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Houses in Multiple Occupation

1.30 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I am delighted to have secured this debate on an issue that affects not only my constituents, but thousands of particularly vulnerable people throughout the country. I say "vulnerable" because in Swindon, for example, levels of homelessness, especially among the young, single and low-income groups, have placed great demand on the houses in the multiple occupation sector. Those people are often not in the strongest position to insist on decent standards of accommodation, which should be available to them.

All hon. Members will have witnessed the impact that poor quality housing can have on the everyday lives of our constituents. Inadequate housing is not only a misery in itself, but has an impact on people's physical and mental well-being and on children's education and ability to participate and thrive in society.

The Government rightly want to ensure that there is quality housing for everyone. Their social exclusion unit has pointed out that to achieve that, action must be taken to improve the poor standard of many houses in multiple occupation, which I shall call HMOs. Organisations such as Shelter, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the National Union of Students and the national HMO network have been doing important work. Those organisations, as well as my local borough council, have asked me to push for legislation.

I hope that I am pushing at an open door, because the housing Green Paper, "Quality and Choice: a decent home for all", states that the Government are committed to introducing a mandatory licensing scheme for HMOs as soon as parliamentary time allows. I asked for the debate to press for that legislation to be implemented as soon as possible--preferably, it should be included in the forthcoming Queen's Speech--because further delay means that my constituents are not receiving the protection that they should have.

The lack of better controls means that bad owners of homes are allowed to get away with bad practice, which does not support the good owners in our constituencies who are providing decent accommodation.

In Swindon, we have 550 known HMOs in the borough, many of which do not meet the basic minimum standards in terms of fire safety, overcrowding and provision of amenities. Many are poorly managed, which means that the council has to take regular action to try to maintain safe conditions for tenants. Nationally, the latest figures, from the 1996 English house conditions survey, show that 195,000 households live in HMOs. If we extend the traditional interpretation of bedsits to include shared houses, converted flats, households with lodgers and purpose-built HMOs, that figure leaps to 1.4 million households.

Swindon has only a small private rented sector, on which there is great demand. Because demand well exceeds supply, it is a seller's market. Unfortunately, there is therefore little incentive for poor owners to manage their property to reasonable standards. Tenants are prepared to rent small, overcrowded and often unsafe property because it is all that they can afford.

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Consequently, many are unwilling to complain about the sub-standard conditions of their property, which often means that nothing is done to improve the situation.

Shockingly, Swindon has less of a problem than do many other towns and cities with even greater sections of the population in sub-standard HMOs. That emphasises the great need for nationwide action.

Any civilised society wants decent housing standards. All accommodation that is let, or is available for letting, should be free from unacceptable hazards, in a reasonable state of repair, and in an overall condition that will not adversely affect the health and safety of residents, visitors, neighbours or passers-by. A poor HMO does not affect only its residents.

At a surgery, a constituent told me of her fears of losing her property because the neighbouring property was an HMO that was not up to fire standards. She saw it as a fire risk. She was also concerned to discover that the rubbish was not being dealt with properly, which might pose a health risk to her. Therefore, taking action on HMOs also serves the wider community.

I do not want to give the impression that all HMOs are bad. The HMO sector contains some good examples of well designed, well equipped and well managed housing. There are some excellent owners and they are to be commended, but this debate focuses on problems such as overcrowding, inadequate fire precautions, inadequate shared facilities, poor maintenance, bad management and harassment.

As recently as last Friday, I visited an HMO in my constituency and I am disappointed to say that the standards of disrepair that I have described were in evidence. The house had six tenants but was suitable for fewer. The stair carpet--shreds of a carpet would be a better description--was dangerously ripped, and there was no stair lighting. The house had an illegal loft conversion, and two internal doors had broken panes of glass with jagged edges, on which people could injure themselves. The owner must be getting almost £300 a week from the property, but it had only one smoke alarm--even that had no battery--and there was no fire blanket in the kitchen. The house was a disgrace, and an unpleasant reminder of the need for legislation to deal with this problem. The council is aware of the property, and has served legal notices on the owner to take corrective action, but that was two months ago. Each day that passes is another day on which the tenants face unnecessary risks.

