Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 11, line 32, at the end to insert:
(b) shall prohibit the appointment of any person as a rent officer or a deputy rent officer who has had less than five years practical experience during the immediately preceding ten years in the valuation of dwelling-houses.
This Amendment goes to the root of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to determine what is a fair rent for a particular property. There are, clearly, two main points to achieving this purpose. The first concerns the definition of a fair rent and the second the machinery for applying that definition to a certain case. The definition of a fair rent is outside the purview of this Amendment and we are considering the administrative machinery for applying that definition to a particular case.
What we are concerned with is that the person who is charged with the duty of applying that definition should be competent to do the job. We offered the Minister a solution during the Committee stage which would have prevented him from piling up a bureaucracy. He rejected that solution, but, as a result of our discussions then, we are moving this Amendment for his consideration. The objective is the same—to provide that the people charged with the job of deciding a fair rent shall be fully able to do that task. In Committee we had some discussion as to what exactly was the job which the rent officer would have to do. There was some variation in the views expressed. Some took the view that his main job would merely be one of conciliation between the two parties to a dispute.
We reject that view of the job. It is quite different from the duties of the rent officer which are laid down in the Bill. Those duties can be found in Schedule 3, and they make it quite clear that they are not merely conciliatory but include the duty of deciding a fair rent, as related to the property. It is not merely his job to solve a dispute between parties. It is to decide what a fair rent is for a particular property, and if we in this House have [column 669]done our job properly, the answer to the question, “What is a fair rent?” should be more or less the same, regardless of who is the rent officer and who is the landlord or tenant. To the extent that the answer differs there is a considerable arbitrariness in the Bill, and arbitrariness is the very negation of legislation.
It is well known that many people think that there is a considerable element of arbitrariness in the Bill at the moment. This Amendment is designed to reduce that. The Observer of 28th March said:
“Honest men, acting with all the skill and knowledge which are available, could give answers based on this formula differing by factors of two or three—one man could easily conclude that a ‘fair rent’ is £2, and another could equally justifiably conclude that it is £4, or even £6. I can see no ‘fairness’ in this.”
If that view is right we are not providing legislation at all. We are merely providing a method of perpetuating an arbitrary decision. To the extent that the formula is precise it is obviously very important to have people who are competent.
May I first consider exactly the job that the rent officer has to do. It is laid down in Schedule 3 on page 33 of the Bill. His duties are defined as follows in paragraph 8:
“After considering, in accordance with the preceding paragraph, what rent ought to be registered or, as the case may be, whether a different rent ought to be registered, the rent officer shall, as the case may require— (a) determine a fair rent and register it as the rent for the dwelling-house.”
That sets out quite clearly that it is to be the fair rent for the dwelling-house.
In Committee we thought that there were two qualifications necessary for rent officers. Hon. Members differed as to the emphasis which they placed on them. One was a knowledge of people and how to deal with them and with disputes. Richard Crossman The Minister and his colleagues laid very great emphasis on this conciliation element in the rent officer's duties. In accordance with what he said on Second Reading, it would seem that this duty is still predominant in his mind. He thinks that the retired trade union official or local government officer is the kind of person who should be appointed as a rent officer. These are clearly people he has in mind because he thinks they have a good deal of experience of human nature.
We consider, however, that insufficient attention has been paid to the other [column 670]qualification which is required if the rent officer is to carry out his job properly, and that is that he must have some expert knowledge of the valuation of property, because that is the definition of his task as it relates to property and not to people. However worthy may be some of the people whom the Minister has in mind, I doubt very much whether they know a great deal about property as such and the valuation of property.
In order to place a little more emphasis on the valuation aspect, may I turn to another part of the rent officer's duties. This is set out in Schedule 4, which concerns certificates of fair rents. One of the rent officer's jobs is to decide what would be a fair rent for a new property if one were to be erected. A builder, before he erects a block of flats or houses, clearly wants to know whether it will be worth his while and whether he will get sufficient return on his capital. To enable him to calculate that, he must know what rent he would be likely to get for the property. Therefore, he must go to the rent officer before he puts one brick on top of another to see what rent the rent officer would allow him to charge.
