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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): We have had a very interesting debate and, with the exception of the two Opposition Front-Bench representatives, the majority of Members have spoken of what they favour in the Bill, where they would like to strengthen it and what they would like to add. I hope that the Minister will listen to what has been said on both sides. Several common messages have been strongly delivered.
I want to speak in particular about the Bill's provisions on houses in multiple occupation. The 1997 Labour manifesto on which I stood contained a commitment to implement selective licensing of private landlords. I regret the delay in enacting that pledge. Much damage has been done in the time that the Government have taken to formulate their proposals. However, in return we have a good Bill before us. It is not all that some have hoped for, but it is a vital step and perhaps as much as could be expected.
Before turning to the Bill's substance, I shall take a few moments to describe why the licensing of HMOs is so important in my constituency. Two wards in Cardiff, CentralCathays and Plasnewyddhave experienced serious difficulties in the past decade because of a large increase in student numbers at the adjacent universities. With no serious expansion of student accommodation, there has been a resulting growth in private landlords providing short-term accommodation. Absentee landlords have replaced owner-occupiers as family households have moved out of the area.
The market has been unregulated, and as the consumers have little memorythey change every yearmarket mechanisms do not work. Irresponsible behaviour among some landlords has contributed to a significant physical decline in the neighbourhood. That has been bad for the students who have had to cope with some deposits not being returned, and on that I echo what many Members have said, including my hon.
As well as substandard and cramped housing suffered by students, things have been especially bad for permanent local residents who have seen their neighbourhoods transformed by landlords who do not take good care of the properties and students who are there only part of the year. Many now feel like strangers in their own locality, where they may have lived all their lives. National Union of Students research shows that 50 per cent. of students living in shared accommodation report repairs that need to be done to the house, but by the time they have discovered a problem and pressed for it to be dealt with, they are often coming to the end of their tenancy and the problem is therefore not dealt with.
The process also has knock-on effects for local services: schools have fewer and fewer pupils and eventually close, general practitioners move their practices elsewhere and bus routes become less popular and are closed. The character of entire communities has been transformed. Mine is not an isolated examplecomparable university towns and cities have experienced similar problems. Over the next few weeks, we will vote on rather controversial proposals on higher education funding. It would be an extraordinary failure of joined-up Government if we were to expand student numbers only to blight the areas around universities and condemn new students to substandard accommodation. I hope that the Bill will ensure that that is not the case.
Two proposals in the Bill address some of the problems I have outlined. The first is the mandatory licensing of HMOs. At the moment, the notes to the Bill foresee the Government having a national scheme only for properties with five or more occupants and three or more storeys. I understand the Government's reasons for doing that. It would be odd to force licensing on areas with no problems or even a shortage of HMOs in even the smallest properties. I note, however, that that goes against the recommendations of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, and it may be a subject to which the Government will wish to return in future.
The scheme will apply to only a minority of HMOs in my constituency. NUS research has shown that 75 per cent. of students live in buildings with two storeys and 50 per cent. in groups of four or fewer. It is also not impossible to imagine bad landlords switching their holding to smaller properties to escape the measure, something which would bring no comfort to my constituents. This provision is therefore not enough to deal with the problems in Cardiff and many other cities.
The second proposal in the Bill that deals with HMOs is the selective licensing for private landlords, whichas I mentioned earlierhas long been a manifesto commitment. Initially, the provision was designed to deal with the problems of antisocial behaviour in areas of low demand. However, the Bill now says:
It is important that Ministers listen to local authorities on the issue. It would create enormous bad feeling if both residents and councils believed that a serious problem existed, but were prevented from taking effective action by the Government. It is important to note that in areas such as mine there would be very little danger of displacementbad landlords moving short distances to avoid the selective licensingbecause there are huge differences in demand for, and quality of, accommodation a very short distance from the university.
If implemented properly, the Bill has the power to address several of the most fractious problems in parts of my constituency. Many people have waited a long time for the Bill. The last big expansion in student numbers occurred chaotically, often transforming neighbourhoods for the worse. With this Bill, let us hope that the next expansion, however it is funded, is managed more effectively and protects and enriches our communities rather than destroying them.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): I apologise to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for my absence during his contribution to the debate. I was attending a Select Committee meeting, but I have otherwise been present for the whole debate.
