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House of Lords

Wednesday, 2 April 2008.

The House met at three o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Housing: Retaliatory Eviction

Lord Williams of Elvel asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, this Government firmly believe that tenants should be able to exercise their legitimate right to ask their landlord to carry out repairs to their property without fear of eviction. On 23 January, we announced an independent review of the private rented sector, which will look at security of tenure.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, as far as it goes. Is she aware that I raised this matter 12 years ago from the opposition Front Bench? Private shorthold tenants can be expelled under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 because they ask for improvements to their property, even though under health and safety regulations they are entitled to do so. We have had 11 years of a Labour Government. Can my noble friend not do better?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I understand my noble friend’s frustration; he has indeed championed the issue. I am absolutely sympathetic to those tenants who face what we call retaliatory eviction by unscrupulous landlords. The point was that the CAB did not come forward with this report until mid-year 2007, and we acted immediately. The then Minister, Yvette Cooper, was inspired to set up the review by Julie Rugg, because it enables us to look at the context of the issue. The CAB welcomed the review. We have to understand the scale of the problem. It is not at all clear how many people are affected. We also need to avoid unintended consequences. We need a thriving private rented sector and we need to keep good landlords in the market. That is why a systematic review is important. This is not about avoiding action; it is about getting it right.

Earl Cathcart: My Lords, I declare an interest as a landlord. I welcome the Minister’s previous answer, but does she agree that the CAB recommendation to amend Section 21 of the Housing Act may well be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially as local authorities already have perfectly good existing

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powers to serve enforcement notices on owners to require them to remedy any serious repairs under the housing health and safety rating system?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Earl is right. Local authorities have those powers and we want them to use them. Part of the problem that was identified in the report is that tenants are evicted before they get a chance to see the local authority taking action. That is why we need to look at the problem, but we need to do so in the context of the condition of the private rented sector as a whole, which, although it is getting better, is still not as good as it should be.

Lord Best: My Lords, does the Minister accept that those of us who are keen to see a growth in private renting have desisted from talking about regulation for the past 12 years or so because we have worried that investment might dry up? In light of the fact that some £120 billion has now swamped the buy-to-let market and there are now more than 500,000 private landlords of very variable quality, perhaps the time has now come for some regulation for this sector.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the point about rent and tenancy regulation is always to get the balance right between the rights of the landlord and the rights of the tenant. Since 1988 and the Housing Act, we have seen an increase in the private rented sector from 9 per cent to 12 per cent of the market, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, it is time that we looked conscientiously and comprehensively at this sector to see how it can be improved.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, does not retaliatory eviction by landlords constitute harassment, which is a criminal offence?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, in certain circumstances that may be the case. However, the law is quite clear that Section 21 can be used after the assured tenancy has expired, as long as the notice is served correctly.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, does the Minister agree—I am sure that she will—that the CAB is to be congratulated on what is as ever a succinct and helpful report, which includes the comment:

Does she also agree that lessons might be taken from employment law, where an employee cannot be dismissed for trying to enforce his statutory rights? Perhaps that example could be built on in this sector.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the CAB—particularly Debbie Crew, for whom I understand this was something of a personal crusade—is to be congratulated on the way in which this has been brought to our attention. The parallel with employment law and the law against unfair dismissal is not particularly helpful and we would be reluctant to pursue it. Again, however, Julie Rugg is looking at the whole thing and may well look at that as well.

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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, does the Minister remember the time when regulation was such—I declare an interest, having let property for 40 years or more—that no one was willing to let anything, and the Wilson Government imposed an absolute rent freeze, which did untold damage? Although I support the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who is very well informed on this, we must be careful about what we do to ensure fairness to both parties.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it is in everyone’s interests to get the balance right between the rights of the landlord and the rights of the tenant. That is certainly what we have been trying to do in recent years.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, are not many student tenants compromised into doing their own repairs? Is the tenant deposit scheme proving to be of any help in this area?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am pleased to say that the tenant deposit scheme has been a huge success. In fact, it is exactly a year since we introduced it. One million deposits have been protected in that time, which means that £885 million of cash has been safeguarded by the scheme. Many of those tenants will be students. There are areas of the country in which students are congregated and it is worth saying that, although students bring enormous economic and social benefits to those areas, we are looking at what we might do with interested local authorities and universities to identify ways in which we can ease some of the pressures in those areas.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, some of the tenants whom we are talking about will inevitably be on housing benefit. The noble Baroness will remember that the Government have a pilot scheme for removing or reducing housing benefit for those tenants who lose their occupancy because of anti-social behaviour. Can she update us on that?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot. It is a good question, but I shall have to write to the noble Lord.

Agriculture: Pig Industry

3.15 pm

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, we have supported the measures taken by the European Commission to increase feed grain supply to the EU market in respect of the current high prices. Various factors have been used for that, such as zero set-aside

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and the selling of intervention stocks. We have frequently made the point that it is in the supermarkets’ and processors’ own long-term interests to establish fair and sustainable arrangements for dealing with their suppliers. However, ultimately, the market will set the price.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very helpful reply. From what he has said, I am sure he is aware that, while feedstock prices have gone up by 50 per cent, the British pig producer is losing roughly £26 per finished pig. If that continues, there will not be a British industry to talk about. I noted that pork was on the luncheon menu in the Peers’ Dining Room, which I hope came from a British source.