To discharge this part of his duties the rent officer clearly must be a skilled valuer, because he must look at plans and he must consider the materials with which the builder proposes to build. A dispute has not arisen between people, so the conciliation factor is absent. There is as yet no property. Therefore, he must have very considerable skill related to the knowledge of dwelling-houses, the building thereof and everything which the valuer would need to know if he were to determine a fair rent for something which was only in the planning stage. We must bear in mind that as a result of what the rent officer says the builder will incur considerable commitments and obligations and many liabilities. It is therefore important that the right answer should be given.
I am sure that, however worthy may be the ex-trade union official or the retired person whom the Minister has in mind as being suitable as rent officers, they would not have the skilled knowledge necessary to do this sort of valuation. They just would not have the capacity to do the job which the Bill places on them. That means one of two [column 671]things: either the duties of the rent officers are wrong, or the people appointed to do the job lack the necessary capacity. If the tasks are those which are at present laid down in the Bill, we must make it clear that the rent officer should have enough expert knowledge of valuation if his decisions are to be respected and if the rent assessment committees are not to be inundated with appeals.
I ask the Minister to place a good deal more emphasis on the expert knowledge required by the rent officer. We accept that the sort of person he has in mind could probably do the conciliation. However, we do not accept that that is the limit of what the rent officer has to do. It is only part of what he has to do. Indeed, if he is to bring about conciliation between disputing parties, his efficacy will be decided by whether the parties think that he is competent to do the job, apart from whether he has a knowledge of human nature.
The Amendment would ensure that the rent officer was a skilled valuer. It does not go anything like as far as our previous proposals. It would ensure that the necessary expertise was available and that the rent officer had at least five years' practical experience which he had acquired recently of property valuation. I hope that the Minister will consider the Amendment very carefully and will accept it or ensure that a similar Amendment is moved and accepted in another place.
There is very widespread concern about this aspect of the Bill. People who will be affected by it have, naturally, been discussing the Minister's proposals among themselves. We hear comments and a great deal of concern expressed about whether this part of the Bill will work effectively. The Amendment calls for the appointment as rent officer or deputy rent officer of a man who has not
“less than five years practical experience during the immediately preceding ten years in the valuation of dwelling-houses.”
This seems to me a very fair basis from which the landlord and the tenant can feel some sense of security in entrusting to the rent officer the task which he has to perform. [column 672]
This matter is important because of the very imprecise nature of the definition of a fair rent in Clause 22. If Clause 22 laid down concise methods by which one should judge a fair rent, it might not be necessary to have highly qualified rent officers. But, unless the Minister is much more generous in accepting Amendments, and since Clause 22 does not lay down these criteria, this is very much a matter of judgment, and that judgment should be a qualified judgment. This is why I support the Amendment. There should be qualified men and women who are in a position to make an assessment and judgment of a fair rent against a yardstick in which those who are affected by it can have confidence.
Either we have efficient, qualified rent assessors, or a tremendous load will be placed on the rent assessment committees. I suggest seriously to the Minister that the district valuer's office is where he can find the men whom he needs. Most of the information needed will be in that office, collated, filed and ready. An administrative machine is there ready to cope with the job and a staff with expert knowledge and fully qualified. It is not necessary to set up an organisation. We merely have slightly to expand something which exists. Much of the information which is wanted would be on hand already filed in the office in the valuation work which had already been done. 6.0 p.m.
Either that will be the position where there is a qualified officer, or there will be merely a kindly fellow who is a resolver of disputes. This would give little confidence to the parties involved in the dispute. He might be a sort of marriage guidance counsellor, which I cannot accept as a safe basis on which to assess rents. Like marriage guidance councils the world over, he would probably say, “It is six of one and half a dozen of the other. We had better split the difference between the two” . That is no way to arrive at a fair rent, which is supposed to be the basis of what the rent officer tries to fix.
