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Landlords and Tenants

11 am

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): At the outset, I must say that I readily accept the fact that there are many landlords who act responsibly. I accept that the private rented sector has a part to play in meeting housing need. There are also many decent responsible tenants in private accommodation, and I have no wish to tar them all with the same brush.

What I am against, and what my constituents are up in arms about, is bad landlords—landlords who see their only function as collecting rent, and take no interest in the behaviour of their tenants or the condition of their property. Some, indeed, never visit their property from one year to the next. It is an unhappy fact that in Sunderland we have rather a lot of bad landlords. There is a clear correlation between the growth of the private rented sector and the crime, vandalism and general mayhem that blights the lives of all too many of my constituents.

There are parts of Sunderland—I believe this to be true of other northern cities—where the private rented sector is dragging down the entire social fabric. There are streets where my constituents live in dread of the advance of the private sector because they know that it means an influx of antisocial neighbours and a complete lack of interest on the part of absentee owners in the behaviour of their tenants. They also know that that the advance of the private rented sector means a fall in the value of their own property to the point where it can become unsaleable. In extreme cases, they know that the streets in which they live may fall into Beirut-style ruin, leading eventually to demolition. They know all this because they have already seen it happen just a few hundred yards from where they live.

What makes this especially galling is that most of those landlords tend to live in the leafier areas of the city, where they do not have to put up with the conditions that they and their tenants inflict on others. It is even more galling that much of the mayhem they see going on around them is funded out of the public purse through housing benefit, which travels directly from the local authority's bank account into the landlord's bank account without ever passing through the tenant's hands.

Nearly 90 per cent. of the 5,000 or so tenants on housing benefit in Sunderland have their rent paid in that way. When I last inquired, our top 10 landlords were receiving £1 million a year between them in housing benefit, which flowed directly from the public purse into their bank accounts. They have no incentive to take an interest either in the condition of their property or in the behaviour of their tenants. The money will continue to flow regardless. That is an incredible state of affairs. We are funding the destruction of large swathes of our inner cities—and at the same time, we are pouring money into regeneration programmes, much of which will be wasted unless we can devise some mechanism for influencing the behaviour of our most recalcitrant citizens.

For those of my constituents who have the misfortune to live in areas where the private sector is expanding, this is the single greatest issue. It blights their lives. Many are

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elderly, vulnerable people who have lived in or near their present homes all their lives. They can remember a time when the social fabric was intact. They worked hard to make comfortable homes for themselves and their families, and they become distraught as the value of their property falls year by year while house prices generally are rising—even a mile from where they live. The value of property in some parts of my constituency has halved during the past 10 years and that is due, in large part, to the rise of the unregulated private sector.

In some areas of Sunderland, people's only hope is to sell to a landlord at a price far below what any reasonable person would regard as fair. Indeed, there is sometimes a suspicion that landlords allow antisocial tenants to accumulate in a street as part of a deliberate tactic to force down prices. People have broken down in tears in my office as they described the mayhem around their homes. They are desperate to leave, but they are trapped because estate agents advise them that their only hope is to sell to the landlord who owns the properties on either side of theirs at a fraction of what any reasonable person would regard as a fair price.

Lately, there has been a new and ominous development. Property companies are buying up former council houses that were originally purchased under the right-to-buy scheme. They then move in antisocial tenants, whose behaviour the local authority is powerless to influence. It is not unknown for a tenant to be evicted from public housing, only to reappear in an ex-council house a few streets away. One can imagine the message that that sends to law-abiding citizens, some of whom had to pluck up the courage to give the evidence that may have led to the eviction of criminal or antisocial neighbours.

What is to be done? Various solutions have been canvassed. The Government initially proposed to license only houses in multiple occupation. Some of us said, however, that would not solve the problem because many of the houses with the worst problems were single tenancies. Indeed, there is evidence that the worst landlords are switching from multi-occupied houses to single tenancies to outwit the regulators.

It has been suggested that housing benefit regulations should be amended to give local authorities the discretion to withhold payment of housing benefit. That would cause landlords to take much more interest in those whom they put in their properties, and in their behaviour. The object of any changes would not be to remove antisocial tenants from properties, but to change their behaviour. People must live somewhere, but a mechanism is required to prompt them to live in a civilised way alongside their neighbours.

Shelter is against changing the housing benefit regulations because they would cause landlords to discriminate against tenants on housing benefit, particularly in the south.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he say how landlords can influence their tenants' behaviour?

Mr. Mullin : Yes. As I explained, I am talking about landlords who often do not visit their property, and who take no interest in its condition or the behaviour of the tenants. They do not care whether the rubbish is put out

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on time. They may not have a tenancy agreement with their tenants, and even if they do, they may not enforce it. Good landlords take a detailed interest in managing their property, and I seek to spread good practice so that we can make a serious attempt to alter the behaviour of the worst tenants. To be fair, I must add that many tenants who are not badly behaved live in rundown properties because the landlord takes no interest in repairs. If he had to go and collect the rent from them once a week, he would be more likely to be apprised of their immediate concerns, and do something about them.

The third option, which the Government now favour, is to give councils the discretion to license all landlords. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that that is his intention. Will he also confirm that the factors to be taken into account when considering whether to grant a licence include the condition of the property and the behaviour of the tenants?

Where does the Bill lie in his Department's list of priorities? I am aware that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is bidding for rather a lot of legislation in the next round, and I do not want to see it pushed to the back of the queue and fail for lack of time, as happened last year.

What consideration, if any, has been given to introducing a planning power that would give local authorities discretion to limit the percentage of rented property in any given street? Is it not legitimate for a local authority, in consultation with residents, to consider that 10, 20 or even 30 per cent. of rented property is enough, and more would irrevocably alter the character of an area? Might that not be a legitimate reason for a local authority to turn down an application by a landlord for a licence? I do not ask for an instant opinion, as I have not given the Minister notice of my question, but I would be grateful if he would reflect on it and come back to me.

