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11.52 am

Sue Doughty (Guildford): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on gaining the opportunity to introduce his Bill. As one of those who, before entering Parliament, joined in letter-writing campaigns to support similar legislation, I am delighted to participate in today's debate. Like many others, I have been contacted by my local HECA officer on Guildford borough council, who asked me to be here today to support the work being done by the council. I am only too pleased to do so.

I am concerned about the licensing of HMOs—we all agree on the early parts of the Bill—so I shall dwell on those issues and the position of landlords. Several landlords have contacted me and I have met others who are worried about the impact of the Bill on their viability. I endorse the arguments about those landlords who should not be in the business of running the sort of benefit housing that has been described, but many landlords have only one or two properties—I was such a landlord once. Those landlords might have bought a house when housing was expensive, then married or moved to another property and put tenants in the old house; sometimes people put tenants into houses they have inherited, or treat the house as a source of pension income.

Most landlords want to do well by their tenants. Like most of us, they want a quiet life—they want letting arrangements to work well, their tenants to have few complaints, and to be able to manage repairs within the income that they receive from the property. Landlords have the right to make a fair return on their investment in their property. We need them to be able to do that because

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we need landlords in the market. None the less, we should not tolerate landlords who provide accommodation of a standard lower than is found anywhere else. I shall not repeat the comments made about students and about the deaths of students and other young people living in poor standard accommodation, save to emphasise that fuel poverty is especially intense in that sector.

I have an interest as one of the many Members of Parliament whose children live in rented accommodation. I rang my student son up to ask about what was happening in his area of Leicester, only to be told that the roof had fallen in on his friends' house—they are still waiting for repairs—and that the pipes had burst; all the usual problems. What worried me most was the local notion that one should line one's loft with newspaper when the weather gets cold—what a hazard with electrical fires. We forget how students keep warm. Most are lucky, but the number of those who end up at accident and emergency or who die is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the risk borne by tenants of HMOs. I hope that the Committee on the Bill will pay particular attention to houses with four or fewer unrelated people living in them. Many student houses are small terraced houses containing only a few people, but they are just as vulnerable as those living in larger properties.

Many landlords are covered by existing rules, but it is important that all landlords have access to clear guidelines. The legislation is not clear, which is bad news for both landlords and tenants. In cases of below standard accommodation or of slipping standards, it is important that the law is enforceable. What constitutes an HMO should be clearly defined in law, and provisions relating to HMOs should be easy to understand.

There is concern about the cost of licensing, even though it is not intended to be a financial burden on landlords. We must be sure that local authorities are not gold-plating the requirements of licensing. What is important is that we raise housing to basic standards of decency, not that we price businesses out of the market when adjustments are needed. On the other hand, we do not want bad landlords undercutting the local market to house people in accommodation that is clearly substandard or dangerous. That is unacceptable.

Good landlords will be encouraged by the Bill and by the moneys that many local authorities make available to invest in properties to improve them. Good local authorities promote such schemes and ensure that their local landlords know how they can benefit. However, I endorse the points made by the hon. Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) about licensing and the need to identify who is in charge of a property, so that when a local authority is called on to take action through its environmental services department, it is able to identify who is the liaison point in the house when dealing with rubbish, cars and so on. So much time is wasted by local authorities, when the problem could be solved much more easily and neighbours' issues dealt with. That is important. Management of property should be clear and transparent, and only through registration will that be achieved.

I welcome the Bill. I look forward to the real benefits that will flow from achieving 30 per cent. fuel efficiency overall in our housing stock. It is important that the 37 per cent. of the population who live in HMOs and are suffering from fuel poverty should be able to see a way forward, to see a means of making low incomes go further

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and to have the comfort of living in not only a safe home but a warm home. I support the work that is being done in the Chamber today.

11.59 am

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on introducing the Bill, which I welcome. The fact that many Members are in their places shows how much cross-party support and agreement there is for the measure and reflects the seriousness of the issue that my hon. Friend seeks to address. The importance of the issue is recognised throughout the country.

Much of the debate has focused on houses in multiple occupation. Statistics tell us that the worst manifestations of fuel poverty are to be found in HMOs. The provisions that relate to HMOs are obviously an important part of the Bill.

My remarks will relate to parts 1 and 2. Many Members, including me, represent constituencies where there is a high proportion of council housing and where there are old Victorian and small terraced properties. My authority has about 32,000 council houses, many of which require substantial investment to bring them up to a level of heat efficiency that we would deem to be acceptable. Of course, there are implications for the lifestyle and quality of living of those who live in these houses. A failure to deal with the problems could have major implications for other local services.

We are all aware of bed blocking during winter, especially bad winters, that results from many people entering hospital because of fuel poverty in their homes and consequent health problems. We must have joined-up thinking. This will not be the first or the last time that a Back Bencher tries to join up government thinking on this issue.

My local authority is well ahead in achieving the 30 per cent. target set by the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995; last year, it reached 9 per cent. The number of complaints that I receive on these issues shows that there is huge unmet demand for the Government to introduce measures that might achieve improvements on the present targets in the long term. By making targets statutory and stipulating that there should be a dedicated officer in each local authority charged with delivering them, the Bill should ensure that authorities that are lagging behind will enter into partnerships designed to deliver the targets.

I welcome the provisions in part 2. The Secretary of State will be enabled to give guidance on the operation of partnerships to help deliver energy conservation. It is essential that best practice is developed, but a case in my constituency shows where such projects can go wrong. In February, a lady applied for a grant for heating improvements under the home energy efficiency scheme. A gas contractor conducted a survey under the Energy Advice Grant Agency. The company was confident that the lady qualified for a grant. An independent surveyor contracted by EAGA gave her the same advice. When nothing happened, despite frequent correspondence, she eventually contacted EAGA, which told her that she did not qualify for a grant. Because she had a central heating system with a boiler, radiator and pipework, which had been installed in 1964, she had an adequate system, so did not qualify under the Government regulations.

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Obviously, I have taken the matter up and am looking into it. However, it is essential that all the agencies in the partnerships to promote energy efficiency work together to ensure that there is clarity of purpose and that the public are not misled in any way or under any misapprehension about the appropriate criteria for qualifying for energy conservation assistance. The partnerships recommended in the closer regulation that the Bill advocates will go some way towards dealing with that. The confusion that I have witnessed in my own constituency is not a good advertisement for current schemes and will not help us to reach our goals.

Sandwell borough council is conducting one of five warm front pilot projects and has set up a partnership with other bodies, including EAGA, to eliminate those problems. Regular meetings are held with council officers and key players in the agencies who are delivering that assistance to try to deal with the confusion and problems that have arisen. We must ensure that we develop models that can be used to implement policy under the Bill.

Finally, I welcome the provision in the Bill to ensure that conservation standards are addressed in the transfer of local authority housing stock. In my own local authority, one reason for looking at stock transfer options is to lever in funds that would otherwise not be available to bring houses up to the appropriate energy conservation level and eliminate fuel poverty. It is helpful to include a statutory requirement so that when local authorities make an agreement to transfer stock to outside agencies tenants are in no doubt that their interests are paramount.

I shall conclude on that point, as many other Members have already raised the issues that I was going to discuss. I urge the House to support the Bill conclusively so that we can all return to our constituencies to tell the people who regularly attend our surgeries that action is in hand and so that we can make substantial progress in the years ahead.

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