We were told by the Minister on Second Reading that retired trade union officials would be suitable people to hold this post. By the time we got into Committee, we had advanced somewhat and it was suggested that an ex-Conservative Member of Parliament might make an excellent rent [column 673]officer. There might well be a considerable difference in the rent which would be assessed on property by an ex-Conservative Member of Parliament, however qualified in other matters than rent assessment, and a retired trade union official. I should be most amused, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to see your house or that of Mr. Speaker assessed and valued, on the one hand, by an unqualified former Conservative Member of Parliament and, on the other hand, by an unqualified retired trade union official. The difference between the two assessments would be considerable.
In that event, what confidence could people have that a fair rent would be arrived at? Judgment has to be exercised to arrive at a fair rent. What basis of confidence can we have that this will be achieved by the proposals which the Minister has put before us? The retired trade union official would not simply be faced with Mr. Bloggs, who owns two little cottages, and his tenant. He would be faced with the property tycoon who has an immense amount of money at stake on the sort of result which is put up. He would be faced with argument from counsel and solicitors, because page 32 of the Bill states that in the event of a dispute,
“the landlord and tenant may each be represented by a person authorised by him in that behalf, whether or not that person is of counsel or a solicitor.”
In these circumstances, can one envisage a situation in which the rent officer, a retired trade union official, will be able to stand up to cross-examination by counsel or solicitor? I very much support the Amendment.
This is an important Amendment, and because it has been moved so persuasively by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and her hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell) I should like to give a careful and considered reply. One assumption which they have in common is that the job of assessing the rent of a house is a job which, according to the Amendment, can be done only by somebody with five years' experience of valuation—that is to say, virtually by a professional valuer, because nobody would be likely to have five years' experience except in some sense working in a firm of valuers. That is the assumption [column 674]on which the two speeches in support of the Amendment have been based.
If that assumption were true, the whole notion of the Bill would have to break down, because the number of people with practical experience of that kind is not only severely limited, but they are practically all overworked already. We already know that the quinquennial revaluation will probably have to be postponed because of a shortage of Inland Revenue valuers. The district valuers are also overburdened. The professional valuation people are, therefore, enormously overburdened already, and they are a small professional class. If this assumption were literally true, it would mean that none except fully trained commercial valuers could conceivably do the work in the considerable number of cases all over the country. If that were so then clearly, in a sense it could not be done.
I was asked by the hon. Lady whether I thought that the job of the rent officers was conciliation rather than deciding the rent. I do not think that I have ever suggested that it was. What I said on Second Reading was that I compared their rôle to that of a conciliation officer as distinct from somebody in an arbitration court. I said that just as the rent assessment committee would be the arbitration court, so these people would do the job of a conciliation officer vis-à-vis rents. I did not mean that their job would be conciliation, but that they would be parallel in functions to a conciliation officer in terms of labour problems. Another point on which I agree that it is not a job of conciliation is that rent officers obviously need to know about people, but, above all, they must be competent to make a prudent decision about what the rent should be.
I also agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley when she states that the work of the rent officer should be irrespective of the subjective feelings of the tenant and of the landlord. What has to be obtained is an objective assessment. Everybody to whom I have talked agrees, as the hon. Lady would probably also agree, that however hard one tries to write into the Bill that there must be a consideration of objective elements of housing, basically there will still be a subjective element present in the decision. That is what we mean by wisdom. The hon. Lady wants to get the wisdom and [column 675]she thinks that it is to be obtained only from a professional valuer.
In discussing the matter between us, the most reasonable method is to ask ourselves whether anything of this sort has ever been done in the past by people who are non-professional valuers. I said in Committee that two speeches similar to those to which we have just heard were curious when one took into account that for years the job of assessing rents had been done by tribunals. There are in existence furnished rent tribunals which are doing the job of assessing a reasonable rent.
A reasonable rent for furnished accommodation can be a very complicated matter to assess. It also needs to be objective. Furnished lettings and unfurnished premises are not the same, but, nevertheless, one needs to make an objective assessment in each case. The rent officers must be able to make an objective assessment.
When one looks at the composition of our rent tribunals and the rôle of our professional valuers, of whom there are so few, the overwhelming proportion of work of the tribunals is done by people who, I would say, were suitable to work as rent officers or, indeed, in some cases, in rent assessment committees. There would, doubtless, be references to rent officers as amateurs rather than professionals—and certainly they are amateur in the sense that they are not professional valuers or people who are experts in assessing rents, but they do a good job year in and year out.
