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Mr. Sayeed: I seek clarification. The Minister talked about local authorities' ability to vary the model scheme. Is that a variation not only of the scheme but of the documentation? Is he seized of the point that to be able to determine not only the efficacy but the justice of a scheme, it is worth ensuring that there is as little variation as possible? It is understood, however, that different areas may have different and pressing problems, which they may wish to amplify the registration to cover.

I welcome the Minister's recognition that high fees could put off good landlords. As I understand it, under the Houses in Multiple Occupation (Fees for Registration Schemes) Order 1997, the level was £60 per habitable room per HMO under the scheme. Is the level proposed by the Local Government Association—£112 per five-year period per tenancy agreement—approximately the level that the Minister is considering? I understand that he cannot be explicit, but existing and potential landlords would be considerably reassured if the figure was in that region.

Could the Minister clarify the appeals procedure? He correctly said that, under section 348 of the Housing Act 1985, HMO landlords had a right of appeal to the county court. The rights of appeal are fairly narrowly drawn. The first relates to the application for registration under a scheme containing control provisions. As I understand it, the only other ground is the condition set by an authority for registering an application under a control scheme. Does that mean that a landlord can go to the county court if he believes that the requirements proposed by the local authority are so onerous as to be greater than those that would be imposed by other authorities in similar circumstances?

Mr. Drew: I will try to get my fives and sevens right, Mr. Benton, so that we do not have number dyslexia, but I shall concentrate on clause 6.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. I accept what he said in the previous debate about not encompassing specialist student accommodation, but following the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I seek greater clarification of what appeals are possible on individual registration fees. It seems that, because of an inability at national level to clarify the position in Scotland, individual local authorities have been able to impose fees that in some cases have a counter-productive effect. That is the gist of my request.

Is it possible to have a measure by which we can control fee setting so that it does not have a

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disproportionate impact? It has been suggested to me that it be related to the cost-of-living index. Whether that would be too complicated, I do not know. However, it is worrying to hear that Glasgow has experienced a 40 per cent. ratcheting up in comparison with other parts of Scotland, because it will accomplish what we all want to avoid—restrict people's willingness to enter that type of accommodation.

I have outlined my main concern, but other groups besides students should be mentioned. I referred earlier to providing specialist accommodation for key workers and we must be careful if such accommodation is to include HMOs. If the registration fee is onerous, it can hit the very people that we are hoping to support. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay fears that the registration fee could, by excessive use of regulation, achieve what most of us do not want to happen.

6.30 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner: I am happy to see clause 6 replaced by new clauses 2 and 3, which are more explicit. They deal—satisfactorily, I hope—with consistency of registration practice across the country, and address both maximum fees and appeals.

Clause 8, which prescribes what is mandatory and what is discretionary registration, will also be replaced. Registration will take place in two stages: we decide what is an HMO, and then which HMOs must be registered under compulsion. As it stands, the mandatory registration level kicks in for property consisting of more than two storeys used for habitation and occupied by more than five adults—effectively three storeys, and a minimum of six people.

Will the Minister clarify the thinking behind where the mandatory dividing line is set? That will be of great import to landlords, who will, rightly and reasonably, want to know whether the mandatory process applies to them. I see little difference between the aims expressed in the Bill and those of officials within the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but I would like the Minister to spell it all out, if possible.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): In supporting new clause 2 and the withdrawal of clause 8, is the hon. Gentleman—after all, this is his Bill—accepting that in future the thresholds will be determined by regulations, which might entail lower or higher thresholds than are currently envisaged? What does he assume about the thresholds once clause 8 is withdrawn?

Dr. Turner: My assumption is that thresholds will be determined by regulation. The same principle applies as I raised in respect of new clause 7—that it is preferable for regulations to be made by affirmative order, because it entails much greater scrutiny by the House, and is less likely to attract the ire of the Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Clause 8 gives the Secretary of State the regulatory power to amend mandatory registration, and those properties that may or may not be deregistrable. One hopes that that power will be used

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in the best possible way. I strongly recommend the affirmative procedure as the best way to proceed.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire mischievously suggested that I wanted a pilot scheme in Brighton and Hove. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) pointed out, in effect we already have one. There is ample evidence throughout the country of discretionary registration schemes, from which we can learn good and bad lessons. We can learn lessons from Scotland about mistakes that should be avoided. I hope that the registration scheme proposed by the appropriate authority will avoid those pitfalls and will be reasonable and workable.

We cannot afford to delay implementation if we are going to achieve the other aspects of the Bill, such as energy conservation and combating fuel poverty. We have already waited too long for HMO registration, and I do not wish to delay the outcome of a pilot scheme that would defer national registration by at least two years. We should proceed as fast as we can, but using all the available evidence to ensure that the scheme takes note of all the mistakes that have been made and incorporates best practice.

