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Mr. Sayeed: I intend to be brief, because the next Bill is the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire). I am anxious to make progress on that valuable Bill, so I shall write to the Minister on some of the points that I had intended to raise on the operation of HMOs and the effect on private landlords.
We need the positive resolution procedure for the powers in clauses 4, 5 and 6, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) proposed. I hope that, given all the voices that have supported that aim, the Minister will eventually feel able also to support it. I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) that he does not intend to press the matter to a Division, so that we can make progress.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): My right hon. Friend the Minister has his approach to affirmative and negative resolutions back to front. I object to his view of the need for affirmative resolution in relation to clause 3, but not for clause 5. The meat of the Bill is not so much the definition of HMOs but the registration scheme that will police them. It is bizarre that, if my right hon. Friend gets his way, we will have an affirmative resolution to define an HMO, but not to define what should be in the scheme. In the end, the scheme could include far less than the definition. He is trying to have his cake and eat it.
A better approach would be to look at the issue the other way round. Indeed, I feel so strongly about that that I shall seek to divide the House on the point. My right hon. Friend said that the affirmative procedure is rarely used and should be used only in special cases. In this case, the special case is not the definition of an HMO but the scheme of registration, because the whole policing of the Bill will revolve around that. It is much more important to get that right than to get the global definition right. The definition in the registration scheme may be more restrictive than the overall definition under clause 3.
I shall illustrate my argument with reference to amendment No. 4, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, although I understand that they will not press that amendment. When my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) spoke on amendment No. 9, he said that the regulations would follow the lines set out in amendment No.4, which causes me some concern. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was a personal injury lawyer. I suppose that I still am, in that I have a practice certificate, although I am not taking any cases. For some 17 years, I was the solicitor for the Fire Brigades Union and I came across many cases involving HMOs. I am concerned that the definition proposed in amendment No. 4 is too restrictive and easily avoidable by unscrupulous landlords.
I am also concerned about the reference to four adults in amendment No. 4. A small house with more than one storeyor more than the two storeys referred to in the amendmentcould have three bedsits. If there are four adults or two couples in a house, that is fair enough, but what happens when the adults live separately in bedsits,
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Is the essence of my hon. Friend's argument that unless the point is clearly defined by the Secretary of State, it will be left to the discretion of local authorities and, although they will appear to be constrained by a property having two storeys, including a basement or an attic, there will be no provision for other types of accommodation? There was a recent example in Birmingham
Mr. Dismore: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I disagree with him and hope to explain why later in my remarks. It is important to preserve the discretion of local authorities, yet within an overall framework. There needs to be a degree of regulation of houses in multiple occupation, but I suspect that a Bill such as this is not the best way of protecting people living in HMOs. It is in that context that I make my remarks.
Amendment No. 4, which I understand will not be pressed to a vote, is far too restrictive. Effectively, no other registration scheme would be permissible. I very much hope that the amendment will not be pressed, because it is important for the Secretary of State to have the discretion to describe properties in regulations.
On the affirmative and negative resolution procedure, I take exception again to amendment No. 17. I am concerned that if we become too prescriptive, perhaps through the affirmative resolution procedure, we could end up removing the discretion of local authorities to make provision for the housing in their area. I imagine that the sort of scenario that I have described would be of no concern in certain areas of the country but of great concern in others. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will accept that regulations must be as flexible as possible to allow local authorities to have discretion to meet the circumstances in their area.
Of course, in some local authorities, the question of HMOs does not arise because there are very few, and those that exist are luxury accommodation. However, in parts of the inner city and, indeed, in parts of my constituency, HMOs are important in providing accommodation. Because of the large amount of work they create, they are a headache for the various enforcement authoritiesthe fire service, local authorities and anyone to do with the administration of housing welfare rights.
I am afraid that I am not with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) on amendment No. 17. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be far more suitable for that proposal to be dealt with through the negative resolution procedure.
The local authorities will have to start from somewhere, and I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the debate should be not about trying to take away their discretion but about setting an acceptable framework that has been properly considered by Parliament. The same point applies to the confirmation of the schemes. I think that he may have his affirmatives and negatives the wrong way round.
I agree in part with the proposals of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet50 per cent., but 50 per cent. opposition. We should not invoke the affirmative resolution procedure for clauses 3 and 4, but there is a case for it on clause 5. That would achieve the best balance by ensuring that the basic template for local authorities is fully debated and discussed in the House, while allowing local authorities to make their own schemes without too much interference from this place. I am a great believer in allowing local authorities to get on with the job and I am concerned that the Government's approach would prevent that.
Sir Sydney Chapman: By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I find myself in some difficulty. I genuinely did not intend to open up a disagreement between Government Front and Back Benchers, but I am persuaded by the Minister's comments. The telling point is that the issues raised by my amendments could be debated by the House on a negative resolution, so I shall not press them to a vote.
Amendment No. 18 apparently meets with the approbation of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). He is my near neighbour and I want to live in comfort with him, so I shall leave that spat between him and the Minister. I shall not press amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19.
Mr. Meacher: With the leave of the House, I shall respond to some of the interesting points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). He makes a strong argument for further consideration and it is unfortunate that there is not more time to go into the question of the registration of HMOs under part 3. Perhaps we shall be able to do so at a later stage.
Amendment No. 4 raises the issue of whether registration should apply to two or three-storey buildings with at least four occupants. Much depends on the condition of the buildings and the risks involved. As I said earlier, the English house condition survey revealed that 20 per cent. of bedsit and self-contained, flat-type HMOs failed to meet minimum standards of fitness for human habitation. Those standards require that the property should be structurally sound, free from disrepair and damp, have adequate heating, lighting and ventilation, and have satisfactory cooking, washing and toilet facilities.
Many properties failed to meet the test because they were in disrepair or lacked satisfactory heating. Those basic standards apply to all dwellings and the Government consider it unacceptable that a large proportion of the private rented sector does not even meet the minimum requirements.
Additional risks to health and safety arise from the multiple occupation of properties. One of them is, obviously, the risk from fire. The survey revealed that a staggering and worrying 80 per cent. of houses occupied as bedsits lacked adequate means of escape from fire and other fire precautions.
Following that survey, the Department commissioned Entec Ltd. to research the risk from fire in HMOs. That is relevant to the thrust of amendment No. 4 and whether registration should apply to two-storey buildings, or indeed one-storey buildings. That report was published in 1998 and it identified several factors which influenced the risk from fire in such properties. Those included the number of occupants of the building, as I have already said, and the number of storeysHMOs of three or more pose a significantly higher risk, as do properties housing dependent and vulnerable people.
The internal design and layout of HMOs can also significantly increase the risk, such as the degree of self-containment, the units of accommodation and the number of escapes and their precise location. The quality of management standards was also found to be an important factor in determining the significance of the risk.