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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Viscount of Oxfuird): In calling Amendment No. 254 I have to advise the Committee that should this amendment be agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 254ZA due to pre-emption.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 254:

Page 59, line 44, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: I spoke to this amendment when moving Amendment No. 251. However, I am conscious that I shall pre-empt an amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Caldecote. If he wishes to say something on his amendment, perhaps that will be convenient.

Viscount Caldecote: I, too, found the amendments proposed by my noble friend complex and difficult to follow. In his excellent explanation he covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time. I am not quite clear now whether the amendment in my name is necessary. However, the point I wish to make is that the period of two months specified in Section 11(2) of the Landlord and Tenant Act, now incorporated in Clause 86 of the Bill, is far too short a period for notice of disposal.

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Perhaps I may give one example. Let us suppose that that notice is served in mid-July or mid-December. It is quite impossible in practice to inform all the tenants involved in time for them to take legal advice on the course of action they wish to take.

I may not quite have understood the amendments my noble friend moved and which have been passed. My amendment may not be necessary. However, I should be grateful for an explanation.

Lord Lucas: I can give my noble friend the comfort that the effect of his amendment is subsumed in Part I of Amendment No. 252. Therefore, effectively we have accepted his amendment by proposing ours. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 254ZA not moved.]

Clause 86, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Meston moved Amendment No. 254ZAA:

After Clause 86, insert the following new clause--

Protection from eviction: investigation of offences

(" . After section 6 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 there shall be inserted--
"Investigation of offences.
6A. It shall be the duty of every local housing authority to investigate alleged offences contrary to this act within their administrative area.".").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, perhaps I may speak also to Amendments Nos. 254ZAB and 254ZAC. The amendments seek to reinforce the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. Under Section 6 of that Act a local authority has the power to prosecute persons for offences of harassment and/or illegal eviction. However, it is only a power. The fact is that some local authorities do nothing and the reinforcement which the first of the three amendments seeks to introduce is to provide that local authorities should have a duty to investigate potential offences under the Act.

In the third of the group of amendments, Amendment No. 254ZAC seeks to add to the category of persons on whom notice may be served under Section 7(1)(b) of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977:

    "any person presently or previously authorised to arrange for the letting of the premises; or ... any person currently engaged in the management of the premises".
It is designed to deal with the problem of shifting landlords. As drafted, Section 7(1) of the 1977 Act enables a local authority to demand from the agent or persons named in the receipt of rent to supply information relating to the name and address of the landlord.

The amendment proposes that the requirement should be extended to cover any persons engaged in the arrangements for letting or managing a property. Of course, there is a sanction within the 1977 Act for non-compliance with a notice, but that sanction does not apply if the person upon whom the notice is served can show to the satisfaction of the court that he did not know and could not, with reasonable diligence, have ascertained the facts required by the notice to be

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disclosed. I suggest that this is a sensible amendment adding to the range of powers under the 1977 legislation.

Finally, Amendment No. 254ZAB seeks to give additional powers of entry to enable tenancy relations officers to make inquiries to establish whether an offence has been committed within the terms of the 1977 Act. At present, officers are frustrated in their duties by their limited powers of entry. I suggest that even outside the provisions of this Bill, the improvements--which I believe they are--to the 1977 Act have considerable merit. In the context of the Bill and the deregulation which it proposes, it is essential that tenants' remaining rights should be protected as much as possible by conferring on local authorities the necessary statutory powers to make appropriate inquiries. I beg to move.

Lord Dubs: I am very much in sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Meston, seeks to do in the amendments. Perhaps I may put to him some questions about Amendment No. 254ZAB and the powers of entry. I am concerned that we should have adequate safeguards for homes which officials might want to enter, no matter how good the motive. Are these likely to be residential premises as well as business premises? What would be reasonable grounds for suspecting that an offence under the Act had been committed? How much evidence would the local authority official have to have to indicate that there were reasonable grounds for suspicion and therefore for obtaining entry into someone's home? The right is not something that we should give away too lightly. Although I am aware that many officials have rights of entry to people's homes, I wish to be satisfied that there are sufficient safeguards of the power.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord's Amendment No. 254ZAA would impose a new duty on local authorities to investigate alleged offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. I start by assuring the Committee that the Government agree that landlords who harass or illegally evict their tenants should be dealt with severely by the law. That is why we introduced tough new sanctions against bad landlords in the Housing Act 1988.

However, in considering the noble Lord's proposals it is important to put the problem in context. The survey of English housing reports that three-quarters of tenants say they are on good terms with their landlords; one-fifth are on neither good nor bad terms; and only 4 per cent. say they are on bad terms with their landlords. It does not follow that just because the tenant is on indifferent or bad terms with the landlord he or she is at risk of harassment or illegal eviction.

