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Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I represent Brighton, Pavilion. He may not be aware that there has been a pilot scheme in my constituency, on a voluntary basis, for just over a year. The council reports that it has no record of landlords withdrawing their properties from the market or of rent rises that can be directly attributed to the licence fees associated with the scheme. In a sense, what the hon. Gentleman suggests is already under way. The council in Brighton and Hove is about to extend that scheme, irrespective of what decisions Parliament takes on a mandatory scheme, across the whole of the city area.
Mr. Sayeed: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving the Committee that information. I had been given it previously by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. As I understand it, the scheme that is extant in Brighton is slightly different. It does not have all the provisions of the Bill, for fairly obvious reasons. Brighton has many of the problems that the Bill seeks to address. It has some glorious crescents and terraced housing in multiple occupation by students either at Sussex university or what used to be Brighton polytechnic—I do not know its new name. As the scheme has worked so well in Brighton, Pavilion, it should be extended elsewhere. It would be a good idea to ensure, through the Bill, that that happens.
As for rents, Brighton is in a fairly populous, popular and fairly rich area, and parts of it have the great benefit of a large student population. Students leave a seaside town during the summer months, and their accommodation can then be let to those who spend their summer holidays by the seaside. I do not think that that appertains in all university or ex-polytechnic towns; there are differences.
I only suggested Brighton, Kemptown at the request of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. Whether the location is Brighton, Kemptown or Brighton, Pavilion or Billericay or Bolsover matters not. We simply need to test the proposals with a trial, find out whether they work and amend them if necessary before they are implemented nationally.
I am grateful for the opportunity to express support in principle for this part of the Bill. The licensing of HMOs has a valuable part to play, but the Minister must reassure the Committee about much of the detail before we can give it our wholehearted support.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown may be a willing volunteer for a pilot scheme, but I suspect that he would quickly discover that he was a lamb to the slaughter at the hands of his colleagues on his way out of the Room. Many hon. Members on the Committee and even more in the House are looking not for a pilot scheme, but a national scheme to address the known problems that many of us have been struggling to address for too long.
Mr. Sayeed: I apologise; I may have given the wrong impression. I was not talking about a pilot scheme by itself; I said that we should trial the scheme
Column Number: 106to ensure that it worked properly before implementing it nationally.
Mr. Simpson: I am sure that the practical issues surrounding the implementation of such a change would be more than taken on board by the Minister; he is particularly sensitive to the importance of getting things right. However, it is important for the Committee to locate itself back in the real world, which the Bill is designed to address, and to move the situation forward. If we waited for perfect definitions on which to base legislation, we would never have any legislation.
The important question that we must ask is whether the definitions and provisions in the Bill move us on significantly from the mess that we are in now. There is not a shadow of a doubt that the answer is yes. The status quo is utterly unacceptable. The Barnes v. Sheffield decision has paralysed local authorities such as mine and many other university towns and cities. They presume that they cannot intervene now because the courts have ruled against them, and they are looking to Parliament to define a different framework within which local authorities are required to act. In that context, the new definitions that have been offered are a significant improvement on the current situation.
It is important that, as a Committee, we reject the amendments that have been tabled, but it would be even better if the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) did not move them. It is also important to set out why the amendments should not be moved. They are based on fairly significant misjudgments about the nature of the issues and where they would take us.
Let me explain the first misjudgment. We are in danger of becoming confused between contracts and conditions. Various contracts are available for the acquisition of properties, whether to rent or buy. It is in contract law that one begins to explore the possibilities of people having joint contracts for a property. They might not have a relationship in the terms that the Bill addresses. They might have a commercial relationship, as occupants; one is able to do that. However, we must not end up getting drawn into a situation in which people can contract into mythical relationships—in this context, the word relationships should be placed in parentheses—because that would be used as a vehicle to return to the Barnes v. Sheffield position, where everyone was involved in a tenancy agreement relationship, regardless of whether it had any meaning in human terms.
If that were to happen, Parliament would look absurd, and hon. Members of the Conservative party, whose traditions have been particularly vociferously rooted in the defence of the family, would find themselves in difficulties if they were accused of creating fictitious families entirely for contractual purposes. The issue is not about whether there is a number of consenting students or adults to that contract. It is about the meaningful nature of a relationship and—to raise a separate issue—the conditions in which people live. It is important that we separate those issues out.
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It is legitimate to be concerned about whether there would be an effect on the supply of private rented property in any areas. My understanding of what happened in Scotland is that much of the difficulty related to the substantial costs of the registration process, and I welcome the fact that the Minister, in the debate about the money resolution, attempted to pre-empt some of the dangers of going down the same path that this legislation might present.
It is not necessarily the case that there would be a diminution of the market. Nottingham has been a prosperous city, and it is currently experiencing dynamic growth both in its economy and in the number of students who are coming to both of its universities. One of the things that has already begun to change is that, commercially, people have begun to understand that, with regard to some of the most wretched properties that are let to large groups of students, there is an opportunity for better market offers to be made.
Developers are currently about halfway through the construction of 7,000 new units of accommodation in the city centre, in converted properties or purpose-built flats complexes, which seek specifically to address lettings or sales to couples—or, probably, at most three people—who wish to share a property. That perceived market is partly founded on the belief that there will be large numbers of students who would prefer to share a decent flat than an indecently overcrowded house.
Therefore, with regard to Parliament's responsibilities, we must concern ourselves, not with the possibilities of growth in other parts of the market, but with the conditions of the properties that remain in the student-occupied and multiply occupied areas of our inner cities. We have a responsibility to hold with the current definition, because the local authorities desperately want us to do so, to make it possible to deliver a contractual relationship that will address the pockets of the worst housing poverty, which is a problem that most local authorities face. The vast majority of landlords welcome that change as an opportunity. They wish there to be a clear distinction between the decent landlords who offer decent conditions for their tenants, and those who simply exploit the vulnerability of tenants who have no other choices.
We must also understand that some of the terms used in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Billericay beg as many questions as they appear to answer. When I read them, a question immediately came to my mind with regard to people who are subject to more than one tenancy agreement. Have they had more than one tenancy agreement or are they currently involved in more than one tenancy agreement? Was the tenancy agreement made at the start of the letting? Is it a tenancy agreement that varies when someone leaves the property and someone else joins it? Is it a new tenancy agreement? If people start off in a relationship, but then fall out and agree to share the same property, will they be subject to a different tenancy agreement? If people fall in love and
Column Number: 108change the nature of their relationship, will that change the tenancy agreement? Such matters roll us down a path that is riddled with its own absurdities. It is extremely important that we, as a Committee, understand at what we should be directing our attention and at what we should not.
Mr. Baron: I shall take up two points, one of which concerns Scotland. The matter was not about the variation of licence fees, although, in many cases, that was great. It was a factor that resulted in the property stock in the private rented sector diminishing in size. However, different local authorities had different requirements and that often meant that great costs were incurred because of the application process. According to Unite—I have no reason to doubt its figures—in complying with Glasgow city council's requirements, which were different from other cities' requirements, its licence application cost it £10,000 in photocopying and administration costs. It is an issue not only of licence fees, but of the process of applying for registration.
I appreciate that I may be stepping slightly over the mark, but tenancy agreements would be the second-best option. The best option would be to leave matters as they are, but if we are to tinker with the definition of HMOs, it must be clear what a tenancy agreement involves. If someone leaves a house and a new person joins it, a new tenancy agreement must be introduced and signed by all parties, the effect of which would be that everyone would be jointly and severally liable and there is a sense of one community. If there were more than one tenancy agreement, different groups would operate and the property could legitimately be considered an HMO.
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