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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on securing the debate, and on using it to raise an extremely important subject. By happy coincidence, today's debate follows a debate in the other place, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It was initiated by his noble Friend Lord Tope, and my noble Friend Lady Farrington responded.

The hon. Gentleman declared an interest: his son is a first-year student at Lancaster university. That has nudged me to declare a potential interest: my eldest daughter expects to go to university next year. The hon. Gentleman made a number of important points, as did several other hon. Members. I am glad that he was gracious enough to give way to his hon. Friends, and also to two of mine. I note the failure of any Conservative Members to attend this important debate.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government share his concerns, and are addressing them. I shall try to respond to his points in detail.

We are committed to introducing a national licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation, which play an important role in providing student accommodation. We recognise the risks and problems in that part of the private rented sector. The worst housing conditions are often found in such accommodation. HMOs can present a number of risks to those who live in them. As with other housing, there may be problems of structural instability, disrepair, damp or a lack of adequate facilities. The 1996 English house conditions survey found that just under 10 per cent. of private sector HMOs failed to meet the general housing fitness standard. The 1996 definition was more stringent than earlier definitions.

There are particular risks associated with multiple occupancy. For example, kitchen, washing and toilet facilities may be entirely inadequate for the number of occupants. Houses may be overcrowded. The English house conditions survey found that 40 per cent. of houses providing bedsit accommodation were unfit for the number of occupants. That is a stunning figure, and a clear indication of the problems of overcrowding.

Fire safety is a particular worry. Research by our Department shows that--as the hon. Gentleman said--in some types of HMO the risk of death by fire may be six times greater than that in comparable single-occupancy accommodation. That is particularly serious.

Given the obvious need for the problems to be tackled, the Government intend to consult on proposals for a national and mandatory HMO licensing scheme. We hope to issue our consultation paper early this year. The Government are determined to protect the most vulnerable sections of the community from exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring landlords. We aim to ensure that HMOs are safe, and provide acceptable living conditions.

We intend the new system to be comprehensive and effective. We especially want to avoid the ambiguities in definition, and the consequent enforcement difficulties, associated with existing HMO controls. At the same time, we recognise the need to ensure that unnecessary burdens are not placed on good landlords who provide a proper standard of accommodation.

HMOs play an important role in providing housing for groups of people, including students, who may have difficulty finding alternative accommodation, so our

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objective is to improve standards in HMOs, rather than to close them. Obviously, those in the worst condition may, in certain cases, require closure, but the objective is to raise standards, rather than to discourage HMOs, which, if well managed and maintained, can provide appropriate accommodation not just for students, but for other single people who are looking for such accommodation.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised the case of Barnes v. Sheffield city council. We are well aware of the difficulties with the definition of a multi-occupied house, particularly in relation to shared houses of the type occupied by students. I find it difficult to understand how the Court of Appeal can have reached the conclusion that a property that is occupied by a significant number of independent students can be treated other than as a house in multiple occupation, but it is not for me to comment on the law. I can respond only to the situation that is created by the judgment.

We recognise that there is a problem; we are keen that it should be dealt with. We intend to adopt a more precise definition for the purposes of both the proposed licensing system and other HMO-specific controls.

Views on suitable alternatives and definitions will be sought in our forthcoming consultation paper on licensing. One option is to use a definition that is based on that currently used for licensing in Scotland. That would apply to all houses that are shared by members of more than two families, thereby overcoming the problem that presented itself in the case of Barnes v. Sheffield city council. There may be difficulties associated with that particular approach, so we are not recommending it, but we will put it forward as one option for consideration in the consultation. We recognise that the vast majority of houses that are shared by students would be covered by the Scottish definition.

We are not convinced of the case for licensing all the private rented sector. There are two principal reasons for that. Such a scheme could be unduly bureaucratic and would involve unnecessary visits to properties that are in perfectly good condition and well maintained. Equally, we would not wish to discourage the supply of rented accommodation with a system that appeared to be unduly restrictive. However, we are concerned at conditions in the lower end of the privately rented market. If existing voluntary arrangements and any new voluntary arrangements that develop over the next year or two in response to our concerns do not raise standards adequately over time, we will consider alternative options.

We need to consider carefully how HMO licensing might work and what standards should be achieved. We also need to consider the cost to landlords and to local authorities that will administer the system. We do not want to impose a regime that proves unworkable and that leads to many landlords withdrawing their properties from the market rather than bringing them up to acceptable standards.

The Government view licensing as the primary control mechanism for ensuring acceptable standards in HMOs. Therefore a wide range of issues affecting the health and safety of HMO residents will be addressed in the consultation paper. Licensing criteria will cover three main areas: the physical condition of the premises, their management and the fitness of the licensee. We want to set published standards that are proportionate to fire and other health and safety risks, and which will be

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consistently enforced throughout the country. They will also need to be compatible with possible changes to the general housing fitness standard following the current review.

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, definitions must relate to the type of property and how the property is occupied, rather than to the type of tenant. I cannot therefore give him the assurance that all accommodation that is occupied by students will be covered. Nevertheless, we recognise that many students will occupy HMOs and accommodation that is likely to come within the definition of HMOs. We will set that out in the consultation paper.

Primary legislation will be required to introduce the scheme. The Government will legislate as soon as an opportunity becomes available.

The hon. Gentleman referred to inspection and enforcement arrangements. I can assure him that we want an effective enforcement regime that avoids conflict and overlap. Our consultation paper will examine the relationship between our proposed licensing regime and other present or proposed legislation that may apply to HMOs--for example, in respect of fire safety and gas appliances, both of which raise important issues.

While not prejudging the consultation, we will want to ensure that the respective expertise of the fire, health and safety and housing authorities is used to best effect. We envisage that local housing authorities will continue to be the first point of contact for licensable premises. We recognise the benefits of the existing one-stop shop approach that is provided to landlords by housing authorities.

I can also advise the hon. Gentleman that the Health and Safety Executive, as part of its comprehensive review of gas safety, is considering alternative enforcement strategies and bodies. Currently, the HSE is the sole enforcing authority for gas safety legislation, although it works closely with local authorities.

The HSE review is considering, among other issues, whether local authority environmental health officers should undertake gas safety inspection and enforcement. I do not wish to prejudge the review, but it may make sense for gas safety work to be integrated into housing authority inspection of HMOs. The HSE review's recommendations should be available by the end of the current year.

Mr. Willis: Will the Minister deal with the responsibilities of trading standards departments for furnishings and fittings, particularly furniture, which have

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to meet safety standards? Does he envisage that, particularly where we have two-tier authorities, with a district and a county having those responsibilities, environmental health departments will be able to take them on as well, so that we genuinely have a one-stop shop and, when an inspector goes to a property, he looks at everything from the gas appliance to the curtains and settee?

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