Part of Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 26th February 2002.
Thank you, Mr. Benton. I shall do so.
Hon. Members have all spoken in favour of the purpose of the Bill, which is ostensibly to encourage energy conservation, and includes targets to ensure that that is achieved. However, I question whether part 3, and the licensing of HMOs, will make a significant contribution to achieving that goal. HMOs represent about 40 per cent. of the total private rented sector and within HMOs, 25 per cent. represent shared housing. It must be assumed that local authorities are aware of the location of those HMOs. Therefore, only a proportion of them will not meet the energy-saving targets in full. Although the proposal may be of some help, it is superfluous to achieving the aim of parts 1 and 2: the eradication of fuel poverty. It is not quite an afterthought but it is not essential to the success of the Bill, and I ask the Committee to think about it.
I am worried about the definition of an HMO in clause 5, although I am conscious that new clause 7 brings in a modified definition. What is a family, nowadays? What will be prescribed relationships? A family is not an easy concept to define and the courts will be kept busy determining the definition. For example, could a family include non-marital relationships? Could it include homosexual relationships, or monogamous relationships for both heterosexual and homosexual groups? Are prescribed relationships to be based on friendship or on sexual relationships? Those questions must be asked or there will be confusion in the implementation of the Bill, which we are keen to support. Part 3 threatens the clarification of what is applicable.
We should examine local authorities' records. We are enabling them to have a much greater say in the running of HMOs, particularly from an energy and fuel point of view, but greater involvement in the sector is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, local authorities' record of managing residential properties varies from area to area, and some can be very bad. Without wishing to name examples—although I have them here, if any hon. Member is interested to find out after Committee—more than half of council homes fail to meet government standards in some local authority areas. In some instances, as many as 5,000 homes are described as unfit for human habitation. If those homes were in the private sector they would be closed down, and yet we are asking those authorities to start ruling on the condition of HMOs, which will leave room for all sorts of discrepancies. The latest results from the Government's survey of English housing
show that the highest levels of customer satisfaction are among, believe it or not, private tenants. The report by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions indicates that nearly twice the proportion of council tenants say that they are dissatisfied with their landlords than those in the private sector—about 20 per cent. compared with roughly 10 per cent.
In moving the amendment, I am suggesting that we revert to the old definition, which has broadly worked, and allow the courts to decide whether there is a discrepancy in determining what is an HMO. We should allow the sector to expand as it has done in recent years, as it helps the economy and government policies on education and, above all, gives tenants greater choice. We have seen what can happen when a market shrinks because of over-regulation, as happened recently in Scotland, or planning issues, as we have seen in Hammersmith and Fulham, where the number of HMOs has declined markedly. There are difficulties with the proposed new definition of an HMO in both new clause 7 and the Bill. How does one define a family or a prescribed relationship? Although local authority involvement in the private rented sector may be good in some cases, it is not necessarily so and could cause a great deal of irritation to many landlords for no good reason.
Finally, as I have said on many occasions, I wholeheartedly support parts 1 and 2 in trying to eradicate fuel poverty. However, part 3 is largely superfluous to that aim. If we want to drive up standards in the private rented sector, healthy competition should have a major part to play. Part 3 would negate healthy competition, and on that basis I commend the amendment to the Committee.