Finally, I seek a response from the Government to a suggestion about which I wrote to the Minister for the Environment on 6 July. I am still awaiting a reply. I invited my right hon. Friend to close a loophole in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that allows absentee landlords to avoid taking responsibility for littering by their tenants. Under section 46 the occupier, rather than the landlord, is liable for ensuring that domestic waste is placed in appropriate receptacles and made available for the bin men on the appropriate day. As a result, landlords have no incentive to take an interest in the disposal of their tenants' waste.

As the law stands, the local authority has to be able to relate a particular piece of litter to a particular tenant, so successful prosecutions are almost impossible to achieve. That is especially the case in multi-occupied properties, which tend to house the worst offenders. As a result, huge quantities of litter are sometimes left by irresponsible tenants to be scattered to the four winds. The same people behave in the same way week after week, and the council is powerless to act, beyond clearing up the mess. The obvious solution is to amend the Environmental Protection Act to allow prosecution of the landlord as well as the tenant. I would be grateful to hear the Government's response to that idea.

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Before I conclude, I must pay tribute to my local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo, which has done much to galvanise local opinion with its "Stop the Rot" campaign. My purpose in securing this debate is to try to generate a sense of urgency among Ministers about what, for Sunderland and many other local authorities in areas of low demand, is a serious problem. It is four years since I first raised it with Ministers, and I have done so repeatedly since then. Indeed, during my brief visit to Government, I arranged a little tour for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who was then the Minister responsible for housing, so that he could see the problem at first hand.

Such is the mayhem caused by irresponsible landlords and antisocial tenants that in parts of my constituency civilised life has broken down. The council has already had to demolish entire streets, and if help does not arrive soon, I can name the next streets to be demolished. I hope that the Minister can assure me today that help is on the way.

11.13 am

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I rise to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), with a mixture of pleasure and sadness. The sadness is due to the fact that the debate is necessary at all. I echo my hon. Friend's final comment about the continuing campaign that some of us have been running for the past five years to get some action on this troublesome problem.

It is difficult to exaggerate the stress, anxiety and damage that is being done. Growing chunks of my constituency, which were once comfortable, well-established family housing areas, have become deserts at some times of the year. Those parts of my constituency have the highest crime rates in the United Kingdom.

I live in a place well known to hon. Members who are cricket fans, and to some rugby fans—outside the gates of the Headingley cricket ground. That was considered a good place to live when I bought the house 30 years ago. All around lived families; every house was owned and occupied by families. There were children everywhere. People took care of their immediate environment and there was little, if any, antisocial behaviour.

We certainly had pubs, and we still do—more than we ever did. We have clubs, too, which we did not have then—and there are more of them now than ever. We also have take-away food places. The number of those has grown, and no matter how one tries to resist, it looks like continuing to grow. Take-away food has become the major litter-generating industry. People claim that it is a service to the community, providing cheap and easy food, but as a by-product, at great cost to the community, it produces mountains of litter in the streets, which are irregularly and infrequently cleaned up. It lowers the status of the area.

I differ slightly on one matter from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South. Property prices in some areas have been forced up, not down. Properties have become highly desirable for conversion into houses for multiple occupation. A former family home

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occupied by four people with one car can now house as many as eight young people, who may each want to park a car outside. Those are the large semi-detached homes that people like me live in.

My house is on three floors. I brought up my family there. We have a small drive, which I built, and provision for two cars. We have only one, but the drive meant that a visitor's car can be parked off the street. That kind of concern for a community has gone. We must look for the motor for that change, and it is precisely what my hon. Friend described.

The principle of cause and effect is well understood. Things happen because something causes them to happen. A strange thing about the cause of what is happening in my constituency is that everyone I know, including me, supports the cause—the phenomenal growth in the number of young people entering higher education. I cannot find anyone who opposes that continuing growth. However, it was not planned for. No provision was made to accommodate the phenomenally increased numbers of students. Approximately 30,000 students live within half a mile of where I live. To say that they are densely packed is putting it mildly. The effect on housing stock is as my hon. Friend described.

Litter, filth and the irresponsibility of landlords—and, sad to say, some of their tenants—must be understood and tackled. The phenomenon is not unique to the UK. In 1997 the town of Waterloo, in Canada, was drawn to my attention. It had the same problems and eventually, by empowering local government, it introduced byelaws that did precisely what my hon. Friend has asked for. Landlords were made responsible for everything that took place in or around their property. They were even made responsible for clearing snow—and it really snows in Waterloo. Handing such direct responsibility to landlords has transformed things there, and got rid of most of the problems.

I have drawn that example repeatedly to the attention of Ministers in relevant Departments in the past few years. We are looking for ways of managing the problem. We have to learn the obvious lessons. Six or eight people might live in a multi-occupied house, with a third of them changing every year, so there is a constantly rotating population. To find among all those people someone who takes responsibility is a bit like looking for rocking-horse droppings. It is rare because each resident comes from a background in which somebody else in the house—perhaps their mother—made sure that the bin was filled and put out at the right time, and other such normal events were organised. Now, nobody in a household of eight picks up that responsibility, let alone locking the door at night or closing the windows. That is how we have become the crime capital for burglary, street robbery and armed robbery on a horrendous scale—I cannot exaggerate it.

Making people responsible is going to take time and legislative action. We need the willing and enthusiastic co-operation not only of central Government but of local government. We need sensitive, intelligent interventions by local government to meet particular and peculiar differences in sets of circumstances, and to address particular, peculiar issues. We are not all the same, so blanket legislation will not work. We have to be intelligent and sensitive.

