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Lord Lucas: I listened carefully to the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others, in favour of the amendment. I am aware that there were similar substantial debates on the need for national licensing both at Committee and Report stages in another place.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, I have lived most of my life in HMOs. My parents' house, which is a large one, had a flat at one end which was occupied by another family; therefore, it is an HMO. When I moved to London I rented a room in a large house occupied by friends of the family, and that makes it an HMO. The first property I bought in London was a flat that had been converted from what was originally a house and therefore was an HMO. When I finally bought a whole house of my own I let the top floor to friends and that made it an HMO. That illustrates the sort of problem we would create by introducing an indiscriminate national licensing scheme. A large number of houses and properties, which had no business being there, would be brought within the rigours of a scheme aimed principally at the sort of places which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester was talking about, which I have lived next to, but, fortunately not in, where about a dozen people are crammed into a space which would comfortably accommodate about four. They live in conditions of considerable squalor. We are aiming the legislation at places where the majority of problems exist. We wish to give local authorities discretion in identifying the properties which are causing problems in their areas and avoid the blunderbuss effect of having to deal with great numbers of properties where there are no significant problems.

The Government remain unconvinced of the need for a national mandatory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, our consultation document was admirably even-handed. I wish therefore to explain the reasons why we have come to our conclusions.

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I emphasise that the Government accept that there is a problem of poor standards in part of the HMO sector and that urgent action is required. We estimate that there are over 600,000 properties in England of various sorts ranging from bedsits and shared student houses to larger hostels and bed and breakfast hotels. This type of housing makes a very important contribution to meeting the need for flexible and low cost accommodation, as my noble friend Lord Gisborough said. The demand is unlikely to fall in the foreseeable future. It is important therefore to ensure that such properties are of a reasonable standard and, above all else, that they are safe, particularly from the risk of fire. My noble friend Lord Gisborough rightly pointed out that some estimates of the fire risk in HMOs has been exaggerated. I do not believe that we would go as far as my noble friend in discounting the risk. We would settle on a figure of about 10 times higher than normal. That risk is clearly far too high, and that is why we have brought forward our package of measures. There is therefore clearly a good deal of common ground on all sides of the Committee in the demand for tougher powers enabling local authorities to improve conditions in those properties.

Perhaps I may set out briefly the principal elements of the Government's package. We are giving local authorities the option of establishing a much tougher kind of HMO registration scheme. Any local authority will be able to introduce a registration scheme for the whole or part of its area if it thinks that there is a serious HMO problem. That will allow local authorities to refuse registration if properties are sub-standard to an extent that is beyond remedy or if the manager is not a fit and proper person. Local authorities can also impose as conditions of registration that works are carried out to make the HMO suitable for occupation and relating to the management of the house. Registration will be renewable every five years and the new control and special control provisions may provide that registration can be revoked if the authority considers that there has been a breach of the conditions relating to the management of the house. We also propose substantially to increase the level of fees payable on registration and re-registration, and these resources can be used to supplement the local authority enforcement effort. So, if only for this reason, we expect most local authorities to make much greater use of registration schemes. We have also made available to local authorities a system of special control provisions which can be adopted with the consent of the Secretary of State. They will allow much tougher control of, and in certain cases, closure of HMOs which are having a serious adverse effect on local amenity. These provisions have been warmly welcomed in another place by Members who represent constituencies with coastal resorts. They acknowledge that the powers we have given local authorities are very wide indeed.

I also emphasise that the HMO package in Part II is not entirely a discretionary package which local authorities can simply choose to ignore. First, Clause 72 places a duty on HMO landlords to keep their property fit for the number of occupants. Local authorities will be able to prosecute landlords who fail to do so. Secondly, we propose to extend substantially the mandatory duty on

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local authorities to check that there are adequate fire safety precautions in all HMOs falling within the net of the model registration scheme and which are over two storeys high. This will be a major task for the authorities and will ensure that all high-risk HMOs are checked and monitored.

What is at issue is that the Opposition want a national mandatory licensing system which would be imposed on all local authorities. The Government's proposals are different in that we propose a package of measures, some mandatory and some discretionary, which will lead to effective action but at the same time leave local authorities with a degree of extra flexibility in how they tackle the problem. The Government firmly believe that these proposals are preferable to the straitjacket that national licensing would impose. It comes down to whether one trusts local authorities with this element of discretion. Both the Liberal and Labour Parties through their spokesmen have said that they do not. They are prepared to trust the education of our children to local authorities but will not trust them with a small element of discretion in the management of HMOs. I find that extraordinary. I fail to understand what lies behind that lack of trust, unless it be that because most local authorities are now under the control of one or other of the parties opposite they have a better understanding of those bodies than I do. But I cannot believe that that is the case and that the Opposition are right not to trust local authorities in the way that they should.

References have been made to the particular qualities of the proposed amendment. The amendment is a fascinating one. It would create criminal offences by order. Albeit at a rather late stage, it is changed to an affirmative resolution. That is a principle to which we do not subscribe, and it is a course that has been urged against us on several occasions by the Benches opposite. I find it extraordinary that they should put forward an amendment which would involve that.

The Opposition have failed to demonstrate that licensing would add anything to the powers available to local authorities. The Government's package is a tough one, with new powers which were welcomed by local authorities when we consulted them on the details. It is clear that they intend to use them. I have no doubt that these new policies will lead to a substantial improvement to conditions in the HMO stock. We are happy to trust local authorities with the discretion that we propose to give them; I am sorry that the Opposition are not.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs: I am amazed that the Minister has begun to be aggressive so early in the evening. Although I am sure that the Liberal Democrats can speak for themselves, the Minister said that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party did not trust local authorities. As an example, he quoted education. This debate is not about education, but in so far as the Minister raises that issue he speaks on behalf of a government who have taken away large amounts of discretion from local authorities in education and many other fields. If ever there was a government in the history of this country who had not trusted local authorities it is this one, with capping, controls on finance, the removal of large areas of

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discretion from local government and turning local authorities into agents of central government. The Minister has the gall to say that we in the Opposition do not trust local authorities. I believe that he has gone too far by a long chalk. It was also a weak argument.

When the Minister spoke of his life history in a series of houses in multiple occupation I almost began to feel sorry for him. It tugged at the heart strings. This poor man had had a difficult time and he was to be the beneficiary of all this legislation. I thought how wonderful it was and that we would be helping a government Minister had this legislation been in place. But the Minister then departed from the thrust of the argument. If there are the full rigours quoted by the Minister, why is it that the kind of accommodation in which the Minister has been living for most of his life, to judge from what he has said, would not meet the standards referred to? If it would, it would be mere child's play to conform to these standards. The whole point is that the setting of standards ensures that those landlords who care more about short-term profits than the well-being and safety of their tenants will be called to order. Those other landlords who do well will surely not find it at all onerous or rigorous to have to comply with these requirements. The Minister has not made his case. Indeed, he weakened it significantly by his diversion into education policy.

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