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Lord Hylton: This is an important amendment. It is quite surprising the extent to which a house can deteriorate in five years, particularly if it is a house in multiple occupation. One has only to think of the turnover of tenants, the methods of heating and cooking and many other such matters. Therefore, I hope that the amendment commends itself to the Government.

Lord Lucas: I hope that I can convince the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that he has misunderstood the significance of the five-year period which we are proposing. The five-year registration period will set the maximum interval between inspections by the local authority. Local authorities have separate discretionary powers at any time to enter and inspect an HMO and if conditions have declined they may require improvements to be made or, in extreme cases,

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de-register the property. So in practice there is common agreement on all sides of the Committee that some properties will be more at risk and will need more frequent inspections.

There is an additional significance about the five-year period. We have provided that if a property is accepted for registration because it meets the standard set by the local authority, and provided that conditions do not then decline, it cannot be made the subject of further enforcement action by the authority for a further five-year period. That is to protect landlords who have made significant investment to meet the standard and require some assurance that they will not have to carry out further work for a reasonable period of time because the local authority has changed its mind about the appropriate standards required in that kind of HMO. A five-year registration period will, therefore, offer some protection to responsible landlords who have improved and maintained their properties.

Finally, I have already mentioned the fee income to local authorities which will be generated by the new registration schemes. We will be discussing fees in more detail shortly. But we have to be careful to strike the right balance here. The extra resources will be useful to the local authority, but they must be paid for by the landlord and there is the possibility that some might be passed on to tenants. There is also the danger that excessive fees might force the landlord to withdraw his accommodation from the market. That is why we think that paying a fee every five years represents the right balance and why there is a danger that fees every year would be unfair to the landlord. I hope the comfort that I was able to give the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, at the beginning of my reply will enable him to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Monkswell: I cannot help wondering whether the Minister really appreciates the realities involved. Perhaps I may give the noble Lord the example of one property in which I have no direct interest but about which I have a little knowledge. The landlord I have in mind bought a property in London for £50,000 three years ago. It was in multiple occupation at the time. He was required to make major repairs to the property under the current regime of inspection and housing Act notices, but has blatantly refused to take any notice of such requirements.

To my certain knowledge, that landlord has taken £10,000 out of that house for three years. Therefore, he has made £30,000 out of the house but put virtually nothing into it. He has now sold the property for just under £45,000, having done no work to it at all under the current regime--and we are talking about a regime that will be even more relaxed. The Government are saying, "Yes, let's register this guy for five years. We can inspect the property", and so on.

However, as we have heard, houses can deteriorate quite significantly over a period of time; indeed, in less than five years. The Minister seems to me to be very protective of landlords. The fact that the Government are giving them five years in which to carry on their business with the security that they will be able to do

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so, actually flies in the face of the reality of the situation as regards some of the most degrading and unsafe accommodation which exists in this country, not to mention the lack of teeth, if I may put it that way, of local authorities to do much about it. In my view, the Government ought to think seriously about the way in which they are approaching the whole subject.

Lord Lucas: I am sure that the noble Lord is mistaken in thinking that what we propose is a more relaxed regime; indeed, we are discussing a much heavier regime than that which currently exists. Certainly a landlord behaving in the way described by the noble Lord would, I hope, be subject to an order from the local authority--that is, if the authority was attentive--stating that he should make the improvements required and that action would be taken if they are not made.

I cannot believe that an efficient local authority would allow such matters to continue for anything like three years before it ultimately took effective action to deregister the property. I believe that our proposal will be a much more effective remedy for the sort of problems outlined by the noble Lord than any system which exists at present.

Lord Dubs: The Minister said that I had misunderstood the Bill. I do not think that I did, although that is always a possibility. The point of this amendment is to give a local authority the flexibility to adjust the period to its assessment of the quality of landlord. The Minister says that under the present scheme if a landlord is a bit suspect, a local authority can carry out an inspection and deregister the landlord. It is a matter of judgment as to which is the more appropriate method. I still think that the method in the amendment of giving a local authority the initial flexibility to set different periods of registration is preferable to having to inspect after giving a five year registration period because the landlord may not be one in whom the local authority has complete confidence. However, I do not wish to take up more of the time of the Committee than is necessary. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 199 and 200 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 201:

Page 37, line 11, leave out from ("scheme") to second ("to") in line 12.

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 201, I wish to speak at the same time to Amendment No. 202. This clause already makes it a duty for the person specified in the scheme to register a house covered by the scheme, in what will be subsection (1) of new Section 346A, which is referred to at lines 49 to 51 on page 36. Government Amendment No. 201 deletes what amounts to a restatement of that requirement in subsection(3)(b). I think that would have covered the point that my noble friend Lord Peyton identified in his Amendment No. 200. Amendment No. 202 is consequential on Amendment No. 201. I beg to move.

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On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 202:

Page 37, line 13, leave out ("such").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 203:

Page 37, line 19, leave out (", subject to subsection (5)").

The noble Lord said: I wish to move Amendment No. 203 standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. I shall speak at the same time to Amendment No. 204. It was only a few minutes ago that the Minister chided the Opposition parties and accused us of not trusting local authorities. Let us put him to the test. This amendment is, fortuitously, one that we tabled some time ago, although it would have been even more relevant to what the Minister said a little while ago. The effect of the amendment would be to give local housing authorities the discretion to set reasonable fees for registration, and for renewal of registration, by removing the Secretary of State's power to provide by order the maximum permissible fee payable, and when no fee is payable. Therefore, the question is simple: do we trust local authorities or do we not? I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: We seem to be back in our accustomed positions on this one. The freedom that the noble Lord is proposing in these amendments is one which would have been denied to local authorities by his earlier amendments, but consistency is not required of the Opposition! I am afraid that I have to say for the Government that I do not think it would be right to abandon the idea of the Government setting a maximum amount that should be charged. We feel that such an abandonment would lead to a situation of widely varying charges throughout the country, and the danger that a small minority of local authorities might abuse their position. We do not think it would be right for the Government to allow that to happen.

Baroness Hamwee: So we trust local authorities, but not now, and not very much! Is that what the Minister is saying? I think it is. I do not wish to take up a great deal more time but I support the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has just moved--indeed, my name is added to it. I hope the Government understand that while this may be our second preference, nevertheless we take our duties as a revising Chamber sufficiently seriously to consider and seek to amend the provisions of the Bill with some seriousness, even though it might not be our Bill in the first place.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs: The Minister said a moment ago that he is afraid that local authorities might abuse their position. Yet we are talking about a situation in which local authorities have complete discretion whether to adopt a scheme. It seems odd to say that they might abuse their position by charging too much even though they do not have to enter the scheme. I think the answer is that the Minister does not trust local authorities and that is why he said what he said.

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I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee unnecessarily. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 204 not moved.]

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