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1.5 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important Bill. I congratulate, without wishing to give flattery a bad name, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on introducing it. Any Bill that stands a real chance of improving the plight of the vulnerable and disadvantaged in society is to be welcomed.

I should declare an interest in that I am a landlord who employs professional managing agents to manage the properties. I, for one, have no problem with the introduction of the Bill—in fact, I welcome it. All too often, the image of landlords is tarnished by the small minority of unscrupulous landlords who seek to exploit. My firm belief is that the Bill will go a long way to remedying that problem, so I welcome it wholeheartedly. In reference to a comment made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, I have never been called a Rigsby, and I hope that I never will be.

I shall comment briefly on part 1 before moving on to part 3. I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak, and much of the ground that I intended to cover has been covered already. As we know, the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 set a target to achieve a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. We also know, from speaking with local authority members and officers, that that target has been difficult to achieve because they have been given, in effect, little help.

The requirement to achieve the target is contained in ministerial guidance only—it is not a statutory duty. The importance of the Bill is that it will suddenly make achieving that target a statutory duty and so give councils more tools with which to work. That is essential bearing in mind how far we are from achieving the target. Clause 2 is also important. It deals with the concern that because HECA officers often have too many jobs to manage, they have become demoralised. A designated officer will have enhanced influence to bring to bear on the task of achieving the target.

Clause 3 requires some clarification in Committee. To suggest that the Secretary of State

is a little vague. When is that clause to be tripped? Are targets to be set annually, with the Secretary of State judging at the end of the year whether to take the corrective steps that he deems necessary? I ask those concerned to examine that provision and to provide clarification in Committee.

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Part 3 is, as many hon. Members have said, probably the most important part of the Bill because it helps to bring everything together. It deals with HMOs and would ensure better protection for HMO tenants under existing law. As Shelter has pointed out, HMOs provide an important source of accommodation for many young single people, students and others who are unable to access social housing. Approximately 1.5 million people live in HMOs in England and Wales and there is little doubt that their housing conditions are among the poorest and most dangerous in the country. The highest incidence of extremely poor accommodation can be found among HMOs. Of all sectors, it has the highest proportion of fuel poverty, running at about 39 per cent.

The comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) were important. Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions research shows that in many HMOs the risk of death from fire is extremely high. Tenants in bedsit houses are six times more likely to die from fire than people in houses occupied by single families. Adults living in bedsit houses that are three or more storeys high are almost 17 times more likely to be killed in a fire than those living in a single family house. That illustrates the danger from fire in HMOs. I hope that the Bill will enable us to take that issue extremely seriously.

It is clear that the current regulations bearing on HMOs is not satisfactory. They are regulated under part II of the Housing Act 1985, as amended by the Housing Act 1996. The regulations include a discretionary registration scheme, which has not been widely taken up by local authorities. Meanwhile, a series of court judgments have cast doubt on which properties fall within the current definition of houses in multiple occupation. That is giving many of the worst landlords an automatic opt-out from discretionary registration schemes, which I think is deplorable. It helps to tarnish the image of landlords generally.

Licensing of HMOs would give environmental health officials much more chance to undercover defects and to ensure that they are addressed. That is a strong argument for believing that the Bill needs to be enacted.

I shall make one or two suggestions that bear on the provisions that are set out in part 3. First, the Bill does not cover registered social housing, and it should. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) were forceful. There is no reason why registered social housing should not be included in the Bill.

Secondly, as the Bill stands, only HMOs with five or more residents would need to be licensed. If the Bill is to be effective, it should apply to all houses with four or more residents. If it does not, it will miss many people, especially students, who live in HMOs. They would benefit tremendously from such legislation.

Thirdly, we must guard against too much red tape and cost. We must ensure that the licensing scheme does not drive private landlords out of the market and force tenants into homelessness. HMOs supply accommodation that is accessible to many people whose needs are fairly short term. The majority of HMO landlords seek to maintain required standards, and I would like to think that they provide a valuable service.

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Shelter, among other organisations, has rightly suggested that the Government should minimise the cost to landlords and tenants by keeping the fees for obtaining a licence as low as possible. We have heard how licensing in Scotland is causing concern in one or two areas, given the disparity in the fees that are being applied by local authorities.

Only unscrupulous landlords running substandard accommodation have anything to fear from the introduction of licensing. I wholeheartedly commend the Bill to the House.

1.14 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on the hard work that he and his staff have done on energy conservation and fuel poverty, and on introducing the Bill.

The partnership that has been created for the Bill draws upon support from organisations that are involved with energy, the environment and housing. There is also the support of more than 100 local authorities. That demonstrates that the Bill has been carefully constructed. I am in the Chamber at the request of one of the local councils in my constituency, Weymouth and Portland borough council. We must build an effective and practical strategy if we are seriously committed to eradicating fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency in our homes, now and in the future; I therefore strongly support parts 1 and 2. However, like other Members, I should like to focus on part 3—the provision to license houses in multiple occupation.

