Clause 8 - Houses not treated as registrable

Home Energy Conservation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 26th February 2002.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 7:00 pm, 26th February 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 57, in page 4, line 34, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

I would like to take advantage of the ruling of your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Cummings, according to which, although clause 8 is to be removed from the Bill, we are still able to use the debate on this amendment to it to discuss the terms of the threshold of registration of HMOs.

The Minister will set that threshold through guidelines, and he has already said that he regards the existing threshold in the Bill as a good candidate

for inclusion. I suggest that there is a wider definition of the registration threshold that would make a better candidate. The current threshold, as defined in the Bill, is rather narrow. It is a two-prong definition, requiring that a property, to be registered, should have three storeys or more, and that it should also house five adults or more. There are many HMOs that may be at risk, have three storeys or more, but house fewer than five adults. Such households may comprise three or four adults and many children.

There may also be HMOs that have vulnerable residents, are at risk of fire and house five adults or more, but have fewer than three storeys. That is the typical pattern in my constituency. In most suburban areas, as opposed to inner-city areas, there are not many three-storey buildings. A typical Twickenham HMO would have a row of shops with one storey above it and would comprise two or three rooms, with students and others passing through. Many such HMOs would be subject to the same fire risks as a typical HMO in a city like Brighton or central London, but would not be covered by the guidelines, as defined in the Bill. Therefore, we must consider splitting the two definitions.

The reasoning behind that has already been covered and I do not need to go into it in detail. The hon. Member for Billericay has already spoken about the three-storey qualification and given several examples from the 1997 fire risk assessment. There is clear evidence that fire death rates increase dramatically above two storeys, as evidenced by the fact that 52 per cent. of HMO fire deaths occurred in buildings with three storeys or more, but only 16.5 per cent of households actually live in such buildings. The hon. Gentleman did not say that households that contain five or more adults are vulnerable whether or not the house has three storeys. Again, I can quote from the same study by the Department, which explicitly states:

''HMOs which provide accommodation for highly vulnerable persons, large numbers of people or exhibit a special risk . . . also present a relatively high risk. This is regardless of the number of storeys and whether the building is purpose-built for this occupancy or not.''

It continues:

''Certain two-storey HMOs present a high risk, particularly bedsits and homes for vulnerable persons. 48 per cent. of all HMO fire deaths occur in buildings of 1 or 2 storeys.''

I recognise that situation from my constituency and it reflects the way in which the property market has developed.

I ask the Minister to widen the definition. By all means, let us take the numbers that have been given because there must be a cut-off, which will obviously be arbitrary. The three-storey definition seems sensible, as does the definition of three adults, so why can we not use either/or, rather than and, as the basis for defining the threshold? That would take in more properties. No doubt the objection will be raised that the greater the number of properties that are included, the wider the compliance costs will be spread. However, from the point of view of the local authorities who will operate the system, the set-up costs are crucial, and taking into account more

properties, especially if they are at risk, would seem to be an obvious precaution. Will the Minister say whether he is willing to entertain a broader definition, covering a wider range of properties, which his Department's studies suggest are at risk?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 7:15 pm, 26th February 2002

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument about widening the scope of the properties for registration. He proposes two alternative criteria. We intend that both criteria, rather than either one of them, should be met. It is intended that mandatory registration will apply only to those properties that make up the most problematic part of the HMO sector, but properties occupied by more than four people that are also three storeys or more high exhibit the characteristics about which we are most concerned, such as fire risk and overcrowding. Assuming reasonably full occupation, it is unlikely that a three-storey property would accommodate as few as four people, or that, if there were as few as four occupants, all the problems characteristic of multiple occupation would regularly apply. Precisely for that reason, I recognise that there are particular problems in some localities where there are persistent problems of exploitative management, even of smaller bedsit and shared properties, and for that reason local authorities will be given discretion to require registration of smaller HMOs where there is a particular local problem with accommodation of that sort. The hon. Gentleman's concerns will be met, and on that basis I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

I wonder if I may beg your indulgence, Mr. Cummings. I have received information about a point concerning the use of the word ''may'' in regulation, as opposed to ''shall''. May I rapidly deal with it? I am advised that ''may'' is standard drafting, leaving discretion to the Secretary of State. For instance, if other legislation were to supersede the Bill, an absolute requirement to make regulations would be undesirable. There is, despite the use of the word ''may'', a definite intention to make the regulations. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that point.