Sometimes the tenants themselves are at least partially responsible for such problems, but that is no excuse for the owner's failure to take corrective action. Ultimately, if a tenant is making a property hazardous, he or she must be evicted, so that the lives and health of other tenants are not put at risk. In Swindon as well as nationally, bad owners of HMOs are generally unwilling to improve properties on their own initiative or at the suggestion of tenants. Therefore, the first step to improving such properties is their identification by councils. Helpful suggestions from councils achieve results on only a few occasions. Councils use existing statutory powers to compel bad owners to improve standards but, as the example that I mentioned has shown, that does not produce a quick response.

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Cases where financial assistance is offered in the form of a grant provide the only exceptions to the standard response from many bad owners. However, it is very unusual for a landlord to approach a council for advice on standards. The most unscrupulous owners prefer to remain anonymous, in the hope that their properties will remain undiscovered. Under current legislation, owners are not required to seek prior approval. They know that, if they are discovered, the worst that can happen is to be asked to carry out improvements. Ultimately, that breeds a culture of secrecy among many owners, and creates a barrier to their necessary education and involvement in improving the HMO sector.

In addition to the many HMOs that remain undetected, there is the huge problem of poor management and maintenance in properties that have previously been inspected and approved. According to Swindon borough council, once such premises are rendered acceptable, many owners lose interest and do not feel obliged to maintain standards. When subsequent inspections are made, it is therefore common to find defective fire safety equipment, amenities in disrepair, and other unsatisfactory conditions resulting from lack of maintenance by the owner. More often than not, a council's staff resources do not allow a proactive re-inspection programme.

Councils can establish registration schemes, and I have urged Swindon borough council to consider doing so. It is looking into the matter but, given the current regulations, such a scheme would not be as straightforward or simple to operate as a streamlined national system. Existing planning controls are weak, particularly in relation to small HMOs with fewer than six occupants. Such HMOs, which do not require planning consent, proliferate in Swindon.

Swindon borough council has considerable experience in tackling poor housing conditions, but it finds the current controls cumbersome and often ineffective in achieving the lasting improvements to HMOs that we want. A national system would allow a list to be drawn up of people who were judged to be unsuitable to own HMOs.

The early introduction of a mandatory licensing system would impose an absolute and unambiguous duty on all owners to declare the HMOs under their control. The message would be clear--that failure to do so would leave them liable to prosecution. Furthermore, owners would be aware that HMOs would not be licensed until they met minimum standards based on clear Government guidelines, and that licences could be withdrawn if the standard requirements were not maintained. Perhaps most important, tenants' awareness of the standards to be expected would be raised and they would have greater confidence to come forward and complain if standards were not maintained.

On the detail of the legislation, the same concerns and arguments arise time and again. I emphasise that I am not pressing for massive new regulation; I want better and simpler regulation. For example, a facility to specify the maximum number of occupants on a licence for any particular property would greatly simplify the current statutory powers. A comprehensive licensing scheme would make the controls in the Housing Act 1996

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redundant, so the Government could repeal all those regulations. Swindon borough council would welcome that.

Safety is of first importance, and most owners recognise their responsibility and the regulatory role of Government and councils. Fire safety is the key. The Labour Government treats fire safety very seriously and the social exclusion unit has done excellent work as part of its neighbourhood renewal strategy. The risk of death from fire in HMOs varies considerably, as do standards of repair. However, research has shown that in several types of HMOs, the risk is considerably higher than in comparable single-occupancy dwellings. Occupants of houses comprising bedsits are about six times more likely to die as a result of fire than are adults in an ordinary house.

I spoke yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), who told me that one of her constituents had died in a fire in an HMO because there was no adequate escape route from the fire. A window was jammed and there was no extinguisher, so the house was obviously unsafe. The owner was taken to court and fined at a level that did not reflect the consequences of the action. That decision did not send a strong signal to other HMO owners that it is unacceptable to place people's lives at risk in that way, and it shows again how important it is that further action is taken. The owner of that HMO owned properties throughout the country, which emphasises the need for a national scheme, including a list of owners who are unsuitable to run HMOs.

