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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am slightly worried by the Minister's statement that the Government will legislate when time is available. A Private Member's Bill is going through the other place at the moment which has a section on houses in multiple occupation. Are we to understand that the Government will not support that and will introduce a separate measure?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we have given support to that Bill but it does not contain full provision for the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. It only contains provisions that pave the way for that. I do not know what happened at the Bill's Committee stage yesterday as I am not as up to speed as the noble Baroness in that regard. Although that Bill goes some of the way, it does not go all of the way to provide a licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. That will have to be provided by a subsequent Bill and that is why I say that legislative time is needed to complete the process.

The question of the quality of homes was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. He referred to the importance of energy efficiency and gave terrifying statistics on the percentage of homes in the private rented sector with ratings which he rather modestly described—these were not exactly the words he used—as ones that would seriously damage the health of an elderly or vulnerable person who had to live in them during the winter. What is being done? There is grant assistance. We provide help from public funds largely through grants. These are targeted by local authorities on occupiers of poorer condition housing who cannot afford to keep their homes in good repair. Renovation grants are given for structural work and average about £10,000 per dwelling. Home repairs assistance grants are given more frequently and tend to be used to pay for non-structural work such as rewiring or essential upgrading. We estimate—this is local authority distributed money—that local authorities will spend annually an average of £280 million of their housing investment programme money on private sector renewal over the current spending period.

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The grants regime currently is constrained by a complex set of rules. We are in the process of sweeping those away by means of a regulatory reform order currently before Parliament. Under the simplified rules local authorities will have greater flexibility to aid home owners by means of grants, loans and loan guarantees. As the noble Lord knows from our conversation on the subject this morning, we also help to fund the Home Improvement Agency which comprises small teams attached to local authorities who help primarily elderly and vulnerable people to identify necessary repairs and improvements. The noble Lord also referred to the warm front zones. He said that when we introduce legislation to license houses in multiple occupation and in relation to the private rented sector we should consider incorporating an energy efficiency requirement in the licensing. That is a sensible idea which we shall certainly examine in considering those two areas of licensing. The three main areas mentioned were: investment, quality of landlords and quality of property. Those are issues that we need to keep under constant review. I have mentioned the steps that we are taking to advance those further.

I believe that three other areas were emphasised. As regards housing benefit noble Lords should make no mistake that we recognise the effect that the poor administration of housing benefit can have on tenants in the private rented sector. It is not just a question of constant difficulties for the landlord making housing benefit tenants unattractive but also the fact that from time to time housing benefit tenants are evicted because housing benefit is so slow in being paid. Delays in payment seriously affect both tenants and landlords. Steps are now being taken to help authorities improve their performance in that regard. The Department for Work and Pensions has developed and consulted on the first ever set of national performance standards. We have increased administration funding for the first time in eight years and established a help fund for local authorities. The new DWP help team has given direct practical support to individual authorities. A pilot scheme has involved social landlords in verifying tenants' claims in order to speed up processing. Last year a more realistic single room rent definition was adopted so that young people can obtain decent privately rented accommodation. This is an important issue. We recognise that more work needs to be done on it. However, we recognise the consequences of not getting it right. We are trying to get it right.

I touch briefly on other issues that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was not present when the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, bewailed the fact that there was only one speaker from the government Back Benches but said that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was the equivalent of 20 members of our party. The noble Lord's experience in the field is second to none. He gave a warm welcome to the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Best. He also said that there was no single factor more important than housing in

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contributing to this Government's aims in relation to health, education and fighting crime. I thoroughly agree with that. The noble Lord emphasised the importance of the reform of housing benefit, incentives to encourage greater investment, better management and better regulation. Those are all points with which I agree subject to the point that the regulation must not, as it were, unhinge the political risk. The noble Lord emphasised that local authorities have a role in encouraging investment in the private rented sector. I agree with that. They have a strategic role as regards housing right across their boroughs whether that be in relation to social housing or the private sector. The noble Lord said that the right-to-buy was a self-inflicted wound. However, it is now part of the landscape and we shall not fundamentally change it. We must consider the problems of housing in that context.

I believe that I have dealt with many of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. However, I refer to one other point that he made. He said that I would be disappointed if he did not refer to an effective refrain of his during the passage of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill; namely, the licensing of agents. During discussion on that Bill he said that although there are many extremely reputable and competent agents a few rogue agents of a low standard bring the whole profession into disrepute. As I indicated, we shall consider the question of licensing agents. We shall shortly produce a consultation paper to enable a whole range of options to be considered without giving a particular steer one way or the other.

The noble Earl referred to empty properties, as did a number of other speakers. He mentioned the figure of 760,000 empty homes. He asked whether we would expand the role of the Empty Property Advisory Group. That group, which the department set up in 1999, was established to make recommendations to feed into the Urban White Paper. It was disbanded after the White Paper was published. We are working closely with the Empty Homes Agency to take forward many of the recommendations, including the production of good practice research for local authorities in establishing empty property strategies. The Empty Homes Agency and its partners in the research project are setting up an advisory group of experts which will have a similar role to that of the Empty Property Advisory Group. As I say, the Empty Property Advisory Group was disbanded but a similar body will be set up.

I believe that I have dealt with the main point that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, made. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, described herself rather unfairly as a potterer in this area. Having heard her contribution to this debate and to the debates on commonhold and leasehold reform, she may be a potterer as a landlord but she has an extremely effective understanding of the private rented sector. She referred to the benefit of tiny units. In so far as density is an important issue in relation to dealing with the problems of a shortage of affordable housing, I entirely agree with that comment. She mentioned tax, as did other noble Lords. She also mentioned the

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regulatory framework within which private landlords operate. I reassure her that there is no political risk in the private rented sector.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to The Way Forward for Housing and sought an update of how that is progressing. I hope that my comments on the quality of landlords, the quality of property, trying to seek institutional investors and encouraging the small landlord have covered many of the points that have been made. I shall read her speech to establish whether I should reply to her in writing about how we are getting on in relation to the Green Paper, The Way Forward for Housing.

I pick up the point that the noble Baroness made about the importance of affordable housing in rural areas. I thoroughly endorse what she said. Two weeks ago, Mr Alun Michael, the Minister responsible for rural affairs, and I went to visit a rural affordable housing scheme in Lewes. All of the points that the noble Baroness raised were strongly and effectively made by the local authority down there and by the housing association that was setting up the scheme. That matter can all too easily be overlooked. I hope that she will recall that in our 2001 manifesto we committed ourselves to a specific number of affordable houses in rural areas for a number of years—I cannot remember the exact figures—because we recognise precisely the problem that she identified.

I believe that I have dealt with all of the points that were raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Maddock and Lady Hanham. Once again, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, on an effective and important debate.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Best: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It has been a joy to be part of it. I especially thank the noble and learned Lord the Minister for a very full response to all of the matters that we have discussed and in particular for saying on four occasions that he is open to bids and offers and is very willing to sit down and talk through a number of issues, including regulation, taxation and much more. I assure him that his offer will be accepted, not least in relation to the report from the commission on the private rented sector, which will come out in the spring. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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