As I have said, it is impossible to exaggerate the despair in my constituency. People have nervous breakdowns and come to my surgery in tears. I live in

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the area, and I cannot walk in the streets without people asking me what I am going to do about one issue, when something is going to be done about another issue, or telling me that the Joneses and the Smiths have sold up, and others are moving out. There is panic in the community.

That has threatened the future of three primary schools, because with no families around there are fewer children, so there are no new pupils. The whole social structure is coming apart, and the argument that landlords are doing us a service by providing accommodation is not laughable, but tragic. Landlords do not build new houses or blocks of flats. They take existing housing stock and corrupt it for a use for which it was never intended. That is the problem that we face; that is the harsh reality.

11.22 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members will find that housing is either top or near the top of the list in their postbags, and it is the issue raised most often by people who come to their surgeries. It is therefore particularly welcome that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has secured this debate, which touches on the important issues that are daily raised with us by our constituents. He was right to draw attention to his concern about bad landlords and the problems that they create. For example, he described them as people who do not care about their properties and rarely visit them, and who, by their actions, drag down the social fabric in an area as has been so graphically illustrated by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best). There was some disagreement between the two hon. Gentlemen as to whether that had the effect of raising or lowering the prices of neighbouring properties.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South made some interesting suggestions about the way forward, and I should like to comment on them. I was slightly disappointed—although I do not mean that in a critical way—that he did not focus more on the other half of the title of today's debate: antisocial tenants. It would be appropriate for those people to be mentioned in the remaining contributions. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that it is now vital that the Government get on with plans to license houses in multiple occupation.

The Minister may recall that the Labour Government, in their 1997 general election manifesto, made a clear commitment to tackling the issue, but we are still awaiting details of proposed legislation. I hope that the Minister will bring us up to date with the Government's plans in that respect.

I also hope that the Minister will answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South about the Government's plans for licensing other privately rented properties, which I think is vital. At one point, we were led to believe that the measure might be introduced in certain areas selected by the Government. Now we are being told that local authorities might have the power to decide whether they wish to do that.

It is important to consider some of the other measures that local authorities could, perhaps, adopt to provide some assistance—rent deposits, for example. One of the difficulties faced by many of my constituents—and, I suspect, the constituents of other right hon. and hon.

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Members—is that far too often, when a tenant wishes to move on, a bad landlord makes it unnecessarily difficult to get back the rent or a portion of it, and disagreements then occur. Local authorities might be given the power to set up a central rent deposit system, whereby they hold the deposit on behalf of the tenant, and can arbitrate between the tenant and the landlord as to whether the entire deposit, or an agreed portion of it, can be returned.

It would also be interesting to look at some wider issues. I wonder whether the Minister has had the opportunity to reflect on the role of registered social landlords and their activities in support of regeneration. We have already touched on that subject tangentially, but I am concerned about the areas in which registered social landlords know that they are absolutely certain to be able to fill all their properties, so there is little incentive for them to get involved in regeneration activities.

In other parts of the countries, notably in the north, registered social landlords think it beneficial to be involved in regeneration as a way of making the area more acceptable, and thereby making it more likely that tenants will come into it. There is a disparity between the north, where on the whole registered social landlords are willing to get involved in regeneration, and the south, where that is not the case.

Surely we want a system in which all registered social landlords want to get involved in regeneration. To a large extent, that will depend on their arrangements with the Housing Corporation. Has the Minister held discussions with the Housing Corporation about that aspect of its contractual arrangements with registered social landlords?

Out-of-date legislation on the condition of properties—governing factors such as overcrowding, safety arrangements and so on—makes it easy for bad landlords to continue to be bad. Will the Minister update us on the Government's plans for bringing some of the out-of-date legislation in respect of such matters more up to date?

I shall now talk about antisocial tenants. Many of us find housing high on the list of issues raised by constituents, and within that subject, two categories are the most common cause for complaint. The first is the fact that some constituents do not have access to good housing, and the second is the problem of antisocial behaviour by tenants in neighbouring properties. In the summer recess, the people in my office checked through my case work and discovered that during the past two and a half years, there have been more than 90 cases concerning constituents who have suffered from the neighbours from hell. It is important that we continue to debate that issue.

There has already been much discussion about legislation on homelessness. I welcome some of the developments in that respect, but the wider issue at stake is the action that we must take against neighbours from hell. The Minister will say that the antisocial behaviour order is one of the tools for tackling the problem, but can he tell us how many times such orders have been used? They may be a useful tool in the armoury of

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defence, but they are not proving particularly satisfactory, because of the legal complexities and the time required to obtain them.

It is important to consider what other strategies may also be available. The Government are becoming increasingly interested in schemes such as the introductory tenancy scheme, but several worries have been raised about that, and rightly so. An alternative scheme that is well worth examining is the acceptable behaviour contract, which is drawn up between the incoming tenant and the landlord. Such schemes have been working well in several areas. For example, a scheme for teenagers was drawn up in Islington, and it has been working successfully. The amount of vandalism and difficulties created by young people has been significantly reduced as a result of such contracts. I should be interested to hear the Minister's reaction to the idea of such a scheme.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South referred to housing benefit, and said that the fact that the payment is made directly to landlords has meant that they have not had to take any action in respect of their properties. As he said, that means that the Government, on behalf of taxpayers, are funding the destruction of large swathes of the housing stock. He was absolutely right to draw attention to the need to re-examine housing benefit, how it is paid and how it is decided who is eligible to receive it.

There is another side of the coin, of which we should also be well aware. One of the problems for many of my constituents who are on benefit is that many landlords are unwilling to accept as tenants people who are in receipt of housing benefit. We are in danger of labelling people who are on housing benefit as likely to be bad tenants. That is not true, and it is important that we get that message across to people. There must be action at Government level to find ways to stop private landlords preventing people on housing benefit from becoming tenants.

