Clause 6 - Repeal of Section 346 of the Housing Act 1985

Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 26th February 2002.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 2—Registration schemes—

'(1) The Housing Act 1985 is amended as follows.

(2) For section 346 there is substituted—

''346 Registration schemes

(1) Every local housing authority shall make a registration scheme which contains—

(a) provisions for the compilation and maintenance by the authority of a register for their district of houses in multiple occupation, and

(b) control provisions (see section 347).

(2) A registration scheme need not be for the whole of the authority's district and need not apply to every description of house in multiple occupation.

(3) But a registration scheme must apply to every house in multiple occupation in the authority's district of a description prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

(4) A registration scheme may vary or revoke a previous registration scheme; and a scheme which revokes a previous scheme may contain transitional provisions.

(5) A local housing authority shall make—

(a) a registration scheme containing provisions mentioned in subsection (1)(a) no later than the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which section (Registration schemes) of the Home Energy Conservation Act 2002 comes into force; and

(b) a registration scheme containing control provisions no later than the end of the period of two years beginning with that day.

(6) Any power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''.

(3) In section 347(1) (control provisions), for ''A registration scheme may contain control provisions, that is to say,'' there is substituted ''In this Part ''control provisions'' means''.

(4) In section 348B(1) (special control provisions), for ''which contains control provisions may also'' there is substituted ''may''.

(5) In section 349 (steps required to inform public about schemes), subsection (5) is repealed.'

New clause 3—Model schemes and confirmation of schemes—

'For section 346B of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—

''346B Model schemes and confirmation of schemes

(1) The Secretary of State may prepare a model registration scheme, with or without special control provisions (see section 348B).

(2) A registration scheme which—

(a) conforms to the model scheme, or

(b) does not conform to the model scheme by reason only of containing provisions of a description prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State,

does not require confirmation by the Secretary of State and comes into force on such date (at least one month, but not more than three months, after the making of the scheme) as

may be specified in the scheme.

(3) If—

(a) a registration scheme varies a previous registration scheme, and

(b) the scheme as varied falls within subsection (2)(a) or (b),

the registration scheme making the variation does not require confirmation by the Secretary of State and comes into force on such date (at least one month, but not more than three months, after the making of the scheme) as may be specified in the scheme.

(4) Any other registration scheme does not come into force unless confirmed by the Secretary of State.

(5) The Secretary of State may vary a scheme before confirming it.

(6) A scheme requiring confirmation comes into force one month after it is confirmed.

(7) If the Secretary of State varies or withdraws the model registration scheme, the registration scheme made by a local housing authority is revoked at the end of the relevant period unless during that period—

(a) the scheme is revoked by another registration scheme made by the authority,

(b) the scheme is varied so as to fall within subsection (2)(a) or (b), or

(c) the scheme is re-confirmed by the Secretary of State or the authority make a registration scheme varying the scheme which is confirmed by him.

(8) The relevant period is the period of six months beginning with the day on which the Secretary of State varies or withdraws the model registration scheme.

(9) Any power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''.'.

Amendment No. 44, in title, line 3, leave out from beginning to 'schemes' and insert

'amend the law relating to registration'.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I propose the omission of clause 6. New clause 2 has the same effect as the clause, making it mandatory rather than voluntary for local authorities to introduce registration schemes within one year of commencement of the Act. In its more detailed drafting it provides consistency with new clause 4, which seeks to amend sections 345 and 348 of the Housing Act 1985.

The power to make regulations saying what types of houses must be included in registration, as provided in the new subsection (3), is one of the means that will be used to ensure consistency across registration schemes. So all HMOs must be subject to registration, save for the smaller ones proposed in clause 8, where local authorities will be left with discretion as to whether and where to introduce registration.

New clause 2 should be viewed in conjunction with new clause 3. It provides a set timetable for implementation of mandatory registration one year after commencement and for mandatory control provisions two years after commencement. It also proposes a power in subsection (3) for the Secretary of State to say what types of HMOs must be included in any registration scheme. That is because we are working with the existing legislation that, as it stands, allows local authorities to decide what kinds of HMOs are covered, and in what districts.

New clause 3 will apply to registration schemes that are mandatory and to those that are subject to local authority discretion—the smaller HMOs. It will ensure consistency in registration schemes across the country. Although local authorities will be able to propose variants on model schemes published by the Secretary of State, in practice most schemes are expected to comply with the model scheme. The Secretary of State will have the power to confirm, or not to confirm schemes proposed by local authorities.

Amendment No. 44 is a technical amendment to better reflect the Bill's purpose.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I seek clarification. The Minister talked about local authorities' ability to vary the model scheme. Is that a variation not only of the scheme but of the documentation? Is he seized of the point that to be able to determine not only the efficacy but the justice of a scheme, it is worth ensuring that there is as little variation as possible? It is understood, however, that different areas may have different and pressing problems, which they may wish to amplify the registration to cover.

I welcome the Minister's recognition that high fees could put off good landlords. As I understand it, under the Houses in Multiple Occupation (Fees for Registration Schemes) Order 1997, the level was £60 per habitable room per HMO under the scheme. Is the level proposed by the Local Government Association—£112 per five-year period per tenancy agreement—approximately the level that the Minister is considering? I understand that he cannot be explicit, but existing and potential landlords would be considerably reassured if the figure was in that region.

