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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. People to whom I have spoken welcome their inclusion under the provisions of energy conservation measures, but how long will that position be tenable? Obviously, such buildings will age; will there be a subsequent attempt to include them, or will student accommodation be specialist and not play any part in HMOs, come what may?
Mr. Meacher: We are extremely keen that student accommodation is included under the definition of an HMO in principle, but my hon. Friend specifically mentioned purpose-built private accommodation for students, which is separate.
Mr. Sayeed: The hon. Member for Stroud was talking about accommodation offered by an organisation called Unite, which provides study bedrooms with communal facilities. What is the difference between that and another purpose-built block that provides bed-sitting rooms and communal facilities?
Mr. Meacher: I will postpone giving an answer to that question until later, when I shall be answering several of the hon. Gentleman's questions.
I would like to return to the Barnes v. Sheffield City Council court ruling, which suggested that such a property would not be viewed as an HMO. However, we are seeking to provide greater clarity to that definition through our amendments. I give a commitment to the Committee that further legislation will make it clear that student properties of that sort will be viewed as HMOs.
I would like to address the point raised by the hon. Member for Billericay—it is a long time since he said it—about sharers. It is not true that the legislation was never meant to cover sharers. The problem is that the identification of household is unworkable. Therefore, all sharers are excluded, and among them are vulnerable groups of students who do not comprise households in any real sense. We intend to retain the phraseology of household but to clarify it, and we will do so with the intention of recognising established non-family and non-marital relationships where appropriate. I am coming on to the question raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown
Column Number: 114about prescribed relationships. We will also carefully target policy by setting thresholds at levels that will not affect small sharing arrangements and we will certainly focus on houses with three or more storeys, and larger properties.
Mr. Baron: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Meacher: Is the hon. Gentleman making an intervention or a speech?
Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for giving way. I promise that my question will be quick. When will we obtain clarification about the prescribed relationships? New clause 7 states that they will be specified in the regulations. Can we have guidance on that?
Mr. Meacher: They will, but since that is another request for clarification about prescribed relationships, I will deal with that point now. I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown whether we intend that a prescribed relationship will include a man and woman living together as husband and wife, although not married, or a same-sex couple living together in a gay or lesbian relationship. The answer is yes; we included those examples of a prescribed relationship subject to the important proviso that we do not intend to create a situation in which landlords and enforcement authorities would be forced to make inquiries into couples' sleeping arrangements in order to decide whether they really are couples.
The problem is that one needs rules based on genuine relationships without having the amount of prying necessary to establish the truth. We also want to avoid creating a loophole that would adversely affect the protection of students in boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. We will have to work out how to create workable criteria, which will be quite difficult. However that is done, established couples, regardless of gender, will be treated as being related. That is the criterion; the question is whether we can get criteria that will clearly establish that without the kind of prying that nobody wants.
Mr. Sayeed: I ask this question only because it illustrates one of the difficulties. Although a Muslim husband with three wives would clearly be in a familial relationship, what about a person with three—I was going to say concubines—lovers who all live together? I do not know the answer, and I wonder whether the prescribed relationship will cause a series of problems for the Minister.
Mr. Meacher: I can see that that will run and run. The people that the hon. Gentleman cited in his example would be included, but I agree that it is difficult to draw lines. He will have to leave it with us to come forward with criteria, which will include the proviso that I indicated, that will establish a genuine, familial-type relationship in regulations.
If I may turn to amendment No. 53—
Mr. Bacon: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Meacher: I am anxious to move on, but I will give way for the last time.
Mr. Bacon: I am grateful to the Minister, and I shall try to be quick.
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In my original speech on new clause 7, I referred to prescribed relationships as a minefield. It is not particularly likely that they are going be clearer than what we had before. People who are heterosexual could claim a fictitious homosexual relationship in order to be seen as a single household. How will the Minister go about avoiding that?
Mr. Meacher: As I said, there are innumerable questions that can genuinely be raised. We have not been able to draw up in the time available criteria within the constraints of section 11 of the 1985 Act that would meet the purposes of the private Member's Bill. When we come forward with our Bill, as we intend to, we will not be subject to those constraints, and I hope that we will be able to answer those questions, which I agree are genuine and difficult. There is no doubt that the Government have tried to answer them with all sincerity.
It is very difficult to find an exactly right criterion that is established as fair, but that cannot be manipulated for fictitious purposes. The only way in which to avoid that is to move away from the genuine relationship concept. The difficulties about which we heard earlier in the debate would be even greater if one tried to do that. The hon. Gentleman will have to leave that with us for the time being.
Dr. Turner: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Meacher: I cannot but give way to my hon. Friend, but I want to move on to amendment No. 54.
Dr. Turner: I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Will he consider making the regulations relating to clause 5 by affirmative resolution rather than a statutory instrument subject to annulment? The matter would be sensitive, and the Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform would potentially be giving him the power to amend definitions under primary legislation by statutory instrument. That would therefore be subject to amendment in the Lords, which could impede the progress of the Bill because we may run out of time. Will the Minister consider using that procedure for this sensitive subject?
