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Standing Committee Debates
Home Energy Conservation Bill

Home Energy Conservation Bill

Column Number: 93

Standing Committee C

Tuesday 26 February 2002

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Home Energy Conservation Bill

Clause 5

Houses in multiple occupation

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 51, in page 3, leave out lines 14 to 37 and insert

    ' ''house in multiple occupation'' means a house which is occupied by persons who do not form a single household.'.—[Mr. Baron.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we may discuss the following: Amendment No. 52, in page 3, line 14, leave out from 'house'' to end of line 25 and insert

    'where its occupancy is or would be subject to more than one tenancy agreement whether written or verbal'.

Amendment No. 53, in page 3, line 37, at end add—

    '(e) a building which has been converted into self-contained flats in accordance with Building Regulations;

    (f) service tenancy agreements.'.

Clause stand part.

Government new clause 7—Meaning of ''house in multiple occupation''—

    '(1) Section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 (meaning of ''multiple occupation'') is amended as follows.

    (2) In subsection (2)(b), for ''by a single household'' there is substituted ''as a separate dwelling.

    (3) After subsection (2) there is inserted—

    ''(3) The Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing—

    (a) circumstances in which a person is, or is not, to be regarded as occupying a house, or

    (b) circumstances in which persons occupying a house are, or are not, to be regarded as forming a single household.

    (4) Regulations under paragraph (b) of subsection (3) may (without prejudice to the generality of that paragraph) secure that persons occupying a house are regarded as forming a single household only where there is a prescribed relationship between each member of the group and any one or more of the others (as the regulations may require).

    (5) In subsection (4) ''prescribed relationship'' means any family or other relationship of a description specified in the regulations.

    ''(6) The Secretary of State may also make regulations prescribing descriptions of houses which (whether or not otherwise falling within the definition in subsection (1)) are not to be regarded as houses in multiple occupation within the meaning of this Part.

    (7) Regulations under subsection (6) may frame a description of house by reference to any features of the house (including the nature of its use or occupation).

    (8) Regulations under this section—

    (a) may make different provision for different circumstances;

    (b) may make incidental, supplementary and transitional provision; and

    (c) shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''.'.

Column Number: 94

And the following amendments thereto:

(a), after proposed new subsection (3)(b) of section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 insert

    '(3A) Regulations made under subsection (2) shall include in any definition of ''house in multiple occupation'' a house occupancy of which is or would be subject to more than one tenancy agreement whether written or verbal.'.

(b), in proposed new subsection (6) of section 345 of the Housing Act 1985, leave out from second 'of' to end and insert

    'buildings which are, or are not, to be regarded as houses'.

(c), in proposed new subsection (7) of section 345 of the Housing Act 1985, leave out from first 'of' to '(including' and insert

    'building by reference to any features of the building'.

Amendment No. 43, in title, before the second 'make' insert

    'to amend the definition of house in multiple occupation in Part 11 of the Housing Act 1985;'.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I was in full flood before lunch—lunch with the chairman of the BBC, which was a most welcome break from our proceedings—explaining why the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) was so splendid, why I supported it and why the rest of the Committee should do likewise. My hon. Friend made several important points about the nature of the private rental sector, what may happen under the Bill and what could happen under Government new clause 7.

I have some worries about part 3, as drafted. It states that a house in multiple occupation

    ''means subject to subsection (2) below a house occupied by adult members of more than two families.''

Presumably, if a house were occupied by only two families, it would not be an HMO. I can imagine circumstances in which a house that was occupied merely by two families ought to be classified as an HMO, as I can imagine circumstances in which a house occupied by two families should not be so classified. Such a definition is a strange basis on which to proceed.

I greeted new clause 7 with some surprise. The Minister has had today's sitting in his diary for a considerable time, but he was unable to attend this morning because of an engagement. The new clause states:

    ''The Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing—

    (a) circumstances in which a person is, or is not, to be regarded as occupying a house, or

    (b) circumstances in which persons occupying a house are, or are not, to be regarded as forming a single household.''

The Minister's pressing diary engagement is evidence that Ministers do not have enough time as it is, without their having to consider whether someone who occupies a house forms or does not form a single household and when someone is, or is not, deemed to be occupying a house. They have better things to do than that. I therefore commend the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, which would revert the clause to the original position that a house in multiple occupation

Column Number: 95

    ''means a house which is occupied by persons who do not form a single household.'

That is a clear definition and one under which disputes can be solved, not by far too busy Ministers, but by the courts as has hitherto been the case.

