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University Accommodation

8.36 p.m.

Lord Tope rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether adequate measures and inspection arrangements are in force to ensure the safety of university students who rent accommodation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to those noble Lords who are going to stay tonight to take part in this short but, I think, very important debate. Perhaps I may say at the start that I have received a letter today from the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, regretting that a prior engagement has

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prevented his attendance here tonight. He goes on to say that he knows that students have some genuine concerns over the matters we shall discuss.

Perhaps I may also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, for sparing a little time last week to discuss some of these issues with me so that, it is to be hoped, we can have a more useful and more informed debate, and indeed some more informed responses from the Government.

Since I put down this Question every student, or recent former student, to whom I have spoken has immediately identified with the issues and has given me all sorts of stories either from his or her own personal experience or from that of close friends. Furthermore, the issue has generated considerable interest and concern among students and their representatives in all parts of the country. I think we have touched here on an issue of wide and great importance.

I want to say a little about the very real problems and difficulties which are causing hardship and real physical danger to thousands of young people at our universities. Then I should like to go on to suggest some relatively small changes in regulations that would have real benefits immediately. I think that in the longer term--though, one hopes, not in the too-long term--a mandatory licensing scheme for the properties that students rent is what we need.

Over half the one million full-time students in England and Wales rent flats or houses in the private rented sector. The overwhelming majority of these students live in shared houses or flats. For example, they have a room of their own and share a living room, kitchen, toilets and bath or shower. For many young students, this will be their first experience of living on their own; yet it is very clear that, frankly, many of them are living in death traps.

The English House Condition Survey 1996 found that 19 per cent. of private rented dwellings were unfit for human habitation under the fitness standard set in Section 604 of the 1985 Housing Act. Dangers include faulty or poorly-serviced gas appliances which release toxic fumes like carbon monoxide. These alone have been responsible for the deaths of at least 10 students since 1990. Other common dangers are inadequate means of escape from fire, inflammable furnishing, dangerous electrics, infestation by pests (including rats and cockroaches), inadequate facilities for the preparation of food and washing, dampness, poor insulation and poor security.

I have been in touch with the student housing officers in a number of universities. From Manchester University I was told that students have suffered badly enough from carbon monoxide poisoning to warrant court action. Indeed, from Manchester Metropolitan University we heard of a case where one young man spent a whole term quite badly incapacitated by drowsiness, missing lectures and even one important exam. It turned out that because his landlord had divided up the property in an illegal way, the student was sleeping with his head very close to a gas boiler, which was leaking fumes. Only the real luck of a spot inspection revealed the true cause of the problem. He was, in a way, fortunate; other students

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have died. A very common complaint to student unions is that the landlord cannot supply the legally-required gas safety certificate. This is usually a sign that the gas appliance has been installed or maintained by amateurs.

Another major threat to life and limb is collapsing ceilings. Again, amateur decorators tend to skim thin plaster on to existing thick Victorian ceilings. The plaster then dries out and pulls the whole lot down. Ceilings also collapse because of long-standing problems with plumbing or structural defects. Often the student will have reported leaking water or excessive damp problems, but no action is taken. Delays in repair work mean that in the meantime young people have to live and try to study in appalling conditions.

Many students suffer illness and discomfort from damp conditions caused by poor ventilation because windows are nailed shut, or damp courses are inadequate or because exterior brickwork needs pointing.

Every type of vermin you can think of has been reported to us. Slugs often infest damp houses; mice and cockroaches are common; and in both London and Manchester we have had tales of pigeons infesting the lofts of students houses. Landlords are too fond of filling houses with second-hand furniture which does not comply with the new regulations. When this is combined with poor electrical wiring, lack of smoke alarms and no adequate means of escape, it is no exaggeration to speak of death-traps.

These and many other problems suggest that the time is overdue for some comprehensive solution. Liberal Democrats believe that the Government should introduce a licensing scheme for all private rented properties. Under such a scheme landlords would have to satisfy basic health and safety requirements before they could let their properties.

