Home Energy Conservation Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Meacher: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument about widening the scope of the properties for registration. He proposes two alternative criteria. We intend that both criteria, rather than either one of them, should be met. It is intended that mandatory registration will apply only to those properties that make up the most problematic part of the HMO sector, but properties occupied by more than four people that are also three storeys or more high exhibit the characteristics about which we are most concerned, such as fire risk and overcrowding. Assuming reasonably full occupation, it is unlikely that a three-storey property would accommodate as few as four people, or that, if there were as few as four occupants, all the problems characteristic of multiple occupation would regularly apply. Precisely for that reason, I recognise that there are particular problems in some localities where there are persistent problems of exploitative management, even of smaller bedsit and shared properties, and for that reason local authorities will be given discretion to require registration of smaller HMOs where there is a particular local problem with accommodation of that sort. The hon. Gentleman's concerns will be met, and on that basis I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

I wonder if I may beg your indulgence, Mr. Cummings. I have received information about a point concerning the use of the word ''may'' in regulation, as opposed to ''shall''. May I rapidly deal with it? I am advised that ''may'' is standard drafting, leaving discretion to the Secretary of State. For instance, if other legislation were to supersede the Bill, an absolute requirement to make regulations would be undesirable. There is, despite the use of the word ''may'', a definite intention to make the regulations. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that point.

To return to the earlier matter, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) raised a fair point. If both criteria are met, they will be covered, but there will be discretion in smaller cases: for instance, the local authority may register shared bedsits if it so chooses. On that basis, I hope that he will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Dr. Cable: I do not intend to press the amendment, and I accept the spirit of the Minister's reply. I would suggest to him that it is not a question of special cases. There is a case for a wider definition of a wide range of properties in a wide range of areas. His proposal to allow local authorities discretion is helpful, but I would hope that the Minister will talk to some of the charities and others who are involved with the problem of HMOs, and may be persuaded at that stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bacon: I beg to move amendment No. 47, in page 4, leave out lines 36 and 37.

Column Number: 134

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 50, in page 4, line 36, leave out:

    'a registered social landlord or'.

Mr. Bacon: The essential purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the provisions apply to every landlord equally. I hope that Committee members share my contention that the Bill should apply to everyone, whether a landlord is public or private. The Minister may argue that it is unnecessary for registered social landlords to be covered by the Bill because they are dealt with in other ways under the law. I asked the Library to provide me with information on the ways in which registered social landlords are covered, and it was able to furnish me with a whole raft of pieces of legislation: the Gas Safety (Installation and Use Regulations) 1994 as amended, the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, as well as the Housing Act 1985 and others that impact on registered social landlords.

When the Department issued its 1999 consultation paper, ''Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation—England'', it was proposed that RSLs should be exempted from a mandatory licensing scheme. The consultation paper raised the point that the public sector bodies concerned, under some degree of control,

    ''can be expected to behave responsibly.''

It may be the case in respect of most registered social landlords that they do behave responsibly: I would not doubt that. However, it is equally true that that is not the case in respect of all registered social landlords. I repeat an argument that I made earlier, and on Second Reading. If it is true that private sector landlords have nothing to fear from the Bill, it should also be the case that registered social landlords have nothing to fear from it.

I draw the Committee's attention to comments made with considerable force by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on Second Reading. Although he expressed support for the general principles of the Bill, which he hoped would become a valuable Act of Parliament, he expressed reservations over the exemptions for registered social landlords in part 3. He said:

    ''Although there is regulation designed to control registered social landlords, and although in theory they already comply with much that is in the Bill and would apply to other landlords, those schemes do not appear to be satisfactorily policed.''

My hon. Friend went on to instance two registered social landlords that he thought did not meet the standards that one would expect. The first was Notting Hill housing trust, of which he had direct experience because his daughter lived next door to one of its properties. He said:

    ''It is my personal view that the property is ill managed and has a bad effect on the surrounding neighbourhood.''

He continued:

    ''I feel strongly that organisations such as Notting Hill housing trust that neglect their responsibilities to their tenants and to their properties should be brought within the ambit of the scheme.''