Mr. Mullin : The hon. Gentleman is right that we should not tar all people on housing benefit with the same brush. As he will acknowledge, I made that point during my opening remarks.

The situation at the hon. Gentleman's end of the country is different from that at my end of the country. In the south, there is often a shortage of property of all types, whereas Sunderland has a surplus. Landlords need housing benefit, but we do not need them. We have vacant properties. Landlords would change their attitude if councils had the power to change the method of payment. The way round the differences at each end of the country is to give discretion to local authorities according to circumstances in local areas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) suggested.

Mr. Foster : I agree. We could solve several problems by giving local authorities greater powers and wider discretion, including powers with regard to antisocial tenants and bad landlords.

The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West made a valuable point about the difficulty that some towns and cities face because of the increase in the student population. Greater thought is required about how we

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find suitable accommodation for the large numbers of students that we already have, and the increase that we expect.

Mr. Best : Does my friend opposite—I shall call him that as I am not allowed to call him my hon. Friend—agree that we should consider the way in which universities recruit their students? If students were recruited from the area where they already live, that could reduce the pressure that we experience. It may also be more beneficial to the environment, because of a reduction in travelling and other socially damaging effects.

Mr. Foster : I partially agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should not interfere with the university experience by requiring students to attend their local university. However, that is an increasingly an attractive option, given the financial consequences of doing otherwise. Greater responsibility must be given to universities to ensure that they have adequate arrangements to accommodate the students that they recruit. In my constituency, the university of Bath has worked hard with the local council to find interesting and attractive solutions to the problems in the city. Many students may live in one road of houses in multiple occupation. Each student may bring a car, and problems may be created for other property owners and tenants in the road. I am aware of the problem, but I pay tribute to the university of Bath for its development of imaginative solutions.

There are many other issues that hon. Members would raise if we had sufficient time. I want to hear what the Minister will tell us about licensing houses in multiple occupation and other rented property, and his response to what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said about requiring landlords to take greater responsibility for activities that occur in properties that they own but rent out to other people.

11.39 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on securing the debate. When I saw the full title of the debate—"Government plans for dealing with irresponsible landlords and antisocial tenants"—I though that the hon. Gentleman had brought forward a challenging issue. It behoves all of us to try to think of satisfactory solutions to intractable problems. We all recognise that; we have all have received constituency correspondence about bad landlords and bad tenants.

Despite the hon. Gentleman's general caveat that he was not having a go at all landlords, some of his remarks suggested that he had forgotten that landlords are involved in business, and if we make the entire private rented sector too regulated and burdensome, they will disappear. In an intervention, he said that the area that he represented did not need the private rented sector—but it would be much worse off without that sector. We must take care not to expect landlords to put right all society's ills.

Mr. Mullin : I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general point; it is not my intention to blame landlords for all the ills of society. None the less, I repeat my point: people's experiences are different in different parts of the

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country. In Sunderland and the other old industrial cities there is a surplus of property, which makes it possible to engage the attention of even the most stubborn landlord, because landlords need tenants for their properties—and they need those tenants to be paid for by housing benefit.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I agree. An area such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency, where there is a surplus of low-quality, low-value housing, is the converse of an area such as my constituency, where there is a shortage of housing, property is very expensive, and key workers have difficulty finding a home.

All hon. Members know, from the contents of their postbags, that every constituency in the country has problems with bad landlords, and in particular with antisocial tenants. Therefore, it behoves us to work with all the relevant agencies to try to come up with satisfactory solutions to recommend to the Government—and we hope that they will enact them. The purpose of such debates is to try to come up with constructive solutions.

I shall talk about antisocial tenants first, and then move on to the subject of landlords.

Mr. Best : I have a point to make about landlords, before the hon. Gentleman discusses antisocial tenants. I agree that good landlords exist; anyone would agree with that, if they had been in the presence of a landlord with tears rolling down his cheeks because his family had run the business for generations and the other properties in his area were decaying, with catastrophic consequences for his company. Landlords have a valid point of view, and good landlords should be supported.

I have suggested to such landlords—I will make the same suggestions to landlords organisations—that they might seek to establish certain standards of accommodation, and of behaviour, with regard to their tenants. That might in turn lead to the creation of a kind of joint industry board of landlords, tenants and local authorities—a joint venture to stabilise and improve matters.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I will refer later to some of the ideas that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) proposed. I spent three weeks in Leeds, Central, which contains the university ward, during a by-election campaign, so I, too, have some ideas about how to deal with bad landlords. However, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will deal with the tenants first.

Antisocial tenants blight many innocent people's lives, and Conservative Members say that it should be easier to obtain antisocial behaviour orders. Although they are a good mechanism, they are too cumbersome, and too difficult to obtain. Current powers to deal with antisocial behaviour usually require evidence from neighbours, which is often difficult to obtain. It takes time to gather evidence and prepare a case, yet the sanctions imposed by the courts do not necessarily protect the local community from future problems. Landlords are frequently unable, or unwilling, to take action against antisocial tenants, and at present, local councils cannot legally require a landlord to take responsibility for the actions of a tenant.

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I want to draw the House's attention to Newham borough council's action against anti-social residents. It has been the subject of a press release, which I shall quote. It concerns the case of Belinda Baron, which came to court. The press release states:

That is the sort of "neighbours from hell" case that all hon. Members present have encountered in constituency correspondence.

The press release continues:

I praise Newham for taking that action. We need to extend anti-social behaviour orders, and not only to allow the local authority to issue them, but to consider allowing housing associations and registered social landlords, and perhaps residents associations, to have an input.

