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Mr. Meacher: I am happy to respond in terms of sympathetic consideration. I acknowledge the problem, but the solutions proposed by the hon. Member for South Norfolk are not appropriate, and I will say why.

The amendments seek to give additional rights to landlords faced with costs in excess of half the annual rental income of their property. That is a serious issue. The hon. Gentleman proposes that such landlords have the right to convert their property back to single occupancy, on the basis that planning permission will be granted—that is the stronger case, as the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said—or that there will be a presumption that planning permission will be granted, which is the weaker case. My ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions would not support a presumption in primary legislation or a policy that planning permission would be granted in such circumstances.

Where an applicant requires planning permission to convert an HMO to single occupancy, the local planning authority must consider the application in accordance with the development plan for the area, having regard to national planning policy guidelines and any other material considerations. If permission is refused, the applicant has the right of appeal to the Secretary of State. I recognise that there is a problem. There is another way of dealing with the matter. We are well aware of the need to balance the health and safety of occupants of HMOs with the need not to require excessive works. The standard that we shall prescribe will endeavour to balance those two factors. We would expect local authorities to act reasonably in enforcing requirements to undertake certain steps. In particular, they should prioritise the steps on a risk assessment basis and require only essential health and safety works to be undertaken before granting registration. We would expect other, less significant, steps to be carried out within a reasonable period following registration with the proviso that the continued registration of the HMO was subject to the carrying out of the works within that period.

If a landlord is concerned that the conditions of registration, including any requirement to undertake steps to render the house suitable for occupation, are unreasonable, he will have a right of appeal to the county court.

I hope that that satisfies the hon. Member for South Norfolk that the problem is recognised. We believe that it can be resolved in the way that I have indicated, but we cannot accept his proposal and I would ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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Mr. Bacon: It does not surprise me that the Minister's colleagues are unable to accept a plan to create these changes to planning law. It is part of my purpose during my parliamentary career to drive a coach and horses through English planning law, but I accept that this is not necessarily the right place in which to do it. The Minister mentioned development plans. I have a healthy suspicion of development plans because we have, on the borders of my constituency, the new Norfolk and Norwich university hospital, now the nation's largest PFI hospital. The Government managed to spend £229 million of public money on that without ensuring, despite all the expert planners who were on hand, that there was a road so that patients and people who work there could get to the hospital. That was in apparent defiance of every planning policy guideline that I have been able to read on the internet. In light of what the Minister has said about his recognition that there is a serious concern, and in particular because he has stressed that only essential health and safety requirements will be required to be met before a licence is granted, I beg, albeit with reluctance, to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Control provisions—

    '(1) Section 348 of the Housing Act 1985 (control provisions: decisions on applications and appeals) is amended as follows.

    (2) In paragraph (c) of subsection (1)—

    (a) for ''works'' there is substituted ''steps'', and

    (b) for ''executed'' there is substituted ''taken''.

    (3) After that subsection there is inserted—

    ''(1A) A house is not to be regarded as suitable for such occupation as would be permitted if the application were granted unless it meets such standards as may be prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

    (1B) The standards that may be prescribed in the regulations include—

    (a) safety standards,

    (b) energy efficiency standards, and

    (c) standards relating to the fixtures, fittings and furnishings in the house.

    (1C) The Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing what matters are to be taken into account in determining whether a standard of a prescribed description has been met.

    (1D) Any power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''.

    (4) In subsections (2)(b) and (3)(b), for ''execution of works'' there is substituted ''taking of steps''.

    (5) In section 348A of the Housing Act 1985(1)(b) (control provisions: other decisions and appeals), for ''works are executed'' there is substituted ''steps are taken''.'

Mr. Meacher: Clause 7(1) is not needed because new clause 2 provides that the new clause that it proposes must be brought into effect within two months of Royal Assent. That means that there is a guaranteed timetable for the introduction of registration. We still hope to introduce full HMO licensing proposals next year but, if we cannot, licensing under another name will take effect

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automatically, in the form of a mandatory extension of the current voluntary system of HMO registration ''with control provisions'', with the improvements achieved by or under the Bill.

