Part of Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 pm on 26th February 2002.
I shall raise mainly technical questions for the Minister, but I must respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), which I generally support. He has probably had some of the same briefings as me. My starting point is the misconception that, with HMOs, we are always talking about older properties that are in need of repair, which is why energy conservation and the need to address fuel poverty are so important.
New and corporate landlords—UNITE is an obvious example—are entering the area of accommodation for students and people who work in the national health service. I am sure that we can all think of new blocks being built in our own areas that will take care of people on a multiple-occupancy basis, but which take anything but the usual form of such units of accommodation.
There is a difficulty inasmuch as clauses 5 and 6 run together, and we cannot sort out a definition of houses in multiple occupation without talking about registration and the fees that will be charged. However, I will restrict my remarks to clause 5. My right hon. Friend the Minister will move new clause 7, which I hope will clarify some of the issues. There are
good ideas in clauses 5 and 6, and I hope that if I ask some technical questions, the Minister can help me through this. They are mainly about what is currently in the Bill. I am a little confused about whether we will deal with self-contained flats through the new clause, and if so where they stand with the definition of HMOs.
Much of the accommodation to which I am referring and the hon. Member for Billericay had recourse to consider is university halls of residence and accommodation for health service employees. Where do they stand with regard to the new clause? That matters because the definition of HMOs will have a significant impact on the registration of such buildings and units within buildings and, more particularly, the fee structure that will apply.
I agree that there are problems, and there are precedents on which we can call. Scotland provides the obvious one. There seems to be a differential between what different local authorities in Scotland have done on charging fees. I am aware that that relates to clause 6, but the definition is so important that if we can get it right, we can perhaps help to ensure that the registration process and the fee that follows are also correct.
The final issue is how we treat the different elements of these newer units of accommodation. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend would clarify whether private sector operators who work in partnership with public sector institutions will be treated in the same way. If a private operator provides accommodation on behalf of a university, there should be parity in the treatment of the registration and the fee structure that applies. It would be unfair if the university charged one fee for its own accommodation, but the private deliverer of similar accommodation had a different fee structure.
The main point is that we must get this legislation right. It is about encouraging new people into the sector as well as dealing with what already exists. Although in certain respects I disagree with the hon. Member for Billericay, the measure is important. HMOs are an important part of the way in which we consider fuel poverty and its eradication.