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6.12 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and to say at the outset that unlike the other two Opposition parties who will vote on this Bill tonight, I and my colleagues will support a Second Reading. We share some of the concerns that have been mentioned on the Labour Benches, however, about what is not included in the Bill, and about how the Bill could be strengthened.

It would be churlish of me not to support the Bill, because in two regards—with regard to licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the right to buy—it is very similar to the private Member's Bill on housing in Wales that I introduced in the 2001–02 Session, which I am sure the Minister took time to read before introducing his Bill. The one thing that I am sure my Bill and the Minister's Bill shared, however, was an in-depth consultation with housing professionals in Wales. I was very grateful to the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Council of Mortgage Lenders for their help with my Bill. What I tried to achieve in my Bill reflected what the housing professionals and housing interests thought would be good for the housing market and for the provision of social and affordable housing in Wales. That is why some aspects of the Bill reflect similar aims and ambitions, which I welcome very much.

Briefly, I want to put the Bill in the context of my constituents' concerns, as they will ask me what the Bill will do to make it easier for them to find more affordable homes or to find social housing. The situation with regard to social housing and affordable homes in rural areas is particularly difficult at the moment. For example, the latest figures that I can find for average weekly earnings in Ceredigion would add up to an annual income of £19,000 a year as at April last year. If the Cheltenham and Gloucester affordability index is used, however, an annual income of £22,000 would have been needed for a terrace house in Ceredigion, so a gap already existed one year ago. I suggest that the average income in Ceredigion may have gone up by 3 or 4 per cent. in the intervening time. House costs, however, have gone up by 40 per cent.

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That is the crisis now being faced in rural areas. Right-to-buy homes have gone, apart from those protected by legislation in some rural villages. In many areas, particularly in coastal districts, no social housing at all is available for local people, and the cost of homes has gone way out of the range of people's ability to buy. In addition, the private sector in Ceredigion is appalling—it is among the worst in Wales. For example, it has the highest percentage of overcrowded households, and 24 per cent. of private rented homes in Ceredigion are unfit dwellings. That is a large-scale problem in the context of Wales, which is why I want to reflect on the Bill and on what tools it will allow us to use to deal with that.

First, in most regards, the Bill devolves many powers to the National Assembly, which is to be welcomed. In particular, if we look at the purposes of the licensing system for HMOs, we realise that many Labour Members who have expressed doubts about definitions in relation to two storeys or three storeys, or four persons or five persons, may be interested to know that, as I read the Bill, devolution means that the National Assembly will define an HMO in Wales and how the licensing process will apply in Wales. In that regard, I have much sympathy with what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) said. In the English context, local authorities should perhaps have a little more power to decide on these matters. In Wales, however, we certainly need such powers, as these are real problems.

The Minister said that the Bill is selective about the licensing of HMOs because he wants to address priority areas. If we look at those priority areas, we see that 52 per cent. of fire deaths in HMOs occur in buildings that are three or more storeys high, and that a tenant living in a bedsit house of three or more storeys is 17 times more likely to be killed in a fire than an adult living in a similar single occupancy house. The link is therefore with storeys and the escape facilities in those homes, not with the numbers of people. That aspect needs to be examined in detail in Committee, and I hope that the National Assembly will use the powers in the Bill to develop a scheme that reflects more closely the needs of Wales.

In that regard, there may be good news, as the Assembly has indicated that it believes that between 32,000 and 40,000 properties will be subject to licensing provisions in Wales. Given that it is estimated that there are 72,000 properties in the private rented sector as a whole, Members can see that the Assembly intends to license a greater proportion of the private rented sector in Wales than the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister believes will be licensed in England. That difference may be of interest to English Members when they look at the details.

I must admit that I am fairly neutral about home information packs, but there are obvious advantages with a system that puts up-front costs on the purchaser in relation to speculative searches on a home in which he or she is interested. I agree very much with some of the comments about having a long run-in period and encouraging voluntary schemes in the meantime. The letters that I have received from estate agents in Bristol, for example, where the scheme was trialled, have been positive. The evidence given to the Select Committee was also positive in that regard. There is a lot of

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confusion, fear and distrust in relation to a new system, but I see the potential of a much-simplified system. In that regard, I disagree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. The law in Scotland is very different, and there was no Scottish Member in the Chamber to put him right on that. I assure him, however, that the situation there is very different from that in England and Wales. We can be rightly open-minded, and I have no problem with interfering in the market if it enables people to enter a market from which they would otherwise be excluded, which is the key socialist principle that we should consider in this sort of Bill.

Another aspect that we need to examine in detail is the right to buy. My Bill would have changed the right to buy to the right to acquire throughout Wales—the provisions that applied to registered social landlords would also apply to council housing. This Bill does not do that. Can the Minister or the Under-Secretary address in the wind-up what element of devolution the National Assembly will have in the Bill? Will the Assembly have control over the right to buy in Wales, or will that be controlled by this Bill and previous housing measures? According to my interpretation, past housing measures control the legal aspect, and the Assembly's hands will, to an extent, be tied.

