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Sue Doughty (Guildford): Having heard such wonderful words about you, Mr. Benton, I look forward to working with you.

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I also support the views already expressed on the need to spend longer on this vital Bill. On the one hand it is good that it is on its way, but on the other hand it is sad that we are in this position yet again. For years, as a member of the public, I signed petitions about the subject matter of this Bill. It is ironic that the whole thing has not been wrapped up by this stage. We need to consider what the Bill is for, what it represents and where it sits in terms of the Government's thinking as a whole. It does two things. It addresses both poverty, in particular fuel poverty, and substantial environmental concerns, which, according to the Government's 1997 declaration, are at the heart of Government.

The Bill sets out a commitment to the eradication of fuel poverty. That needs to be delivered in many different ways. The Bill includes the setting of targets for its implementation, and also specifies who should be covered by its provisions. It is a short Bill, but it is complete. It goes to the heart of where the need is, but agreement on that is not total. Amendment No. 28, which seems to cut right across the Bill's aims, will require much consideration before we reach a satisfactory conclusion.

As I am sure the Committee is aware, the Liberal Democrats have been consistent supporters not only of this Bill but of its previous incarnations. We are pleased to be here today supporting it again.

Where are the targets in the first amendment? As a new Member—I am sure that other Members found this when they first entered the House—one sometimes reads a Bill and asks, ''Where does it say what's going happen?'' In response, someone will say, ''There will be guidelines to deal with that.'' Away from the House one might ask why a certain provision was not implemented and be told that it was only in the guidelines. Provisions are not implemented on bodies such as school organisation committees because the guidelines that contain them are not enforceable. We need to examine how on earth guidelines for local government can be enforceable.

One of the nice things about being a new Member is that people beat a path to one's door. People are very encouraging, but they want to know that the new Member knows who they are and how he or she can help them. Among the first to visit me was the local representative of the Energy Saving Trust, who brought along with him the Home Energy Conservation Act officer for Guildford, who promptly told me that this Bill was coming up and urged me to support it and give him the targets and tools to finish the job. Those involved in energy conservation do not feel that they have the necessary tools. They do not feel that there is any enforcement, and clearly there is not.

In my previous incarnation as an IT manager in a fast changing industry, I was regularly required to say what I was going to do and when I would do it by. I had to set targets. Those of us who have been on the dreadful management treadmill will be familiar with that. In the early days, the targets were always a problem. People learned quite early on that they

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should not set targets that they could not achieve, but rather ones that they could and should achieve. That is why the idea that we should not set targets in case we fail is such an outmoded way of thinking. We should be setting correct achievable targets, which people should be seen to be achieving—and if people fail to achieve their targets, we need to see that as well, for heaven's sake.

The targets are important, but the route by which we attain them must also be measured. Finding out three months before the end of the project, as happens so often in Government, that a target is not going to be achieved, is too late. It does not help the very people whom the Bill is intended to support. We are letting them down. We need the targets and we need them to be realistic, measurable and achievable. We do not need to duck the whole issue. Without clear measurement and reporting on the route to attainment of the targets, anything is possible and anything can be hidden. The removal of the targets would completely neutralise the Bill.

I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South on the subject of his stepdaughter. My words of warning are that as stepdaughters get older, the job gets tougher. Progress needs to be measured; otherwise, in my experience, one gives up on the task, particularly if one is not the custodial parent. If the Bill is emasculated and does not include provisions for the recording of progress, and no one is required to report on it, we will end up with the Minister saying, ''We had hoped to deal with that. I thought that that would work.'' Ministers regularly say such things in Select Committees and in the Chamber. At a community health council meeting a former Minister will sometimes say, ''I had hoped that that would work.'' We do not have a choice. We do not want to hope that the Bill will work; we want to force it to work, because it is essential.

On Second Reading, most of the time was not spent on the first part of the Bill, because it was assumed that that was in the bag. It is amazing that measures that have already been discussed are coming back as an amendment. However, Part 3 contains many issues that need consideration. Without rehearsing points that will be discussed later, I can say that that was clear from the amount of time taken up in discussing landlords and multiple occupancy, who was in or out, the necessity of ensuring that the Bill was not a problem for good and just landlords and could be implemented by them, and ensuring that it would not reduce the number of properties on the market in this important sector.

However, more work is required. We need sufficient time to consider matters in order to ensure that the Bill does not have to come back again in three years' time under another private Member's banner, after a ballot, to correct a problem that developed at this stage. We would do ourselves a lot of favours if we gave the Bill the necessary consideration on this occasion. I hope that all the people who have been working towards this for so many years will not find themselves depending on yet another ballot.

