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7.51 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): It gives me particular personal pleasure to be called to speak in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading as a large part of it represents an enactment of the measures for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation that formed part of my recent Home Energy Conservation Bill. Like so many excellent private Member's Bills, it was sabotaged on the final stages of its passage through the House.

For far too long, HMOs have been a blot on our housing landscape. All too often, they represent the worst housing standards of any sector in the housing market. The need for regulation has been apparent for a long time, and I am only too pleased to see the commitment to that being honoured through this Bill. I hope that the many hours of hard labour that I spent with very helpful officials in the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in preparing the provisions of my Home Energy Conservation Bill are reflected in this Bill. Although it is hard to see from the face of the Bill, I am led to believe that it essentially contains the proposals and the details that we worked out at that time. I shall be sending in due course my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning an invoice for my consultation fees.

My city of Brighton and Hove probably has as many HMOs as any part of the country, including many inner London boroughs. The issue directly affects thousands of my constituents. It is a well established fact that HMO residents suffer a significantly increased risk of death from fire and suffer from cold, damp and hard to heat accommodation and poor amenities. Many HMOs in my constituency have SAP—standard assessment procedure—ratings in single figures. In other words, they are virtually impossible to heat because they are

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incredibly energy inefficient. This reminds me of my experience as a student many years ago when I lived in precisely the same sort of accommodation and sat in a cold, dank, draughty room huddled over a single-bar fire feeding coins into a hungry meter trying desperately to keep warm. I still have constituents living like that. That has to be completely unacceptable in this day and age.

HMOs contain the most energy inefficient housing stock in the country and some of the worst fuel poverty. In fact, it is estimated that 39 per cent. of HMOs house residents in fuel poverty. We have a magnificent opportunity to start tackling two important problems: our energy efficiency commitments and addressing fuel poverty. If we can crack those problems in HMOs, we shall make a significant contribution not only towards the comfort of future residents of HMOs but towards the realisation of our energy policy.

I have been assured in discussion with Department officials that the registration and licensing requirements for HMOs are essentially the same as those evolved for my Bill. That made a distinction between the nature of an HMO, which is a building occupied by members of more than two families, and the requirement for licensing. That distinction seems to have been maintained. Although the Bill does not say this, the expectation is that mandatory licensing will apply to the high-risk HMOs of three floors and five or more tenants. There is no question but that this is certainly the highest-risk category, but will Ministers consider the possibility of changing the wording to cover three floors and/or five or more tenants?

Such a provision would bring under the scope of registration—certainly in my constituency—many terraced houses that are occupied by students. Those houses are of poor quality, have poor energy conservation standards and questionable safety standards. Such houses are worth licensing. If it is up to a local authority to license them because they do not fall within the mandatory scheme, I suggest that Ministers consider carefully the conditions that local authorities are required to satisfy before adopting discretionary licensing of HMOs outside the recognised mandatory high-risk category. That could make a large contribution to the quality of housing occupied by students and the management thereof. None the less, I am happy with that key provision in the Bill.

I am also very happy—certainly in principle—with the new housing health and safety rating system. It is curious that the Bill does not say anything about it or even name it, but the provision would be much clearer and give people much more confidence if something were spelled out on the face of the Bill. The name would be a good start, and the provision should at least specify the principal factors that are to be taken into account in making up the HHSRS—fire safety, energy efficiency, room dimensions, amenities, condition of the fabric of the building and so on. All those factors and probably more—my list is not exclusive—should be specified in a minimum list. I hope that the scoring system will be so structured that a building cannot be given a pass mark unless it satisfies all the requirements. It should score adequately on energy efficiency, fire safety and on whatever other category is deemed to contribute. That is important, because if we are to require registered

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HMOs to fulfil the HHSRS, it is vital that the energy efficiency component of the index is clearly specified and has to be met. That is the only way to guarantee the increase in energy efficiency and energy conservation and the reduction in fuel poverty that licensing HMOs gives us the opportunity to achieve.

I would like the Bill to be made complete by addressing the opportunities that it presents but that it has not taken up. The first of those, which has already been mentioned, is a mandatory tenancy deposit scheme. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made a sympathetic concession toward tenancy deposits, but the best way of illustrating Front-Bench sympathy for a tenancy deposit scheme would be to include a provision to introduce it in the Bill. That need not add much bulk to the Bill because it would require only two or three enabling clauses. Much of the Bill's work will be achieved through associated regulations, so the scheme could be introduced in that way.

I, like several hon. Members who have spoken, would be interested to have measures to deal with empty properties. I would like the Government to consider the possibility of introducing the compulsory leasing of empty properties. That could make a considerable difference to areas such as mine that have a crisis owing to high demand for housing.

My only criticisms of the Bill are about its gaps and some of its drafting—I must say that some of it is the parliamentary counsel's best. I would be happy if those on the Government Front-Bench were sympathetic to amendments to make its drafting a little clearer.