The rent officers are not instructed by any more precise definition than that of Clause 22. Their job is merely to assess a reasonable rent, a vague phrase. At the beginning, there was difficulty concerning the selection of the right kind of people to do this work on rent tribunals but we now have a fairly good standard and I have heard few complaints about the adequacy of the mixture of lawyers, a few valuers and retired people, even a trade unionist—I do not think that I said “retired trade unionist” —which would include an “official” . I thought that I detected a slight note of contempt in the hon. Lady's voice. She takes the view that this job can be done only by professional valuers, but in these [column 676]cases they have done the job of making an objective assessment of a proper rent.
I made that observation, or I intended to do so, in relation to the separate function of a rent officer, which is to give a certificate for a fair rent for a property not yet in existence.
I thought that the hon. Lady was referring to fixing the rent of existing property. I thought that it was her view that they could not fix a fair rent even when the house was there. The argument was then extended to say that it was more difficult in the case of a house which was not there, and I agree with that. However, I am glad that we agree now. The objection therefore is not that a so-called amateur is incapable of fixing a fair rent for a house which is there and which he can visit. This job can be competently performed by an amateur if we select him wisely.
Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
We are discussing the Amendment. It does not restrict the argument in the way that my right hon. Friend has suggested.
We have plenty of time in which to discuss this important issue. I think that there will be greater difficulty in the case of a house which is not there, but I think we have agreed that it is probably possible to select people who can learn to do the job. They will learn by practical experience to assess a fair rent. If it were true that only professional people could make a final decision on the matter, all the objections raised by the hon. Lady would apply. She said that the rent assessment committees must contain a high proportion of qualified people. I agree with her, and I have laid it down in my suggestions on rent assessment committees that if there are three members of the committee, one should be a professional valuer, one should be a lawyer, and one should be a layman. 6.15 p.m.
I agree that the work of rent assessment committees is to lay down rules under which the rule of thumb can be worked out by rent officers. I agree, also, that there will be difficulties at the beginning because there will be a large number of appeals. Precedents will have to be established. In London they will be established by a central rent assessment committee. There will probably be considerable variations in the recommendations [column 677]and decisions made by rent officers. These will be appealed against, and I think that a month or two will elapse before the rent assessment committees make their key rulings. It will be very important to advertise those rulings. That kind of ruling will, I hope, be decided on by a high proportion of qualified personnel, though even here I should like to see on the rent assessment committee one person who is not a professional, but a layman or laywoman.
Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)
What are the chances of——
I am trying to answer a serious point made by the hon. Lady, There will be plenty of opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to intervene later, if he wishes to do so.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
This is a point on which I can help the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)
Order. Unless it is on a point of order, if the right hon. Gentleman who has the Floor of the House does not give way, the hon. Member must not continue to interrupt.
There is one other point which we ought to bear in mind. It is very important that the rent officer should be able to convince people that he is giving a wise judgment. If there have been a number of appeals——
Sir Harmar Nicholls
On a point of order. Is it in accordance with the rules of the House for the right hon. Gentleman to talk to only one Member? The Minister is talking to the hon. Lady. Should not he be talking to the House?
I do not think that the hon. Member means that as a serious point of order. The hon. Lady moved the Amendment. The Minister is dealing with the arguments that she advanced, but he is, in fact, addressing the whole House.
Whatever we do, it is important that the officials and officers of the rent assessment committees should be seen to be impartial as between landlords and tenants. If only professional valuers were appointed, there would be considerable suspicion among a large number of tenants that the judgment given would tend to be, or would be one-sided. Many [column 678]tenants would take the view—which, I think, would not be justified—that the professional valuer would favour the landlord at the expense of the tenant. I do not think that he would. I think that the first-class valuer would do an objective job in valuing property, but to convince both landlord and tenant that there is a proper balance in the rent assessment committee we will have to appoint a valuer, a person with legal experience, and a layman. This will enable both the landlord and tenant to feel that their points of view are being properly represented.