The evidence we received from the students' union at Livepool John Moores University made the point, which I hope the Government will take on board, that legislation heavily favours the landlord and that it is often a laborious, expensive and time-consuming process for students to pursue enforced disrepair procedures. Students are short of both money and time, and this results in many landlords simply "waiting it out" and putting off the repairs until the complaining students disappear.

I know that the noble Baroness is at least as aware as I am that we now have an increasing number of students in this country from other European Union countries. If these are difficulties for students of our own country, who speak the language well and have at least some knowledge of our systems, then it is even more difficult for visitors from overseas.

The Liverpool students also report that the council's environmental health officers are normally,

    "very supportive and efficient in their function of enforcing relevant housing law and guidelines. However, they too are subject to the cumbersome policy and procedure that has to be followed to force a landlord to carry out essential repairs. In many cases, by the time government agencies or the courts are in a position to order action, the students' contract has expired."

That may be so, but the young people have just gone through nine months of a housing nightmare.

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I hope that I have given some brief indications of both the kind of difficulties students face, and the scale of those difficulties, which are, indeed, nationwide. Perhaps I may now turn to at least a few of the possible solutions.

On the matter of gas leaks and carbon monoxide poisoning, we suggest that the time has come to review the enforcing regulations with a view to giving environmental health officers the same powers to enter domestic rented premises to inspect gas installations as the Health and Safety Executive already possesses in law. The plain fact is that the HSE has its hands full already with factories and industrial complexes: the EHOs, however, really could do the job, given the necessary resources.

In a similar way we would encourage the Government to re-examine the powers of environmental health departments to enforce essential repairs. Can they find some way to "fast-track" through the civil courts to force landlords to carry out essential repairs?

We have been examining examples of good practice through which students can be guaranteed a decent standard of private rented accommodation. We are aware of the good work done by regulatory agencies such as Liverpool Student Homes and UNIPOL, the pioneering student housing agency in Leeds. There are many other schemes as well.

Two schemes we looked at in some detail were run, in one case by a local authority, Lancaster City Council, and in the other by a university, the University of Teesside at Middlesbrough. The accredited property scheme set up by Lancaster City Council is a voluntary scheme which landlords are invited to join. The landlords gain in various ways: the kitemark logo which they are able to display in the front window of their properties gives them an edge over other providers in attracting new tenants; the council gives them positive advertising publicity; they get access to discounts on building supplies; they get property services from, for example, plumbers and electricians; and they get preferential arrangements for property insurance. The city council also supply model tenancy agreements.

The renters, for their part, gain handsomely, because in order to join the Lancaster scheme, landlords have to satisfy very thorough and well-thought-out requirements. Properties have to be in "a reasonable state of physical and decorative repair"; be "structurally stable" and "substantially free from dampness". There must be "an adequate level of natural lighting" and "adequate electric lighting". Proper ventilation is required, especially where gas appliances are installed. There are specifications about heating appliances, power points and insulation. A proper means of escape from fire, together with a fire detection and warning system, is also required.

Minimum room sizes are also laid down: the smallest bedroom permitted is 6.5 square metres or, as many noble Lords will understand rather better, 70 square feet. The requirement is rather larger where there is no separate living-room in the house.

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The scheme functions by an initial survey of the property by the city council. Thereafter there may be spot checks by the city council, and automatic checks are carried out straightaway if a tenant complains. At the end of the third year there will in any case be a new survey of the property.

I should perhaps make it clear that this service is offered to all potential tenants in Lancaster, not just university students, although there are specific requirements laid down for properties rented to students. Students known to us at Lancaster University profess themselves very pleased with the scheme.

The other scheme I mentioned that we looked at is the head tenancy scheme run by the University of Teesside at Middlesbrough. In this case the university's accommodation service will manage the property on behalf of the landlord and guarantee to pay the rent. The university pays the owners termly in advance by cheque. They then sign a different agreement with a group of students which entitles them to occupy the property under the terms laid down in the contract. The owner is still responsible for the maintenance and insurance of the property. In the event of repairs not being carried out, the university reserves the right to authorise the repair and charge the landlord accordingly.

Before a property can be registered by the accommodation office, both gas and electricity safety certificates are required. All upholstered furniture must comply with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988.

