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Jim Knight (South Dorset): Will the hon. Gentleman consider the position from the opposite perspective? A number of local authorities, including Weymouth and Portland in my constituency, operate voluntary registration schemes for HMOs. Those responsible for their operationsuch as the deputy fire officer to whom
Landlords in Scotland have found that local authorities have been left to determine their own licence fees, which have varied widely. Landlords have also had to submit detailed and apparently costly drawings of their properties with their licence applications, regardless of whether local authorities really need them.
With reports like those circulating north of the border, we are right to be concerned about the cost to good landlords of complying with such a scheme, and the cost to local authorities. It is imperative that good private landlords should not be forced to meet unfair or unnecessary costs and requirements as a result of the Bill. That would only harm the very tenants whom we seek to protect, because if the licensing costs are too high that will merely be reflected in their rent, or reduce the availability of rented accommodation.
It is estimated that 78 per cent. of private tenants are very or fairly satisfied with their landlordscompared with, interestingly, 73 per cent. of housing association tenants and 67 per cent. of council house tenants. We must ensure that the Bill does not interfere with the generally high percentage of satisfied private tenants.
Mr. Sayeed: I agree entirely. I do not want any rogue landlords. I do not want any bad and dangerous properties. I want bad landlords driven out of business. It is undoubtedly true that if we drive the bad landlord out of business, the good landlord can prosper. If we allow the bad landlord to continue, the good landlord will find it more difficult to prosper, but we must ensure that we do not make things more difficult for the good landlord.
I hope the House can agree that we must ensure that the Bill does not interfere with that generally high percentage of satisfied private tenants. We have doubts about the wisdom of excluding registered social landlords from the Bill, a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). We believe that where there is an effective, existing registration schemeI stress "effective"consideration should be given to allowing permissions to run out before the landlords are required to register.
We think that the licensing system should be introduced with flexible time scales that will realistically allow landlords to meet the requirements of the scheme. Consequently, we question the statement in the DEFRA consultation document:
Mr. Sayeed: I understand my hon. Friend's point. I would prefer that landlords were consistently consulted to ensure that they understood what was required of them and that they were involved in the decision-making process.
As I said, we think that the licensing system should be introduced with flexible time scales to allow landlords to meet the requirements of the scheme. Consequently, we question the statement in the DEFRA document. We are sure that one thing that is not in the Bill must come in at the Committee stage, if we get there: an effective appeals system must be implemented from the inception of the scheme. It is essential that landlord associations are consistently consulted on the Bill and on any secondary legislation. Another complaint about the way in which Scotland handled its licensing system was that although landlords were consulted at the outset, they were then sidelined. Ignoring the needs of those providing private rentals will result merely in a reduction in the number of properties available for rent, or even in non-compliance.
In summary, the Conservative party supports wholeheartedly the part of the Bill that deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. We offer support in principle to the part of the Bill that deals with home energy conservation, subject to the renewed undertaking from the Government that they are serious about their environmental promises and will reiterate their commitment to achieving the targets of the 1995 Act. We need reassurances and evidence that the part of the Bill that deals with the licensing of HMOs will work in practice and not damage the decent landlord in the private rented sector. We look forward to receiving that commitment, reassurance and evidence. Given that, we are minded to give the Bill a Second Reading in order that it can be altered and improved in Committee.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am pleased that the Opposition are minded to give the Bill a Second Reading. That reflects the extent to which the campaign to eliminate fuel poverty in Britain has over the years built up on a cross-party basis.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot, on choosing this subject for his Bill, and on the manner in which he has set about increasing his understanding of the detail. I am sure that he would be the first to recognise that the campaign has been a relay race rather than a competitive sprint. Over the years, many hon. Members from all parties have carried the baton and passed it on to the next person in the ballot.
That is an example of the House working at it best, and Parliament seeking to connect itself to an agenda to which the public wanted us to respond for many years. It has been a triumph of Parliament. We are able to celebrate the position that we are in today on eliminating fuel poverty because of our ability to work across party divides. That is the overall picture. It is in that context that my hon. Friend would want to place his role.