It is true that it will be possible for the decision of a rent officer to be appealed against, but it is a decision which can be registered for three years. The hon. Lady is right when she says that this is not conciliation. The rent officer will, in fact be doing a very worth-while job but it is also very important for people to recognise that a balance has been maintained on these rent assessment committees. If we do not get that over, they will be bombarded with endless work.
We have to find the people who will do the job. I have talked to members of rent tribunals about their difficulties and their problems, and about what they have learnt. I have now made an Amendment to the Bill to ensure that personnel of rent tribunals and rent assessment committees are able to intermingle. There is no reason why somebody on a tribunal should not be a rent officer as well. These are not separate functions.
Having studied furnished rent tribunals, I am certain that the kind of work which they do, and the qualifications held by the people who would serve on them, equips them to carry out the kind of work which we have in mind here; and I think that the hon. Lady may have over-estimated the need for pure valuation training as a prerequisite to being able to fix rents. She put the case so convincingly that I have tried to answer her as quietly as I could, because this is an issue about which we can rationally disagree.
It is important to persuade county clerks that they must take care to get people of the highest quality to do this work. I thought that the hon. Lady was a little unperceptive when she implied that nobody but a professional valuer had any knowledge of housing problems. [column 679]There are many people in local government who know a lot about the structure of houses, and about the problems of housing, even though they are not professional valuers. Knowledge of these problems can be obtained by different kinds of local government experience, for example, and I think that the hon. Lady underestimated that aspect of the matter.
The proposal is impracticable, because there are just not enough valuers, either public or private, to man rent assessment committees as we want them manned and to become rent officers as well. In practice, putting the matter simply, the Amendment really says that it is impossible to recruit rent officers. That is really the point that the hon. Lady is making. She is saying that the rent officer is impossible to recruit because all the valuers will have to go on to the rent assessment committees—and that we may even be short of valuers to man them.
This is the philosophy of defeatism. It is wrong to say that this first stage is impossible, and that nobody except a person with five years' training ought to be doing this job. That is not my view. The considerable success of the furnished rent tribunals provides evidence upon which I base my rather more optimistic attitude.
This is the Amendment where practice and theory meet. The Minister has indicated what we all expected, namely, that there will be an extreme shortage of experienced valuers. I agree that these people will not be available in sufficient numbers, and in the circumstances I would have hoped that we could has a training scheme. If private industry were tackling the problem it would realise that the questions which will have to be dealt with by rent tribunals will vary greatly in different parts of the country. This is a vast problem. The success of the Bill depends upon the element of equity. Surely the right hon. Gentleman should have given the House some hope that he has some progressive scheme in mind for training people to do this important job.
It is not a question of training, but the hon. Member is right to the extent that instructions will have [column 680]to be issued to rent officers. If he was using the word “training” in the rather narrow sense of courses of instruction, that is something which might be very sensible. But the real instructions for rent officers will be the decisions of the rent assessment committees. They will work on the basis of those decisions.
Sir Harmar Nicholls
My point could have been made by a two-word intervention if the normal conventions of the House had been followed by the right hon. Gentleman.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has the right to give way or not to give way. He has already refused to give way to an hon. Member who had more right to intervene than the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls).
Sir Harmar Nicholls
I accept your Ruling entirely, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but there are the procedures of the House and the conventions of the House. I gather that a sensible arrangement has been made to get the business through at a reasonable hour. Those of us who have been interested in the matter from the start and have attended so as to be able to make our points—as I have, having started life as a professional valuer and having had one object in coming here today, namely, to make use of my experience—thought that the right hon. Gentleman, wanting to get his business through, would sense the atmosphere and give way to enable points to be made quickly. Instead of doing that, the right hon. Gentleman almost resisted even his hon. Friend.
Although the right hon. Gentleman has not displayed it until this minute, I do not think that such arrogance helps. We want this business to go through properly. If the right hon. Gentleman had been writing in a Sunday newspaper he would have been the expert, but on some of these matters the situation is new to him, although it is old to those of us who have experience of it. The shortage of valuers is an important matter, if the object that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind is to be achieved effectively.