Liberal Democrats feel strongly that the key elements of this kind of good practice need to be formulated into a national code of practice for student lettings, and that all our universities should be developing schemes along these lines--suited to their particular location and situation--so that good standards can be guaranteed. These schemes have in common the registration of rented properties with an inspecting authority. Landlords are given a checklist of all the features they need to have in place on their properties so that all the hazards I have been talking about are eliminated before the young students apply to rent them. At the very least, British universities need to have that code of practice proposing such schemes, or once the current review of the law affecting houses in multiple occupation is complete, the Government should introduce a mandatory scheme for licensing shared houses and HMOs.

Life at university for young people at the end of this century has become much more hazardous and precarious than it was at the time of our generation. Parents must also have a reasonable expectation that their daughters and sons will live in safe and decent conditions when they live away from home for the first time. I feel confident that the Government will be able to assure us at the end of this debate that serious moves are afoot to address a very serious problem.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for initiating this debate and for giving us the benefit of his views based on evidence which he has collected from different parts of the country and to

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which I have listened carefully and with growing concern. But I note also the voluntary schemes that he mentioned which are obviously encouraging.

I should declare an interest. I am president of the University of Wales, Swansea, and the university has an excellent relationship with Swansea City Council. I have had the benefit of discussing the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, with the student accommodation officer and also with the president of the student union at Swansea. But the views which I express are my own and they are not the views of an expert.

The main problem exists in the private sector where students or groups of students reside in a house which has not been registered with the local authority as a house in multiple occupation or in a house which has not been approved as suitable accommodation by the appropriate university or college. It seems to me that once a house has been approved or registered, that should be a guarantee to the students that its safety arrangements are in good order. On the other hand, if a house is not on an approved list of accommodation or is unregistered as a HMO, students should be on their guard from day one.

Throughout the country people are buying houses which they do up and let to students and others who share some of the facilities. Clearly, there are inherent risks of fire in any residential property but the risks are greatly increased by multiple occupation because each separately let part will make use of its own heating, lighting and cooking facilities.

I read in the Joseph Rowntree report published in 1995 that the risks of death from fires are up to 28 times higher in HMOs than in self-contained housing. To the best of my knowledge, that finding has not been challenged. If a house is in law in multiple occupation, then the local council may serve a statutory notice requiring the owner to carry out fire precaution work. The notice may also require the number of occupants to be reduced. Obviously, some of the work may involve quite considerable sums of money but plainly the protection of occupants of houses in multiple occupation against the risk of fire is extremely important.

I understand that one problem is that it is sometimes very difficult to determine whether a house is in law a house in multiple occupation. That has been defined as a house which is occupied,

    "by persons who do not form a single household".

But that definition is less attractive to apply than it might appear at first sight. It requires the combination of a clear mind allied to a fine judgment and information about a wide range of considerations. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are wide variations among local authorities in their enforcement of HMO standards.

There have been a number of decisions by the courts about the definition. In particular, it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who said in a leading case some 20 years ago that there is not a single test to answer the question whether in law a house is in multiple occupation. In 1995, in the case of Barnes v. Sheffield City Council, a case involving a house let by a private landlord to students attending the same university, the Court of Appeal held that there was not

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a litmus test which could be applied to determine the answer to the question and that regard must be had to all relevant factors; moreover, that the weight to be given to any particular factor will vary widely from case to case, depending on the overall picture. I noted that in the Barnes case, factors such as shared use of facilities, the stability of the student group and the size of the property as well as six other main factors were taken into consideration by the court. One is left to wonder whether the definition of an HMO remains unchanged. For example, should it be provided that a house providing residence for, say, four or more students--the number involved in the Barnes case--should be deemed to be a house in multiple occupation?

I accept that in applying the letter and the spirit of the law, much must depend upon the nature and quality of relationships between authorities and their officers. I mentioned that the relationship between the University of Swansea and the Swansea City Council is excellent. It should be a matter of good practice for university housing authorities and fire authorities to work together in a co-ordinated way to ensure that premises which are in multiple occupation are maintained in a fit state to be used as residential accommodation.

