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Mr. Simpson: I am grateful to receive clarification from the hon. Gentleman on his second point. It reinforces my belief that we shall be taken right back into the mess over Barnes v. Sheffield and be unable to get out of that hole. I believe genuinely that the Minister is giving us the opportunity to get out of the hole and not jump into a similar one.
I accept the first point made by the hon. Member for Billericay. It was to be my concluding remark in response to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. We must view with caution the notion of a uniform structure that is imposed throughout the country. The hon. Member for Billericay emphasised one of the realities with which we shall be confronted, which is that different circumstances will face local authorities. To ensure that we do not bind ourselves into a one size, fit-all model with no flexibilities, it would help if the hon. Gentleman spoke to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire so that we do not deliver inflexibilities. It is important that they are pursued against the test of what works locally. In that context, the definition offered to us by the Government contains a balance of flexibilities and a way to move forward. They have set out the need to move on from the status quo.
We would be criticised by those outside the House if we did not move on from the straitjacket that Barnes v. Sheffield has imposed on us. I hope that the
Column Number: 109amendments are not accepted because, generally, they would be more of a hindrance than a help, even on the terms of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. I hope that we can maintain consensus in Committee by continuing to support Government amendments, and I hope that we have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown.
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): Considering that we are discussing amendment No. 51, which is a tightly defined amendment, it has been a wide-ranging debate, which has covered just about every issue that could arise in part 3.
The Chairman: Order. I am sure that you will not mind my pointing out that we are discussing more than amendment No. 51. It is grouped with several amendments, which are quite wide-ranging.
Dr. Turner: My apologies. I understood that new clause 7 was not yet under discussion.
The Chairman: It is.
Dr. Turner: That is fine, as that saves me from making two speeches. I am sure that the Committee will be grateful for that.
I would like to focus on definition, as that is the key question. We must concentrate on that definition; if we cannot define what we are registering, we will get a bit lost. I take issue with the hon. Member for Billericay, who is attempting to return to the existing status quo definition of single households. In light of the Barnes v. Sheffield decision, the status quo is not what was intended under the original legislation. This is a case in which the courts have made a law by precedent that Parliament did not intend to make.
That precedent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) pointed out, has made it extremely difficult for local authorities to take appropriate action with HMOs when there are real problems. They cannot do it because Barnes v. Sheffield has left a gaping hole in the law. In clause 5, we attempted to arrive at a new definition based on the family. I readily admit that there could be problems with that when it is put to the test. I am happy to accept new clause 7. Parliamentary counsel has done quite a good job. It has put a double lock on the matter. New clause 7 is based on the concept of the single household but defines what can be considered a single household. That is important. However, I ask the Minister for clarification.
I must take a measure of blame for the provisions because I suggested to officials in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that they should introduce the family criterion in association with the household criterion; otherwise, letting agencies would drive a coach and horses through HMO registration by making a collection of disparate people sign up to a tenancy agreement on the same day, although they were not a household with anything in common. That would undoubtedly happen. New clause 7 contains both a provision for the single household and a provision for the Secretary of State to determine what a single household is and what the relationships shall be.
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Mr. Baron: I have read the ratio decidendi of the Barnes v. Sheffield case. Will the hon. Gentleman explain his anxiety? It is clear that the tenants were happy and had not suffered injury. They had freely chosen to occupy the property and were happy in it. The landlords provided fire provisions. Why is he so unhappy with the Law Lords' decision in that case?
Dr. Turner: The decision may have made both tenants and landlords happy in those circumstances, but those circumstances are unusual. I find it difficult to imagine that tenants would be as happy in some of the HMOs in Brighton, for instance, where fire standards are not as the hon. Gentleman describes in that case. One example does not cover all circumstances. It is not possible to generalise from one example.
Mr. Baron: The case of Barnes v. Sheffield seems to have been mentioned a lot, but the hon. Gentleman now seems to accept that little was wrong with the case.
Dr. Turner: No.
Mr. Baron: What did the hon. Gentleman find wrong in the case of Barnes v. Sheffield? The tenants were perfectly happy, no injury had been caused, and fire provisions had been supplied. Having read the ratio decidendi, I understand that the case centred on whether structural work was necessary to create additional halls and lobbies in a house of modest size when adjacent, similar houses were not required to fulfil such requirements.
Dr. Turner: The decision makes it difficult to apply existing HMO regulations to a whole raft of housing stock, because a landlord can say that a property is occupied by a single household that is not a single household in any sense that the hon. Gentleman or I would understand. That is the difficulty, and that is why we need a better and more court-proof definition of HMO. I am not happy for definitions to be made by courts. I would much prefer that they were made by Parliament.
Mr. Alan Simpson: I suspect that my hon. Friend has partly answered my question. Does he agree that an important distinction is to be made between whether people are happy and whether they are covered by national regulations that give them rights? Happiness may be a nice criterion by which to judge life, but it is not one against which it is possible to measure the conditions in which people are being invited to live or the use to which properties are put. It is against such objective criteria that a national framework based on rights and responsibilities supersedes one determined by the happiness or unhappiness of the contracting parties.