When we say that we wish to use anti-social behaviour orders, we must think about what will happen, how we will enforce them, and how we will try to rehabilitate people. That is a real difficulty, which strikes at the root of the problem of anti-social behaviour. What will we do when we have issued an anti-social behaviour order? How will we try to rehabilitate people so that their behaviour is compatible with the norms in society? Community service orders may have a part to play, but what does one do with a really awkward customer who refuses to co-operate with a community service order?

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mentioned conditional tenancies, which were part of our policy at the last election. I spoke to the Fosseway housing association this morning, to ascertain its view on antisocial behaviour orders and hear how it deals with the problems. I was told that conditional tenancies would provide one of the best armouries to deal with the problem. A tenant who had a past record of antisocial behaviour would be given a limited tenancy for three months. If he did not behave well during that period, the tenancy could rapidly be removed from him. A fast-track procedure would be necessary to make sure that he could be evicted.

As I said during debate on the Homelessness Bill, the Opposition welcome the idea of licensing houses in multiple occupation. Will the Minister say when he expects that legislation to be introduced?

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Mr. Don Foster : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although we rather glibly—I may be guilty of this, too—use the phrases "licensing houses in multiple occupation" and "licensing other rented properties", it is important to have a serious debate about the nature of the conditions attached to the licence? Ultimately, it is not the licensing that matters but the nature of the licence.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Of course. It is self-evident that the purpose of licensing would be to eliminate houses in multiple occupation that are in really bad condition, and to try to root out rogue landlords who are not reaching a reasonable standard. The hon. Gentleman and I will no doubt be on the Committee charged with considering the proposed legislation when the Government bring it forward. No doubt we will have many hours in Committee discussing that precise subject, and I would welcome that debate.

Mr. Foster : Does the hon. Gentleman further agree that the licence should not relate only to the nature of the property but to the responsibilities of the landlord, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I said in my reply to the hon. Gentleman's previous intervention that the licence should also root out some of the bad landlords, so I would certainly include the behaviour of landlords.

At this stage, it would be appropriate to deal with the issue of litter, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Sunderland, South and for Leeds, North-West. Litter is a difficult and intractable problem, and one would need to think carefully about changing the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to take away the responsibility entirely from the tenant and put it on the landlord. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Sunderland, South was advocating that. I may have misunderstood him. Perhaps he thinks that there should be a joint responsibility. Will he explain, within the confines of a brief intervention, how that would work?

Mr. Mullin : I have thought carefully about the matter. I am talking about not the odd piece of paper but piles of litter as tall as the hon. Gentleman and me, which stand in back lanes for weeks, and are cast to the four winds. The answer is to make litter a joint responsibility, and to give the landlord—because he, as well as the tenant, can be prosecuted—an incentive to cause the tenant to observe the conditions of his tenancy agreement, which should solve the problem. It is not necessarily the landlord who must clear it up, but someone must—if not the tenant, the landlord, as he is profiting from the business

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Landlords could take tougher action within the confines of a reasonable tenancy agreement. Perhaps I should have declared my interest in the debate as a chartered surveyor, although a non-fee-earning one. I have had to deal with such matters in a professional capacity, which is not easy. Within the confines of what is reasonable to put in a tenancy agreement, that should always be a requirement. In the past, I have very

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strongly advised both landlords and tenants to have a written tenancy agreement so that both parties to the agreement have a clear understanding of their obligations under the agreement.

Perhaps we could insist that landlords put pressure on their tenants to conform to the responsibilities in their tenancy agreements. I would certainly expect disposing of litter to be one of the responsibilities in the tenancy agreement, and local authorities should be able to take action against landlords who do not fulfil their obligations under the tenancy agreement.

Mr. Best : I made a passing reference to the litter industry—or should I say the take-away food industry. Unfortunately, where I live, it is possible on any night of the week to follow the litter trails. They begin at the take-away food shops, and at various points along the way we find half-eaten food and abandoned packaging. To say that that is unsightly the next morning is to put it mildly.

There is a serious health hazard, too. There has been an enormous growth in the numbers of foxes scavenging, and of rats. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that we might impose a levy on the take-away food business, which manufactures not only food but vast quantities of litter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, that litter does not come in small stacks. There are cubic metres of the stuff all over the area. If an additional levy were imposed on them, we might be able to hire cleaners to follow the daily litter trails.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. One need only go half a mile from here late at night to see some of the appalling litter left behind from fast food outlets. We cannot entirely blame the outlets, because it is their customers who are responsible—but the litter bins are crammed full, so it is difficult for people who have been to a fast food outlet to find anywhere else to put the litter, so they drop it in the street. We need to ensure that the local authority licence for a fast food outlet provides for proper litter receptacles that are emptied at regular intervals so that there is always a litter receptacle on or near premises where fast food is served and waste is generated. The hon. Gentleman also makes an interesting point about vermin. Not only rats and foxes but all sorts of other inner-city vermin that can be a health hazard are attracted. I entirely agree with him, and the Minister might like to discuss the matter.

I will move on, because time is short. Licensing for the whole private rented sector, which several hon. Members have called for, would place a large additional obligation on local authorities and would have a huge cost. One would need to examine carefully the national cost versus the benefit. I suggest that we consider a code of practice, perhaps even a star rating system for landlords' properties that house tenants on benefit. After all, the taxpayer pays that benefit, and if he does not get good value because of the poor quality of the property being offered, that is of interest to him.

The idea of somehow restricting benefit to either landlords or tenants, subject to good behaviour, requires careful consideration. Restricting benefits to antisocial tenants would only encourage them to enter

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other areas of crime such as burglary, stealing to fund their drugs habits, and prostitution. To link reductions in benefits to antisocial behaviour requires careful consideration.