I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Traveller law reform, which is one of the more recent additions to the list. In active partnership with the Traveller Law Reform Coalition, the group has already had a major impact on articulating and addressing the concerns of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
The all-party group and the Gypsy and Traveller community are indebted to the Government for the readiness with which Ministers were prepared to listen to our concerns. I welcome the intention of the Housing Bill to help the most vulnerable tenants in the private sector and strengthen the Government's drive to meet the 2010 "decent homes for all" target. In particular, I welcome attempts to crack down on landlords, tenants and companies profiteering from the council house sales system. One of the greatest priorities of any Government committed to social justice and equality is to ensure that everyone has the right to decent accommodation.
I fear, however, that one ethnic groupthe Gypsy and Traveller communityis being left ever further behind. Lest I appear to be too dissatisfied, I should make it clear that I welcome the fact that the disabled facilities grant will be extended to cover caravan dwellers. The Government accepted the argument and included the change in the Bill, and that covers a major area of concern for the Gypsy and Traveller community.
In 1994, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Labour Opposition at the time opposed the Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), then shadow spokesman on home affairs, said that
It is time that the Government addressed the issue of Traveller accommodation. Such action would bring benefits to both Travellers and non-Travellers. It would contribute significantly to ending the spiral of hatred in which the Traveller community exists. We had an example of that in Lewes at the turn of the year, and a fracas took place in Coventry today over issues that willI hopebe resolved satisfactorily. In any case, it is certain that the additional pressures placed on the Traveller communityincluding the increased demand for settlements and the use of unauthorised pitchesare causing trouble.
My colleagues in the all-party group and I perceive action by the Government as presenting a win-win situation for Travellers and non-Travellers alike. An ever-growing body of opinion has called on the Government to address Traveller accommodation needs. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned research, and a report by Pat Niner, entitled "The Provision and Condition of Local Authority Gypsy/Traveller Sites in England" and published in 2003, noted the strength of opinion that exists. She stated:
I am pleased to report that the Committee that considered the draft Housing Bill, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), recommended that the Government introduce a new statutory duty to provide or facilitate sites for Gypsies and Travellers. I regret that it is missing from the Bill.
Rather than reciting a wish list, I shall highlight two steps that the Government should take now. The first, as I have mentioned, is to create a duty on local authorities to provide and facilitate Traveller sites. The second is to legislate to enable Housing Corporation funds to be used for the construction of Traveller sites. That would create a positive opportunity to overcome a major social problem.
I shall conclude by reading a passage from a letter sent by the Commission for Racial Equality to the official in charge of the draft Housing Bill on 9 June 2003, expressing disappointment that the Bill made no reference to the accommodation of the Gypsy and Traveller community. It stated:
Gypsies and Irish Travellers are defined as racial groups under the Race Relations Act, and by excluding Gypsies and Travellers from a piece of legislation which aims to provide decent homes for all ethnic groups in the settled community, the ODPM risks failing to promote equality of opportunity or to adequately address potential racial discrimination. Further good race relations are unlikely to be promoted if improvements are seen to be offered to certain groups, excluding others."
Finally, I want to make specific reference to my constituency. Many of my hon. Friends have described the problems of university accommodation, such as the fact that terraced houses of less than three storeys are not included in the Bill's provisions. My hon. Friends referred to the infamous habits of private landlords who buy up cheap council housing and do not care what their tenants do, allowing drug addicts and others to operate from those houses. I welcome the fact that the Bill will deal with that problemat least I hope that it will.
There are real problems with HMOs: first, in respect of a few students who on some occasions, sadly, can be a social nuisance, although they are not the majority; and, secondly, on the maintenance of proper standards in those houses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) pointed out, the provisions should be extended to cover any house in multiple occupation. The Government are drawing a false distinction. Many problems exist in old, terraced houses that were shoved up as an outcome of the industrial revolution, and they must be tackled.