The other organisation that my hon. Friend mentioned was English Churches housing, about which he said that

Column Number: 135

    ''over the past couple of years I have received more complaints from residents, constituents and tenants of English Churches housing than from any other single organisation in my constituency.''

My hon. Friend then said:

    ''The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown should reflect on part 3 and review the matter in Committee . . . He should consider whether there is a strong case for bringing registered social housing within the ambit of the Bill not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire suggested, on the expiry of the current licence for social housing registration, but immediately.''—[Official Report, 30 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 1255-56.]

It should be possible for this House and this Committee to contribute in their own small way to the ongoing process of the simplification and clarification of the law. That is a remit of the Law Commission, which I believe it has because this place spends its time making law that is ill considered, ill judged and ill drafted, often with too much haste. A simpler regime, where landlords of whatever kind, in the public or private sector, were subject to the same regulations that could be looked up in one place, would be a step in the right direction. I might add in parentheses that that is one reason why I favour giving Ministers of any party less discretion and including more on the face of Bills, to use the jargon. That would give citizens greater opportunity to identify for themselves the provisions of law to which they are subject, simply by going to look them up.

My final point is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made earlier: that registered social landlords often have as tenants some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Although it is said that registered social landlords are already covered in other ways, the simplest way to ensure that those poor and vulnerable people are protected in exactly the same way as people in the private sector would be to subject them to exactly the same law, with provisions applying equally to both. There would then be no doubt, and one would not have to look up the law in two places. One law would apply to tenants and landlords and be more easily understood. I hope that my remarks will meet with the Committee's approval.

7.30 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson: Is it appropriate for me to move amendment No. 50 at this point?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman can speak to it.

Mr. Simpson: I have three points to make, one political, one practical and one an example. In a way, they all follow on from the comments made by the hon. Member for South Norfolk. It is important to recognise that, in their entire role, registered social landlords must be seen to be held to account to exactly the same standards as every other part of the housing sector. That is my broadly political point, made on the basis not of party but of the reputation of the House. If we take an important step forward and then open a standards gap based on the ownership of the properties, we will be subject to massive public criticism, which will only increase in light of large-scale property transfers by local authorities to registered social landlords. The scale is enormous:

Column Number: 136

some 600,000 properties have been transferred to registered social landlords. If they are not accountable under the same standards, we will be left with a huge number of difficult questions.

I assure the Minister that my amendment is a probing amendment to a clause that will soon be non-existent. However, it is based on extremely important work carried out throughout the country by Shelter, which examined the position of registered social landlords who are the owners or managers of houses in multiple occupation. At present, they do not appear to be caught in the same regulatory framework.

The example that I wish to cite is of a property in Oxford that was occupied by five vulnerable young persons. It was supposed to have a residential caretaker, but it had not been possible to fill the post for some time. The situation came to the attention of the local authority as a result of a noise nuisance complaint, and contact with the local authority occurred in that context. On inspection, the local authority discovered that the property had 44 defects, including rotted, ill-fitting and boarded-over windows, ill-fitting and holed fire doors, severe disrepair to the external fabric of the property and a fire alarm system that was inoperative and showing faults. Fortunately, the catalogue of defects was put right quickly when brought to the attention of the registered social landlord, but the authority and Shelter brought to our attention the fact that there was no legal duty for it to do so. Such properties must be brought within some sort of regulatory framework.

I am fairly relaxed about that process and appreciate that it would not be best done through the Bill, but we must be very clear about the where and how of delivery. The Housing Corporation, under whose auspices the properties and registered social landlords will, presumably, be held to account, is seeking to replace the existing performance standards guidelines for housing associations. It proposes to introduce a new regulatory code and guidance, which will be formally published soon. The draft regulatory code specifies only that RSLs should ensure that all their properties are maintained in a ''lettable condition.'' The regulatory guidance specifies that RSLs should ensure that their properties exceed minimum statutory requirements, but there is no legal requirement to do so. I simply ask the Minister to ensure that the Housing Corporation insists on such provisions.

7.44 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

7.49 pm

On resuming—

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 26 February 2002