Better practice, particularly in fire safety, is important. I am a keen advocate of sprinklers in domestic properties. A demonstration house at West Swindon fire station shows very effectively how sprinklers can save lives and minimise the risk to property. I invite the Minister to come and see that for himself. Sprinklers in HMOs could make a big impact on fire safety, and the National Fire Sprinkler Network has examined that. It has called for sprinkler systems to be included in the guidelines of any future legislation. In new build homes, the cost of installing sprinklers is minimal and it is even becoming more economical to install sprinklers in existing properties. With sensible insurance policies, they could provide a quick payback to owners, particularly owners of HMOs. Immediate installation of sprinklers in all HMOs is not practical, but I hope that owners will be encouraged to install them because of our experience of fires in HMOs.

The organisations with an interest in this area have widely welcomed the Government's proposals in the Green Paper. We need action now. Legislation must include a broad definition of HMOs to encompass not only larger HMOs in Swindon, but smaller HMOs, which often place people most at risk.

I do not want a new scheme to lead irresponsible owners to seek to convert their property to one of the exempt categories, thus creating a two-tier sector of licensed and unlicensed properties, the latter being the death traps that we want to see the back of. Wholesale reform is needed, with existing controls repealed and a new, simplified scheme in their place. That would be better than modifying current legislation. We want a simple scheme that helps owners and councils to protect the thousands of people who currently live in squalid

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and dangerous conditions in HMOs. When do we want it? We want it now. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin) : My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) raised an important matter and made her case clearly and powerfully. I share her concern about the poor standards of physical condition and management that can be found in houses in multiple occupation. As she said, other areas of the country, including Sunderland, which I represent, have the same problems as Swindon, but on a greater scale. I am very much alive to the difficulties. Whole areas of Sunderland have been dragged down because of the grip of absentee landlords on a street. My hon. Friend is pushing at an open door.

The Government remain committed to introducing a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation--and now I must use a phrase that my hon. Friend will have heard before--as soon as parliamentary time allows. She will appreciate that my Department must bid for parliamentary time against the Government's other priorities. Therefore, it will be necessary to wait for the Queen's Speech. If my hon. Friend is disappointed, there are things that can be done in the interim, as she acknowledged. Swindon does not yet have a registration scheme, and while such a scheme would not solve all the problems that she outlined, it would make a difference. She is right to encourage taking that route as an interim measure.

Few people, I think, would disagree that current provisions for houses in multiple occupation, which have been amended piecemeal over five decades, are unsatisfactory and not always easy to understand. Court judgments have also cast doubt over which properties fall under the current definition of houses in multiple occupation. Understandably, that uncertainty has led to some local housing authorities expressing reluctance to use their existing powers. That is why we are determined to replace existing powers in relation to houses in multiple occupation with a regime that is simpler to implement and which provides a much more effective and accessible framework for intervention. That will provide protection where it is most needed and benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike.

I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that a number of specific management problems are associated with houses in multiple occupation, which, combined with the higher risks to tenants' health and safety, have made the use of existing powers difficult. Those include a lack of clear management responsibility, evasive or absentee landlords, a lack of funds, irresponsible as well as vulnerable tenants and problems caused by poor management for immediate neighbours. My hon. Friend referred to all those issues.

Where houses in multiple occupation are subject to licensing, a single individual, resident in the United Kingdom, will be nominated as a fully responsible representative or duty-holder for each property. That will enable local authorities to identify who is

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responsible for meeting the requirements and conditions imposed under licensing. The licensing regime will also address the need for tenants to co-operate with landlords by respecting fire safety measures and allowing access for inspections. That approach will aid local housing authorities in identifying who is responsible for the health and safety of tenants, but will also encourage and support well-intentioned landlords in meeting their obligations and duties. We are determined to improve management practice in the sector of houses in multiple occupation. There is scope to strengthen the existing management regulations and we intend to do that without waiting for primary legislation.

Hon. Members will know that it had been our intention to consult separately on physical standards for houses in multiple occupation. It is very helpful in this respect that, in parallel with the reforms, we have been reviewing the housing fitness standard for all dwellings. The key to those changes is the recent development of a new housing health and safety rating system, which allows a wide variety of hazards to occupants' health and safety to be identified and quantified.