I am aware of a report published by the Campaign for Bedsit Rights in 1994 which states that 9 per cent. of all privately renting tenants face harassment. However, it is important to put this statistic in its proper context. The figure comes from the OPCS survey of private renters in 1990. Seven per cent. of tenants had simply reported that their landlord had made them feel uncomfortable at some time and want to leave. But this does not

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necessarily indicate that the landlord was guilty of harassment. There may just have been a poor personal relationship between them or the tenant may have felt uncomfortable when asked for the rent or approached about some other aspect of the tenancy agreement.

These statistics indicate that it is only a very small minority of landlords who are likely to harass their tenants or take illegal action to get them to move. However, I can assure the Committee that I do not underestimate the distress that such behaviour must cause to tenants who are subjected to it.

Local authorities already have a power under Section 6 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 to institute proceedings where an alleged offence under the Act has taken place. I have difficulty with the noble Lord's amendment, which would require local authorities to investigate every allegation of harassment. Local authorities' current powers allow them to take action where they believe that an offence may have taken place but do not require them to get involved where, for example, the tenant is alleging harassment simply because the landlord has repeatedly asked for rent arrears to be paid or where the tenant is known to be a trouble-maker. We believe that it is essential that local authorities should retain their existing discretion to act. The noble Lord's amendment would place an unacceptable burden on local authority staff and budgets.

The noble Lord's Amendment No. 254ZAB would give local authorities specific powers of entry to the property where the alleged offence had taken place and to the landlord or managing agents' business premises to collect evidence in connection with the alleged offence. It also provides for entry by force. Local authorities do, of course, have powers to enter premises for specific inspection purposes in connection with their duties to enforce environmental health and fitness standards. However, I share the reservations expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the noble Lord's amendment would represent a pretty substantial extension of those powers. Such powers are generally available only to the police to investigate criminal offences, and even then strict rules and checks are applied before entry is authorised.

Proposals to give new powers of entry are scrutinised carefully by the Home Office. A new power of entry is approved only if it is clear that it is a vital element in enforcing the law and that the consequences to the public of not having that power would be serious. I do not believe that is the case for the type of offences we are talking about where there is unlikely to be much documentary evidence that an offence has been committed. I do not underestimate the seriousness of the offences we are talking about. However, I do not believe that the situation calls for the very striking extension of local authority powers that is proposed.

The noble Lord's Amendment No. 254ZAC would extend the existing notice requirement in Section 7 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 for disclosure of the landlord's name and address to cover anyone arranging the letting of the property or managing the property. I do, of course, accept that the tenant, or

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someone acting on the tenant's behalf, should have the right to know who the landlord is and how he can be contacted. The law already requires whoever is collecting the rent, where it is not the landlord himself, to disclose the name and address of the landlord if a notice under Section 7 is served on him or her to do so. I think we can confidently assume that a landlord will appoint someone to collect the rent if he cannot do so himself. This amendment would therefore seem to me to be unnecessary.

In view of the difficulties I have outlined and the assurances I have given in relation to the existing position, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

10 p.m.

Lord Meston: I do not intend to press any of the amendments at this stage but I wish to comment on some of the points made by the Minister. I do not dispute that the great majority of tenants would neither need nor want to invoke the powers which presently exist under the 1977 Act or which are proposed by way of extension in these amendments. But, as I believe he recognises, the problem is a few hard cases involving elusive landlords who may move on, move away or hide away and who need to be tracked down. It is principally for that purpose that we seek to extend the net slightly by Amendment No. 254ZAC.

With regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I accept his instinctive concern about extending any power of entry into private premises, whether they be business or domestic premises, and I must accept that in some circumstances a place of business can also be a place of residence. That is inescapable. The fact is that concern about powers of entry--I remember that they were discussed at length during the passage through this House of the Child Support Act--always emerges when a provision of this kind is suggested. Usually the reassurance has to be given that the power will only be exercisable when there are reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has been committed--that is covered by this amendment--and, of course, that only responsible officers of the local authority or the authority which happens to be invested with the powers provided will be entitled to exercise those powers. But the necessity for these powers, I maintain, is still apparent. I suggest that they are a necessity to give some further teeth to the Protection from Eviction Act to enable local authorities to glean information as to the identity of elusive landlords and the way in which they conduct their business.

As I said, I do not propose to press any of the amendments at this stage. I reserve the right to come back at a later stage. Meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 254ZAB and 254ZAC not moved.]

Clause 87 [Provision of general legal advice about residential tenancies]:

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