I am happy to endorse the replacement of clause 6 by new clauses 2 and 3.

Mr. Simpson: On a point of clarification, Mr. Benton. Reference was made to the consequence of replacing clause 6 with new clauses 2 and 3 in relation to clause 8. I am aware that we have not yet reached clause 8, to which I tabled an amendment. Is it appropriate for me to make whatever comments I need to make on amendment No. 50 now, or will we still be able to discuss the amendments to clause 8 later?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his point in the discussion on clause 8.

Mr. Simpson: May I do so now?

The Chairman: No, when we reach clause 8.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asked about the scope for varying model schemes. There will be some scope, but the variance will be given only under exceptional circumstances. On fees, he quoted £60 per habitable room. The Local Government Association proposed £112, which is in approximately the same order of magnitude. The fees are unlikely to exceed the LGA estimate. There is no reason why we should move away from the fees set under statutory instrument 1997/229. The current fees place much less of a financial burden on landlords of HMOs than do the fees in Scotland, which are probably what activated the hon. Gentleman. In Edinburgh, the fee is £480 to register for a year. In Glasgow, the fee is £1,700 to register for three years. Under statutory instrument 1997/229, which could be applied to the Bill, a 10-room HMO would cost £600 to register for five years. That is a substantial reduction.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the right of appeal if his local authority imposed conditions that he considered to be unusually onerous compared with

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those imposed by other local authorities. In effect, there would be an automatic right of appeal wherever the application for a licence is refused, or any conditions as to works or management are imposed, or if the application is not promptly dealt with. Therefore, there is fairly comprehensive protection.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to registration fees. They will be capped by the Government. There is no appeal against fees as such. The maximum levels are set by the Government. The Secretary of State can specify cases in which no fee is payable, and deal with different cases in different ways.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, who has just left my side, sought confirmation that we will consider using the affirmative procedure, as he requested. We will consider that—I am sure that he will read about it in tomorrow's edition of The Times—but we will accept it only if there is strong justification. He also mentioned a threshold of five or more occupants, and that is a strong candidate, but the position will have to be carefully considered, as I have stated.

I hope that I have answered all the questions that were raised.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 6 disagreed to.

Clause 7

Part 11 of the Housing Act 1985

Mr. Baron: I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 4, line 17, at end insert,

    'which shall include specific requirements relating to the provision, siting and maintenance of smoke alarms'.

I propose the amendment because proper attention must be given to the additional fire risks that are generally prevalent in HMOs. I can offer some approximate figures. More than 1.5 million people live in HMOs, and the detail of our research suggests that the fire risk for tenants in HMOs is greater than for those who live in houses occupied by a single household, however that is defined.

Research that Entec conducted for the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions—in 1998, I think—identified several factors, in addition to the number of occupants, that influence the risk from fire in HMOs. They included the number of storeys—HMOs of three or more storeys posed a significantly higher risk—and the nature of the occupancy itself, as HMOs that house dependant or vulnerable persons pose a higher risk than those that house the able-bodied and cognisant. Another factor was the quality of the management of an HMO, and further factors related to internal design, such as the degree of self-containment of the units of accommodation, the number of escape routes, and their fire rating.

Research by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions suggests that in many HMOs the risk of death from fire is very high. I will cite a couple of examples, although I am conscious that time is running out. Tenants in bedsit houses are six times more likely to die from fire than people in

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houses occupied by a single household. Adults living in bedsit houses of three or more storeys are almost 17 times more likely to be killed in a fire than those living in single family houses. There are other examples on page 26 of the DTLR report on fire risk in houses in multiple occupation, but it is unnecessary to highlight them.

6.45 pm

The findings seem to make sense. There are reservations about various statistics relating to fire hazards in HMOs, one factor being that legislation introduced in January 1997 removed from furniture the foam that gave off deadly poisonous gases. All furniture now in HMOs or in let property generally must comply with the latest fire regulations, so that furniture does not give off poisonous gases. Whatever the reservations about the figures, there is no doubt that the fire risk posed in HMOs is far greater than that in ordinary households.

Such a position is evidenced by visits in our constituencies to the many organisations that would be classified as HMOs, or buildings that contain many rooms, such as hostels, charity housing and refuges. It is reasonable to insist that all HMOs be fitted with smoke detectors. When considering fire safety requirements in any registration scheme, such as those that will be set up under clause 7, the siting and maintenance of smoke alarms should be part of the specific requirements relating to that provision. It is not as if I am talking about an expensive piece of kit. Smoke alarms are cheap to buy and to operate. I put it to the Committee that the amendment be accepted to ensure that as far as is practicable, the higher risk is removed.

As a landlord, I have fitted smoke detectors everywhere. Even though a fire might have been caused by a tenant, I could not have it on my conscience that a death had been caused because of the lack of a smoke detector, which is cheap to buy.

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Prepared 26 February 2002