Could the Minister clarify the appeals procedure? He correctly said that, under section 348 of the Housing Act 1985, HMO landlords had a right of appeal to the county court. The rights of appeal are fairly narrowly drawn. The first relates to the application for registration under a scheme containing control provisions. As I understand it, the only other ground is the condition set by an authority for registering an application under a control scheme. Does that mean that a landlord can go to the county court if he believes that the requirements proposed by the local authority are so onerous as to be greater than those that would be imposed by other authorities in similar circumstances?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I will try to get my fives and sevens right, Mr. Benton, so that we do not have number dyslexia, but I shall concentrate on clause 6.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. I accept what he said in the previous debate about not encompassing specialist student accommodation, but following the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I seek greater clarification of what appeals are possible on individual registration fees. It seems that, because of an inability at national level to clarify the position in Scotland, individual local authorities have been able to impose fees that in some cases have a counter-productive effect. That is the gist of my request.

Is it possible to have a measure by which we can control fee setting so that it does not have a

disproportionate impact? It has been suggested to me that it be related to the cost-of-living index. Whether that would be too complicated, I do not know. However, it is worrying to hear that Glasgow has experienced a 40 per cent. ratcheting up in comparison with other parts of Scotland, because it will accomplish what we all want to avoid—restrict people's willingness to enter that type of accommodation.

I have outlined my main concern, but other groups besides students should be mentioned. I referred earlier to providing specialist accommodation for key workers and we must be careful if such accommodation is to include HMOs. If the registration fee is onerous, it can hit the very people that we are hoping to support. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay fears that the registration fee could, by excessive use of regulation, achieve what most of us do not want to happen.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 6:30 pm, 26th February 2002

I am happy to see clause 6 replaced by new clauses 2 and 3, which are more explicit. They deal—satisfactorily, I hope—with consistency of registration practice across the country, and address both maximum fees and appeals.

Clause 8, which prescribes what is mandatory and what is discretionary registration, will also be replaced. Registration will take place in two stages: we decide what is an HMO, and then which HMOs must be registered under compulsion. As it stands, the mandatory registration level kicks in for property consisting of more than two storeys used for habitation and occupied by more than five adults—effectively three storeys, and a minimum of six people.

Will the Minister clarify the thinking behind where the mandatory dividing line is set? That will be of great import to landlords, who will, rightly and reasonably, want to know whether the mandatory process applies to them. I see little difference between the aims expressed in the Bill and those of officials within the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but I would like the Minister to spell it all out, if possible.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

In supporting new clause 2 and the withdrawal of clause 8, is the hon. Gentleman—after all, this is his Bill—accepting that in future the thresholds will be determined by regulations, which might entail lower or higher thresholds than are currently envisaged? What does he assume about the thresholds once clause 8 is withdrawn?

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

My assumption is that thresholds will be determined by regulation. The same principle applies as I raised in respect of new clause 7—that it is preferable for regulations to be made by affirmative order, because it entails much greater scrutiny by the House, and is less likely to attract the ire of the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Clause 8 gives the Secretary of State the regulatory power to amend mandatory registration, and those properties that may or may not be deregistrable. One hopes that that power will be used

in the best possible way. I strongly recommend the affirmative procedure as the best way to proceed.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire mischievously suggested that I wanted a pilot scheme in Brighton and Hove. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) pointed out, in effect we already have one. There is ample evidence throughout the country of discretionary registration schemes, from which we can learn good and bad lessons. We can learn lessons from Scotland about mistakes that should be avoided. I hope that the registration scheme proposed by the appropriate authority will avoid those pitfalls and will be reasonable and workable.

We cannot afford to delay implementation if we are going to achieve the other aspects of the Bill, such as energy conservation and combating fuel poverty. We have already waited too long for HMO registration, and I do not wish to delay the outcome of a pilot scheme that would defer national registration by at least two years. We should proceed as fast as we can, but using all the available evidence to ensure that the scheme takes note of all the mistakes that have been made and incorporates best practice.

I am happy to endorse the replacement of clause 6 by new clauses 2 and 3.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

On a point of clarification, Mr. Benton. Reference was made to the consequence of replacing clause 6 with new clauses 2 and 3 in relation to clause 8. I am aware that we have not yet reached clause 8, to which I tabled an amendment. Is it appropriate for me to make whatever comments I need to make on amendment No. 50 now, or will we still be able to discuss the amendments to clause 8 later?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his point in the discussion on clause 8.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

No, when we reach clause 8.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asked about the scope for varying model schemes. There will be some scope, but the variance will be given only under exceptional circumstances. On fees, he quoted £60 per habitable room. The Local Government Association proposed £112, which is in approximately the same order of magnitude. The fees are unlikely to exceed the LGA estimate. There is no reason why we should move away from the fees set under statutory instrument 1997/229. The current fees place much less of a financial burden on landlords of HMOs than do the fees in Scotland, which are probably what activated the hon. Gentleman. In Edinburgh, the fee is £480 to register for a year. In Glasgow, the fee is £1,700 to register for three years. Under statutory instrument 1997/229, which could be applied to the Bill, a 10-room HMO would cost £600 to register for five years. That is a substantial reduction.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the right of appeal if his local authority imposed conditions that he considered to be unusually onerous compared with

those imposed by other local authorities. In effect, there would be an automatic right of appeal wherever the application for a licence is refused, or any conditions as to works or management are imposed, or if the application is not promptly dealt with. Therefore, there is fairly comprehensive protection.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to registration fees. They will be capped by the Government. There is no appeal against fees as such. The maximum levels are set by the Government. The Secretary of State can specify cases in which no fee is payable, and deal with different cases in different ways.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, who has just left my side, sought confirmation that we will consider using the affirmative procedure, as he requested. We will consider that—I am sure that he will read about it in tomorrow's edition of The Times—but we will accept it only if there is strong justification. He also mentioned a threshold of five or more occupants, and that is a strong candidate, but the position will have to be carefully considered, as I have stated.

I hope that I have answered all the questions that were raised.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 6 disagreed to.Clause 7Part 11 of the Housing Act 1985