I should like to ask my noble friend for help in two ways. First, he mentioned the supermarkets. Will he join the campaign to get better prices for UK pig producers and ensure that it is passed down and does not get stuck in the supply chain to the farmers? Secondly, with the highest animal welfare standards in the world, will the Minister do something about the unfair competition from importers who have nothing near our animal welfare standards?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, on the first part of my noble friend’s question, he is absolutely right. If the supermarkets want to see the end of English pork production, they are going exactly the right way about it. We fully support the claims of the industry that it should get a fairer share of the price, but we cannot interfere on that. It is true that we have the highest welfare standards in the world. Some other countries in Europe—Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany—certainly have high standards. However, the real issue is that World Trade Organisation rules do not allow welfare standards to be raised as part of the deals, which we are pressing in the European Union to get on to the WTO agenda.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government can do nothing with the supermarkets because it is up to the market to bear the cost. However, as most of the pork sold comes through a very small number of supermarkets which have almost a monopoly on the sale of pork, is it not an issue that could be referred to the competition authorities? These supermarkets are keeping the price artificially low, which is affecting the industry. As the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, pointed out, pork is on the menu in the Peers’ Dining Room. It is from a rare breed, which will be the case for the whole of the British pig industry in the next three or four years.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I regret that I have to hide behind the fact that the Competition Commission has an ongoing investigation, so it is inappropriate for me to comment. But the issues are very relevant.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, as the whole of the Danish economy is based on the sale of bacon, it seems to me, and as Denmark, too, has supermarkets, have we anything to learn from the Danes?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, we import an enormous amount of bacon, but about 55 per cent of our consumption is home produced. On the totality of pork, ham and bacon, as much of that is consumed as lamb and beef in this country, so consumption is large. But the Danes have also suffered from the high feed prices—they represent 60 per cent of production costs. As my noble friend Lord Hoyle said, everyone knows that they have gone up far more in the past year. These prices will work their way through to everyone.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a problem not only for the pig industry, but also for the dairy and beef industry? It is in part due to the trend to move away from growing wheat and soya for animal feed to growing these crops for biofuels—especially in South American countries, such as Brazil—which is much more profitable. Have the Government any suggestions for what should be done about this in order to safeguard European Union producers?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the growing of biofuels in the United Kingdom and the European Union is so tiny that it is not the cause of the high grain prices. We have had two poor summers which led to bad harvests, while the problems in Australia and the growth in consumption across Asia and China have been major factors. However, the noble Lord has raised another issue. We must make sure that biofuels do not replace food crops, which would result in the price of food going up.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, I share in the concerns about the pig industry, but what about me and other noble Lords who have been told not to eat our sausages in the morning?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am told that you are quite safe if you eat a basically healthy and balanced diet.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would help if consumers were encouraged to buy more British pig meat? The key to this is informing the consumer of the country of origin by ensuring that food labels demonstrate clearly that the products, processed or not, are made from British pigs, while meat from overseas sources and processed here cannot be labelled as British. When are the Government going to do something about country of origin labelling to this end?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the fact is that the current position is very unsatisfactory. Labelling for food shows where the product underwent its last significant process as opposed to where the food was grown or reared. This is something we are dealing with through the European Union, and the Food Standards Agency is undertaking consultation on better labelling proposals. But what underlies the noble Lord’s question is the need to get the message across to British consumers. We need to make it clear that extra costs on farmers are reflected in the price. That

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has got to be genuine information. So it is no good when we have what happened a week ago in the other place. The Leader of the Opposition chided the Prime Minister over the increase in the price of milk, but for the past 18 months Tory MPs have been queuing up at my office and demanding that I get more money to our dairy farmers. Doing that has had an effect on the price of milk, and the same argument applies to the price of meat.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, will the Minister consider the fact that, before the hike in grain feed prices, which has seen them double, the variable costs in the production of pig meat were working out at 80 per cent for feed? Is it not time that a ban was put in place on supermarkets selling product at less than the cost of production?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is a very unsatisfactory situation, but, as I have said, at the end of the day the market will decide. The Competition Commission is looking at these issues, and the Government have given as much support as they can to the industry in trying to get a fair deal. As I made clear in an earlier response, if the supermarkets want to see the end of English pork production, at the moment they are going the right way about it.

Banking: Credit Crunch

3.23 pm

Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Chancellor regularly meets the governor to discuss a range of issues. As was the case with previous Administrations, it is not the Government’s practice to provide details of all such meetings.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, does my noble friend find it as incomprehensible as I do that major banks and clever bankers, who are the cause of much of the problem, have obviously been buying assets worth billions of pounds without checking them carefully? Will he therefore congratulate the governor on at least now being willing to consider the liquidity issues that are involved here—previously he was prepared to look only at inflation and nothing else? Is that because the Chancellor told the governor that under the Bank of England Act he has the power, which he should use, to look at issues other than inflation?

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