Clause 7(2) is also no longer needed because new clause 4 will enable the Secretary of State to prescribe standards that must be met if registration is to be granted. That will be done under new subsections (lA) to (1D) inserted into section 348 of the Housing Act 1985. We intend to use the power to produce exactly the same result as clause 7(2) would have done—in particular to ensure that energy efficiency targets are met and that adequate fire and other safety standards are upheld. It would be undesirable to try to make detailed provision in the Bill—for instance about gas and electricity certificates—given that the latter do not exist in the same way that the former do. There is also scope to deal with issues other than just safety and energy efficiency in relation to furnishings, fixtures and fittings. That is, in part, a response to concerns about the security of occupants' possessions in HMOs.

The effect of new clause 4 is to amend section 348 of the 1985 Act to enable the Secretary of State to make regulations, to prescribe safety and energy efficiency standards, and to insist that those standards are met satisfactorily as a condition of registration. Local authorities will be able to insist that required works are executed satisfactorily.

Mr. Sayeed: I wish to make one very short contribution. Will the Minister explain why proposed new subsection 3(1B) of new clause 4 states that the

    ''standards that may be prescribed in the regulations include safety standards, energy efficiency standards, and standards relating to the fixtures, fittings and furnishings in the house.''?

Can he explain why ''may'' appears, rather than ''will''?

Mr. Meacher: Again, it would be wise for me to consult those who drafted the Bill. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point perfectly well. He wants to ensure that important safety, energy efficiency and other standards ''shall'', rather than ''may'', be prescribed in the regulations. I understand the point, but I would like to consult other hon. Members. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will get an answer.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 7 disagreed to.

Clause 8

Houses not treated as registrable

Dr. Cable: I beg to move amendment No. 57, in page 4, line 34, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

I would like to take advantage of the ruling of your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Cummings, according to which, although clause 8 is to be removed from the Bill, we are still able to use the debate on this amendment to it to discuss the terms of the threshold of registration of HMOs.

The Minister will set that threshold through guidelines, and he has already said that he regards the existing threshold in the Bill as a good candidate

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for inclusion. I suggest that there is a wider definition of the registration threshold that would make a better candidate. The current threshold, as defined in the Bill, is rather narrow. It is a two-prong definition, requiring that a property, to be registered, should have three storeys or more, and that it should also house five adults or more. There are many HMOs that may be at risk, have three storeys or more, but house fewer than five adults. Such households may comprise three or four adults and many children.

There may also be HMOs that have vulnerable residents, are at risk of fire and house five adults or more, but have fewer than three storeys. That is the typical pattern in my constituency. In most suburban areas, as opposed to inner-city areas, there are not many three-storey buildings. A typical Twickenham HMO would have a row of shops with one storey above it and would comprise two or three rooms, with students and others passing through. Many such HMOs would be subject to the same fire risks as a typical HMO in a city like Brighton or central London, but would not be covered by the guidelines, as defined in the Bill. Therefore, we must consider splitting the two definitions.

7.15 pm

The reasoning behind that has already been covered and I do not need to go into it in detail. The hon. Member for Billericay has already spoken about the three-storey qualification and given several examples from the 1997 fire risk assessment. There is clear evidence that fire death rates increase dramatically above two storeys, as evidenced by the fact that 52 per cent. of HMO fire deaths occurred in buildings with three storeys or more, but only 16.5 per cent of households actually live in such buildings. The hon. Gentleman did not say that households that contain five or more adults are vulnerable whether or not the house has three storeys. Again, I can quote from the same study by the Department, which explicitly states:

    ''HMOs which provide accommodation for highly vulnerable persons, large numbers of people or exhibit a special risk . . . also present a relatively high risk. This is regardless of the number of storeys and whether the building is purpose-built for this occupancy or not.''

It continues:

    ''Certain two-storey HMOs present a high risk, particularly bedsits and homes for vulnerable persons. 48 per cent. of all HMO fire deaths occur in buildings of 1 or 2 storeys.''

I recognise that situation from my constituency and it reflects the way in which the property market has developed.

I ask the Minister to widen the definition. By all means, let us take the numbers that have been given because there must be a cut-off, which will obviously be arbitrary. The three-storey definition seems sensible, as does the definition of three adults, so why can we not use either/or, rather than and, as the basis for defining the threshold? That would take in more properties. No doubt the objection will be raised that the greater the number of properties that are included, the wider the compliance costs will be spread. However, from the point of view of the local authorities who will operate the system, the set-up costs are crucial, and taking into account more

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properties, especially if they are at risk, would seem to be an obvious precaution. Will the Minister say whether he is willing to entertain a broader definition, covering a wider range of properties, which his Department's studies suggest are at risk?

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