To return to the earlier matter, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) raised a fair point. If both criteria are met, they will be covered, but there will be discretion in smaller cases: for instance, the local authority may register shared bedsits if it so chooses. On that basis, I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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

I do not intend to press the amendment, and I accept the spirit of the Minister's reply. I would suggest to him that it is not a question of special cases. There is a case for a wider definition of a wide range of properties in a wide range of areas. His proposal to allow local authorities discretion is helpful, but I would hope that the Minister will talk to some of the charities and others who are involved with the problem of HMOs, and may be persuaded at that stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in page 4, leave out lines 36 and 37.

Photo of John Cummings John Cummings Labour, Easington

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 50, in page 4, line 36, leave out:

'a registered social landlord or'.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

The essential purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the provisions apply to every landlord equally. I hope that Committee members share my contention that the Bill should apply to everyone, whether a landlord is public or private. The Minister may argue that it is unnecessary for registered social landlords to be covered by the Bill because they are dealt with in other ways under the law. I asked the Library to provide me with information on the ways in which registered social landlords are covered, and it was able to furnish me with a whole raft of pieces of legislation: the Gas Safety (Installation and Use Regulations) 1994 as amended, the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, as well as the Housing Act 1985 and others that impact on registered social landlords.

When the Department issued its 1999 consultation paper, ''Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation—England'', it was proposed that RSLs should be exempted from a mandatory licensing scheme. The consultation paper raised the point that the public sector bodies concerned, under some degree of control,

''can be expected to behave responsibly.''

It may be the case in respect of most registered social landlords that they do behave responsibly: I would not doubt that. However, it is equally true that that is not the case in respect of all registered social landlords. I repeat an argument that I made earlier, and on Second Reading. If it is true that private sector landlords have nothing to fear from the Bill, it should also be the case that registered social landlords have nothing to fear from it.

I draw the Committee's attention to comments made with considerable force by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on Second Reading. Although he expressed support for the general principles of the Bill, which he hoped would become a valuable Act of Parliament, he expressed reservations over the exemptions for registered social landlords in part 3. He said:

''Although there is regulation designed to control registered social landlords, and although in theory they already comply with much that is in the Bill and would apply to other landlords, those schemes do not appear to be satisfactorily policed.''

My hon. Friend went on to instance two registered social landlords that he thought did not meet the standards that one would expect. The first was Notting Hill housing trust, of which he had direct experience because his daughter lived next door to one of its properties. He said:

''It is my personal view that the property is ill managed and has a bad effect on the surrounding neighbourhood.''

He continued:

''I feel strongly that organisations such as Notting Hill housing trust that neglect their responsibilities to their tenants and to their properties should be brought within the ambit of the scheme.''

The other organisation that my hon. Friend mentioned was English Churches housing, about which he said that

''over the past couple of years I have received more complaints from residents, constituents and tenants of English Churches housing than from any other single organisation in my constituency.''

My hon. Friend then said:

''The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown should reflect on part 3 and review the matter in Committee . . . He should consider whether there is a strong case for bringing registered social housing within the ambit of the Bill not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire suggested, on the expiry of the current licence for social housing registration, but immediately.''—[Official Report, 30 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 1255-56.]

