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Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench will have heard the point about

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the availability of detailed information which comes out in the form of press releases. No doubt I am merely echoing what Madam Speaker has said on more than one occasion, but it is important that that information should be available to hon. Members at the same time as the press releases come out. There is nothing particularly unusual in a head announcement being made about a general direction of policy in a Budget or expenditure review, and for the detail to be followed up within hours by another Secretary of State or by a later announcement in the House.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of detailed newspaper reports at the weekend, have you received any requests from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment asking to come to the House to make a statement about his curious failure to declare in the Register of Members' Interests his receipt of rental income?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: No. There is a proper procedure for dealing with complaints of that kind.

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Fire Safety (Houses in Multiple Occupation)

4.36 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I beg to move,

On Friday evening, I attended the 30th anniversary celebrations of the North Kensington law centre to congratulate it on three decades of effective campaigning in the interests of some of the most deprived people in Britain. At that event, there was a screening of a Granada television documentary about the needs that gave rise to the establishment of the law centre. In watching it, I could not help but be struck by similarities and differences between the events of 1970 and those of today.

One striking feature was the fact that, in 1970, everybody in the video appeared to be dressed as an extra from "Hair". More significantly, the documentary revealed the drama of prevailing housing conditions in our cities at that time, and showed that we were dealing with the legacy of slum landlords such as Rachman and Hoogstraten, who made Notting Hill and Paddington notorious. That sector has now shrivelled away and social landlords have largely filled the gap.

In 1970, people dealt with the drama of appalling fires that ripped through multi-storey rooming houses. They were rabbit warrens of rooms in interconnecting houses, through which fires moved with terrifying speed and ferocity. Fire brigades were handicapped in their dealings with the situation by knowing nothing of the floor plans. Clanricade gardens in north Kensington and Clifton villas in Paddington are dreadful examples of what could happen to under-regulated properties of that kind.

Thirty years later, the position is less visibly dramatic, but the underlying situation is just as bad and, in some cases, worse. Too many dwellings in multiple occupation are still appalling and are high risk for too many people. The number of people dying in, or injured by, domestic fires remains unacceptably high across the board, but fires in houses in multiple occupation occur out of all proportion to the size of the sector. In 1998, the last year for which figures are available, there were 10,463 fires which involved casualties, up from 9,008 five years previously. In 1998, 506 people lost their lives in domestic fires, up from 488 five years before.

Especially worrying is the fact that the proportion of fires involving HMOs rose from an already alarming 43 per cent. to 45 per cent. in 1998. Almost half of all domestic fires occur in HMOs. It is estimated that there are 550,000 houses in multiple occupation in this country, out of an estimated total of 20 million domestic buildings. The disproportionate occurrence of fires in HMOs should, therefore, be a matter of deep concern.

According to the research of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the risk of death by fire in a house converted to bedsits is six times higher than in a single-occupancy property. For homes of three or more storeys converted to bedsits, the risk is a staggering 16 times higher. If we allow for the fact that the Department estimates that only about one in six domestic fires is reported to the fire brigade, we get a very disturbing picture.

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Safety should be a major consideration whoever occupies the household, yet as a society we accept a particular responsibility for the vulnerable. HMOs are likely to be occupied by students, young people trying out their first home independent of their parents, and people with mental or physical disabilities seeking life outside a residential situation. In my street, until only a year or two ago, there were three-storey houses converted into 12 or more rooms, occupied by Irish pensioners who had come to this country 40 years ago to work in the construction industry, and who had never had a bathroom or kitchen in their own home. Even now, in cities and seaside towns it is not uncommon to find houses with 12 or more names taped next to the doorbell.

Those properties are more likely than average to represent a fire risk, as the casualty figures show, because of a combination of the built environment and the behaviour of tenants--not because HMO residents are intrinsically more likely to indulge in risky behaviour, but because of the impact of numbers. A two-storey HMO occupied by two people in converted flats is less risky than the same property occupied by eight people. Buildings of four or five storeys, buildings converted into bedsits and those occupied by vulnerable tenants are most at risk.

My Bill would require a comprehensive licensing scheme for HMOs, wherein one of the conditions for licensing is the fitting of smoke or heat detectors, mains powered and, where necessary, linked to each other and including the common parts. Local authorities already have a number of powers available to them by virtue of building control and other environmental regulations, but the casualty figures show that they are not sufficiently effective. In addition, the relatively fluid nature of the HMO sector makes it unnecessarily hard for tenants and councils to enforce standards.

Local authorities have been running local registration schemes in the past few years to achieve the same end as licensing, but so far only 81 areas covering 10,000 HMOs are included. The process is hard going for local authorities. Officers whom I spoke to in one council told me of the problems that they faced. Of the HMOs that they had surveyed, only one in three was fully compliant with all the safety requirements, and only half of the registrable properties were fully fire safe. Penalties were too low to be an effective deterrent to bad landlords.

A recent survey conducted by the Brent private tenants group found that only two thirds of the group surveyed had smoke alarms fitted in their properties and less than half had such alarms in the common parts. Most tenants did not know whether the alarms were working or whether they were regularly tested.

We now know what needs to be done to reduce risk, especially in relation to fire hazards, and we have a good idea of the scale of the problem. I commend to the House Shelter's superb fire safety guide, which spells out the current requirements, best practice and options for improvement. Shelter's campaign for bedsit rights has been at the forefront of action on this matter for decades and has already brought about many changes. Now we need a clear, comprehensive, national scheme with sufficient resources for enforcement and tough penalties for breaches.

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The introduction of a licensing scheme for HMOs was a manifesto commitment for the Government, and the Department has already consulted on principles that could underpin such a scheme. I welcome that, and I hope that we will succeed in getting a housing Bill in the Queen's Speech so that we can proceed with those plans. However, I am concerned that the Government's thinking may be too restrictive to meet the challenge. I believe that they envisage only about one fifth of HMOs being subject to mandatory licensing, which would certainly include many high-risk properties, but would exclude others, such as the two-storey HMOs that the Department's own research indicates account for 48 per cent. of all HMO fire deaths.

Two single tenants who rented a second-floor converted flat in north-west London had a narrow escape from fire recently only thanks to a smoke alarm fitted with great reluctance by their landlord, after months of letters and phone calls. Ten days after the alarm had been fitted, it activated at 3 am. One of the upstairs tenants said:

The tenants were able to wake the people in the burning flat who had no alarm system, so fortunately everyone escaped injury. The fire service said that if the tenants below had slept for another 15 minutes, they would have been dead. That property would not be mandatorily licensed as the proposal now stands.

My Bill would require all HMOs to be subject to a new national, mandatory licensing scheme with fire detection and safety at its heart. The licensing requirement would also help to cut accidents and injuries from other causes related to unfit property. I am mindful of the need to keep regulation to a reasonable minimum and to maximise effectiveness by targeting. However, I am ultimately persuaded of the need for a simple, clear and comprehensive scheme; the 4,274 casualties in HMO fires are worth it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Iain Coleman, Mr. Hilary Benn, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Ms Margaret Moran, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr. Andrew Love, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Angela Smith and Mr. Gordon Marsden.

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