The rating system will, in time, replace the existing relatively narrow pass or fail standard and will apply to any unit of residential accommodation and to all landlords. It will reflect more accurately tenants' perceptions of the condition of their accommodation and the problems that threaten their health and safety. It will also permit a more proportionate enforcement response, which will enable responsible landlords to raise their game on the foundation of good regulation.

The rating system is no less relevant to houses in multiple occupation than it is to single-occupancy housing. As a result, it will form an integral part of our licensing system as the principal tool in assessing the physical condition of houses. All assessment and enforcement of physical standards in houses in multiple occupation will eventually be done using the housing health and safety rating system, with further risk-based guidance on fire, overcrowding and amenity standards.

Fire safety is a particular area of concern, and risk of death is significantly higher in HMOs than in single occupancy dwellings. Current legislation and guidance includes substantial guidance on fire safety measures for HMOs. In addition, the Housing (Fire Safety in Houses in Multiple Occupation) Order 1997 has widened local authority powers in respect of higher risk HMOs. Under this order, local authorities have a statutory duty, in consultation with the local fire authority, to ensure that fire safety measures are adequate in all HMOs of three storeys or above. The order has been phased in over the past three years and came into effect fully on 29 February this year.

For new or converted HMOs, building regulations have clear requirements regarding fire safety. Furthermore the Housing (Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation) Regulations 1990, impose a duty on the manager of an HMO to maintain all equipment provided by way of fire precautions. My colleagues in the Home Office are also proposing to update fire safety legislation. One of the proposals under consideration is to develop a general duty of fire safety care, which would apply to all multi-occupied dwellings.

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I am aware of the growing body of support for the provision of residential sprinklers in houses in multiple occupation. My hon. Friend mentioned the experiment in Swindon. Version one of the rating system guidance includes sprinklers as an option for multi-occupancy buildings. That does not mean that they would be mandatory for HMOs, but it does mean that where the risk is justified and where occupants are particularly vulnerable, sprinklers may well be appropriate. In view of the substantial cost and the need to protect the supply of cheap HMO accommodation, the case for sprinkler installation must be based on a proper risk assessment.

The development of the rating system means that we will be able greatly to simplify enforcement procedures by abolishing the current, separate standards of fitness for HMOs and provide housing authorities with a single set of powers and duties in respect of house condition. That will benefit tenants, local authorities and responsible landlords by promoting greater consistency. We think that there is much merit in legislating for the rating system at the same time as licensing. In practical terms, this will avoid two changes in quick succession.

Under our licensing proposals, local authorities will have a duty to licence higher-risk HMO premises such as bed-sits, hostels and larger shared houses. We also envisage a discretionary power for local authorities to extend licensing to smaller shared houses where that is justified by local circumstances, such as high concentrations of student lettings found in certain neighbourhoods in university towns. Land-use planning issues will continue to be treated separately from licensing, although before issuing a licence, authorities should consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether planning consent is also required for a change of use. At present local authorities are not required to reduce or cap existing concentrations of a particular form of tenure, whether owner-occupation or social or private

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renting. Planning legislation does not define 'multiple occupation' or HMO as such, but does rely on both the concept of a 'single household' and 'family' in making distinctions for land-use purposes. We are not proposing to amend planning legislation.

We also propose to introduce a broader definition of HMO based on the relationship of those living together rather than their mode of living. That will make the issue of whether a property is an HMO less critical and, in any case, the rating system will be relevant whether or not the property falls within the new definition.

We are determined to make bad landlords improve their performance or get out of the sector. The health and safety of tenants is paramount. However, we must ensure that the impact of regulation and legislation does not impose unreasonable burdens on responsible landlords, or we risk adversely affecting the supply of this valuable source of accommodation.

While I recognise the concern for speedy legislation, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that we must do all we can to modernise and rationalise the confusing mass of controls, and ensure that future legislation is an improvement on existing statutes. I hope that hon. Members appreciate that the framework I have outlined today will strengthen local authorities' powers and duties to intervene when the quality of HMO accommodation or management causes anxiety. As I said earlier, in the interim there is nothing to stop local authorities setting up their own licensing system; indeed, we encourage it. That will leave them in a much better position to take up future powers in respect of HMOs. Hon. Members may be assured that HMO licensing remains a priority, whether or not time is found for it in the Queen's Speech.

Question put and agreed to.

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