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Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I am grateful to the Government for supporting this Bill, which my party also supports. Will the Minister give a guarantee today that she will ensure that there is no backsliding in terms of devolution? The Bill does not mention the National Assembly for Wales; it mentions only the Secretary of State, although it applies to England and Wales. Does she agree that we want to make sure that the Bill empowers people in line with the devolution legislation, and that it will be the National Assembly for Wales that works with local authorities to ensure that the HMO registration scheme works properly in Wales?
Ms Keeble: That issue can be dealt with in Committee. The Government support the Bill, but it is a private Member's Bill with an hon. Member in charge.
Last year, our housing Green Paper set out our HMO licensing proposals in their wider policy context as a key measure for promoting a healthier private rented sector. In the follow-up policy statement, "The Way Forward for Housing", we announced our intention to take forward simultaneously our HMO measures and provisions to replace the current housing fitness standard and related enforcement machinery for all housing. These will be relevant to HMOs as well as to other types of housing. That package of measures will deal with the issues mentioned in the debate, including health and safety, and problems in the north to do with abandonment.
We also said that we would develop proposals for selective licensing of other privately rented properties in areas of low demand, where the activities of a small number of speculative or, in some cases, actively criminal landlords have served to undermine local communities
The intended effect of the Bill is to increase domestic energy efficiency and help to wipe out fuel poverty in England and Wales. It would also make provision for the licensing of HMOs. Those aims are worth while, necessary and consistent with Government policy.
The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires energy conservation authorities to prepare strategies outlining measures that will improve domestic energy efficiency in their area. Authorities have an obligation to report progress on implementing the strategies, but they are not obliged to implement them. The Bill would require authorities to take steps to implement them so far as is reasonably practicable, and would enable guidance to be issued. We welcome that encouragement to action.
The Bill would also require registered social landlords taking on ownership of local authority housing stock to agree how they will contribute to the strategy, thus helping to ensure that the benefits of the strategy are not lost when stock is transferred. That provision, too, would help to ensure action takes place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is clearly anxious to keep us up to the mark on our HMO commitments and to speed us on our way lest we allow other priorities to distract us. Accordingly, he has included in the Bill measures that would contribute to the preparation of a fuller HMO licensing scheme. His Bill would also oblige us, in the event that we do not take pre-emptive action by introducing more comprehensive HMO legislation in the next year or so, to bring in by order a simplified control scheme.
Such a scheme would fall some way short of our proposed licensing arrangements in their full scope; nor would it carry with it the proposed reforms to the housing fitness regime or to selective licensing powers. None the less, it would represent an important advance on the current position and provide a self-standing system. The Bill would not discharge our manifesto commitment for us: that will require a much more complex and detailed measure, extending far beyond what can be accommodated in a private Member's Bill.
The Bill provides a new definition of HMO. That is badly needed, as the current definition has led to endless problems of interpretation for the courts and for practitioners. Broadly speaking, an HMO currently means a house that is occupied by persons who do not form a single householdbut what is a house and what is a household? What about a hotel that is lived in more or less permanently by people who are supported by housing benefit? What about a large house that has been converted into a conference centre? What about a house occupied by a number of unrelated students? Case law has sometimes led to unexpected and unwelcome conclusions on those matters. It has taken outside the HMO boundary some types of property that we want to be subject to HMO controls, but included others to which HMO controls are clearly inappropriate.
The whole area is a minefield and I commend my hon. Friend for his courage in entering it. His intentions are very much in line with the Government's, although I am sure that patient and detailed work in Committee will be needed to ensure that they are fully realised and that the
Clause 6 would require every local authority to have in its area a registration scheme for HMOs of the sort that requires HMOs to be notified to the authority. In effect, this will convert what is now a power into a duty, and apply the new definition of HMO to it, subject to certain exceptions provided for in clause 8. It will ensure that local authorities make a good start on identifying the HMOs in their area in advance of their being required to license them.
In clause 7, the Bill requires the Secretary of State, within a year of Royal Assent, to make an order, subject to affirmative resolution, which will in effect extend the registration duty so that authorities' schemes must include control provisions as well as notification requirements. Both my hon. Friend and the Government hope that this provision will not in the event prove to be necessary, and that it will have been possible for us to introduce by then our own more comprehensive measures on HMOs and related matters. However, as Ministers have had to say down the ages in situations of this sort, "I cannot anticipate the Queen's Speech." Clause 7 is a default provision that will ensure that an elementary form of licensing scheme is brought into effect even if the Government's legislation is delayed.
The Government are able to give the Bill a warm welcome, though I am sure that my hon. Friend would be surprised if I were to say that we were content with every word of every clause as the Bill stands. As always, there will be work for us all to do in Committee to ensure that the provisions are technically watertight, and the text has not yet had the attention of the parliamentary draftsman. We will also need to reflect further on some points of detail, such as the references to targets and implementation, and seek to ensure a close fit with the modernising government agenda.
The argument is often advanced that our proposals could be bureaucratic and expensive, and eventually force landlords out of the market. It is said that that would thereby reduce the supply of housing in what is quite an important part of the market in some towns and cities; and HMOs accommodate many thousands of students. I do not accept this argument. Much more important is ensuring that we remember why we want to take action, and the reasons have been outlined during the debate. There are still far too many examples of poor physical condition and poor management standards in the HMO sector. It is a real issue that affects real people in their day-to-day lives. For their sake, we must support and encourage decent landlords and not just drive out the bad ones.
Although a small fee will be involved in the licensing scheme, that must be set against the period of the licence. Good landlordsthere are some examples in the Housewill not be punished. Some landlords will find that they are required to carry out additional work to meet the standards that we set out. We should not apologise for that. If we are to have a fair and thriving private rented sector, we must ensure that the quality of properties and management practices are raised across the board.
The benefits of improved energy efficiency to householders and businesses are immense. Improved energy efficiency reduces fuel bills and maintenance costs, improves comfort and creates jobs. Energy efficiency therefore makes sense for us all. It saves money that could be better used to improve our homes and to develop businesses. In addition, energy efficient houses tend to be more comfortable. They are warmer and have a low incidence of mould and condensation.
Increased energy efficiency brings advantages to the economy by creating jobs in energy efficiency manufacturing and insulation businesses. It creates marketing opportunities for new and more efficient technologies. Energy efficiency brings benefits to the environment by contributing to the UK's efforts to meet international and domestic emission targets.
Perhaps, most importantly, energy efficiency is also a key to tackling fuel poverty, and that has been one of the key issues for the Government. As we all know, fuel poverty can damage the quality of people's lives and health, as well as impose wider costs on the community.
The likelihood of ill health is increased by cold homes, with illnesses such as flu, heart disease and strokes all exacerbated by the cold. Cold homes can also promote the growth of fungi and house dust mites; the latter, as hon. Members will know, have been linked to conditions such as asthma. Ill health can lead to enforced absences from work and certain types of illness such as respiratory disease and can restrict employment choices for people without work. The need to spend a large proportion of income on fuel means that fuel-poor households may have to make difficult decisions about other household essentials, which can lead to poor diets and/or withdrawal from the community.
Although the risks caused by fuel poverty and cold-related ill health apply to everyone, older households, families with children and householders who are disabled or suffering from long-term illness are particularly vulnerable. A number of Members have spoken about the interest of Age Concern and other organisations representing pensioners' interests in the measure. Over the years, those organisations have been at the forefront of campaigns for improvements to energy efficiency.