8.1 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Like several of my colleagues, I want to concentrate principally on several of the fuel poverty aspects addressed by the Bill—or, rather, not, at present, addressed by the Bill. I congratulate the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Bill and the listening process that has taken place throughout the consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny process. My only exhortation to Ministers would be to listen a bit more, so that we can get a landmark Housing Bill of which the House and the Government can rightly be proud. I shall concentrate on three aspects of the Bill that need to be strengthened: first, the absence of any reference to the decent home standard; secondly, home information packs; and, thirdly, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.

There is a compelling case for including a new clause to set a consistent standard on decent housing that would apply both to existing properties and to new properties under construction. It is nonsensical to set standards for new housing construction yet not to set such standards for improvements required to existing housing stock. If we are to have a decent housing standard, it should be simple and consistent. The decent housing standard must be mandatory rather than something that figures only in ministerial guidelines.

The benchmark in relation to the incorporation in statute of such a standard can best be found in a piece of legislation that the Government have already passed

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and of which I am particularly proud. I refer to the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which, for the first time in our history, included a commitment—a commitment by a Labour Government—to the complete eradication of fuel poverty in Britain in 15 years. The target is enormously ambitious and something of which the Government can be rightly proud.

The problem is that we are moving from a position in which we have a policy to one in which we require a strategy to deliver that policy. Recent advice from the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group shows that the Government will be unable to meet the legal targets on the warm homes programme that they have set themselves in the required time scale. That situation makes a compelling case for adopting a mandatory set of regulations and standards that would allow us to meet such targets by regulatory means, in addition to through direct Government funding programmes. The advisory levels that define the decent home standard are currently so low that many properties and households are left in fuel poverty even after they have benefited from the warm homes programme, so if we do not set consistent and high standards in this Bill, we will be obliged to revisit the matter and do that in a Bill in the next one or two years. If we do not set such standards, we will be in a complete housing mess, but we could avoid that if we addressed the matter now.

When the English house condition survey reported in 2001, it made it clear that we had 1.125 million local authority properties that failed to meet the current decent homes standard. Additionally, some 360,000 registered social landlord properties failed to meet the standard. Those figures do not take account of conditions in the private rental sector in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) pointed out, there is the greatest concentration of properties with tenants whose lives are blighted by fuel poverty. That situation makes the case for addressing the matter in the current framework of the Bill, and I hope that that fact will be taken on board in Committee.

I praise the Government for clause 133(5)(e), which makes it clear that a property's energy efficiency rating should be part of the information to be included in home information packs. I make only one plea about the provision. Reference has been made to SAP ratings—the standard assessment procedure ratings—but they are mind-bogglingly complex. The public now understand what an energy efficiency rating system looks like, because domestic goods are rated on a band of efficiency from A to E. There is a compelling case for simplifying the process so that people can be aware of the quality of energy efficiency that they can expect in a home in much the same way as they currently understand the efficiency of electrical goods.

Finally, I shall focus on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. There are 1.1 million HMOs in England. It is essential that we deliver our fuel poverty strategy so that it benefits those who live in wretched concentrations in such fuel-poor households. The regulatory system for achieving that must be inclusive rather than focusing only on the properties at greatest risk or in greatest need. That requires the definition in the Bill to be changed so that it is inclusive. It makes no sense to exclude properties with two storeys or five occupants.

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My constituency contains two universities. The reality of the situation there is that huge tranches of it are areas in which traditional two-storey properties in working-class areas are being priced out of the reach of the poor because speculative landlords suck them up, fill them up and make huge profits out of them. It cannot be right to allow the exploitation of our housing stock to the exclusion of the poor. Local authorities such as mine which cover university cities require a social tool to allow them to maintain balanced areas in which schools are viable, communities exist and crime and disorder partnerships may deliver social stability for those who live there. If the measure in the Bill addresses only properties with three or more storeys, we will miss the opportunity to deliver a comprehensive package that would invite landlords to make a move toward properties outside the definitional net. We would not be thanked if we left that open.

One specific aspect of the problem is "studentification." That is a horrible word, and I wish we had a better one. It is also a pretty horrible experience for both students and those settled communities where landlords take over properties. It has not been set out more graphically for me than in a letter that I received last week from Nottingham's Lord Mayor, who said:

Clifton is the constituency that he represents as a councillor—

and take action now. I do not have the subtleties of the Lord Mayor's turn of phrase, but I subscribe to the urgency of his view of why we need to include such a measure in the Bill. If we can do that in Committee, we will have a package for which the public will thank us. Perhaps even large numbers of Liberal Democrat supporters and Members would thank us for that. They oppose the inclusion of such measures in the home information pack, but no doubt they would welcome it in their daily lives.

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