The right hon. Gentleman said that decisions would depend largely on the key rulings which were made in various areas. Has he satisfied himself that those [column 681]key rulings will be the same in various areas? Is he sure that we shall not have differences of the kind which have caused discontent and a feeling of uncertainty in relation to the operations of magistrates' courts in various parts of the country? It is because we do not have sufficient numbers of really professional valuers to enable us to approach the matter objectively and impartially that the sort of difference of view to which I have referred may arise.
I could have got that over in a one-minute intervention, and the right hon. Gentleman could have given his reply. On behalf of other back benchers I hope that for the rest of our discussion the right hon. Gentleman will be a little more forthcoming in speeding things up by enabling us to get our points over without having to take up time in making speeches.
Both from what the right hon. Gentleman said explicitly as to the importance of the Amendment and from the seriousness with which he treated it we gather that he agrees that this is a crucial matter. He also knows that both outside the House and within it this is probably the aspect of the problem which is causing most anxiety, especially among those who are directly affected by the Bill.
Many hon. Members—and I am one—regard this as the basic weakness of the Bill. It seems to us that this proposal breaks the basic rule of administration in applying general principles in the form of individual decisions. Broadly speaking, there are two methods of doing that. One is to give to those who have to make individual decisions a broad discretion, and to appoint, in order to do this, men with the highest professional qualifications.
The other is to lay down very tightly and precisely the limits within which decisions will be made, and to use people of lower status and qualifications for the purpose. The examples which spring to mind are the High Court judges, on the one hand, and the insurance officers, applying the very strict National Insurance code, on the other. The Bill applies the vaguest and most generalised of criteria, and seeks to have them applied to individual cases by people who, whatever their personal merits may be—and I have [column 682]no doubt that town clerks will do their best to obtain suitable people—will have no professional qualifications in this sphere or, as far as I can see, any specific qualifications whatever, under the terms of the Bill.
In commenting upon this matter the right hon. Gentleman said a very serious thing, namely, that if we were right and that people with valuation experience were required, the scheme would break down. I believe that that is exactly what will happen, and that it will happen not only because of the breach of the ordinary principle of administration to which I have referred but also because the right hon. Gentleman is creating this difficulty by applying rent control throughout the country, and up to high levels of rateable value, thereby necessitating the appointment of many people.
The right hon. Gentleman may be right in saying that to operate a nation-wide scheme—a scheme which applies to all property up to a rateable value of £400 a year in London and £200 outside—more people will be required than there are valuation experts available, but it does not follow that if the right hon. Gentleman is correct about that he has drawn the correct inference from it. If we are right in our conclusion that the scheme is not workable on this basis the right hon. Gentleman could have met the problem by applying his scheme on a more modest scale, which, for other reasons, we have urged in respect of other Clauses.
The right hon. Gentleman could have applied the scheme to properties of modest value in Greater London and the great conurbations in the first place, extending it if the necessity was shown and the means became available. This is the issue between us, and I do not take the consolation that he takes from the experience of the furnished rents tribunals.
To begin with, they cover a great deal less work. They have been in operation now for some years and those appointed to them have now acquired practical experience. They made some very bad decisions in their earlier years. Most of their chairmen were and are men with professional qualifications of one sort and another—— 6.30 p.m.
But not of valuation. I thought that the test here was that [column 683]valuation experience was what we needed for rents, not legal experience.
This is the test on this. I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. The distinction between the furnished rent tribunals and what the Minister is proposing here—he is relying on the argument about the furnished rent tribunal—is that at least those chairmen have some professional qualifications. There is no provision here that these people shall have this. The examples which the Minister gave of what he had in mind were not, on the whole, of people who have professional qualifications, the retired trade unionist, and so on.
I should have thought that the example I gave of the sanitary inspector was a man with professional experience, as is a public health inspector and a housing manager. They are not, in the narrow sense of the word, “professionals” but they are experienced, more closely than a lawyer necessarily is, in dealing with the problem of furnished dwellings. It is not good enough to tell me that we need people with professional experience. That is not what the Amendment is about. It is about professional experience and the whole point of the Amendment is that only if they have this experience will they be competent. That is what I have to answer.
