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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has just said. My constituency suffers from the same problem. I have been campaigning for compulsory registration for a long time. Will he tell the House why he seeks to exempt registered social landlords? I am aware that other legislation and regulations govern registered social landlords, but the fact remains that organisations such as English Churches housing and the Notting Hill housing trust have a lamentable record in some areas. Surely they should be brought within the ambit of the Bill.
Dr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Bill exempts registered social landlords on the basis that they are already subject to other regulation and other legislation, but if a serious case can be made to show that that regulation and legislation are not being sufficiently effective, that will be a point amenable to discussion in Committee. I do not expect many properties that are owned and managed by registered social landlords to be affected by the Bill's provisions. The hon. Gentleman has raised a point that we can seriously examine in Committee.
Two of the most notorious landlords ever known in Britain, who made Rachman seem like a philanthropist, made their first millions running HMOs in Brighton and Hove. The House may be interested to know that one of them is now on remand, accused of the murder of the other. I think that Members can all work out who it is; that person has been the target of several local authorities, including Westminster City council.
Some of the worst housing conditions in Britain are to be found in HMOs. As for energy standards and fuel poverty, I am sure that other Members share my memory of living in an HMO as a student and huddling over a miserable gas or electric bar fire, hoping that the coin in the meter would last just a little longer. Decades later, things have not improved that much; there are still Rigsbys out there. Not only is the least comfortable accommodation to be found in privately rented HMOs but the last English house condition survey found that up to
HMOs are the most dangerous area of housing. Not for nothing did the previous Housing Minister, who is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, describe some HMOs as death-traps. That has been graphically illustrated in many fatal fires. Research published by the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions showed that in the two years from 1994 to 1995, 126 people were killed by fires in HMOsmore than one a week. There are other hazards; defective gas appliances are common in HMOs, landlords having failed to maintain gas fires or gas-fired boilers. The danger is exemplified by the sad case of Gillian, a student at Aston university, who shared a bedsit with four other students in Birmingham. She went to bed on a freezing cold night in December and left the gas fire on to keep warm. She was found dead the next morning; her parents were already on their way from Sussex to collect her for the Christmas vacation. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by the flue being blocked by soot and mortar debris, which fire investigators estimated had built up over 18 years. That is an example of the dangerous neglect of HMOs that needs to be dealt with, which is one of the driving forces behind the Bill.
There is a regulatory framework, which should address those problems, and many powers are currently available to local authorities, but they are distributed across different Acts, principally part XI of the Housing Act 1985, which is cumbersome, clumsily drafted and, like the structure of many HMOs, in desperate need of renewal. The Bill starts the process of replacing part XI and paves the way for further action by the Secretary of State to ensure the delivery of HMO registration, which has been a long-standing Government commitment.
Part 3 of the Bill makes provision for a new, streamlined framework for regulating energy conservation, health and safety standards and management in HMOs, and does so in two stages. First, it proposes a revised definition of an HMO, and sets out a requirement for all HMO owners and managers to notify their local authority of the HMOs that they operate and supply basic information. It makes it a statutory duty of the local authority to compile a register. The second strand of part 3 requires the Secretary of State to introduce standards and control provisions to regulate HMOs already registered by the local authority. Clause 5 sets out a new definition of an HMO. The old definition is based on occupation by more than two households and led to difficulties in the courts. It was too imprecise and easy to circumvent; in fact, the lawyers had a fine time with it in the courts, so it has to go. The new definition is based on the number of unrelated adults occupying a property.
Clause 6 defines the new duty on every housing authority to compile and maintain the register of HMOs. They can do that alone or combine with neighbouring authorities when they feel that that is appropriate. For instance, Brighton and Hove has thousands of HMOs, but neighbouring Adur has six. Clearly, Adur would not fancy setting up an administrative structure just to deal with six HMOs; it would wish to deal with them in conjunction with other authorities.
Clause 7 requires the Secretary of State, under the affirmative resolution procedure, to introduce by order the necessary provisions to replace those aspects of part XI of the 1985 Act that relate to HMO regulation with a new scheme of control provisions that will ensure compliance with the following important factors. Houses must be registered; the number of occupants must be defined; there must be specific energy conservation standards; furniture and furnishing must meet fire safety regulations; there must be safety certification for all electric and gas appliances; there must be satisfactory amenity standards; and there must be satisfactory arrangements for the management of the house. At the moment, all those aspects are, to say the least, patchily observed in the HMO sector.
Clause 8 sets out a proposal for two tiers of registration. The first is mandatory and applies to HMOs occupied by more than four unrelated adults; it exempts from registration HMOs operated by local authorities or registered social landlords, to which the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) drew attention. The number is set at more than four to deal with the most problematic HMO sector. In the second tier of discretionary registration, local authorities will have the power, if they choose, to require registration of HMOs occupied by not more than four adults. However, that will be a matter for local authorities to decide.
Those are the essential contents of the Bill. Members who were privy to the many drafts as it evolved will be aware that we started with five clauses, but reached 43 as we spelled out the control provisions required for the HMO registration system. At that point, it was becoming quite a sturdy little Bill and there were grave doubts about the possibility of getting such a detailed and large measure through the hazardous shoals of private Members' legislation in the House. Hence we adopted the two-stage strategy that is now before the House. I am satisfied that in its new slimline form the Bill retains all its essential elements; if enacted, it will guarantee the delivery of HMO registration and have consequent benefits for energy conservation and fuel poverty, as represented in parts 1 and 2. It will also deliver significant improvements in the quality of life for millions of tenants in England and Wales.
Not surprisingly, there has been a certain amount of resistance from organisations representing private landlords, but I can reassure them that, so long as their intentions as landlords are honourable, they have nothing to fear from the passage of the Bill. Indeed, at some of the many consultation meetings held throughout the country during the preparation of the Bill, that point was agreed by several private landlords.
The experience in Herefordshire, where a discretionary licensing scheme is already in operation, is that good landlords have welcomed licensing, and that far from driving landlords away from renting, more have entered
Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Can the hon. Gentleman elaborate on the experience not only in Herefordshire, but in Scotland, where the reverse is truesome landlords have disappeared from the market, there is a shortage of stock because of licensing, and there has been inconsistency in the fees charged for licensing and the application forms?
Dr. Turner: We are aware of the difficulties in Scotland. We intend that they will not be replicated in the HMO registration scheme. We are aware of the high fees charged by some local authorities in Scotland, which in some cases seem excessive, compared with the fees in Herefordshire, which are pitched at a reasonable level£60 per letting, for a registration period of five years. We are not seeking to make a profit out of fees; we seek to establish a registration system that will be more or less self-financing. It is not intended to be punitive to landlords.
There are other problems with the Scottish system. Some local authorities are finding it difficult to compile their registers because they cannot find all their HMOs. We do not want local authorities to have to search for their HMOs. We are placing the responsibility on landlords to notify the local authority of their presence. It would be a criminal offence if they failed so to do. I acknowledge that there are difficulties with the Scottish system; we intend to avoid them.