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The Government have set themselves the target of being a green Government and working towards ending fuel poverty. This legislation is very important. It will test our mettle and show us where we want to be in terms of delivery. I hope that we get the time that we need to debate the Bill. I look forward to working on it, and to producing a good piece of legislation on behalf of the people who elected me.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I join those who have welcomed you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. I am sure that it will be a pleasure for us all to consider the Bill under your chairmanship.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, and I am delighted at his determination. We shall need to make a considerable effort to meet those collectively accepted objectives. In that regard, I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. We have grounds for being hopeful about a broad spectrum of consensus on the development. I also welcome the observations of the Liberal spokesperson, the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty).

As I said on Second Reading, in a short time my constituency has seen radical changes, which have been driven by the dramatic growth in the number of houses in multiple occupation. We are not dealing only with the prospects for landlords and tenants, important thought they are—together with the need for energy efficiency, that is the core of the Bill. We are also dealing with the fact that communities that have been severely disturbed by the reckless expansion of HMOs might reasonably hope to see their quality of life restored. The Bill certainly opens up that possibility. It may have to be tackled in other legislation, but the density of HMOs can have a devastating effect on close communities. The seasonal use of HMOs, with vacancies for four months of the year, is an issue that might more properly be addressed in planning and other legislation.

Today is a day of hope. When I was first elected to the House in 1997, I joined others to see what might be done about the need to legislate in that area. There have been moments of real despair, when it seemed that we would make no progress. The good luck of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown in coming so high in the ballot for private Members' Bills has opened up a fortuitous opportunity—one that we should not miss.

There is broad agreement about the complexities of such issues, and I share some minor anxieties that some of them may not be easy to resolve. About four weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a small group of landlords from my constituency who had been expressing alarm about the decline in the general property status of the area for several months. Those people have been in the business for many years, and they want standards to be raised so that they can have a traditional relationship with their tenants. The Bill offers the prospect of higher standards in properties, not only in comfort and heat conservation, but in the general safety of gas and electrical supplies, which are crucial to the safety of the people who own them and of those who live there.

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I am a keen supporter of the Bill. I agree that we need more time. I shall resume my seat because many of the things that I might have said have already been said. However, I should like to add my voice to those expressing the need for further sittings and I look forward to that suggestion being accepted so that we can bring the Committee's good intentions to fruition in a measurable result.

10.15 am

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill, for two reasons. First, I consider it an important Bill, as it deals with poverty. Secondly, this is an occasion on which politicians from every party are working together for a common purpose. I welcome the opportunity to be part of that initiative in an important area. The Bill is important because it deals with an aspect of poverty. It has three parts: to provide reasonable targets for home energy efficiency, to help eradicate fuel poverty and to license houses in multiple occupation.

In essence, we are dealing with poverty, the relief of which should be one of the main objectives of politics. The vast majority of hon. Members would agree with that; it is just that we sometimes disagree about how best to achieve that objective. However, it is pleasing that on this Bill, politicians from all parties can co-operate for the common good.

I have to declare an interest, Mr. Benton, as I did on Second Reading. I am a landlord who rents accommodation. I should like to put it on record that I have no problem at all with the Bill—on the contrary, I welcome it. Landlords have suffered in the past and had a poor reputation because of a few unscrupulous ones who have sought to exploit their tenants and their situation. The vast majority of landlords would welcome the Bill because it would demonstrate once and for all that they wish to be good landlords, do not wish to exploit their tenants and will adhere to safety standards, particularly fire safety standards, and ensure that they are met. As a landlord, I wholeheartedly welcome and support the Bill. It will do the profession a lot of good.

I should like to reiterate the comments of other hon. Members in saying that it is important that we should have enough time to discuss the aspects of the Bill that require clarification. For example, target dates are important. Without them, nothing will change. If the Government's amendments are agreed, the law will not change. Local authorities need more help in instigating the targets that we have set, and following the guidance that we have produced, but the process needs to be firmed up—without targets, the law will not change.

Part 3 needs a little more clarification; there is a range of issues to be discussed. One of my concerns is that there is a danger that if we introduce too much red tape and cost, we could force private landlords out of the market. That would be a great shame. Such people provide a lot of accommodation across the country; if we force them out of the market, there is a danger that

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we will create homelessness for many tenants. I ask the Committee to give sufficient time to the consideration of that matter.

The experience in Scotland was mentioned, and lessons can be learned from it. There were concerns that costs were becoming a key factor in people's decisions about whether to continue as landlords or, indeed, to go into the market at all. We must learn from the Scottish experience, and we have sufficient time to do so.

Important amendments have been tabled, not least of which is my amendment on smoke detectors. It is crucial that we deal with that issue, because statistics strongly suggest that tenants in HMOs face a far greater risk of dying in a fire than other tenants. This is not the time to discuss that important matter, but I hope that we shall have sufficient time to do so later.

As a private landlord, I wholeheartedly support and welcome this important Bill, and I hope that we shall be given enough time to discuss its various aspects.

 
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