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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I believe that I am able to give the noble Lord some comfort in this matter. The provisions in the Bill allow local authorities to have discretion about what standard of management is appropriate in each case so that they can deal with different types and sizes of housing management organisations. We believe that that is right. But they must act reasonably and have regard to any codes of practice or management codes issued by the Department of the Environment. Those codes will be usable as evidence if the landlord should appeal to the county court, as undoubtedly he will if he feels that the conditions imposed on him are unreasonable. Although the provision in the Bill seems wide, with the addition of guidance and management codes I believe it will be clear to any individual landlord how he ought to be treated. In those circumstances, I believe that the amendment of the noble Lord is unnecessary.

Lord Monson: My Lords, when the Minister said that he would have some words of comfort I thought that it was the formula which one tends to hear so often. However, I was comforted by his actual message. He pointed out that there will be a requirement to be reasonable and the codes of practice must be adhered to. That will count if the matter should go as far as the county court. Therefore, I derive comfort from what the Minister has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 243 not moved.]

Clause 67 [Registration schemes: special control provisions]:

11 Jul 1996 : Column 523

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 244:

Page 41, line 33, at end insert--
("(1A) Special control provisions shall not apply to a house in multiple occupation which is--
(a) a registered care home as defined by the Registered Homes Act 1984;
(b) owned by a registered social landlord;
(c) owned by a landlord who owns land disposed in accordance with section 32 of the Housing Act 1985.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the effect of the amendment would be to exclude from the Bill's special control provisions for HMOs certain types of properties which should not be caught by them. They include residential care homes for the elderly and hostels owned by registered social landlords. Paragraph (c) covers social landlords of former local authority housing not registered by the Housing Corporation. I am sure that the Minister has taken those points and I hope for a favourable response. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, special control provisions involve very significant powers available to local authorities and we expect them to be exercised with due consideration and necessary restraint. We have therefore already provided for a number of safeguards against the misuse of these powers. Every local authority which wishes to adopt a registration scheme with special control provisions will need the special approval of the Secretary of State for that scheme. They will have to make out a strong case for their adoption.

I can offer the noble Lord some worthwhile assurances. Following enactment of the Bill we will be consulting widely about the model registration schemes which the Secretary of State intends to make. We have already said that, subject to the consultation, we intend to exclude from the model schemes properties owned or controlled by responsible public-sector or social landlords, such as universities and housing associations. We are also planning to exclude from the model schemes properties which come under some other regulatory regime, such as registered care homes.

As the categories referred to in the amendment will almost certainly be excluded from all model registration schemes, we believe that it is most unlikely that the Secretary of State will agree to their inclusion in a registration scheme containing special control provisions. I hope that that will give the noble Lord the comfort he requires to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. That was the assurance for which I was looking. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 244A and 244B not moved.]

Clause 73 [Duty to keep premises fit for number of occupants]:

Lord Gisborough moved Amendment No. 245:

Page 48, leave out lines 22 to 25.

11 Jul 1996 : Column 524

The noble Lord said: My Lords, all four amendments in the group deal with the duty of care but they involve separate points. I do not know whether it would be best to deal with them together or separately--

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the grouping has been agreed and I hope that the noble Lord will feel that he can deal with all the amendments together.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. There are three reasons for trying to omit the civil duty of care. First, there appear to be no transitional provisions should the regulations change. An owner may have just completed a programme of works in order to comply with the duty. However, if the rules change he will immediately be in default again. If conditions have become too difficult he will simply take his house out of the multiple occupation sector.

Secondly, landlords are not in much control over what tenants do to the premises once they have handed over possession. It is a common experience that tenants may deliberately remove fire precautions, such as door closers. A landlord does not have the kind of controls available to a hotel or factory manager. Thirdly, in view of current conditions and costs, civil litigation is an extremely inefficient way of resolving disputes for most people. A tenant who is not eligible for legal aid is unlikely to be able to contemplate legal action. Equally, a landlord facing a suit from a legally-aided tenant will be in a very difficult position. Even if he has a good defence, he will not get back his costs. As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish recently reminded us, the litigious tenancy should not be encouraged.