Mr. Mullin : Fortunately, there has been careful thinking about that. The suggestion, which I believe the Government accept in principle—the Minister can tell us whether I am right—is that if a local authority in an area such as my constituency, which has a surplus of properties, has the discretion to license landlords, only landlords with sufficiently high standards to attract a licence will be able to take tenants who are paid for by housing benefit. That would provide those landlords with a powerful incentive to get their act together.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : There is scope for further guidelines—I put it no stronger than that—to cover landlords housing people on benefits. However, I do not know whether we should go as far as licensing all houses where tenants receive housing benefit. One would need to conduct a careful cost-benefit analysis to discover whether it would be worth while.

Mr. Mullin : No. We are talking about giving local authorities the discretion. I appreciate that circumstances vary in different parts of the country. However, in my part of the country—this applies to lots of big industrial cities where there is a surplus of property—the measure would undoubtedly have a powerful impact. The council is begging to be given that discretion, and the sooner we get on with it the better. No more careful thought, please.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would still like to hear what the Government have to say, and find out how much the measure would cost and what the actual benefit would be.

I shall now return to the serious problem raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West, which is shared by other university towns. Large numbers of young people are often housed in substandard housing. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman—the Government might like to take notice of this—that the university authorities should take more interest in the housing of their students. I do not know what the arrangements are at the university of Bath, to which the hon. Member for Bath referred, but I suspect that that university takes a fairly close interest.

I see no reason at all, particularly given modern IT, why a university should not maintain a register of all housing available to students. Irresponsible landlords could be struck off that register, or at least a warning could be placed on the register that a particular property was expensive or of poor quality. I see no reason why that could not be done. To be candid, in many cases students do not treat property with proper respect either. If the university authorities took a greater interest in cases of student misbehaviour, there would be an easy mechanism for the landlord to come to the university and say, "Your student has caused so much damage and he has disappeared. I don't know where he is, but I want to recover the money. Will you help me?"

Mr. Don Foster : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he asked, I would like to tell him that the

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university of Bath has agreed with the local council to regenerate some parts of the city with new buildings specifically for students. That avoids the problem of the multiple use of properties. The university has been very imaginative and has introduced requirements not only that students should agree to behaviour codes, but that they should not bring a motor car anywhere near the city of Bath. That is an important measure, which links in with issues of proper public transport. There are some imaginative schemes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : That is admirable and commendable. The Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West have said. The problem is serious and it is growing. We rightly encourage more youngsters to stay in further and higher education, but they will require housing in concentrated areas. We must deal with that problem.

Mr. Best : I welcome what the hon. Members for Cotswold and for Bath (Mr. Foster) have said. I would like to be able to say that the university of Leeds had matched, in performance and intent, the good things that have happened in Bath. However, I regret to say—I am picking my words as carefully as I can—that its behaviour in recent years has reflected the other forms of antisocial behaviour that hon. Members have described.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : I have no doubt that that is correct. University authorities must take a closer interest if they are to keep landlords and their students up to scratch.

This has been an interesting and constructive debate. We have not got to the bottom of how we shall rehabilitate those who are antisocial or a nuisance to the rest of society. I have called for mechanisms that make it easier to issue antisocial behaviour orders, but I am under no illusion but that we also need mechanisms to rehabilitate people. I know the problems that exist and I sympathise with social workers and probations officers, who are extensively involved in issuing orders, because by and large, they must make them work. We shall have to find mechanisms to rehabilitate people.

We must never forget that the antisocial behaviour of a small number of people causes a nuisance to a much larger number of innocent people. The Government and the law should always protect the innocent person, and if there is any doubt, the person responsible for the antisocial behaviour should be penalised.

12.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I am pleased to respond to a debate that deals with such a wide range of issues, including housing, regeneration, and law and order.

The debate is opportune. We recently issued our consultation paper on the selective licensing of landlords in areas of low housing demand, to which I shall return. First, however, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)

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on raising the issue before us. He has a strong constituency interest and, as a former housing Minister, a first-rate knowledge of the development of Government policy on the subject. I do not, however, want to single him out for praise, because all hon. Members have made helpful and constructive contributions to this thoughtful debate.

I hope—this is perhaps a wish rather than a hope—that the issue is not of substantial concern to too many hon. Members and their constituents. Plans for regeneration are in hand in several areas where economic and social decline is furthered by the activities of antisocial tenants and what can only be described as the villainous activities of landlords. Such people act directly against the regeneration activities that are in hand.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : May I clarify what the Minister is saying? If antisocial tenants are a problem in an area like mine, which is relatively well off and law abiding, then it must be a problem in every part of the country. The Minister should be under no illusion about that.

Dr. Whitehead : Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. One hopes that, in all parts of the country, people on housing estates in the rented and private sectors will live in harmony. The problems that have been mentioned this morning do not occur throughout the country, but it is certainly true that in many parts of the country but not necessarily in all local authority areas the problems are real, and we need seriously to think about them.

I know of the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) has undertaken on housing in multiple occupation, particularly the problems and pressures that houses in multiple occupation occupied by students can bring to an area. The debate has been informed by those who know a great deal about the matter, and they have made solid points.

In the housing Green Paper published on 4 April 2000, we noted that in areas of declining housing demand, particularly in parts of our northern cities, the large-scale operations of a minority of unscrupulous landlords have caused problems. Those problems were often linked to criminal activities such as housing benefit fraud, drug dealing and prostitution. I have already said that those activities can destabilise local communities, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South has told us how that can happen. That can create social and economic problems that seriously hamper efforts at regeneration, and that makes life difficult for respectable tenants and responsible landlords—and for owner-occupiers, who may come under pressure to sell up and move away.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South pointed out, unscrupulous landlords increasingly offer homes to anti-social households, not least those who have been excluded from nearby social housing because of their misbehaviour. My hon. Friend also spoke of the suggestion in the Green Paper that local authorities could be given discretionary powers to license privately rented dwellings or landlords in particularly problematic neighbourhoods. Licensing under those circumstances would deal with a possible

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surplus of housing in areas where bad landlords and tenants are likely to do the most damage. The Green Paper suggests that a local authority could be given discretionary powers to license an area, perhaps where stress is a particularly difficult problem, but it would not have to use them.

