Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dismore rose

Mr. Meacher: Does my hon. Friend disagree?

Mr. Dismore: I am concerned, because the registration scheme ultimately polices the Bill. People could face sanctions if they do not comply with it properly. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Turner) but that issue is far more important than the vague and woolly general definitions in clause 3. We must have proper scrutiny, as people may face penalties.

Mr. Meacher: I am not disagreeing about the importance of the penalties and sanctions that may rightly be brought to bear when landlords fail to meet standards. The issue is whether the matter should take up parliamentary time, because detailed scrutiny in both Houses would be required. Is that merited? I am suggesting not that there should not be adequate penalties, but that if there is a desire to discuss these matters, the House should have the opportunity to make such a demand. However, to lay that down as a requirement seems to us to go further than is strictly necessary. I hope

10 May 2002 : Column 469

that my hon. Friend accepts that, although I take his point. I am prepared, without prejudice, to have another look at the matter.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): My right hon. Friend has alluded to section 11 of the Housing Act 1985 and to the powers of local authorities under that Act in relation to HMOs. He also alluded to the inadequacy of those powers. Will he recount for the House why the powers need to be superseded and why clauses 3 and 4 may be inadequate for that, thereby requiring further wide-scale legislation?

Mr. Meacher: The answer is that section 11 does not adequately deal with several issues relating to the registration and control of HMOs. For years if not decades, that has not been properly regulated. Obviously, there are powers under previous legislation that enable local authorities to go so far, but we believe that a major legislative overhaul is required. The Government propose to introduce such legislation, but that has been pre-empted—if that is the right word—by the Bill.

After discussions with the Bill's supporters, we made an agreement on part 3 that we believe to be consistent with our wider purposes, and we are happy for it to proceed on that basis. However, section 11 is an inadequate instrument for what is a very complex and difficult area.

The Bill would make one important change in respect of standards by amending section 348 of the 1985 Act so that a condition of the registration of a house will be that it meets minimum prescribed standards, including those relating to safety, energy efficiency and standards of fixtures, fittings and furnishings. If a house does not meet those standards, a local authority will be able to refuse to register it, unless steps are taken to require it to meet those standards. Therefore, the measure gives substantial powers to local authorities.

Another difficulty with the current legislation is that the control regime is based largely on local authority discretionary powers, a matter that is raised in regard to amendment No. 4. The existing power to require HMOs to be registered is discretionary, as is the power on the categories of HMOs to which a registration scheme will apply.

As a result, enforcement and the standards applied vary significantly across the country, a point to which the hon. Member for Cotswold rightly drew our attention. The Bill will deal with those anomalies by requiring all local authorities in England and Wales to adopt a registration scheme with control provisions for those HMOs most at risk.

The Bill provides that regulations will prescribe which HMOs will be covered by the mandatory registration scheme. Should we include two-storey buildings, or should we restrict the provision to three and four-storey buildings which have at least four occupants? We will informally consult on which descriptions of HMOs will be subject to mandatory legislation, but as I indicated in Committee, HMOs that are of three or more storeys and that are occupied by more than four people exhibit the characteristics with which we are most concerned, such as fire risk and overcrowding. That is the basis for amendment No. 4. That is where the greatest risk applies. The question for the House is whether it applies to

10 May 2002 : Column 470

two-storey buildings with four people, or whether it is possible to draw a sensible dividing line between two and three storeys.

The Bill provides that local authorities will, at their discretion, be able to register smaller HMOs if they consider that necessary. Therefore, whatever the House may decide today, there would still be a discretion where a local authority believed that a two-storey building should be brought within the controls.

The Bill also provides that local authorities must adopt model and therefore uniform registration schemes in their districts. Again, that is important. If an authority wishes to vary the model scheme, it will only be able to do so with the approval of the Secretary of State. We believe that the use of model schemes will provide consistency across local authorities, which again is important. We do not think that there should be varying standards when one is talking about health and safety and overcrowding. That should apply in both the application of standards and their enforcement. We want to see even, balanced and proper enforcement across the country.

The measure will also reduce the amount of paperwork and ensure that fees are kept to a minimum. That is a less important issue but not a negligible one.

The existing definition of an HMO has been the subject of many debates; we had many in Committee. A number of grey areas have arisen. That has resulted in some properties that exhibit the characteristics of HMO accommodation not being within the definition. Precisely such a building configuration has been referred to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister is again straying rather wide of the amendments before the House. I would be grateful if he returned to them.

Mr. Meacher: I understand that point. I wanted to make it absolutely clear that the significance of the issue behind amendment No. 4 was understood. With your patience and kindness, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have managed to spell it out in full. I am glad to leave the case there.

Mr. Gardiner rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have covered the amendment very fully and the Minister has responded to the debate at great length, so I do not think that it would be appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to speak at this time.

2.15 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner: The Minister outlined many of the reasons why use of the affirmative resolution procedure, as set out in the amendment, is so important. It is also extremely important to adopt starred amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19, to which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) spoke, to provide for positive resolutions in respect of the issues covered in clauses 4, 5 and 6.

We all know that houses in multiple occupation are an extremely complex matter. The question of definition alone has kept lawyers fat for years. It is important to have a definition that is not only foolproof as far as lawyers are concerned, but fair to landlords and tenants, so that everybody understands where they are. The question now

10 May 2002 : Column 471

boils down to what constitutes a household; it has changed since Second Reading, when, as hon. Members will remember, it was based on there being more than two families. Households are the basis of the current definition.

We all know that problems have arisen in the courts because of unscrupulous landlords who are prepared to claim that a disparate group of people who have no mutual relationship whatever constitutes a single household. Thus, they will pretend that a four-storey Victorian tenement occupied by 12 students is a single household. Of course, that is blatant nonsense, but that is how the matter currently stands in the courts, which is unacceptable from everybody's point of view.

It is essential to ensure proper scrutiny of associated regulations. I pointed out to the Department the weakness on definition and said, "You'll have to define households, or you'll be back in the mire again." It must prescribe the relationships that constitute a household. As we all know, that is potentially a very sensitive issue. In relation to a married couple with children, the circumstances are clear, but the relationships of unmarried couples, same-sex couples and so on in cohabitation might be less so. Those matters need to be considered very carefully. They are potentially very sensitive.

Mr. Gardiner: I hope that my hon. Friend will take on board a point that I had hoped to make at greater length about an issue that is important in constituencies such as mine. In relation to an extended family nexus of asylum seekers, disproportionate work would be required of local authorities under the proposals for registration of households. Difficulties can arise when there is a tremendous influx of asylum seekers who are included in loose family configurations and often live in multiple occupation households. The turnover and mobility of such families can be so tremendously fast that a local authority would require far greater resources than are currently available to keep pace with the situation. Will my hon. Friend comment on that issue, although I am forbidden to do so at greater length?

Next Section

IndexHome Page