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8.11 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): The House will wait until Report to see how far the proposals made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) are incorporated in the Bill. There are arguments on both sides in relation to a significant number of issues. We certainly know from the home care standards legislation that going too far too fast has caused chaos in a large number of charity-provided and commercially provided care homes.

Worthing has the highest proportion of retired people in the country and nearly the highest proportion of people who work in and are served by residential homes, especially those provided by the ex-service associations for people with particular needs. We know that if legislation goes too far too fast, people suffer. It is also right, however, to have rising expectations of standards that will be met. That is why the argument about the number of floors and people is well worth discussing in Committee, even if I am not there to participate.

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I am a charitable trustee of homes for the elderly, but I have no objection to those who provide homes commercially. I have also experienced owning a house in multiple occupation next door to the one in which my wife and I were living. We have seen some of the advantages and disadvantages of legislation. On the whole, I like to believe that we raise standards every 10 or 20 years. It is certainly right to raise standards on fuel efficiency so that fuel poverty becomes a thing of the past. It is also right to raise standards of safety. No hon. Member who has experienced the devastating effect of a fire in his constituency and the death of children whose parents have tried to save them would turn his back on the greater advantages of hard-wired fire-safety warnings.

In terms of heating, in my former constituency of Eltham, entire blocks that were built with public money and run by public authorities were in effect wind tunnels into which tenants or prospective tenants in greatest need and with the least income were put. It cost them more than £20 a week to be cold. When it was possible to get the buildings clad and better heating systems installed, they spent £5 a week to be warm. Anyone who doubts the value of the campaigns in this House and outside—I speak also as a rather inadequate officer of the all-party homelessness group—need only go into the home of a person on a relatively low income who spends a relatively low proportion of that income on heating to understand how it is possible to reduce the number of excess deaths in winter.

We should consider whether social landlords, housing associations or councils that still have large housing stock should be required to give a condition survey and report to those who are offered tenancies. It is no good saying to prospective tenants who are homeless or in great housing need that they should take the first offer that is made. The council or the landlord may have offered that home to several other people who have all taken their chance of saying no because its condition is inadequate. Why should that be hidden so that the person with the fewest options takes the place that has been turned down by the most people and has the worst experience living there?

In the same way, if I were to sell my privately owned house—subject to the consent of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley)—I would have to declare my experience with the neighbours. Were I getting trouble from my neighbours, which I am not, I would have to declare that. Why is it possible for a registered landlord or council to make an offer to someone in critical housing need and not tell them that the previous tenant and the one before were allowed to move because of the unacceptable and intolerable behaviour of someone living above, below or on one side of the property? We should increasingly ensure that the same tests exist for those who are tenants or who will be tenants of councils and registered social landlords, so that important information in a market of housing—whether it is a social market or a more enterprising market—is available, and the same standards are expected.

I could take up many issues, but I want to revert to what happened when I first became a Member of Parliament and the years after that. I was elected in 1975. There was a change of national Government after four years and the Conservative party, perhaps without

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knowing where it intended to go, moved—stumbled is not quite the right word—into the right-to-buy business. That business has allowed 2 million families and their successors—so by now it is probably 3 million families—to be independent. Self-determination is important. People should not have to go to a landlord and say, "I want a spare room for my granny or someone I care about, or for my model railway set". It should not be necessary to have to go to a landlord and say, "I want to come down to live in Worthing because I have no more reason to live in one of the large cities." That freedom of movement and self-determination reflect the value of autonomy. I am a great believer in social interaction and solidarity. I am also a great believer in people being able to make choices for themselves, and right to buy has helped that.

I challenge those who argue that in areas of housing stress, where more people are applying for homes from a social landlord or a council, the right to buy should be restricted. Take Peckham, for example. In the late 1970s, more than 85 per cent. of the homes in most of its areas were owned by the local councils—the Greater London council and the borough council. They did not need more social housing; they needed less social housing. They needed a mixture so that those with get up and go could get up and stay rather than get up and leave. We should be careful about taking a still photograph; we should take a moving picture so that we know how people move into and out of housing need.

