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Lord Dubs: I thank the Minister for his answer. As I understand it, he says that if a local authority applies to use the special control provisions, the Secretary of State would give guidance to the local authority. If I were a local councillor considering the use of those powers I should want to know what the guidance was before I asked to have the powers. It is becoming a little circular. I suspect that local authorities would get to know what was the guidance in a general sense. The Minister is being uncharacteristically difficult about this proposal. Nevertheless, to save time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 220 not moved.]

Clause 66, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 67 agreed to.

Clause 68 [Information requirements in connection with registration schemes]:

[Amendment No. 221 not moved.]

Lord Gisborough moved Amendment No. 222:

Page 45, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) After a scheme is confirmed, the local housing authority shall--
(a) ensure the register of all properties is open to inspection by the public free of charge at all reasonable hours; and
(b) on request, and on payment of any such reasonable fee as the authority may require, supply copies of the register to any person.".").

The noble Lord said: I welcome the Government's proposal for registration schemes. The new proposals will ensure greater consistency in local authorities' approaches to registration schemes, and the landlords will better understand what is expected of them. Where

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a local authority has put a registration scheme in place, landlords must register their HMOs, and local authorities will be able to refuse registration if the HMO is below standard, overcrowded, or if the management arrangements in the HMO are unsatisfactory. It follows, therefore, that those HMOs which have been registered by the local authority will be of an approved satisfactory minimum standard. Good landlords will therefore be encouraged to participate fully in registration schemes as it will be to their commercial advantage to do so. If they are able to demonstrate to tenants that their HMO has been registered and therefore conforms to the minimum standards tenants are more likely to take a room in their property than in another which has not achieved registration. Tenants will also be able to take comfort from the scheme as they will be able to establish with the local authority whether the HMO is registered and, if so, will be reassured about standards.

For the scheme to work effectively, however, it is important that the information concerning registered properties is freely available to landlords and tenants alike. It is not clear that the Bill as currently drafted would require local authorities to publish details of the properties registered under the scheme. It would appear that the only requirement which local authorities currently have under the Bill is to make information about the nature and mechanics of the scheme publicly available, not necessarily the properties listed in the register. If the details of the properties themselves were available it would reinforce the role of the local authority, give reassurance to tenants and give accreditation to landlords of registered properties. That would raise public confidence in the whole scheme and increase transparency.

It is worth noting that both the planning system and the rent register system already operate with open registers and I would encourage the Government, through my amendment, to adopt the same principle with regard to HMO registration schemes. I beg to move.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Lucas: We find ourselves in sympathy with my noble friend's amendment but I should like the opportunity to consider the precise wording in further detail and to return to it on Report. I hope that with that assurance my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Gisborough: I am most grateful to my noble friend. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 68 agreed to.

Clause 69 agreed to.

Clause 70 [Restriction on notices requiring execution of works]:

Lord Gisborough moved Amendment No. 223:

Page 46, line 11, leave out ("they consider that").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 223 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 224. I warmly welcome Clause 70 of the Housing Bill, which amends

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Section 352 of the Housing Act under which local authorities are empowered to require works to a property to render the premises fit for the number of occupants. Many landlords have found in the past that they have been served with a succession of Section 352 notices at relatively short intervals. That may result from the fact that the standards required by the local authority become more onerous rather than the conditions in the HMOs becoming worse.

Under Clause 70, if an authority serves a notice and the works specified are carried out the local authority may not serve another notice within a five-year period unless the authority considers that there has been a change in circumstances in relation to the property. This new five-year period is important and will give landlords greater certainty with regard to the management of their property and the clause will be welcomed by landlords in the private rented sector as a useful attempt to prevent undue disturbance in the management of HMOs.

My amendment seeks to tighten the drafting of Clause 70 and remove some of the discretion which local authorities will undoubtedly have under the new provision in the Housing Act 1985. As currently drafted, a local authority would be able to serve another notice before the end of the five-year period if there had been any change in circumstances in relation to the premises, however small that change of circumstance might be. It also states that a local authority may serve a notice if it considers that there has been a change in circumstance. That appears to provide plenty of grounds for dispute regarding, first, whether there has been a change of circumstance significant enough to merit a further notice and, secondly, whether the local authority is right to consider that there has been a change of circumstance.