I have received a letter from a constituent, Mr. C. Binks, from Pulham Property Company Ltd. in Pulham Market. Those members of the Committee who knew my predecessor will know that Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market took his title from that splendid village in the heart of the constituency. Mr. Binks writes:

    ''We let mainly to students in Norwich, and work very closely through our agent with the students union.''

He believes that he does not need interference from the council to spoil the confidence that he has built up with his clients over many years. He objects to the permission that he would have to obtain under the Bill to sell a company property if it became unsuitable, and I shall expand on that later when we debate amendments Nos. 45 and 46, which I have tabled.

Mr. George Haines, Mr. Binks's colleague, explained the position to me as it obtains in Norwich where, in the golden triangle, is desirable terraced housing near the university of East Anglia in which some young professionals live, but which is also much liked by students. Typically, there are lets in houses of either four or five students living together, with shared lavatories, shared bathrooms and shared kitchens with one communal room, and one bedroom each. We would usually describe such conditions as a house share or a flat share. When I was a student, I lived in similar accommodation. We would not have regarded such accommodation as anything other than a single household. It would not have been right for it to have been included under the ambit of the Bill.

The problem, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay alluded, is that if the Bill were passed in such a form that such properties were caught, the effect would be simple. According to Mr. George Haines,

    ''We would no longer be in charge of our own properties''.

People would move towards ordinary family letting, and the supply of rental property available to students would be reduced. He said that, although the income received would be lower, his company feels so strongly about the matter that it would do that. They are reputable landlords who work hard to form close relationships with their clients, build relationships with student unions, understand what their clients want and provide a good service at a reasonable price.

I understand that the purpose of the Bill is to catch the small proportion of landlords who are not doing the right thing. I do not believe that the definition of HMO as proposed either in the original Bill or in new clause 7 is the right approach. Instead, I feel strongly that the best approach in defining HMOs is to revert to the former definition as contained in amendment No. 51, and it is in that light that I support the amendment.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I listened with great interest to the observations of previous

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speakers. I found the remarks of the hon. Member for Billericay fascinating. They were a delightful mixture of straightforward honesty, on which he should be congratulated, and observations, laden with a call for the status quo, which we hope to change. I should like to comment on some of those interesting observations.

The hon. Member for Billericay referred to the number of people who own dwellings that may or may not be defined as HMOs by whatever means we finally determine and how they tend to be held in the possession of one or more members of a family, especially in the case of one property, and suggested that corporate interests are rarely involved. I think that I understand the difference between a corporate interest and the interests of someone who may have five, 10, 20, 30, 50, 200 or 300 houses and own them individually. We have that in Leeds, and problems flow from that.

On either side of my house are HMOs that have been newly developed in the past few years. I can look from my landing window through the opposite landing window and see the locks and bars on the doors of the bedrooms opposite. I can look straight through, as there are no curtains. That is one of the effects of a plague of houses in multiple occupation—the standard of appearance of the housing stock quickly degrades.

The nature of such ownership is causing most of the problems. Great sums are made from such properties. I was fascinated to hear the suggestion that people may accept a lower income. That is not the information that I have from the owners of such properties. On the contrary, they look for every possible means to increase their income and are terrified of a definition of an HMO such as is contained in the Minister's new clause 7, as it would mean that they would have to register in a manner that might affect their profit-making capacities.

Houses in Headingley, where I and the great bulk of students at Leeds university live—there are some 60,000 students in total, from two universities and a large teacher training college—have had an enormous effect on the environment there. More than 50 per cent. of what was formerly traditional family housing stock has become HMOs. Hon. Members can imagine the catastrophic social and structural effects that that has had and how damaging that can be in relation to, for example, the number of schools in the area. A primary school was built 10 years ago that the demographics suggested would have a long and continuous future. A large sum of public money was invested in it, and yet it is struggling to survive. The reason for that is simple; the area has more houses in multiple occupation and fewer families. That means that there are fewer children, which leads to a greater threat to the community's infrastructure.

That process is being driven by the pursuit of profits. Vast sums of money are being made. The houses either side of me will generate income streams of about £15,000 to £20,000 a year if their owners are lucky—which they are. They have six, seven or eight bedrooms, and the numbers of tenants, and their safety, depends on the effectiveness of the local authority. We had a protracted battle with the house next door to mine. With the aid of the planning

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department, after a long inquiry, we eventually reduced the number of its occupants from eight to six for their safety, and in accordance with the planning regulations. Those are the kinds of real problems that it seems that the hon. Member for Billericay would not want to do anything to address them.

 
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Prepared 26 February 2002