I like to believe that when my party comes back into service in national Government it will restore an impetus to the right to buy and restore the discounts that the Government are restricting. The right to buy is good. The fact that someone manages to get social housing or needs to get social housing aged 18, 28, 38 or 48 should not mean that 10 or 20 years later, when their circumstances have changed, they are stuck.

Ms Oona King: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the main problem with right to buy is that it pits two of the most vulnerable groups against each other? It pits those who cannot afford to rent or buy on the private market against those who are homeless. That was precisely the choice in Tower Hamlets. Surely someone with his background could not possibly agree to extending and continuing the abuse that led to that situation.

Peter Bottomley: One reason why I shall probably not be a success in my chosen way of life is that I thought that that was exactly what I was arguing. There is a good case to make that anyone who has been a social tenant should not have to pay rent after 20 years because presumably the reason they are still a social tenant is that they cannot afford to pay the rent. Once people get to retirement age, many of them are on housing benefit, and it would probably be simpler for housing providers to say, "Here's the property, and we'll go on looking after the maintenance." How do most of us get our chance to become independent in housing? We get it through inheritance or because our earnings change. I do not want to get into the family life cycle or opportunities and income now; perhaps we could discuss that in another debate.

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I want to make one last point that is often forgotten. It has been said that same-sex relationships should be treated in the same way as heterosexual relationships. What about siblings? Why, for inheritance tax or pension provision, do we say that a sexual or near-sexual relationship matters more than connections of chance, such as having the same parents? Why should pension provision exclude brothers and sisters who have been living together, supporting each other? Why do I even have to ask the Minister whether the provisions in clause 165 will have the same beneficial impact on a brother and sister living together as on a same-sex couple? If the answer is that siblings are covered, I am pleased, but we ought to be clear that relationships within a family are as important as those in which people from separate families choose to live together.

I want to let others speak, so I shall not use all my time. I simply want to say that over the 28 years I have been here we have acquired a greater sense of reality. We have achieved a great deal but, to put it bluntly, we will still be stuck with problems if we can have a debate such as this while ignoring the fact that house values have been going up by 10 or 15 per cent. a year for each of the last six or seven years, which has a massive impact on all that we are trying to achieve. We also need to understand that many more people will inherit homes, and the division between the haves and have-nots in housing is growing more than it ought. We should not have over half the value of a home in the land value—that is another set of problems.

8.22 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I broadly welcome most of the measures in the Bill; indeed, I warmly welcome the arrangements for the mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation and the discretionary licensing powers to be given to local authorities. However, owing to the complexity and subjective nature of the assessment process, some of these measures will be difficult to enforce. Also, because the Bill's implementation will depend heavily on the expertise and commitment of local authorities, there will undoubtedly be a wide variation in the level of success achieved in different areas.

Nevertheless, overall the Bill provides local authorities with a number of useful tools to deal with rogue landlords without overburdening the majority of decent landlords who make a valuable contribution to meeting the nation's housing needs. I firmly believe that many of the Bill's provisions will be extremely helpful in my constituency, particularly in the town of Morecambe that lies at its heart. Following the sharp decline in the domestic holiday trade that occurred during the 1970s and '80s, Morecambe, in common with many other British seaside resorts, was left with a huge number of redundant hotels and guesthouses. Much of that former holiday accommodation is decaying and in a poor state of repair. In the main, it is used as cheap, substandard HMOs.

The availability of so much cheap rented accommodation has acted as a magnet for disadvantaged and dysfunctional individuals and families from all over the north of England. That has resulted in a largely itinerant population inhabiting some parts of central Morecambe and its west end. Unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and

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antisocial behaviour are rife in those areas. That, in turn, impacts on businesses, property prices and the quality of life in those and neighbouring communities. I am totally convinced that reducing the over-supply of cheap rented accommodation is the key to alleviating the problems that abound in those parts of Morecambe.