Perhaps the Minister could be a little more generous to the Assembly. As I pointed out in an intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, it has already used the social housing grant innovatively. Much of the grant is currently being used to support the private bought sector through the home-buy scheme, which encourages people to buy their homes in part-equity with the Assembly, a local authority or a registered social landlord. The scheme relates to privately built dwellings and to private persons who will sell them on. Any such dwelling will be eligible in Wales. We are talking about the open market rather than the social market here, and that use of a social housing grant to support aspects of the open market is as far as I would want to go; but the Bill gives the Assembly and local authorities powers to go further. It is a choice that they must make.

I think that the introduction of a social housing ombudsman for Wales is a reasonable, indeed a vital step. I understand that the job will be done by a local commissioner. We are currently examining the whole issue of ombudsmen and commissioners in Wales, and the provision will help to clarify their roles.

What is missing from the Bill? I agree with what has been said so far about the tenants deposit scheme. Shelter Cymru has estimated that tenants have been robbed of as much as £40 million by landlords through deposits in unregulated accounts. There are some innovative voluntary schemes, including the Ceredigion bond scheme, which is working very well. Landlords and tenants form a voluntary partnership. Nevertheless, nothing in my experience of that scheme suggests to me that a compulsory or statutory scheme would not work: indeed, all I have seen in my constituency suggests to me that we need such a scheme.

Finally, I think we should strengthen the Assembly's ability to control second homes in Wales. That may not be a priority in the Bill, but it should be borne in mind

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that in parts of Wales 30 or 40 per cent. of homes are second homes. The Assembly should be able to take more specific action to deal with planning aspects.

On the whole the Bill is at least a step in the right direction, and I shall therefore support it.

6.22 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the Bill, which deals with historical problems in the operation of the housing market in different parts of the country. It deals with problems in areas of low demand, especially in the north, by introducing selective licensing; it deals with problems in areas of high demand, mostly in the south, by reforming the right to buy. The introduction of the seller's pack will be particularly important in areas such as mine, where a lot of new housing is to be built.

The Government are also right—and it is in this regard that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was so wrong—to try to influence the housing market by dealing with such matters as regulation, selective licensing and the right to buy. They have taken account of factors that affect the way in which an area is perceived, and the value of properties in that area.

What does not feature in the Bill is the problem of overcrowding, which—as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows—I have raised before. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is not possible to write the necessary standards into the Bill at this stage—that would make it unworkable—but I believe that it must be right that we work towards a standard that is more appropriate to the modern day and age. I believe that we must introduce a power in the Bill to upgrade the standards to something that is better than those introduced in 1935, which even then were widely recognised as being inadequate.

The problem is also that the 1935 standards are in existing primary legislation, so it requires primary legislation to change them. While it is not possible to do that in this Bill, I do not think that those standards should be left to serve as a safety net beneath the new housing health and safety rating system. I fear that in the absence of any other standards, and any experience of implementing a new system—which, in other contexts, might work quite well—people will fall back on statutory standards that are entirely inadequate. On occasion local authorities have introduced their own schemes and improved the position, but have then had to fall back on statutory standards. That is part of the reason for our present problem.

There was a time, when I was first in local government, when a young couple could obtain a one-bedroom flat when they were setting up home or having their first baby. When the second or even the third child came along, they would still be in the one-bedroom flat with no prospect of moving; and they would see the two or three-bedroom house that they had always wanted go to a family exactly the same size as theirs, or perhaps smaller, who had been on the homeless list. That produced a sense of unfairness, and tensions between people who wanted transfers and people who were homeless. It also meant that social housing capped some people's aspirations: they came to see it as dead-end housing.

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I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), for instance, has had very different experiences. For her and for others, the problem of overcrowding relates to large families. In my constituency, however, it is usually young couples with one or two children—sometimes more—who are trapped in one-bedroom flats with no prospect of being able to improve their circumstances. That is especially true now, when prices are high and prevent them from moving from council flats to their own homes, which used to be possible in Northampton.

My constituency is suburban. When I was going around it recently, I was called in to see a young couple who had a child of their own, and also had one partner's eldest daughter living with them. She was a teenager with behavioural difficulties. The family lived in a one-bedroom flat, which was intolerable for all of them. The wife was near collapse, and there was totally inadequate space for a difficult teenager and a young toddler who was starting to explore. The present standards do not provide for people like that. It is appalling that there is no possibility of moving for that family.

The statutory standards are not, in fact, a safety net, because they are too low. It is wrong to expect people to sleep in kitchens. Families should have sitting rooms. Husbands and wives should not be expected to sleep in separate rooms to meet the gender segregation standards.

In one respect, the Bill makes the present situation slightly worse. Clause 115(2)(a) states that for the purposes of subsection (1)(b), which relates to gender segregation,

That seems a bit odd. Does it mean what I think it means—that those young people will be discounted in HMOs, which often contain vulnerable people in unstable units? That could have a considerable impact on safety standards, and on the number of teenage pregnancies. It is inconsistent because in the statutory standards the age for gender segregation is 10, not 12. At the very least, those should be aligned.

There is the expectation that, by increasing housing stock, the problem of overcrowding will be resolved. I do not think that it will. I think that there will always be an issue about the allocation of housing stock. We have to legislate to protect future generations. I would hate to think that in 70 years' time people will still be sitting around waiting for those standards to be improved. Given that this is a historic Bill and that it will set standards in housing, including public housing, for many years, it is important that, even if it cannot set a proper overcrowding standard, it at least starts the process by which that historic wrong can be put right; otherwise, it is very strong and important legislation.

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