I share the concern of many in this House about the degree of improvement which is needed in the private rented sector. However, the people who will be deterred by the provisions of this clause as it stands will not be the cowboy operators on whom we all wish to clamp down. Instead, it will be the responsible landlord, honestly trying to provide good quality accommodation, and honestly trying to comply with the law, who will be worried. Such landlords may well decide to invest elsewhere, in which case there will be no accommodation available where it is needed.

Landlords already have a general duty of care under common law, which will remain operative. My amendment would only remove what seems to me almost an invitation to vexatious actions which could affect all sorts of landlords, including housing associations and local authorities, even owners of shared freeholds.

Amendment No. 246 allows for another category of difficulty which the duty of care may create. The buildings to which the duty will apply are extremely varied, and many are old. It is likely that there will be cases where something about the building prevents it from being made to comply fully with the regulations. There have been cases where one part of the local authority has insisted on work being done to a building, and another part of that same local authority has prohibited that work from being done because the building is a listed building which should not be altered.

11 Jul 1996 : Column 525

There will also be occasions when the accommodation is being made available on a temporary basis, and the expense of full compliance would be disproportionate, or the owner might be intending to demolish the building in the near future.

There are also the problems that arise when the tenant will not allow builders in. I have experienced that, not with an HMO, but with a single tenant property where the tenant would not allow builders in to do essential work.

If reasonable defences are not available for special circumstances the owner will be compelled to withdraw accommodation rather than risk prosecution or lawsuits. As with the previous amendment, I ask the House to consider that this duty be laid on the full range of HMOs, not just on the rough end of the market. It would result in the withdrawal of accommodation, for example, for students in areas where accommodation is most needed.

Amendment No. 247 is intended to avoid possible confusion between the requirements imposed by the local authority under Section 347 and the requirements of the duty of care. Under Section 347 local authorities may require works to be carried out to a house in multiple occupation before they will include it in their registration scheme. A person might reasonable suppose that once he has carried out works which the local authority had asked for, the house is then up to any standard which he was legally obliged to meet. My amendment would ensure that that would be the case. It is extremely confusing for owners and their advisers if there is duplication and overlap between different sets of regulations.

Amendment No. 248 addresses the situation of landlords on whom the local authority has no plans for enforcement action, but who still have to comply with the duty of care. Responsible landlords will be able to apply for their certificate of compliance, and after carrying out any works which the local authority requires, will know that they have complied. I am aware of one council which has much experience in HMO enforcement, Leeds City Council. That council is already looking at a voluntary system of accreditation for landlords. The amendment I have proposed would put this on a statutory footing. If landlords apply it would save time and effort on the part of the local authorities in having to seek out these properties.

The amendment also provides for disputes to be referred to the department, as is possible for building regulations. I believe there needs to be a review system of some national standing to ensure consistent and fair interpretation of the code by different authorities across the country. With such a system in place there would probably not be many appeals.

Finally, there is provision for the certificate to last 10 years. Clause 71 provides for a five-year interval between Section 352 notices. It is too short a minimum interval between compulsory works in a well-run property. Five years comes round very quickly. Therefore, I propose an exemption for 10 years.

11 Jul 1996 : Column 526

Naturally, the local authority would retain the right to take action if conditions change or deteriorate. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for having jumped the gun in my strictures about our increasingly litigious society. I had Amendment No. 245 in mind and I spoke to it a little too early. But it does no harm to repeat those strictures since it is such a growing evil in our society. But naturally, I agree with everything which the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, said in favour of Amendment No. 245.

I also agree with him about Amendment No. 246, but particularly in respect of property which is let on a temporary basis, possibly preparatory to sale or redevelopment. It seems folly in the extreme to compel people to spend fantastic amounts of money on a building which they will be letting for only a few months.

I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will confirm figures which I have seen which suggest that the average cost of complying with all the regulations which are envisaged and proposed will be £14,000 per HMO and, as 80 per cent. will be involved, that will mean a total expenditure of something like £2.86 billion. That is a horrifying amount of money and I shall be interested to see whether the Minister will come forth with figures to confirm or refute that.

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