The Government's housing policy statement published a year ago said that we would consult on proposals for the selective licensing of private landlords in areas of low demand. Each scheme would be subject to approval by the Secretary of State. The power would not be exercised willy-nilly; a local authority would have to apply to the Secretary of State to be given that discretion. We would countenance such schemes only in areas where tenants could find readily available alternative accommodation should the landlord fail to obtain or lose a licence or withdraw from the market.

Our plans to consult on proposals for legislation were somewhat delayed by the election in June, but the Secretary of State announced on 20 October the start of consultation on our proposed licensing scheme. It is clearly our intention to try to legislate when parliamentary time permits, which I hope will be at an early stage.

We believe that licensing could be one of the range of tools available to local authorities, alongside other measures. The aim would be to enable local authorities to ensure that all landlords played their part in a comprehensive local strategy to tackle the consequences of low housing demand.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Will the Minister clarify when he is likely to introduce legislation for licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and for the new discretionary licensing scheme? Is it likely that both schemes will be part of one Bill?

Dr. Whitehead : I fear that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman complete satisfaction at the moment, although I will shortly tackle the issue of legislation that is now proceeding through the House. That legislation is not a complete answer to the questions raised today, but the Government intend to legislate on the issues at an early stage.

The Government think that additional regulation is justified for the pervasive and acute problems in several low-demand areas, but that could stifle the supply of private property for renting elsewhere. That is why we propose discretionary powers for local authorities to license private landlords in all or part of their areas. Landlords would need a licence, which would be issued only if they met standards of personal fitness—basically, no criminal record—and management fitness, including safety checks on the operation of their houses.

To keep the focus on better management and the exclusion of criminal landlords, the problem of unfit housing would be tackled separately through the existing or future housing condition regimes.

Mr. Don Foster : The Minister rightly refers to future housing condition regimes. Before he moves on, will he bring us up to date on the Government's plans for the introduction of such regimes?

Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next remarks. I was about to underline the

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Government's view that a selective licensing regime will complement measures to provide for, among other things, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. That future housing regime will run alongside the selective licensing of landlords in specific areas. The hon. Gentleman will be interested in further complementary measures to replace the current housing fitness standard and related enforcement machinery with a new regime based on a housing health and safety rating system. That will apply to all properties, and I will say more about it in a moment.

The selective licensing of landlords will focus on localised problems that relate to landlords in areas of low housing demand. It will not be concerned with housing fitness as such. HMO licensing will cover the types of accommodation that consistently pose the highest risks across the country, so that selective landlord licensing should ensure that HMO licensing could be properly targeted.

We seek to fulfil as soon as possible some of our commitments on the licensing of HMOs, through our support for a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). Part 3 of that Bill contains specific provisions for the registration of HMOs and new definitions stating what the occupants of HMOs may be regarded as, so that a wider definition can be secured and some related problems can be overcome. The Bill would also give further discretion to local authorities to license blocks of flats or houses with two storeys under certain circumstances. Several elements of legislation that the Government would like to introduce are contained in that Bill, so we have given it considerable support.

Mr. Mullin : I presume that selective licensing will apply not only to multi-occupied houses but to single tenancies, where most of the problems arise in my constituency. Will the management of tenants, the behaviour of tenants and the number of complaints attracted be taken into account when deciding whether to grant a landlord a further licence?

Dr. Whitehead : My hon. Friend is right to draw the distinction between the licensing of HMOs, which is a licensing regime relating to the fitness of properties, and the licensing of landlords in an area of low housing demand, which deals with the landlord's fitness to be a landlord of any sort of housing tenure. Part of the process of granting a licence includes providing evidence to be taken into account, either prospectively or after the licence has been issued, in determining whether it should be continued. One example might be a continuing licence for a pub landlord. If such a landlord has behaved inappropriately in managing properties in an area, the licence would not be renewed.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) mentioned antisocial behaviour and neighbours from hell. I have always expressed considerable sorrow for a town near Gdansk in Poland called Hel, where presumably all the neighbours are from Hel. However, we are talking specifically about antisocial behaviour, which can poison tenancy relations in an entire neighbourhood.

In the Green Paper, we recognise that there are, on occasions, unholy alliances between bad landlords and bad tenants. That can create intractable problems,

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which require a multi-agency approach. That was and is a key theme of the policy action team, led by the Home Office, which looked into antisocial behaviour.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and the police to develop local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and to implement strategies for reducing crime at local level. It also allows local authorities and the police, working together, to seek antisocial behaviour orders against anyone who causes harassment, alarm and distress to others.

Antisocial behaviour is a cross-tenure problem. It does not occur only in one form of housing tenure. It can occur in owner-occupied property as well as in rented property. Many antisocial tenants may move into private rented accommodation from the social housing sector and back again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South said.

In developing a co-ordinated approach, local authorities can make use of Home Office guidance to local authorities and to the police in dealing with antisocial behaviour, especially by issuing antisocial behaviour orders. The Government are also considering measures to speed up the eviction of antisocial tenants in the social sector. The hon. Member for Bath asked how many ASBOs have been issued so far. The answer is 466, although there is evidence that local authorities are beginning to make greater use of them.

