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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I apologise for intervening in the gap. I knew that my commitments today were uncertain and that I might not be able to arrive in time. I am very pleased that I am able to be present and take part in the debate. I have a particular interest. I once represented a Hampshire ward that includes a university. There were a lot of houses in multiple occupation surrounding the university that were inhabited by students. When, in another place, I sat on the Committee that dealt with the 1996 Housing Act I pursued many of the points that have been raised this evening. I was particularly interested in fire safety and the regulation of gas appliances. I therefore identified closely with the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

In the brief time available to me, I wish to highlight two areas. One relates to the certificates that landlords are now required by law to provide when their gas appliances have been inspected. I feel strongly about this. I raised this issue during the passage of the Housing Bill. Since that time the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 have come into use under which a landlord is required to produce the certificate and the students do not have to ask for it. That was identified as a real problem.

Secondly, I wish to pursue the issue of the regulation of houses in multiple occupation. I strongly agree with many of the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. There is a huge raft of legislation surrounding regulation of houses in multiple occupation. We have already identified one duty on landlords to produce certificates when domestic gas appliances have been serviced. Landlords also have a duty to carry out repairs under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. They also have a duty to ensure that the furniture provided is safe and complies with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988. Landlords also have a duty to ensure good management of accommodation under the Housing in Multiple Occupation Management Regulations 1990.

Local housing authorities have powers to require works to be done to make private rented homes fit for human habitation. That comes under Part VI of the Housing Act 1985. I could continue. There are other responsibilities of the Health and Safety Executive to enforce the requirements of the gas safety regulations. Local trading standards authorities have powers to enforce the furniture and furnishing regulations.

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We can see that the current regulatory framework is complex and rather confusing for landlords and tenants. It involves a great number of different enforcement agencies. As my noble friend pointed out, it leaves the enforcement of health and safety standards largely at the discretion of statutory agencies. In addition, there is the legal confusion mentioned this evening about what constitutes houses in multiple occupation. That has led to disturbing developments. The judgment has meant that some landlords appear to be actively seeking to let accommodation on a shared basis to evade the health and safety regulations since the court case that was highlighted earlier.

The second effect of the judgment has been that many local authorities are reluctant to use their houses in multiple occupation powers to inspect shared houses or even to enforce standards because they fear that they will lose such cases in the courts. Shelter carried out a survey and found that 85 per cent. of the councils surveyed thought that the legal definition of a house in multiple occupation should be amended so that shared houses are clearly included. The area urgently needs to be looked at. The current legislative framework is cumbersome. There is a real opportunity for that to happen and I hope that the Government will grasp it. I know that the Government are committed to introducing a new national mandatory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. The new Labour manifesto pledged:

    "We will provide protection where most needed: for tenants in houses in multiple occupation".
I served during the Committee stage of the 1996 Housing Bill in another place. At that time the Opposition spokesman was clear as to Labour's view. Labour wanted to see proper regulation. We supported each other firmly on the matter against the last government.

As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, the matter was discussed in some detail and promises were made three years ago. I hope that today we shall hear from the Minister what the Government intend to do. As we have heard, there have been some dreadful tragedies and many students have died.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the House must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for bringing this matter to our attention this evening. He outlined in detail many of the problems which students face when they move into the privately rented sector. It seems unnecessary for me to go into detail again on that. He also outlined some schemes which either universities themselves or authorities in university towns are beginning to put in place to rectify matters. It seems to me that those schemes deserve the greatest possible encouragement from the Government.

It must be faced that these are problems of the wider housing sector. It is not exclusively a university student problem that we are discussing. If proper standards are valid for university students, then how can they be separated from proper standards for everyone else?

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The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, highlighted the complications that arise because of the variable standard of enforcement applied from authority to authority over houses in multiple occupation. This is not a straightforward matter, and it certainly goes wider than simply university accommodation. That said, many universities have their own accommodation and still have problems. One university housing officer commented to me that some students, in defiance or due to ignorance, breach many of the safety regulations that are in place for their protection. That may appear to be a harsh comment but it was spoken with a certain amount of bitterness. It does nothing, however, to excuse the fact that clearly too many students must live in an environment that is beyond their control and in wholly unsatisfactory circumstances.

It is also a fact that the university authorities will need to pay increasing attention to this matter and the general question of university security and safety. It is becoming a matter of note that at conventions where universities seek to attract students parents home in on safety almost as a first item of concern. No responsible parent wishes his or her child--a student will be regarded as a child even though he or she is on the way to being grown up--to go to a university where it is believed that security and safety are not treated with adequate seriousness.