Weymouth is the largest town in my constituency. Yesterday, I spoke at length to Mr. Bury, the council officer who attempts to regulate HMOs in the town. He knows of 632 HMOs in the borough, but he estimates that that is only half the true figure. It is precisely because there is no mandatory registration that he does not know how many HMOs he has to monitor or, indeed, where they are. Often, he only finds out about them when there is a complaint about noise, nuisance or unsafe heating appliances, or when there is a fire. He wants the quality of HMOs to be levelled up to that of properties let by good landlords such as the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). Mr. Bury put it to me that taxpayers subsidise housing benefit for good landlords, but also subsidise rubbish. That should not continue, and the Bill will help to resolve the problem.

Simply introducing a mandatory licensing scheme for HMOs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown proposes in his Bill, would be a major step towards improving safety in HMOs. It is not just me saying that, but my local environmental health officer, building control officer and the deputy chief fire officer of Dorset. As we have heard, 6 per cent. of the population live in HMOs, but 28 per cent. of fire deaths in this country are in HMOs. The Dorset coast has its fair share; since July 1999, there have been 31 fires in HMOs in the county, including one fatality. Last Sunday, there was a fire in Weymouth; someone tossed a lit cigarette into a disused shop full of rubbish, causing a fire and considerable smoke damage to the HMO above. The fire alarm did not work, but the occupants were lucky; the fire was extinguished and they were not harmed.

Earlier this year in Weymouth, a tenant left a candle burning on top of his television in a top floor room and caused a fire. I am told that that is common; many HMO

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tenants struggle to afford heating and lighting, so when the meter runs down they light a candle. That fire burned out the whole room and damaged the floor below. The HMO has had to be completely refurbished, costing the landlord many thousands of pounds; he has also had to bear the cost of rehousing his tenants while work is carried out.

Those are just two stories from my patch; they involve some of the most vulnerable people in our society living in the highest risk accommodation. Beyond their own problems, they are vulnerable to cold, fire and asphyxiation. I support the Bill's provisions because they are a major step forward; they will raise standards and, most importantly, improve health and safety for about 3,000 of my constituents who live in such accommodation. It is a sad fact that, as we have just heard, occupants of houses comprising bedsits are about six times more likely to die as a result of fire than adults in an ordinary house; and all those deaths are preventable.

We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). Like me, she is an active supporter of the national fire sprinkler network; there was a race between us to make points about fire sprinklers. I hosted a meeting of the network in the Commons this week to discuss water pressure problems when fighting fires with sprinklers. Like my hon. Friend, I salute the work of the Residential Sprinkler Association in this area. The Bill will make it possible for the regulating authority to insist on fire sprinklers in HMOs. Some landlords may be alarmed about having to install these devices, but I remind the House that no one has ever died in a fire in a building with a fully maintained sprinkler system; sprinklers work. According to the RSA, 227 people die in fires in HMOs in this country every year. Those deaths are all needless, they are preventable, and it is a scandal that we let them continue. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for offering us an opportunity to do something about that. As we have heard, similar fire safety regulations were introduced in Scottsdale, Arizona 15 years ago. Since then, no one has died in a property where sprinklers have been installed, and property damage from fire has been reduced by 80 per cent.

It is only because the victims of such fires are particularly vulnerable, poor and lonely that we tolerate the problem. At a cost of just £1 per sq ft, the problem can be resolved. We have heard the myths. Fire sprinklers do not go off by accident when the toast burns. They are not like smoke detectors. My mother depends on the smoke alarm going off to tell her that her delicious caramelised pears are done under the grill. Sprinklers do not work like that. They are started by heat, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon told us earlier. That means that they do not all go off together—only where the fire and the heat are. A fire in one room in an HMO will not cause water damage in everyone's room. The water damage is minimal: 5 per cent. of the damage caused by a fire appliance. A disaster becomes merely an inconvenience.

Most importantly, sprinklers offer so much more protection than a smoke alarm. If someone comes home from the pub after a few too many and falls asleep on an armchair made with dodgy foam, forgetting that he left the chips on, it takes a while for the alarm to wake him up and by then, sadly, it may be too late. And if he took the battery out when he burned the toast or made

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caramelised pears, and forgot to put it back, the smoke alarm will not work. If it does work, it only warns him to get out; it does not put out the fire.

By clarifying the definition of an HMO and introducing mandatory registration for certain types of HMO, we can go some way to saving the 227 lives needlessly lost each year. I do not believe that landlords like the hon. Member for Billericay will not welcome the extra regulation. It will protect their investment and may make insurance easier or cheaper. If they have sprinklers installed, that may reduce costly fire door and escape requirements.

Regulation should be seen as an opportunity to raise standards of accommodation by working together with the landlord and local authorities so that decent standards are achieved and maintained. The licence fees must be affordable for landlords, but they must also ensure that local authorities have the resources to administer the new scheme efficiently.

Speaking to housing and environmental service officers in Dorset, I realised how stretched the authorities are. Any new regulation system must allow for the resources to enable authorities to follow through with inspections and assistance when required. I also welcome the foresight displayed in the Bill, which allows councils to act jointly, so that small councils such as Purbeck in my constituency can make practical arrangements with their neighbouring authorities.

We have a responsibility to pass the Bill today unopposed. To oppose it is to condemn more people to live in cold, substandard accommodation. It is to condemn people to choose between heat and light. At its worst, it is to condemn people to die in preventable fires. I commend the Bill to the House.

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