Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.26 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is a near neighbour of mine in South Norfolk. This is my first opportunity to contribute to a debate on a private Member's Bill, and I share the widely expressed sentiment that such debates show the House of Commons at its best. It is my belief that the House of Commons can mean something if the Members determine that it should do so. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on securing this debate, and on having put it to such good use.

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1259

In addition to Norwich city council, my own local authority, South Norfolk council, has also expressed an interest in the Bill and asked me to support it, which I am pleased to do. I listened with interest to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed)—who is no longer in his place—about castigating the Government for not having taken action earlier. He may have a point, but I would sooner congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown on having taken this opportunity to do something. This bears out my belief that we would probably be better off if we had less Government legislation and more private Member's legislation. It is, therefore, a great pleasure to speak in this debate.

On energy conservation, there are clearly wide disparities in the energy efficiency achieved by different local authorities. I have no doubt that making the achievement of the targets mandatory will focus minds and will assist the local authority officers responsible for achieving the targets in negotiating for resources and delivering what they are required to deliver.

Some 20 years ago, I lived in Canada for a while. That is a country with a much colder climate than this one. Day after day and week after week, the temperature was regularly minus 35 deg Celsius. The hon. Member for Norwich, North will know that by the time it gets down to minus 40 deg, it does not matter whether it is Celsius or Fahrenheit. When I was living there, the Canadian federal Government had a scheme for home insulation that was extremely easy to access, extremely widely taken up and had a huge impact on the levels of home insulation. This relates to something that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) said about the difficulty of getting grants. If the Bill becomes law, as I hope and believe it will, I hope that the Government will consider seriously what might be done to improve energy conservation through encouraging much more uptake of home insulation.

There is universal agreement in the House that it is extraordinary that we are still talking about fuel poverty, and any measures that can be taken to eradicate it are welcome.

I shall not repeat the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about houses in multiple occupation. He mentioned Conservative Future, which is a splendid organisation with 10,000 vibrant young people who can see which way things are going in the future. It is full of people who recognise that the thing to do with stock is to buy it when it is cheap. They have obviously backed the right horse in that respect.

Conservative Future makes a valid point. When I was a student and first moved to London, I lived in a house in multiple occupation. I was frightened of getting up in the morning because it was so cold. Houses in multiple occupation that lack proper facilities for warmth affect most those who are least able to care for themselves at both ends of the spectrum: young people who have left home and are just starting out or are in tertiary education, and old people who spend most of their time at home and have the most limited incomes. Any measures to deal with fuel poverty will therefore be welcome.

I have a couple of concerns. The first relates to the definition of multiple occupancy. I shall not go into any detail, as that is a matter for the Committee, which should

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1260

give it close consideration. Any definition that is agreed on when the Bill comes out of Committee should not create more problems than it solves.

My second concern relates to registered social landlords and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who has apologised to me because he has had to leave the Chamber temporarily. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown that good landlords have nothing to fear from the Bill. I am sure that that is right. As my hon. Friend said, many landlords will welcome the Bill.

Mr. Love: Taking a slightly wider view, there is a recognised need for institutional investment in the private rented sector to deal with these problems. The institutions are scared off by the Rachman-like image of the private rented sector. The Bill will be the first step in attracting institutional investment to deal with the problems.

Mr. Bacon: The hon. Gentleman is almost certainly right. When I left university my first job was in a merchant bank, and I was able to afford a warm flat in London. I had an inglorious three years of merchant banking, where I worked longer hours than in this place. What struck me most about my early experiences was the extraordinary concern that people working in reputable institutions in the City expressed about the probity of the organisations with which they were dealing. That was at the time of the Guinness and other scandals in the 1980s. It shocked me that, far from being swashbuckling corporate financiers, institutions were hugely concerned to look for and ensure probity on the part of those with whom they were dealing.

Mr. Simmonds: Does my hon. Friend think that the classification of HMOs and specific properties may deter some institutional investors from coming into the market because of their derogatory perception of HMOs in the residential marketplace?

Mr. Bacon: The precise definitions are matters for the Committee. My hon. Friend may also have a point.

The key issue is that most landlords most of the time are good and honourable and want to do the right thing. A small minority are determined not to do the right thing if at all possible. I shall not dwell on the definition, but it is important.