Dr. Turner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is precisely what we are trying to achieve with the Bill. I have just been reminded that a Conservative student organisation, Conservative Future, strongly objects to any attempt to return to or retain the single household definition. It wants what we suggest, because that will be much clearer and will prevent attempts to avoid registration of what should be HMOs. I hope—it is not possible to guarantee anything once clever lawyers get to work—that it
Column Number: 111will provide clarity and that everyone will know where they stand. That is absolutely essential.
I shall not try to deal with all the points that have been made. They will be relevant to other clauses.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Billericay relate to the clause as drafted. I shall ask my colleagues to oppose the question that the clause stand part of the Bill so that we may substitute new clause 7, which would negate the amendments. The hon. Gentleman would have to pursue his amendment (a) to new clause 7, which would have nearly the same effect. I raise that as a procedural point.
I am advocating the new definition, but I would like the Minister to give the clearest indication that he can of the nature of the prescribed relationships that would be accepted as single households. Are we including married couples, men and women living together in established partnerships, same-sex partnerships and other arrangements? That must be spelled out, and it must be sensible and sensitive.
I wish to raise one other important point. Clause 5 changes section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 and inserts into it lists of properties that would, without being specifically exempted, clearly fall within the HMO definitions. Hospitals, nursing homes and so on were originally classed as subject to exemption on the basis that they were already covered by other schemes of regulation, which we would not wish to duplicate. I ask the Minister to give some clarification about his intentions in new clause 7, which says:
With those important considerations, which I would like the Minister to address, I am happy with new clause.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have certainly had a wide-ranging, interesting and reflective debate, made memorable by the fact that the hon. Member for Billericay contrived to make not just one speech in presenting his amendment but, by my count, seven speeches by way of lengthy interventions. That is a new parliamentary device, in which he shows great skill.
The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point. There is no question that this is a difficult area. Everyone wants to get it right, although we may not agree about exactly what is right. This is not a great ideological issue, nor do I think that it should be, but we must find the right balance. The hon. Member for Billericay does not think that we have and seeks to remove the definition in clause 5, in which an HMO is
and to reinstate the definition from the Housing Act 1985, in which an HMO is
The reason for that is that he believes that the definition in the Bill will lead to a lot of landlords,
Column Number: 112including reputable ones, deciding to withdraw the rented accommodation that they currently offer. [Interruption.] I know exactly how my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown feels when his alarm goes off.
I argue against that on two grounds. First, the allegation of the hon. Member for Billericay about the consequences is based on the acceptance of clause 5. However, the Government do not propose to do that. Instead we have introduced new clause 7, which is rather different. Secondly, he said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West, on moving away from the status quo, that there is nothing wrong with the status quo and that one must give good reasons for moving away from it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West and for Nottingham, South gave, in passionate and well-argued speeches, the grounds for doing that. We are left with Barnes v. Sheffield City Council. The riposte of the hon. Member for Billericay is to ask what is wrong with Barnes v. Sheffield City Council. He rightly says that it was a fair decision on the particular facts of the case, but I answer that that does not provide a proper basis for dealing with HMOs generally. It would involve close inquiry into the living arrangements in each case, which is not a satisfactory basis for making law. If we stick with Barnes v. Sheffield City Council, there is a risk in examples, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South gave, of fictitious relationships being pretended to achieve a certain contractual condition.
There is a case for moving on, but the problem is how to do that. That is where the difficulties start. Our proposals on HMO licensing suggested a definition based on family. To some degree, we are moving back in the direction of the hon. Member for Billericay. We suggested that because of the difficulties that many local authorities and landlords have faced over the interpretation of the current definition.
However, considering the drafting of the Bill in preparation for Committee, we encountered several difficulties with that approach. We are not in a position to produce a satisfactory family-based definition in time that could work within the restrictions placed on us by the current regime as set out in part 11 of the 1985 Act. In other words, this is a private Member's Bill that does not deal with the much wider context in which the Government propose to introduce their legislation. We are constrained and have found it difficult within the constraints to devise a watertight definition that returns to family and family relationships as its key point.
We therefore propose to continue to use a definition based on household, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but, importantly, and in recognition of the problems produced by the current definition, seek to improve on it. We propose to provide the Secretary of State with powers to prescribe what shall be regarded as a house, when someone shall be regarded as occupying a house and where persons shall be regarded as forming a single household. I shall speak about that further when I examine new clause 7.
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Amendment No. 52 and amendment (a) to new clause 7 seek to base a definition on tenancy. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South made quite a withering attack on that proposal. I can understand my hon. Friend's desire to address the current difficulties with the definition of an HMO. As I have said, new clause 7 will allow a much clearer definition of HMO, which I hope will satisfy him.
I acknowledge that the current definition has allowed uncertainty regarding what constitutes a household. We are aware of the concern about whether a house shared by students should be judged to be an HMO. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raised a point about purpose-built private student accommodation. That will fall outside the definition of an HMO, assuming that it is self-contained and complies with building regulations, which will be made clear through regulations.
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