It should be possible for this House and this Committee to contribute in their own small way to the ongoing process of the simplification and clarification of the law. That is a remit of the Law Commission, which I believe it has because this place spends its time making law that is ill considered, ill judged and ill drafted, often with too much haste. A simpler regime, where landlords of whatever kind, in the public or private sector, were subject to the same regulations that could be looked up in one place, would be a step in the right direction. I might add in parentheses that that is one reason why I favour giving Ministers of any party less discretion and including more on the face of Bills, to use the jargon. That would give citizens greater opportunity to identify for themselves the provisions of law to which they are subject, simply by going to look them up.

My final point is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made earlier: that registered social landlords often have as tenants some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Although it is said that registered social landlords are already covered in other ways, the simplest way to ensure that those poor and vulnerable people are protected in exactly the same way as people in the private sector would be to subject them to exactly the same law, with provisions applying equally to both. There would then be no doubt, and one would not have to look up the law in two places. One law would apply to tenants and landlords and be more easily understood. I hope that my remarks will meet with the Committee's approval.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South 7:30 pm, 26th February 2002

Is it appropriate for me to move amendment No. 50 at this point?

Photo of John Cummings John Cummings Labour, Easington

The hon. Gentleman can speak to it.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I have three points to make, one political, one practical and one an example. In a way, they all follow on from the comments made by the hon. Member for South Norfolk. It is important to recognise that, in their entire role, registered social landlords must be seen to be held to account to exactly the same standards as every other part of the housing sector. That is my broadly political point, made on the basis not of party but of the reputation of the House. If we take an important step forward and then open a standards gap based on the ownership of the properties, we will be subject to massive public criticism, which will only increase in light of large-scale property transfers by local authorities to registered social landlords. The scale is enormous:

some 600,000 properties have been transferred to registered social landlords. If they are not accountable under the same standards, we will be left with a huge number of difficult questions.

I assure the Minister that my amendment is a probing amendment to a clause that will soon be non-existent. However, it is based on extremely important work carried out throughout the country by Shelter, which examined the position of registered social landlords who are the owners or managers of houses in multiple occupation. At present, they do not appear to be caught in the same regulatory framework.

The example that I wish to cite is of a property in Oxford that was occupied by five vulnerable young persons. It was supposed to have a residential caretaker, but it had not been possible to fill the post for some time. The situation came to the attention of the local authority as a result of a noise nuisance complaint, and contact with the local authority occurred in that context. On inspection, the local authority discovered that the property had 44 defects, including rotted, ill-fitting and boarded-over windows, ill-fitting and holed fire doors, severe disrepair to the external fabric of the property and a fire alarm system that was inoperative and showing faults. Fortunately, the catalogue of defects was put right quickly when brought to the attention of the registered social landlord, but the authority and Shelter brought to our attention the fact that there was no legal duty for it to do so. Such properties must be brought within some sort of regulatory framework.

I am fairly relaxed about that process and appreciate that it would not be best done through the Bill, but we must be very clear about the where and how of delivery. The Housing Corporation, under whose auspices the properties and registered social landlords will, presumably, be held to account, is seeking to replace the existing performance standards guidelines for housing associations. It proposes to introduce a new regulatory code and guidance, which will be formally published soon. The draft regulatory code specifies only that RSLs should ensure that all their properties are maintained in a ''lettable condition.'' The regulatory guidance specifies that RSLs should ensure that their properties exceed minimum statutory requirements, but there is no legal requirement to do so. I simply ask the Minister to ensure that the Housing Corporation insists on such provisions.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown 7:49 pm, 26th February 2002

I have great sympathy for both amendments, which effectively state the same thing. It is unfortunate that they apply to a clause that is about to disappear. However, the strong point on which there is cross-party agreement is that there should be a level playing field for the standards to which landlords, be they public or private, are expected to conform. I hope that the Minister will address that.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Billericay

To reinforce the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and the hon. Member for Nottingham, South, I bring to the Committee's attention the preliminary results in the report on the survey of English housing. They showed that greater dissatisfaction existed among RSL tenants as regards the state of their accommodation than among those in the private rented sector. That reinforces the need for amendments Nos. 47 and 50, despite the fact that the clause is about to disappear.