I accept that the Housing Act 1996 sought to address some of the difficulties. It introduced a scheme for the registration of houses in multiple occupation and empowered the Secretary of State to make model registration schemes. Today, three years on, perhaps the Minister will tell us how many such schemes have been adopted. How many registrations have been revoked? Has it been possible for local authorities, faced with many other pressing needs, to devote adequate resources to enable registration schemes to be established, inspected and monitored, and to enable them to tackle poor standards in HMOs? Does local authorities' income from registration meet the total cost of enforcement of the law? If the definition of HMO is not to be changed, will the department issue, re-write or update circulars 67/69, 12/86 and 12/93 which relate to the problem which, I believe, housing authorities still have in applying the definition of HMO. I hope that any new circular will offer guidance in terms that we can all understand.

I shall not detain the House further. I have risen, partly because of my involvement with one university and also because I believe that students are entitled to be reassured about the safety of rented accommodation. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, has raised critical issues and asked penetrating questions about which I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to enlighten and reassure us.

9 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I do not wish to speak for long in this debate; however, I wanted to take the opportunity not only of thanking my noble friend Lord Tope for raising this subject, but also of reinforcing some of the points that he made in his speech.

I live in a university town, Guildford, and I teach at the University of Sussex, on the south coast. In both cases, students face an enormous shortage of affordable

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rented accommodation. House prices and rents in London and the south east are considerably higher than elsewhere. "Affordable" is therefore an important issue. Students are of course perennially poor. These days most live on a combination of grants, loans and parental contribution, amounting to £3,000 to £4,000 a year, topped up increasingly by casual work in pubs or supermarkets. They live on £75 to £80 a week. They get together and share accommodation. However, by virtue of their very low incomes they are inevitably seeking flats and rooms at the lower end of the market. Because of the shortage, they are open to exploitation by greedy and lazy landlords.

I spoke yesterday to the welfare vice-president of the University of Sussex students' union. She spoke of cockroaches, mice, damp, leaking taps and blocked-up drains. These were common woes. But she had two particular gripes. One was of landlords who took large deposits at the beginning of the year failing to provide any inventory of the effects against which the deposit was supposedly paid--and failing to tell the students that this was the case--but then claiming at the end of the year that the deposit was necessarily withheld to make good depredations. The second was against landlords who promised but never quite got round to doing repairs. As she said, with the students moving in freshly in October, they start making complaints in November. Foot-dragging landlords spin matters out through the spring and, before you know it, it is May and the students are moving on in June. At that point it is not worth their while pursuing the issue because they are moving on so quickly. And of course the following October the repairs are still not done and a fresh group of students pursue the same case.

She also spoke to me about a "host family" scheme, which applies mainly to foreign language students in Brighton but is also used by the university to place first-year students who cannot be placed in campus accommodation. She said that often it works quite well, but sometimes it does not; that sometimes the accommodation is not up to scratch, but because the arrangement is informal there is no contractual relationship between the family and the student and they have no contractual rights.

These days students have a tough enough time without all these other hassles. As my noble friend Lord Tope made clear, the legal position of shared flats and houses--homes in multiple occupation--is unclear. It is not easy for either environmental health officers or the Health and Safety Executive to act. Yet the horrific cases of carbon monoxide poisoning that have come to light illustrate the dangers of doing nothing. It would be good to see local authorities following the lead of towns such as Lancaster or universities such as the University of Teesside and setting up schemes of their own. I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is not present. There is a very strong case for the Brighton and Hove unitary authority thinking of these matters and instituting a registration scheme somewhat similar to that promoted by Lancaster. As it is, neither the borough nor the university has been prepared to act. The students' union is now trying instead to go it alone,

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setting up a scheme which sounds rather like the scheme in Leeds whereby the union sets itself up as its own accredited letting agency. But at present the union is stymied by the lack of £20,000, which it needs as start-up money for the scheme. It seems that neither the university nor the local authority is prepared even to help with that.

This is a very real problem. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Tope for bringing it to our attention. I hope that as a result of this brief debate the matter may receive some publicity and something may be done about it.

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