I put the matter in a specific and immediate time frame. We should not undermine the achievement of the House and Parliament in passing the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. We had been talking for many years about the importance of having such a policy. The Government's commitment to eliminate fuel poverty within 15 years is of enormous importance to the political process: that is now a fixed benchmark against which all of us will be judged. That transformation has meant that the challenge now is different: it is to talk not about policy, but about strategy. The Bill requires us to move from joined-up thinking to joined-up doing.
For all the important aspirations that were set out in the 1995 Act, the picture on delivery is at best chequered. Some authorities were leaders then and are leaders now, and others were laggards then and are laggards now. We never had the mechanisms to give those at the back of the queue an obligation to reach the new benchmarks that other authorities around the country were rightly setting; there was only an outline. Part 1 of the Bill helps us to deal with the question of how the rest can catch up with the best.
Part 2 deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. Although small, it is of enormous importance. It follows the recent publication of the Government's fuel poverty strategy. It must dovetail with our discussions with local authorities, social landlords, tenants and residents' organisations, environmental organisations and the energy-generating industry.
We should recognise that the energy supply industry is massively behind the proposals. That is so partly because all the major political parties have encouraged it to play a positive role in reducing or eliminating fuel poverty. The response of some parts of the industry has been brilliant. They have been very imaginative and have demonstrated their willingness not only to supply low-energy light bulbs, for example, but to enter the more difficult terrain of making substantial changes to improve energy efficiency in poor and low energy efficiency homes.
The energy supply industry says that it is willing to be our partners in that process, but that we cannot ask it also to take on the role of legislator. That point is nowhere more true than in the private rented sector. The industry says, "We'll happily talk to landlords about how they can make their properties more fuel efficient, but you cannot ask us to oblige them to make those changes." The industry would face resistance if it tried to do that, and it simply wants to offer a hand. It is acknowledging that there is a national commitment on the issue and saying that it can offer options on how to deliver it.
There is support for our fuel energy objectives not only on both sides of the House but probably across the countryit has become a great virtuous circle. It is difficult to find anyone who does not sign up to the importance of eliminating fuel poverty or recognise the health gains, disposable income gains and environmental gains to be won by achieving that goal. We shall all win by reaching that goal. That is the critical point that gives meaning to the fuel poverty strategy.
There are, however, disconnections between various parts of the strategy. Many of the individuals and all the bodies who have campaigned on the issue and helped to formulate the Billincluding the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Friends of the Earth, the right to
I am chairman of the all-party warm homes group. Over the years, although members of that group have raised various issues, they have often specifically highlighted the intractable problems in the HMO sector. Most hon. Members have constituency cases of people living in the most abject properties; indeed, many of us have children who are now students living in properties that are not much better than the most abject ones. We are aware of the health risks caused by inadequate and poorly maintained gas supplies in miserably fuel inefficient properties.
For all the encouragement that successive Governments have attempted to give landlords to improve properties, there is nowas landlords themselves tell usa clear divide between landlords. The best landlords whom we have consulted over the years have told us that a voluntary framework would be helpful; but who will be part of a voluntary framework other than the best landlords? Those who wish to be judged by the best current standards have no problems with joining such a framework. Their problem and frustration is that the cowboys in the industry have set benchmarks that are so low that they discredit the whole sector. The issue is how to recognise legitimate landlords who rent high-quality properties as those who provide a service that is valuable not only to their tenants but to the community as a whole.
It is landlords at the other end of the spectrum who drive their tenants into ill health and their communities to despair. However, it is very difficult to encourage people to devise mechanisms to prevent the worst landlords from dragging a whole sector into decline, which is very difficult to reverse. A national licensing framework would make a difference in that.
I appreciate many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who made a number of important points that I am sure will be considered fully in Committee. My only real reservation about the Bill is whether we should seek to persuade the Standing Committee and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to choose a more flexible time scale for implementation. The point on existing licences is both clear and very good. Those who currently hold licences are already complying with a voluntary scheme. It is less certain that we should offer the same flexibility to those who would be required to join the scheme.
I tell those who foresee implementation problems to cast back their mind to arguably the best parallel in parliamentary historyimplementation of the Clean Air Act 1956. We recognised that there was a major problem that was not going to be resolved by exhorting individuals to change their pollution patterns. The then Government set everyone a clear target and a clear deadline. The essential point is to give people sufficient time to make the changes necessary to comply.