Further to the comments made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, there is an anomaly, it should be corrected and I hope that we will have an opportunity to do just that.

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

Previously in Committee, I asked the Minister to confirm that the burdens that would be placed on RSLs would be no less onerous than those placed by the Bill on landlords who are letting HMOs. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk stated that the provisions of the Bill should apply to every landlord equally. That would be preferable, providing that the requirements on an RSL are not more onerous than those on a landlord of an HMO. If those requirements are not more onerous, and bearing in mind that RSLs deal particularly with the most disadvantaged people, it would be better if RSLs came within the ambit of the Bill.

The Bill would set up a HECA—Home Energy Conservation Act 1995—officer in every local authority. A HECA officer would be extremely useful to those who live in RSLs. The Bill would set up a system to invigilate, organise and ensure that there are common reporting procedures. The more widely one uses the same system, the more efficient it tends to be. There would need to be particularly compelling reasons, and not just that that is the way in which it has been done before, to persuade me that RSLs should not be under the ambit of the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South has acknowledged, I recognise that this is like talking about a black hole or dead star. The star has almost gone, and it will go in the next few minutes. We require confirmation from the Minister that if the requirements placed on RSLs were no less than the requirements in the Bill, and that they were to be as well invigilated, he would give favourable consideration to ensuring that RSLs were part of the Bill.

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

There is clearly cross-party agreement that we should have a look at that issue. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Norfolk seeks to bring back into the mandatory registration scheme properties owned by RSLs and local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South also seeks to include RSLs within the regime. I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is a convert to that. I recall that on Second Reading he neatly summarised the case for not including such properties. The argument, which is valid so he need not be embarrassed, is that as public sector bodies are under a degree of control—for example, by the housing corporation in the case of RSLs—they are required to meet certain conditions. It would be odd or perverse if local authorities, which are

responsible for enforcing the regime, were included within its scope. I understand the argument and accept the principle that the standards expected of private landlords should apply in the public sector, and the disciplines in the public sector should ensure that that is so. However, there are cases in which that does not happen and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South quoted one. I hope that the Committee will accept that when I say that we are prepared to reconsider the case for not exempting RSLs, that is a matter for secondary legislation.

I understand the arguments concerning local authorities, but there are fundamental difficulties in applying to them a registration scheme that cannot be resolved in time to be included in the Bill. I take note, as will those in the DTLR who will read our debate, of the widespread feeling about that. We shall look again at the question concerning RSLs and if we decide to move, it will be in secondary legislation.

I am grateful for the debate

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

I am about to finish, so if the hon. Gentleman wants to say something, he had better be quick.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify his point about secondary legislation? Is he saying that the Bill will include the sentence about registered social landlords not being registrable in any event but that he will then negate it in secondary legislation?

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

If we decided after reconsideration that RSLs should be included on the same principle as private landlords and if we thought it appropriate to put that in secondary legislation, we would have to make changes consistent with that on Report.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

On the basis of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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

It might be appropriate to explain why we feel that clause 8 should not stand part of the Bill. Government new clauses 2 and 7 replace sections 346 and 345 of the Housing Act 1985. Under those new clauses, the Secretary of State would be able to prescribe what is an HMO, while allowing local authorities to enjoy their existing discretion to introduce legislation concerning only smaller HMOs. We might repent at leisure if the Bill is unduly prescriptive in describing properties that are HMOs. There is much dissatisfaction with existing descriptions, so we should not hastily prescribe in primary legislation what can be left to a statutory instrument. That is why I move that the clause does not stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

To tidy up matters, I wish to clarify that I shall not press amendment No. 50 to a Division. I do not know whether I should beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Photo of John Cummings John Cummings Labour, Easington

That is not necessary.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 9Expenses