Security is a matter that goes wider than simply housing. Even where a security service is sponsored or provided by the student union, as the bulk of its funding comes from the university such expenditure forms part of general university expenditure. I am aware that one university spends between £100,000 and £200,000 annually just on campus security such as closed circuit television. This is designed purely for the security and safety of students. It is another aspect of university life that, sadly, must be treated with enormous care by university authorities.

Other universities have to make provision, either themselves or through the student union for escort services to get students back to lodgings in safety. That may even involve providing a bus service. This does not suggest a happy situation although it demonstrates that universities act responsibly and try to deal with matters within their direct control. But it must be a matter of regret that security costs more and more and so comes into competition with funds that should be devoted to academic matters. Certainly the managerial problems of universities do not get any easier.

Student unions play their part. They issue an extremely good document in conjunction with the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health that provides very good advice to students who move into private houses or flats. The document discusses all the relevant problem areas that are important to the very large number of students who have to make their own housing arrangements independently of universities. I do not know whether general arrangements are made for the distribution of that document. I suspect that it varies from university to university. But I believe that any university where students are obliged to live in private rented accommodation would be well advised to

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undertake the distribution of that document to all new undergraduates when they finally accept their places and before they arrive at the university.

We all know that houses in multiple occupation are subject to a regulatory system and that various local authority bodies and others must deal with that matter. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said, the service is variable. It is quite clear that if universities keep a register of approved accommodation and enter into schemes like those at Lancaster and Leeds that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, outlined, the number of situations in which university students have problems will probably reduce.

It is a depressing fact of life that it is probably only a matter of time before one university or another is sued for damages by someone with a perception that the university has been negligent in some way about some aspect of the subject under discussion. That is not a happy situation. But the advent of conditional fees must make it likely. I received that opinion from a university secretary. I should like to hope that the opinion of such a senior administrator in a university might be wrong but I am afraid that time is on his side.

Universities nowadays are free standing, independent corporations, properly responsible for the management of their own affairs. They are, however, dependent on the public purse for a large part of their finances. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government have in mind to use their strong position vis-a-vis finances to persuade universities to take the necessary action, which they are able to do if they have the will, to give proper protection to the students they take in as undergraduates.

9.21 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for raising this important subject today. I should like to reassure the House that the Government very much share the concerns that have been expressed about the safety of university students who rent accommodation. We are firmly committed to ensuring that student accommodation is safe and provides reasonable living conditions.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to liabilities for universities with regard to any action. I am sure the noble Lord will understand that on a matter to do with the law I prefer to write to him; and promise to do so.

Students can be particularly vulnerable, as many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tope, have said. They are often living away from home for the first time and may not appreciate potential sources of danger in their accommodation. I stress that we are not prepared to tolerate their exploitation by unscrupulous landlords.

There have been too many tragedies which could and should have been prevented. I recognise and pay tribute, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and others, to the efforts of the National Union of Students to increase

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awareness of those dangers. But in addition we need to tackle the problem at source by minimising those dangers as far as we can.

Existing measures under housing and health and safety legislation have generally proved to be effective in reducing risks to people in rented accommodation. But we are aware of some shortcomings, including those mentioned by noble Lords today. I shall try to respond in detail to the points raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, referred to the general problems of damp, infestation and structural problems. Local authorities have powers to deal with those problems under existing legislation--for example, Section 604 of the Housing Act 1985. That applies to any houses.

The Government are committed to introducing a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) because they play an important part in providing student accommodation. Our aim is to ensure that HMOs are safe and provide acceptable basic living conditions. We intend to issue a consultation paper on proposals for HMO licensing in England and Wales in the early part of this year. We want a new system which avoids the ambiguities--a point mentioned by noble Lords--and enforcement difficulties associated with existing controls. Our objective is to improve standards in HMOs through a comprehensive fair and effective scheme. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies asked for further guidance to be issued on the definition of HMOs. We cannot use guidance to extend the definition. It is clear that what is needed is action beyond that.

We are aware of difficulties with the definition of HMO in England and Wales, particularly in relation to shared houses of the type occupied by students. We intend to adopt a more precise definition. One option would be to use the definition based on that currently used in Scotland. That would apply to all houses shared by members of more than two families. The vast majority shared by students would therefore be covered by this definition.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I point out that primary legislation will be required to introduce this scheme and that the Government will legislate as soon as an opportunity becomes available. In the meantime, local authorities already have wide-ranging powers to ensure acceptable standards for HMOs. In England and Wales, they have discretion to introduce HMO registration schemes which require landlords to register properties with the authority. Schemes may include the power to refuse or revoke registration if acceptable standards are not met. However, as I have indicated, we recognise the problem that local authorities are cautious because of the difficulty with the definition.

The noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the fact that the worst housing conditions are often found in this part of the private rented sector. Poor fire and other health and safety standards are all too common, together with overcrowding and inadequate facilities. We are determined to protect the most vulnerable sections of the community from exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring landlords. Our aim is to ensure that properties in multiple occupation are safe and provide acceptable basic living conditions. We want the

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system to be comprehensive and effective. At the same time, we recognise the need to ensure that unnecessary burdens are not placed on HMO landlords. HMOs play an important role in providing housing for groups of people, including students, who may have difficulty in finding alternative accommodation.

In response to the point articulately stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, about greedy and lazy landlords, our aim is to ensure that we improve standards in HMOs rather than close them down. The discretionary nature of the powers has led to inconsistent enforcement, with some local authorities taking a more proactive role than others, depending on local policy. That is why we are keen to introduce a comprehensive licensing system. That issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, asked about deposits. We are concerned about the problems tenants face in getting their deposits returned. We are quite clear that they should not lose part or all of their deposit at the end of the tenancy and they deserve a proper explanation if that is happening. We are proposing a voluntary self-financing scheme to ensure that tenants' deposits are safely held. If, following meetings with representatives, the voluntary scheme is unsuccessful, we have made it clear that we will consider legislating to set up a system which ensures and enforces it.

A similar point was raised by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. Many noble Lords speaking in the debate mentioned the question of gas safety. Gas safety law requires landlords, including HMO landlords, to maintain gas appliances, flues and pipework in a safe condition; to arrange annual safety checks of appliances and flues using an installer registered with the Council for Registered Gas Installers (CORGI) and to provide records of those checks to tenants. The regulations apply to most rented domestic premises, including those occupied by students. Those regulations are enforced by Health and Safety Executive inspectors who work closely with local authority environmental health officers who have enforcement responsibility for other housing legislation, particularly with respect to HMOs.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, it is a critically important area. I am pleased to say that the Health and Safety Executive is currently conducting a comprehensive review of gas safety. That will consider, among other issues, the relative roles of health and safety and other legislation. It will also consider alternative enforcement strategies and bodies. The review's recommendations should be available by the end of the year. The HSE recently launched gas safety web pages on the Internet, which provide information to students on the law, their landlord's duties and what action they can take if their landlord does not provide them with a copy of the relevant safety check. To focus the landlord duties further, the HSE published a new leaflet. Copies have already been distributed in large numbers by university accommodation officers to landlords renting accommodation to students and, of course, to students themselves.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in terms of health advice, twice in the past three years the

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Government's Chief Medical Officer wrote to all GPs alerting them to the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. That advice reminded GPs to be even more diligent when examining patients during the winter months when carbon monoxide poisoning may be diagnosed as flu or other winter illnesses. Each winter all GP surgeries receive copies of the latest government publicity on carbon monoxide poisoning for the information of doctors and their patients.

The question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, implied that he was arguing for licensing of all private rented housing. At present the Government are not proposing wholesale licensing in the private rented sector. However, we are concerned about poor standards at the bottom end of the market. If standards are not improved over time through existing voluntary arrangements, the Government will consider taking action.

I was asked a question by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, regarding non-fire safety approved furniture. Foam-filled furniture legislation applies to the supply of such furniture when letting property for business, enforced by trading standards. However, we acknowledge that there is a real difficulty with enforcement. Houses in multiple occupation schemes may enable local authorities to deal with the problem and licensing will definitely do so.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, with the particularly detailed knowledge he has from his valuable connection with Swansea University, and other noble Lords paid tribute to the Lancaster and Teesside schemes. It is extremely important that we recognise the work being done on a voluntary basis at this stage and pay tribute to that. It is important with regard to the specific issue of HMOs that the appropriate action is taken following the proper consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the wider issue of campus security and the problems that universities face. As I have said, I am not prepared on the hoof to impersonate a lawyer, as it were, but I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the need for all young people to be protected in terms of safety. Few people realise that those in our society who are most vulnerable to physical attack are not little older women, like me, but young men. Universities have to work hard to ensure that all students, not only female students, are protected.

I hope that I have covered the points raised. I reiterate my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his courtesy in providing me in advance with information about his specific areas of concern. I hope that noble Lords are reassured that the Government take these issues very seriously, as demonstrated by our intention to consult on the HMO licensing scheme and the review of gas safety legislation. If, on reading Hansard, I find that I have failed to reply to any specific point, I shall, of course, write to noble Lords.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.

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