My amendment will mean that only material changes to the property could trigger the possibility of another notice and ensure that the identification of those changes is not restricted to the discretion of the local authority. It will ensure that the new provision in Section 352 of the Housing Act is used on a more objective basis. Without the amendment, over-zealous local authorities may be inclined to serve additional notices where there have been, in their opinion, even insignificant or minor technical changes to the property. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: We are content with Clause 70 as it stands. We feel that if the landlord thinks that the relevant change in circumstance is only trivial, he can appeal to the court. A court is likely to use the de minimis principle and uphold the appeal if the change has indeed been insignificant. Under those circumstances, we feel that the proposed changes not only introduce an unacceptable element of uncertainty into the Bill but also achieve nothing.

Lord Gisborough: I thank my noble friend and withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 224 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 225:

11 Jun 1996 : Column 1688

Page 46, line 14, after ("premises") insert (", the nature of its occupation").

The noble Lord said: There is a very small point at issue here. Under Section 352 of the Housing Act 1985 a local authority can serve notice requiring specific works to render an HMO suitable for the numbers of occupants and the households in occupation. Those requirements enable provision to be made for sufficient and suitable amenities such as toilets, baths and showers, and also to provide adequate means of escape in case of fire or adequate fire precautions.

However, the provisions do not enable the local authorities to allow for changes in occupation of the premises. That seems to be something which may alter quite rapidly over a period of years and certainly within the five-year period stipulated. The amendment would enable the local authority to take into account changes in the nature of the occupancy of the HMO in addition to the other criteria which they can already take into account. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne: I support the amendment in the light of the amendments which I propose to table later in respect of the special needs of children and young families.

Lord Lucas: It is beyond our imagination to think of any change in the nature of occupation which would not also entail a change to the availability or use of the facilities. Those circumstances are already provided for in the clause as drafted. If the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Northbourne, can envisage anything else, perhaps they will write to me.

Lord Dubs: In the light of the Minister's comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 70 agreed to.

Lord Gisborough moved Amendment No. 226:

After Clause 70, insert the following new clause--

Period of compliance with and appeals against notices served

(" .--(1) In section 352(4) of the Housing Act 1985, for "21" substitute "42".
(2) In section 353(1) of the Housing Act 1985, for "21" substitute "42".").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 226 introduces a new clause to the Bill to increase the period of compliance with, or appeal against, notices. Section 352 of the Housing Act 1985 gives local authorities the power to serve a notice on the owner of an HMO requiring works to the property. The notice will specify what works the local authority believes should be carried out to the property. In the notice, the authority must also specify a date by which the works must be commenced. That can be as soon as 21 days after the date of the notice.

During that 21-day period, landlords have an opportunity to lodge an appeal against the notice. My amendment proposes that both those periods should be extended to 42 days to allow landlords sufficient time to assess their position and either commence the works or lodge an appeal.

11 Jun 1996 : Column 1689

Twenty-one days is far too short a period for proper consideration of the notice received from the local authority and the works which need doing. It is too short a period in which to obtain estimates and quotations from contractors and to commission the work. It is also too short for proper consideration of the possibility of an appeal against the notice.

The majority of owners of HMOs are private landlords rather than corporate bodies who may be unfamiliar with the complexity of the legislation and may not have access to legal resources. For the average private landlord letting, say, two or three houses on a part-time basis, the receipt of a notice under Section 352 may well be his first encounter with a local authority's housing department. If served with a notice, the landlord would have three weeks in which he would need to read up and become conversant with the law and regulations, consult with lawyers and surveyors, obtain quotations for the works; assess the validity of the notice, consider the possibility of an appeal, and, perhaps more importantly, attempt to discuss the issue and negotiate with the local authority environmental health officers. Therefore, it is appropriate that the limits in question should be extended to 42 days. I beg to move.

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