new tenant. That is the law today. The owner-occupier can let on a short-term agreement and, at the end of the period, resecure possession through the court, if necessary, if he requires it for his own use. Indeed, schedule 15 to the Act lists 18 different cases in which the owner can repossess. It can be obtained earlier than the 90 days mentioned in the Bill.

Those landlords owning accommodation in which they do not live have no case for evicting their tenants—provided, of course, that the latter pay the rent, respect the property and behave reasonably to neighbours.

I take this opportunity of pointing out that it is untrue, certainly in London, to say that there is more housing property vacant following the introduction of the Rent Act 1974. The figures that I am about to give have not so far appeared in the press. They are taken from the GLC abstract of statistics. The number of privately owned empty houses in the Greater London area in 1975 was 34,846. By last year, far from increasing, the number had fallen to 25,117. In Kensington and Chelsea, with which the hon. Gentleman is well acquainted, the figure had fallen by half, from 2,640 to 1,343.

Division NO.54]


[3.58 p.m.

Adley, RobertClark, Alan(Plymouth, Sutton)Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)
Aitken, JonathanClark, William (Croydon S)Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)
Alison, MichaelClegg, WalterGilmour, Sir John (East Fife)
Amery, Rt Hon JulianCooke, Robert (Bristol W)Glyn, Dr Alan
Atkins, Rt Hon H.(speclthorne)Cope, JohnGoodhew, Victor
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East)Cormack, PatrickGow, Ian (Eastbourne)
Beith, A.J.Costain, A.P.Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)
Bendall, VivianDean, paul (N Somerset)Gray, Hamish
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)Dodsworth, GeoffreyGrimond, Rt Hon J.
Benyon, WDouglas-Hamilton, Lord JmaesGrist, Ian
Berry, Hon AnthonyDrayson, BurnabyGrylls, Michael
Biggs-Davison, Johndu Cann, Rt Hon EdwardHamilton, Archibald (Epsom & Ewell)
Boscawen, Hon RobertDurant, TonyHamilton, Micheal (Salisbury)
Bottomely, PeterDykes, HughHarrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnHaselhurst, Alan
Braine, Sir BernardEdwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Haselhurst, Stephen
Brittan, LeonElliott, Sir WilliamHayhoe, Barney
Brooke, Hon PeterEyre, ReginaldHicks, Robert
Brotherton, MichaelFairbairn, NicholasHodgson, Robin
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Fairgrieve, RussellHolland, Philip
Buchanan-Smith, AlickFarr, JohnHowell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Buck, AntonyFinsberg, GeoffreyHutchison, Michael Clark
Budgen, NickFookes, Miss JanetIrving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Bulmer, EsmondFormer, NigelJames, David
Burden, F.A.Fowler, Norman (Sutton, C'f'd)Jenkin, Rt Hon P.(Wanst' d&W'df'd)
Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Fraser, Rt Hon H.(Stafford & St)Jopling, Michael
Chalker, Mrs LyndaFreud, ClementKilfedder, James
Churchill, W.SGardiner, George (Reigate)Kimball, Marcus

An ending by building societies of their reluctance to lend on older, cheaper houses would be far more valuable in reducing vacancies than is the hon. Gentleman's shorthold proposal. The effect of the Bill would eventually be that a few landlords would let on protected tenancies and freedom from eviction at present provided by the consolidated Rent Act 1977.

There are 800,000 empty properties today, if we include Scotland, and that is a scandal. This is mostly because the owners are holding out for higher selling prices or higher rents. Labour Members want to make such accommodation available. The way to deal with property—other than that of owner-occupiers—which is empty without good reason is to impose full rates or, where empty for more than six months, to permit acquisition or requisition by the local authority for letting to applicants on the list. As long as the housing shortage exists, we must retain full security of tenure and rent control.

I ask the House to reject the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 160.

