Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.41 pm

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot. I thank him on behalf of my constituents in Boston and Skegness, especially those who will directly benefit from the Bill, which I hope will move to its Committee stage and soon become an Act of Parliament. The people who will specifically benefit from the Bill are the rural poor in the immediate surrounds of Boston and those in Skegness who reside in HMOs. Many of the older hotels and boarding houses have not been converted satisfactorily.

I have one or two queries about part 3, but I wholly support the excellent and worthwhile ambition to eradicate fuel poverty to improve many people's lives, particularly the vulnerable—older people and those in lower socio-economic groups.

As an ex-housing chairman at Wandsworth council, I am aware of the many complex issues that surround this subject. When I was doing some reading to research the debate, I was disturbed and horrified to find out that since my time at the council in the early 1990s, despite some important legislation having been enacted, things have not moved on that much. The severity, the continued extent and even the geographical spread of the problem of fuel poor households are unacceptable.

Some interesting statistics from Help the Aged drove that point home. About 25,000 senior citizens died avoidable deaths last winter. Not all were due to fuel poverty, but a large number were either directly due to fuel poverty or allied to it. Seventy-seven per cent. of single pensioners are classified as fuel poor. Forty per cent. of housing

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1263

comprising bedsits has been deemed unfit for occupation. Those figures are a very poor reflection upon our country and our society when we are the fourth biggest economy in the world.

All hon. Members are aware of the effects of fuel poverty, which include misery, illness and death. The challenge is to find a way of bringing together and enabling the relevant bodies to work together effectively and efficiently towards the common goal. The Bill's provisions strengthening the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 are necessary, welcome and to be encouraged. The 30 per cent. target will not be met without them, and it is essential to allocate resources to enable local authorities to meet the duty imposed in the Bill.

I think that most hon. Members agree on part 2, which deals specifically with fuel poverty, and I shall not dwell on it. My one possible concern is, inevitably, part 3, which seems initially almost to have been bolted on to the other two parts. Nevertheless, to eradicate fuel poverty, it is necessary to regulate HMOs; as mentioned earlier, HMOs account for 39 per cent. of the nation's fuel poverty. However, I would prefer that that very detailed and complex issue were addressed in a Government Bill, so I am slightly disappointed that it is being addressed in a private Member's Bill, good though it is.

It is vital that we improve the standard and quality of private rented accommodation so that people can live safely and without fear of fire, gas leaks, pests, fuel poverty, damp, water penetration, structural problems—the list is almost endless. Not only the elderly, but students—as hon. Members have said—suffer from those conditions. I believe that 600,000 students live in privately rented accommodation, and many of them live in HMOs. If we are to eradicate fuel poverty, HMOs must be registered and play their part in improving the totality of the housing stock.

It is important that licensing is not either a first step or a snowball that will re-regulate the private rented sector. We need to encourage more private landlords and more institutions to enter the private rented sector to provide people with choice and diversity, so that they can decide where and how they want to live. We must ensure that the legislation does not increase unnecessary costs or place pervasive burdens on good, responsible private landlords.

Mr. Love: The subtext of many of the comments from Opposition Members on part 3 is that the provisions would result in fewer properties in the private rented sector. Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence showing that that would be the result? Or does he agree that the number of those properties will increase if we can attract institutional investment to the sector?

Mr. Simmonds: I was coming to the reasons why I hold that belief, one of which I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Institutional investors who may wish to invest in residential accommodation definitely perceive that a stigma attaches to HMOs. If the Bill's HMO proposals require them to register, some institutional landlords may well either not invest or defer investing in the residential sector.

Our experience of the legislation operating in Scotland is that although there may be some debate about how much the sector has been reduced, there is not much

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1264

argument about the fact that the sector, and particularly student accommodation, has been reduced. I raised that issue in an intervention on the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, and I was very pleased with his reply that people have been taking on board the lessons learned in Scotland and that they will be applied to this legislation.

Jim Knight: Is there not a chicken and egg situation, in that the Bill seeks to improve the quality of properties in the HMO sector to the level maintained by the better landlords, so that the stigma is removed and institutional investors become very happy to invest in the sector?

Mr. Simmonds: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I take his point. However, whether or not they are investing in residential property, institutional investors are looking for a return on the money on behalf of their shareholders or pension funds. Historically, there has not been much institutional investment in residential accommodation because of the yield gap—the disparity between the money invested and the return on it. Although the Bill is very worthy, I am nervous that it will increase the costs incurred by institutional and private landlords and thus increase the yield gap and deter them from investing.

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his indulgence in giving way to me again. As my constituency is in London, which has the highest demand for a private rented sector, I would not want there to be any reduction in the number of properties available in Greater London. Does he agree that if the Bill, and part 3 in particular, is introduced sensitively, those problems will not arise?