I should like to pay tribute to English Partnerships and the regional development agency, from which Morecambe is receiving help and support. In particular, I thank the northern director of English Partnerships, Bill Skilki, for his personal help and support in Morecambe. I am confident that the assistance of those bodies, coupled with the constructive application of these measures, will enable the local authority to deal effectively with the housing issues that have blighted our town for so long.

Part 1 replaces the current housing fitness standard with a housing health and safety rating system, and adapts and extends the powers available to local authorities to deal with poor housing conditions by means of enforcement. There is no doubt that the bricks-and-mortar approach of the housing fitness standard falls short of what is required properly to assess the risk to the health and safety of a property's occupants. The proposed rating system offers a much wider assessment of the impact on health. However, the methodology that is to be applied in producing the ratings appears to be heavily dependent on the personal opinion of a housing officer. Those subjective judgments will undoubtedly be open to challenge and could make it difficult to proceed with the enforcement mechanisms in the Bill.

Part 2 places a duty on local authorities to ensure that HMOs with three or more storeys and five or more occupants are licensed. Additionally, provision is made for local authorities to have discretionary powers to license other HMOs. Although I warmly welcome both those measures, like many Members I would have preferred that all HMOs were subject to the mandatory licensing arrangements. The three-storey, five-occupant criteria appear to be arbitrary and are no indication of premises' suitability for habitation. Of course, I welcome the fact that the granting of a licence will be dependent on applicants having suitable management arrangements in place, and the £20,000 maximum penalty for letting in breach of the licensing conditions is appropriate.

Part 3 gives local authorities the power to license private landlords in areas with high levels of antisocial behaviour. The suitable management criteria and penalties for breaching licensing regulations will be applied. I fully welcome those provisions. Equally, I welcome the recognition that the antisocial behaviour of tenants is not the sole responsibility of landlords, and I welcome the measures to support and assist them.

The additional control measures in part 4, interim and final management orders and overcrowding notices all appear to be soundly based.

Part 5 places a new legal duty on people who are selling properties in England and Wales to prepare a home information pack before putting their property on the market. I believe that the packs will be of great value to anyone who wishes to purchase a property. The information contained in the home condition report will enable prospective buyers to make a realistic estimate of the property's true value; it will also prevent the

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frustration and expense incurred by prospective buyers when fundamental flaws in the property's structure are discovered only at a very late stage. Although I wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of the home information packs, I think that there will probably be substantial teething troubles in the early days in terms of both delays in HIP preparation and the ability to police the scheme effectively and invoke the enforcement procedures. Despite those difficulties, the measures are well worth while and should be adopted.

Part 6 contains several important measures, including additional remedies to tackle antisocial behaviour, such as the extension of introductory tenancy schemes, additional powers to withhold consent for mutual exchanges, and the suspension of the right to buy of tenants who have a demotion pending or possession orders against them. Each measure will be a useful additional tool to bring pressure to bear on the elements of society who, through their disgusting and selfish behaviour, blight the lives of so many decent people.

Part 6 also contains measures to deal with abuse of the right-to-buy scheme and to protect the stock of affordable housing. That is a most welcome provision. That part of the Bill also grants same-sex couples the same right to succeed to tenancies as married partners of different sexes already have. That is a long overdue and welcome measure. Equally important is the extension of the disabled facilities grant to people living in caravans, who were previously excluded.

The final element of part 6 to which I shall refer deals with the proposal to extend the power of the Housing Corporation in England and the National Assembly for Wales to give social housing grants to companies other than registered social landlords. I fully support the proposal, which will inject much-needed competition into the provision of affordable housing and will tend to produce mixed and balanced neighbourhoods.

In conclusion, I believe that the Bill offers the opportunity to make real progress towards the eradication of poor housing and rogue landlords. I look forward to its passage through Parliament.

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