Mr. Meacher: I shall consider it, but we are talking about Government legislation, which is in the process of preparation; we are still looking for a legislative slot. I hear my hon. Friend and shall consider what he has said.
Amendment No. 53 proposes to exclude converted blocks of self-contained flats from the definition of an HMO, where the conversion has been carried out in accordance with building regulations. The Government intend to prescribe the circumstances in which a building is not to be regarded as an HMO. It has been Government policy to exclude blocks of self-contained units, which have been properly converted to modern building control standards, from HMO registration, and we intend to exclude them from being considered HMOs altogether.
Service tenancy agreements are somewhat more complicated. Such a tenancy arises pursuant to
Column Number: 116accommodation being made available in connection with a person's employment. Many such tenancies would be excluded because the accommodation is not within the definition of an HMO, such as a porter occupying a flat in a purpose-built block. Some might also be excluded by virtue of the fact that the accommodation is not occupied in the sense of being lived in. In other cases, the accommodation may be an HMO, and the law in England and Wales does not require that occupants of an HMO live in it as their only or principal home. Thus, accommodation above a restaurant that is shared by staff might form an HMO. Some forms of occupation will be subject to regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. However, where that does not apply, and the property is an HMO, the Government do not consider that such occupants should be deprived of basic health and safety protection simply because they are housed by their employers.
I now come to the thorny issue of what should be classified as an HMO. The current definition is recognised as being far from satisfactory, and it is important to get it right. We aim to achieve that by removing detailed definitions of an HMO from the Bill. The hon. Member for South Norfolk made reference to that. Removing it and leaving it to secondary legislation gives us the opportunity to prepare a definition that is watertight. The Government are sympathetic to the use of the ''family'', as opposed to the ''household'', definition, which has been the subject of several disputes in the courts; even the family definition, however, is not beyond criticism. With regard to advice from our parliamentary draftsmen, we are adopting a non-prescriptive approach based on household and for that reason I propose that clause 5 does not stand part of the Bill as new clause 7 will address the difficulties.
Problems arise because an entirely new definition cannot be satisfactorily worked out in a Bill that makes improvements only to part 11 of the 1985 Act, rather than reforms the law relating to HMOs comprehensively, as our proposals envisage. What we propose will enable us to deal with the main problems with the current definition, and pave the way for the new legislation. We intend to achieve the same effect as introducing a new family-based definition, by saying in regulations that a household cannot be said to exist unless there are family relationships—or their equivalent, such as established partnerships—between those living together. That will ensure that most houses in which persons live together who are likely to lack a sense of shared responsibility, including shared student houses, are brought within the definition of HMO.
We intend to clarify ''house'' to exclude purpose-built blocks of self-contained flats, as proposed in clause 5. For the moment, older, converted blocks of flats will be covered and not excluded. That is desirable until stronger general fire safety powers are introduced because it would be practically impossible for technical reasons to include them if a new definition were introduced in the Bill.
We also intend to clarify ''occupation'' so that bona fide hotels and conference centres are outwith HMO
Column Number: 117regulations, but homeless and other persons living residentially in hotels and students in term-time shared occupation are covered, again as proposed in clause 5.
We shall use regulations to clarify that the other property mentioned in clause 5 as being exempt from HMO status are not HMOs and I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown and other Committee members.
A number of other specific points was raised, one of which concerned fees. Section 346A(5) of the Housing Act 1985 empowers the Secretary of State to regulate and specify the maximum permissible fee that local authorities may charge and cases in which no fee is payable. I gather that the Local Government Association suggested £112 as an example. We share the desire not to place undue financial burdens on landlords, but we want the regime to become self-financing. We must do further work, but I stress that we want costs to be kept to a minimum.
The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asked about appeals. The existing mechanisms are specified in the 1985 Act and appeals may be taken to the county court. Those mechanisms will continue.
An interesting cross-party idea was to have a test run in Brighton, Kemptown and there were tests under the 1985 Act. The provisions are voluntary for local authorities and the purpose of the Bill is to make them compulsory. The tests that took place under the 1985 Act showed that the schemes had technical weaknesses, including the definition of HMO, and limited powers to rectify problems. It is not sensible to put the details of exemptions and inclusions in the Bill because a lot of technical detail referring to other legislation would be necessary. We must consult the relevant authorities and bodies and I stress that it is vital for the detail of the definition to be right. Unless it is the hon. Member for Billericay properly made this point we shall either reduce the supply of cheap accommodation by over-regulating, or leave loopholes that can be exploited so that vulnerable people are left unprotected in defective housing. The precise issue is to get the right balance.
Amendments (b) and (c) to new clause 7 will help us to get the detail of definition of an HMO right by enabling the regulations to provide what categories of buildings or parts of buildings are to be regarded as HMOs.
Amendment No. 43 is a technical amendment better to reflect the Bill's purpose.
I apologise for the length and complexity of this intervention, which was more a speech than an intervention.
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