Mr. Simmonds: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but I draw his attention to another factor. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said that we may need greater flexibility in the time scales for implementing the legislation as certain issues require more time. If costs could be spread over a number of years rather than taken in one hit, people might be encouraged to retain their properties in the marketplace rather than sell them on as residential accommodation or convert them back to single dwellings, which is certainly possible for many London properties which were converted from single dwellings in the first place.

The licensing of HMOs must have a degree of consistency on cost. The recent experience in Scotland, which I mentioned in response to an intervention, has been confusing and, it is fair to say, poorly administered, with local authorities taking widely differing views and charging widely differing fees. That has led to a degree of non-compliance. Hon. Members will agree that the legislation must allow no room for manoeuvre and that everybody should be required to comply with it.

Experience shows that the Scottish legislation has produced a marked reduction in the availability of properties at the lower end of the market. We must ensure that that does not happen here. I shall not elaborate on the point that was made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) with regard to registered social housing, although some of the social housing in my constituency could benefit from the legislation. I very much hope that the Government and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will give serious consideration in Committee to including registered social landlords within the remit of the Bill.

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1265

In conclusion, let me put it on record that two of the local authorities that affect my constituency, Lincolnshire county council and Boston borough council, fully support the Bill, particularly as they believe that it will benefit vulnerable people, especially pensioners, many of whom have poorly insulated houses, are on low incomes and are vulnerable to death from cold-related illnesses. I am delighted to add my support to the Bill.

12.54 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I am pleased to take part in this important debate today. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot for private Members' Bills and on introducing this important Bill.

Energy conservation is becoming increasingly significant. Climate change and fuel poverty are challenges that we all face. At the same time, achieving decent standards of affordable accommodation is important in my constituency, especially for the 10,000-plus Reading university students who live in Reading, East. That is why I support the Bill today.

As part of the post-second world war generation, I did not live in a house with central heating until I was 14, and that is not unusual. In the large-scale building that took place after the war and through to the 1960s, the priority was to provide people with a roof over their head. We were clearing insanitary slums, as it was put at the time, and building homes fit for heroes. Getting people a home was a higher priority than having a warm home.

Times have changed. The various Bills that were blocked by the Conservative party in the early 1990s, and the final enactment of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, are testimony to that. Cold, damp homes are a major factor in ill health. The United Kingdom is the only major industrial nation whose citizens suffer from extensive fuel poverty. In fact, excess winter mortality, described as perhaps the most powerful indicator of fuel poverty, is virtually unheard of outside the UK. We should be ashamed that, in the 21st century, we live in a society where people have the choice: to heat or to eat. We need to tackle those problems, and that is why the Bill is so important.

I welcomed the 1995 Act. At the time, I was a councillor on Reading borough council, and we campaigned for our then Member of Parliament to support the Bill, but I entered a caveat: the setting of a 30 per cent. target for everyone from the time of enactment did not recognise the work that local authorities had already done. Not every council started from the same base line. For example, before the Act became law, Reading borough council had agreed with its tenants to charge an extra £1 a week on their rent. The £300,000 raised was spent on energy efficiency improvements.

The 1995 Act set a target of a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. To achieve that, councils needed to have achieved about 8 per cent. by 31 March 2000. I join the Secretary of State in being dismayed that the average achieved was only 6 per cent. and that more than 100 councils had not even achieved a 3 per cent. improvement.

I am pleased that Reading borough council has continued with its measures to tackle fuel poverty. On 31 March 2001, its improvement in energy efficiency

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1266

stood at 10.8 per cent. That has been achieved through an impressive array of programmes based on conducting a general analysis of the situation in Reading and then focusing on areas of greatest need. I commend the council's fifth progress report for its wide range of initiatives taken to increase energy efficiency.

The council's approach is to find low-cost measures that can be introduced into many homes and benefit many people. One example is work done with Southern Electric to allow people on low incomes to buy fridges for £25 to £50. In partnership with Southern Electric, the council has distributed 300 energy efficient kettles to elderly people in Reading. It worked with British Gas and Southern Electric to distribute 500 free light bulbs and energy advice in energy week.

The success of the initiatives is shown by the fact that Reading has a standard assessment procedure rating of 48, compared with a national average of 44. The position is even better if one bears it in mind that, because of Reading's ridiculously tight boundaries, most of its suburbs are outside the Reading borough council area. An SAP rating of 48 is reckoned to be high for a borough with predominantly pre-war housing stock, although that is not a reason for the council to rest on its laurels.