I remind the Chamber that part of the problem of obtaining court action against so-called neighbours from hell is that the more that people in the neighbourhood are intimidated, the less likely they are to keep logs and appear in court as witnesses. The introduction of professional witnesses is a great step forward towards ensuring that people need not suffer additional intimidation as a result of appearing in court while ASBOs are procured.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised the issue of conditional tenancies. He may be aware of the emergence of introductory tenancies, which are similar to the tenancy to which he referred. They can play an important role in ensuring that the local authority tackles nuisance and antisocial behaviour on estates. The recent Court of Appeal judgment is welcome. It ruled that introductory tenancies are compatible with the European convention on human rights. That provides reassurance and clarification for authorities that already operate those tenancies and to those local authorities that considered them but were concerned about compatibility.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : People from my local housing association told me this morning that even if a housing association had conditional tenancies and evicted a tenant from such a tenancy, the local authority would have a requirement to rehouse that tenant. As the housing association is the agent of the local authority, it would have a requirement to rehouse those tenants, so it would simply evict the tenants from one place and rehouse them in another. We need to consider mechanisms for dealing with antisocial behaviour and rehabilitating people into society.

Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am not making the case that introductory tenancies are a

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panacea for the wider problems that he mentions. However, I draw attention to them because they are a method for ensuring that tenants behave in a socially acceptable way when they take up their tenancies, especially if they have a previous history of antisocial activities.

Mr. Mullin : May I have my hon. Friend's assurance that he will address my point about amending section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in relation to littering? I gave him notice of that point and wrote to the Environment Minister on 6 July. I hope that my hon. Friend has had better luck than I had in getting a reply from that Minister.

Dr. Whitehead : As appears to be the custom this morning, my hon. Friend has anticipated me. I was about to turn to that point.

In our Green Paper, we noted that the problem in declining areas with bad landlords and antisocial tenants was compounded by the fact that such antisocial tenants were often dependent on housing benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South referred to that. Housing benefit is paid directly to the landlord, which provides landlords with no incentive to enforce tenancy agreements or manage their property effectively. I recognise the concerns expressed on that matter.

The selective licensing of landlords should ensure that bad landlords are given a chance to get their act together and that, if they do not do so, they are unable to continue to operate unlicensed. It would not be right for unlicensed landlords to continue to be supported with housing benefit payments. With such safeguards as may be needed to protect innocent tenants, we shall need to ensure that legislation on selective licensing closes the door on such payments. We also need to recognise that housing benefit is the right of the tenant and is paid directly to the landlord only when tenants cannot manage their own affairs.

My hon. Friend referred to littering—an issue on which he wrote to the Minister for the Environment. The problem of littering in housing in multiple occupation is often severe, but it is sometimes difficult to prove precisely who is responsible for it. Section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is not exactly associated with litter provisions, but it requires the householder to place household waste in the receptacle specified by the waste collection authority for normal weekly collection.

There is a power under the Environmental Protection Act to force the householder to take responsibility for putting the waste out. The problem that might arise in implementing my hon. Friend's suggestion would be that it would give an additional and overlapping power to the landlord. That could cause confusion. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a litter legislation review in hand, and it will shortly publish proposals for consultation. I imagine that that will be one of the issues on which consultation will take place, but as my hon. Friend says, that is not my departmental responsibility.

Mr. Mullin : I sympathise. I once had responsibilities similar to those of my hon. Friend and I know that they

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are vast. I am seeking to address the problem that occurs when a great quantity of litter comes out of what is often, but not always, a multi-occupied house, and no one will accept responsibility for it. The local authorities cannot prosecute, because they cannot identify which individual in the house put out which bit of litter, and that is what they are required to know at the moment. They therefore want the power to prosecute the landlord, in order to prompt him to require the tenant to put things in order.

Dr. Whitehead : Yes, indeed. I understand my hon. Friend's point. I hope that DEFRA's consultation will address his concerns, although I must emphasise that there is a potential problem of confusion in law.

Where poor condition housing—in all tenures—coincides with declining demand for housing and with social problems, we have a serious problem. A vicious spiral can ensue in which problem landlords and tenants play a part. When people start to leave areas and houses are boarded up, crime moves in, conditions deteriorate, and whole neighbourhoods head rapidly down a steep slope. In those situations the licensing of landlords is but one tool available to local authorities to address anti-social behaviour and declining property values. Local strategic partnerships can help to co-ordinate measures and improved public services can help to revitalise an area, as can addressing the quality and quantity of the housing stock.

The Regulatory Reform Act 2001 should enable the Government, by order, to sweep away the constraints surrounding local authorities' support for private sector renewal. That will give local authorities much greater freedom within their housing strategies to use their resources to improve conditions in the private sector.

My hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West and for Sunderland, South raised the issue of the power to limit the number of houses in multiple occupation in a particular street. It is best that I write to them on that matter, and I shall certainly do so. I am sure that they appreciate that there might be problems in planning law if a property were allowed to be developed for multiple occupation if somebody had moved out, but not in other circumstances.

The Government want a private rented sector that is better and bigger. That sector provides essential housing to the young and mobile, and also to many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. We want to encourage good landlords through best practice initiatives. We are also conscious that the private rented sector is very sensitive to regulation and to movements in the market for properties for owner-occupation. The hon. Member for Cotswold made the point that in the main it might not be a good idea to regulate all landlords and all rented properties in all areas. Apart from stifling the supply of a much needed resource, that would impose on local authorities the major task of policing the regulation.

In our resolution to press forward with the selective licensing of landlords and HMOs, the Government are focusing on problems relating to the worst landlords in the private rented sector, the most vulnerable of communities and the most vulnerable of tenants.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): We can now move on to the next debate. Meanwhile, I congratulate the Minister on his double innings this morning.

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