The Minister has not got the point. He introduced the analogy and said that he comforted himself by the experience of the furnished rent tribunals. I am pointing out that those tribunals, whatever they may be, are different in their personnel from the people whom he proposes to appoint. It is not relevant to that to say that they equally would not qualify under the terms of the Amendment. It is the right hon. Gentleman who is comforting himself with a delusion, that because the furnished rent tribunals have not actually broken down—though they did not do very well to begin with for a number of years—we can proceed with confidence to appoint people with no professional qualifications at all for these jobs under the Bill.[column 684]
Mr. Albert Evans
Does the right hon. Member appreciate that the decisions made by the furnished rent tribunals are made by lay people? It is true that in many cases there is a chairman with legal experience, but the actual decision upon the case as applied to a house is made by the lay personnel.
I understand how the system works and the hon. Member has helped me to establish a further point about the distinction between these bodies, which are tribunals, and the new unqualified officers whom the right hon. Gentleman proposes to appoint as rent officers. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. This is why the Minister is wrong in taking much comfort from the experience, such as it is, of the furnished rent tribunals.
My hon. Friend stressed, in her most admirable speech, the particular difficulty in the case of the issue of the certificate of fair rent. The right hon. Gentleman inadvertently misunderstood her to suggest that that was the only class of case in which the rent officer might find himself in difficulty. It is not the only case, though I agree that it is perhaps the most extreme example of the impossibility of adequate discharge by people of this kind of these duties. Equally, the determination of the rent of an existing house is a professional job and one of great professional difficulty.
In the next of the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, he pointed out that the rent assessment committees, the appellate bodies, would have professional membership. Here, perhaps, the analogy with the rent tribunals becomes a little closer. Has the right hon. Gentleman appreciated, in a system covering the whole country, what will happen if there is a flood of appeals? This system will work only if there is not a flood of appeals, if they are not swamped, if there is not a delay not only in getting to the rent officers but in getting an appeal to the rent assessment committee. No system will work if people will not treat the first body to which they go as one whose decision in general they take and only appeal in the exceptional case. The fears which many of us have as to how the system will work were, if anything, fortified rather than diminished by the [column 685]right hon. Gentleman's reliance on the appeal to these bodies.
Valuation of a house for the purposes of determining a rent is a professional job and what the right hon. Gentleman referred to as “knowledge of houses” is not of itself an adequate qualification for this. One can be very experienced in the construction of houses and in their repair without having any expert knowledge of this highly technical business. That the job of valuation is a professional job and a difficult one is established by another example of an activity which is a good deal closer to this than that of the furnished rent tribunal. That is the valuation by the Inland Revenue for the purposes of assessment for rates. That is a valuation job.
Our experience as Members of Parliament is that the last rating revaluation has given rise to a very large number of complaints. If that be so—the Minister knows as well as any of us that it is—in a system in which trained men are operating as part of a national organisation with the resources and guidance of a national organisation behind them, with a system of appeals if necessary right up to the highest tribunals in the land and we get disparities of value, how much more will we not get them if we have a system administered in the first instance by unqualified amateurs with no central organisation behind them and with no unified system of appeal?
If the House wants a comment on how the question of rating assessment has worked, I suggest that hon. Members study the speeches of the learned Lord [column 686]Justices in the Peachey case in the Court of Appeal, a few days ago. This is a clear indication of how difficult this job is even for professional men operating a system with a proper system of appeals.
The Times yesterday had a very powerful and cogent article on this very point. It suggested that this was the fundamental weakness of the Bill. It said that the whole thing was, in this respect, “an act of faith” , and added the comment that an act of faith was a very bad basis for administration. So it is. If this be an act of faith, it is applying the construction of the word “faith” which was used by the late Mr. Bernard Shaw:
“Believing in what you know is not true.”
That is a very profound thought, because if one knows a thing to be true it requires no faith to believe it.
In that sense, the Bill is an act of faith. The right hon. Gentleman is taking a wholly unnecessary risk. He is pledging the reputation of his Department and his own reputation to a scheme which is very likely to fail and which, if it does, will cause confusion and difficulty to a great number of people and which another Government one day will have to clear up. At least we will make clear that we have no responsibility for this when it happens by dividing on the Amendment.
Question put, That those words be there inserted in the Bill:—
The House divided: Ayes 159, Noes 170.