As I said, my second concern relates to landlords. We should ensure that the regulatory burden is not excessive when the Bill comes into force. That depends on what is written in the Bill, and on how local authorities interpret and act on the regulations. Resources should be disproportionately concentrated on hunting down the relatively small proportion of bad landlords. We should ensure that the majority of landlords who are keen to fulfil their obligations do not feel that they are being hounded or are not welcome. We must also ensure that the Bill does nothing to reduce overall provision by the private rented sector, which needs to expand, not contract.

I support the Bill, and congratulate its promoter.

12.35 pm

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): I do not hesitate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). I have backed earlier moves to

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1261

tackle fuel poverty, and have welcomed the Government's action in providing winter fuel payments and extra support for their home insulation and heat conservation schemes. I have also campaigned in regard to the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and, last November, initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject. I want to concentrate on that aspect today.

As one of the Bill's main proponents, I was glad to be able to arrange a consultation meeting on HMOs in my constituency. A number of suggestions were made, both for additions to the Bill and on the wider issue of dealing with fuel poverty. The strongest plea came from representatives of the fire service, who said that regulations applying to HMOs must be strengthened. We should seize the opportunity to install domestic sprinklers in the properties that need them most. That was a genuine plea from the hearts of those who have to rescue people who are sometimes injured and burnt, or have to carry dead bodies from homes. They ask all Members to support the Bill and to use it as a vehicle to stop unnecessary deaths in HMOs.

Let me explain how we can prevent such deaths. I hope that everyone agrees that fire regulations should be part of overall HMO regulations. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) that licensing would be appropriate, and neither burdensome nor costly. I am sure that that can be achieved. We need to raise housing standards to the same high level. We can work with good owners and, together with them, secure a sensible timetable for delivery of the improvements that are so vital. We need to tackle the cowboy owners, who exploit the most vulnerable members of the community by leaving them in fuel poverty and at significant risk of fire. By tackling the bad owners, we will strengthen the position of the good ones in the marketplace.

About 3.1 million people live in HMOs—about 6 per cent. of the population. However, 35 per cent. of fire deaths and about 39 per cent of injuries occur in HMOs. Smoke alarms play a part in fire safety, but on their own are inadequate. A recent study conducted in poorer parts of two London boroughs found that only 16 per cent. of homes had functioning smoke alarms. Too often people forget to check the batteries, or turn the alarms off when dinner is burning and forget to switch them on again.

Fire sprinklers, however, are reliable. The technology is simple: the sprinklers are set to go off only when the heat reaches 68 degrees C, and to go off only in the area of the fire, controlling it or putting it out.

We are behind the times. In the land of the free market, Scottsdale in Arizona, a law was passed in 1985 requiring fire sprinklers to be fitted in all new properties. Scottsdale recently published a 10-year report showing no fire deaths, an 80 per cent. reduction in fire injuries and in property damage, and a 95 per cent. reduction in water usage for fire control in properties with sprinklers. Vancouver, whose climate is much like ours, passed a similar law in 1990, and recently published an interim report supporting the Scottsdale findings.

Sprinklers are affordable; they have certainly been found to be so abroad. The technology is getting cheaper as the market develops. Compared with the income that owners receive from their properties and the cost of the estate as a whole, the cost of sprinklers is marginal.

30 Nov 2001 : Column 1262

Those hon. Members who support the Bill because they are concerned about the lives that are lost through fuel poverty and about people suffering in cold homes should support investment to save lives and to give people security in their homes.

To emphasise the point on affordability, we should compare that cost with the cost of insulating homes against noise. The Government are considering introducing regulations on higher standards of noise insulation in homes, yet the cost of such insulation is higher than the cost of putting fire sprinklers into homes. Surely preventing injuries and deaths deserves at least as much attention as noise reduction.

For those who are unconvinced, I have two more suggestions. First, they should look at the Residential Sprinkler Association's website—www.firesprinklers. —where there is a description of a demonstration carried out in two houses in Wiltshire, one with sprinklers and one without. In the unprotected house, the blaze caused devastation. In the protected house, the sprinklers effectively targeted the fire, minimised damage and kept the house safe for any occupants. If hon. Members still need to see the effects of fire sprinklers with their own eyes, they are welcome to visit Westlea fire station in my constituency, where a demonstration house has been set up. It shows effectively the dramatic impact of sprinklers.

I hope that the House will remember the plea from the firefighters and accept the case for fire safety and fire sprinklers to be part of regulations on houses in multiple occupation. I have concentrated on that matter, but I equally support the important parts of the Bill that deal with fuel poverty. I urge the House to support the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page