The other local authority area that I represent is Wokingham unitary. Its annual improvement to 31 March was just below the national average, at 5.8 per cent. It is a shame that, despite a number of initiatives, Wokingham was not able to record any improvement in energy efficiency over the past year, despite having keen and willing staff who are committed to tackling fuel poverty. I challenge Wokingham's councillors to do more to tackle fuel poverty. I challenge them to give their officers the tools to do the job, to make Woodley and Earley better and warmer places to live.

My main reason for speaking today is to support part 3. A 1995 survey revealed that there were at least 1,700 houses in multiple occupation in Reading, accommodating at least 10,000 people. At that time, 90 per cent. of HMOs in Reading lacked adequate means of escape in case of fire, and a third were in a poor state of repair.

Reading is a university city, and my constituency is home to about 10,000 of the university's 12,000-plus students. At any one time, thousands of students are living in HMOs in Reading. It was for that reason that Reading and Wokingham councils worked with Reading university, Reading college and the school of arts and design to set up a landlord accreditation scheme. The scheme related solely to students initially, but has now been widened to include all tenants. The scheme is nationally recognised, offers a package of training for landlords, holds a number of information evenings each year and facilitates a forum for accredited landlords that gives them a voice on the councils.

The scheme was chosen as one of only seven nationally for a DETR-commissioned study of good practice in landlord accreditation schemes. Reading's scheme includes many of the elements proposed by clause 7. However—this highlights the importance of the matter being linked to energy conservation in the Bill—Reading's scheme does not include energy efficiency. A scheme recognised as one of the best nationally does not currently include energy efficiency. Yet, according to the Government's own figures on fuel poverty, people

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1267

living in privately rented accommodation are more than 50 per cent. more likely to be living in fuel poverty than the average person in the UK.

People living in HMOs are more likely to be living in less energy efficient accommodation. If we add to that the attitudes of bad landlords in areas such as Reading that experience high demand, we see that including energy efficiency as part of a scheme to register landlords becomes very important. I am pleased that Reading borough council proposes to consult landlords next year on including energy efficiency in the scheme.

Given what I have said, why should we have a mandatory registration scheme? If things are so good in Reading and Woodley, why bring legislation into it? In general, at the moment, the onus is on the local authority to find out where HMO properties are. It must carry out surveys, deal with complaints from the public or get landlords approaching the council for advice to improve conditions. Only the good landlords will do that.

A mandatory registration scheme shifts the onus on to landlords to come forward. Initially, it is likely that only the good landlords will do so. However, if the scheme is properly thought out and involves landlords and tenants from the start, it is likely that, as it progresses, landlords who do not initially want involvement with councils will start to come forward. This has partly been our experience of landlords involved in the landlord accreditation scheme that I mentioned earlier.

I would like to give an example of a case from Reading, concerning a four-storey property with twelve tenants—nine adults and three children, including a baby—sharing two kitchens and one bathroom. There were no fire precautions, the landlord rarely visited the tenants and they had no contact details in case of emergencies. There were also problems with damp. The council is in the process of serving notices under the Housing Act 1985, as amended, on the landlord to improve conditions. The couple with the baby have now been rehoused owing to the baby's medical condition.

One of the problems that the council faces is finding out who the landlord is, as so many companies are involved. A registration scheme would mean that a landlord or owner would need to give the council details of who was responsible, and would not to be able to get lost in various companies.

Reading, East is home to thousands of students living in HMOs like those I have mentioned. As a result of the accreditation scheme, landlords are not all like those whom I have just mentioned. Unfortunately, far too many are. That is why Reading university students union has been campaigning for improvements to HMOs. It is not right that because there is a captive market of demand for accommodation, bad landlords should be allowed to get away with taking money and having people living in substandard accommodation.

The problems of trying to study and work in cold and damp accommodation are too obvious, not to mention the danger of accommodation with improperly serviced heating equipment or which lacks adequate fire escapes.

I started by talking about the shame that we should all feel because ours is the only major industrial country that has such a problem with fuel poverty. We should also perhaps be ashamed about the accommodation in which some of our fellow human beings are living. The Bill will strengthen efforts to tackle fuel poverty. It will improve

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1268

the conditions in which the people of Reading and Woodley live. Giving the Bill its Second Reading is the minimum that we should do. Our humanity is measured by the way in which we treat the most vulnerable people in our society, for it is they who suffer more from fuel poverty and poor housing conditions, and it is they who die as a result. For the sake of our humanity, we should do nothing less than ensure today that the Bill makes further progress in Parliament.

As a postscript to my remarks, let me say that as a member of the post-war generation it has been difficult to speak in the House today—the day that witnessed the passing of George Harrison. Some of us are inclined to weep now that George's guitar gently weeps no more.

Next Section

IndexHome Page