Knox, DavidPage, Richard (Workington)Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Langford-Holt, Sir JohnPardoe, JohnSpeed, Keith
Lawson, NigelParkinson, CecilSpence, John
Le Marchant, SpencerPattie, GeoffreySproat, Iain
Lester, Jim (Beeston)Percival, IanStanley, John
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Peyton, Rt Hon JohnSteel, Rt Hon David
Luce, RichardPrice, David (Eastleigh)Stradling Thomas, J.
Macfarlane, NeilPym, Rt Hon FrancisTebbit, Norman
Macmillan, Rt Hon M.(Farnham)Rathbone, TimTemple-Morris, Peter
McNair-Wilson, M.(Newbury)Renton, Rt Hon Sir D.(Hunts)Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
McNair-Wilson, P.(New Forest)Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Marten, NeilRhodes James, R.Townsend, Cyril D.
Mates, MichaelRidley, Hon NicholasViggers, Peter
Mather, CarolRifkind, MalcolmWainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinRoberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Walker-smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Mayhew, PatrickRoss, Stephen (Isle of Weight)Walters, Dennis
Mills, PeterRost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)Weatherill, Bernard
Molyneaux, JamesSainsbury, TimWells, John
Monro, HectorSt. John-Stevas, NormanWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
Montgomery, FergusShaw, Giles (Pudsey)Whitney, Raymond
Morgan, GeraintShaw, Michael (Scarborough)Wiggin, Jerry
Morris, Michael (Northampton S)Shaw, William (Stratham)Winterton, Nicholas
Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)Shepherd, ColinYoung, Sir G.(Ealing, Action)
Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)Shersby, MichaelYounger, Hon George
Mudd, DavidSilvester, Fred
Nelson, AnthonySims, RogerTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Neubert, MichaelSkeet, T.H.H.Sir Brandon Rhys William and
Newton, TonySmith, Dudley (Warwick)Mr. Kenneth Baker.
Page, Rt Hon, R. Graham (Crosby)


Allaun, FrankGarrett, John (Norwich S)Mikardo, Ian
Armstrong, ErnestGeorge, BruceMillan, Rt Hon, Bruce
Ashley, JackGould, BryanMiller, Dr M.S (E Kilbride)
Ashton, JoeGraham, TedMitchell, Austin (Grimsby)
Atkins, Ronald, (Preston N)Grant, George (Morpeth)Morton, George
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)Grant, John (Islington C)Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Newens, Stanley
Bales, AlfHamilton, W.W.(Central Fife)Nobel, Mike
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodHarrison, Rt Hon WalterOrbach, Maurice
Bidwell, SydneyHattersley, Rt Hon RoyOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Blenkinsop, ArthurHeffer, Eric S.Ovenden, John
Boothroyd, Miss BettyHome Robertson, JohnOwen, Rt Hon Dr David
Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurHoram, JohnPalmer, Arthur
Bradley, TomHowell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)Park, George
Brown, Hugh D.(Provan)Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Parker, John
Buchan, NormanHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Parry, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Hughes, Roy (Newport)Pavitt, Laurie
Campbell, IanHunter, AdamPendry, Tom
Cant, R.B.Jay, Rt Hon DouglasPerry, Ernest
Cartwright, JohnJeger, Mrs LenaPrice, C.(Lewisham W)
Clemitson, IvorJenkins, Hugh (Putney)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)John, BrynmorRichardson, Miss Jo
Cohen, StanleyJohnson, James (Hull West)Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Coleman, DonaldJones, Alec (Rhondda)Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Colquhoun, Ms MaureenJones, Barry (East Flint)Roderick, Caerwyn
Conlan, BernardJones, Dan (Burnley)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Corbett, RobinJudd, FrankRooker, J.W
Cowans, HarryKerr, RussellSedgemore, Brian
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Lambie, DavidSever, John
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Lamborn, HarryShaw, Arnold, (Ilford, south)
Cryer, BobLamond, JamesShore, Rt Hon Peter
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Latham, Arthur (Paddington)Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Leadbitter, TedSilkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Deakins, EricLestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)Silverman, Julius
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Skinner, Dennis
Dempsey, JamesLitterick, TomSpriggs, Leslie
Dewar, DonaldLofthouse, GeoffreyStoddart, David
Dormand, J.DLoyden, EddieStrang, Gavin
Douglass-Mann, BruceLyon, Alexander (York)Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)McCartney, HughThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
English, MichaelMcDonald, Dr OonaghThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)McElhone, FrankThorne, Stan (Preston South)
Evans, John (Newton)McKay, Allen (Penistone)Tinn, James
Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Maclennan, RobertTomlinson, John
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.McMillan, Tom, (Glasgow C)Tuck, Raphael
Flannery, MartinMadden, MaxWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Marks, KennethWalker, Terry (Kingswood)
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMarshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Ward, Michael
Forrester, JohnMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)Watkins, David
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Mason, Rt Hon RoyWhite, James (Pollok)

Wigley, DafyddWlse, Mrs Audrey
Willey, Rt Hon FrederickWoodall, AlecTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)Wrigglesworth, IanMr. Andrew F. Bennett and
Wilson, William (Coventry SE)Young, David (Bolton E)Mr. Canavan Dennis

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Peter Brooke, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Reginald, Mr. Geoffrey, Finsberg, Mr. David Knox, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Michael Shersby and Mr. Cyril D. Townsend.

Housing (Shorthold Tenancies)

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision for the letting of properties on fixed terms; and for purposes connected therewith; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday and to be printed. [Bill 65.]