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Lord Gisborough: HMOs play an important role in the provision of housing in the private rented sector. According to latest government figures, HMOs house just over 3 million people in England--around 7 per cent. of the population. They clearly have an important role in providing affordable accommodation in a form that is likely to suit a large proportion of people at some point in their lives--students, young people at the start of their careers, single people and so forth. We must be conscious of the fact, therefore, that if we introduce inappropriate or draconian legislation in this area, responsible landlords may, probably will and already do, sell their properties and leave the market, thus creating even more homeless, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, feared.

To introduce overly onerous regulations, the cost of which would have to be borne by the landlord, would jeopardise the supply of an important source of accommodation from both current and future landlords, thereby ultimately damaging the interests of those it seeks to protect.

Statistics were cited regarding the relative fire risk in HMOs. Some Members in both Houses have suggested that there is a 28-times greater risk of dying in a fire in an HMO than in other types of dwelling. That figure is based on research carried out on behalf of the Campaign for Bedsit Rights. While not wishing to play down the risk of fires in HMOs, the Campaign for Bedsit Rights' figures merit some examination.

If we are to ensure that HMO regulation is appropriate, we must correctly understand the size of the problem. The campaign's figures do not stand up to much critical analysis when one examines the various government figures. If one looks at the government figures for the proportion of the population housed in HMOs, we get a figure of approximately 7 per cent., as I mentioned earlier. Home Office fire statistics, on the other hand, indicate that 12.5 per cent. of domestic house fires occur in HMOs. That is a high figure and the Government are right to take action to improve standards in HMOs. However, if we do the calculations, the risk of fire in HMOs using the Government's statistics is less than double the risk in other dwellings and falls well short of the "28-times" figure given by the Campaign for Bedsit Rights.

That is supported by other Home Office fire statistics, which suggest that 6.2 per cent. of HMO residents experienced a fire in 1993 as against 3.9 per cent. for the population as a whole. Statistics can be used to prove any point but the campaign figure seems to be particularly inaccurate and overstates the problem. We should not use it, therefore, as a basis for legislation. Ideally, the Government would have carried out research of their own to determine the exact nature of the risk posed by HMOs before deciding to legislate. That did not happen. I urge the Government to consider commissioning some research before drafting the secondary legislation.

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I believe that the Government's action is therefore proportionate to the risk and I am pleased that they resist the pressure for a mandatory national licensing scheme. A full- scale licensing scheme would have been costly and over-bureaucratic and would have involved local authorities without HMO problems in unnecessary regulation. It would also, I understand, have covered all types of HMOs, and we would therefore have found ourselves in the position of regulating, among others, owner occupiers in self-contained blocks of flats. Surely that is not necessary.

Licensing is unnecessary, especially when one considers that there is already a large body of legislation to enforce good standards in let property. This includes the wide-ranging powers which already exist under the Housing Act 1985, where local authorities can require work to a property, carry out the work themselves in the landlord's default, or ultimately make an order that the property should come under local authority control or be closed down. Legislation also exists relating to fire and gas safety and the use of fire retardant fillings in furniture.

Some have suggested that the way to improve standards in HMOs is to amend the definition of an HMO, taking out self-contained flats and shared houses, so that the regulation could be concentrated on the properties that are likely to cause the most problems. The Government did not accept this suggestion either. Instead they have proposed that the current ad hoc registration scheme system should be formalised with a model scheme drawn up. I broadly support that proposal. It will mean that those local authorities that consider they have a particular problem with HMOs will be able to set up a registration scheme to give them greater control powers. The proposal that a model registration scheme is to be drawn up is also welcome. Landlords' current experience of registration schemes is that they vary widely between authorities, leading to much uncertainty among landlords as to their responsibilities. The Government are proposing that certain categories of HMOs will be exempt from the model registration scheme. Again, that is welcome and will ensure that local authority resources are targeted at those properties that cause most problems.

My amendments to come are intended to ensure that the relationship between landlord and local authority is an effective one, and that they work together to improve standards in their area. Most landlords are happy to make sensible achievable alterations to their properties and wish to encourage good tenants with good standards. In recent years, however, many private landlords have found the requirements made of them by local authorities to be unnecessary, and the mechanism for changing them has involved expensive litigation. My amendments seek to redress this imbalance, which, I should add, licensing would have accentuated. I hope that this amendment for the mandatory licensing scheme will be resisted as it would amount to over-regulation and unnecessary red tape.

9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: I support this amendment, even though I hate over-regulation and

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bureaucracy. Nevertheless, recently, as chairman of the Children's Society, I was at a presentation by young people who spoke of their own experience. Of course it is possible for young people to exaggerate, but these were young people with ambition to get on in the world, and not to be at the bottom of the pile for the whole of their lives. Most of them had had to leave home because of family disagreements. Sometimes they had to leave because of abuse and sometimes because there just was not room in their own homes. They were not people that we should want to make into lifelong rebels. They had ambition and they wanted to do well. The stories which they told made it clear to me that some form of regulation is necessary.

As has already been said this evening, safety is not negotiable. There should be safety. There should be healthy premises for young people to live in. These young people have no financial capacity to bid for a better place. If they are 16 year-olds on a training course they receive £29 a week, or £35 if they are 17 year-olds. These young people require our protection. Surely as a society we do not want to see them going on to the streets. One of the things that I think is most reprehensible is the number of people sleeping in shop doors in the Strand. I cannot think what that says to visitors to this country. We should be ashamed of it.

I support the amendment. In London alone there are 3,800 young people living in this kind of accommodation. I have heard from their own mouths the difficulties against which they have to contend. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said all that I wanted to say. I support the amendment.

Lord Monkswell: In rising to support the amendment, I can advise the Committee that I have lived in HMOs on a number of occasions. I did so when I left home for the first time. I lived in a room in a house that was apparently condemned as unfit for human habitation. I survived that. My experience of living in HMOs on a number of different occasions advises me that some are good and some are bad. When they are bad, they can be absolutely atrocious. As we have heard from a number of different speakers, that can lead to increased risk to life and limb.

When I initially saw the amendment, I was a little hesitant about it. One of the things that I have been concerned with is limiting Ministers' powers. It is worth pointing out that the amendment will give Ministers an extra power which they can exercise if it is felt warranted. It does not require them to set up this national registration scheme, but it gives them the power to do so if it is felt warranted.

One of the things we all do as parents is to ensure as far as we can the safety of our children. As responsible people we can put pressure on our local council to ensure that there is a satisfactory scheme in our local area. However, when young people leave home it is very difficult--I would say impossible--for parents to say to their children, "You shall live in a local authority area where there are decent standards" and to dissuade them from living in some other local authority area. We must bear in mind that a large number of young people leave

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home to go to university, which is usually many miles from their own homes, and in the first year they may be in student accommodation provided by the university. But the chances are that in the second and third years they will be at the mercy of the vagaries of the private market. A large number of those young people, who are our sons and daughters, will end up in houses of multiple occupation. As responsible parents how do we ensure that those houses of multiple occupation where our sons and daughters live are of a satisfactory standard which will ensure their safety and that of their friends?

I hope that the Committee will support the amendment. It gives a fall-back power to Ministers to set up a national scheme which some of us believe should be brought in immediately. However, it may take a little time to persuade the Government to do so. If the provision appears on the face of the Bill at least the Government will have the power to act without recourse to primary legislation, which is always difficult given the pressure on parliamentary time. I hope that the Committee and the Government will look with favour on the amendment.

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