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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, before I speak on this important Bill, I shall declare a few interests. I am a vice-president of the National Housing Federation and president of the National Housing Forum. I am also patron of the Empty Homes Agency and a vice-president of National Energy Action.

We welcome many parts of the Bill and support many of the Government's aims. However, we have some concerns, which fall into two main areas. First, it is far from clear that many of the proposals for implementation will work. Some of the timescales are over-ambitious, and some of the systems over-complex. Secondly, there is a danger that some of the proposals will not achieve the aims and objectives of the Government.

Part 1 concerns housing conditions, which is an area that certainly needs attention given the age profile of our housing stock and the very poor conditions to be found in some of the private rented sector. Nearly half of the households renting from a private landlord—45 per cent—live in accommodation built before 1919. More than three-quarters of private rented homes have interior or exterior faults; for example, roof leaks, faults to drainage components and damage to ceilings, doors, windows and wall structures.

Although we welcome the new housing health and safety ratings system, we think that it may be inadequate to tackle disrepair in the following ways. It may make it more difficult to identify, evidence in court and enforce repairs through the rating system. It may not adequately cover a disrepair that causes inconvenience or misery to residents, but does not cause an immediate threat to health and safety. There are similar concerns to which we shall no doubt turn in more detail at a later stage.

There was considerable debate in another place on the repeal of Section 190 of the Housing Act. Many people believe that that is a rather straightforward and effective tool for authorities to ensure that landlords carry out repairs. It can also be a useful tool as part of wider prevention strategies to prevent a less serious disrepair in a property deteriorating into a far more serious disrepair. Professional and local government bodies are concerned about that. There was considerable debate in another place. Again, that is something that we will pursue later.

I have two other areas of concern in Part 1, one of which is the timescale that is given for people to put right a category 1 hazard. At the moment, the Government propose a five-year period. The Local Government
 
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Association favours three years. My honourable friend in another place suggested that perhaps it should be one year, but that there should be an ability to extend that depending on the circumstances.

We would also like to see here and elsewhere greater emphasis on energy efficiency improvements. Dealing with climate change is the big debate at the moment. We know that reducing the amount of energy that we use is really important in that respect. I feel that in many areas the Government have been rather slow to respond to that. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government have done all that they can in this Bill to line up with other strategies to deal with energy efficiency: for example, their own energy strategy, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act, the fuel poverty strategy and the Sustainable Energy Act. Those are matters that we shall also pursue later.

Part 2 concerns the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The last time that I discussed that issue in any detail was in another place regarding the Housing Act 1996. Indeed, the present Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I were both in another place at that time. I am only sorry that it has taken us so long—seven years or more—to talk about it again. I strongly support the measures in the Bill. Some of the worst housing in this country is houses in multiple occupation.

However, the Government could be a little more courageous and ambitious. I should like to see more measures to give landlords a more positive role. Landlords' organisations are anxious to be involved in raising standards through their training and accreditation schemes. I know that the Government have been in discussion with landlords' organisations on those matters and such schemes. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the Government's thinking and where they are in their discussions.

We would particularly like to see a couple of areas changed, one of which is the definition of a house in multiple occupation. In his opening comments the Minister gave his reasons about why they were to apply only to buildings of three storeys or more with more than four residents. From my experience in Southampton, where I represented a ward that was close to the university, there were a lot of houses in multiple occupation. Many of the houses that had been converted into housing of multiple occupation were only two storeys, which also happens in inner city areas. Other organisations support us, including the Local Government Association, the National Union of Students and Shelter.

As regards university students, the licensing of accommodation that is occupied by full-time students and run by education institutions, such as halls of residence, should be brought within the survey. There is evidence from the British Gas housing survey of 2004 that some of these buildings have considerable problems with damp and mould.

The Bill will give further authority for local authorities to extend licensing in selected areas. We welcome this, but perhaps it should not be quite so restrictive as the Government have made it. As I understand from the Bill,
 
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where there is poor landlord management in areas of low demand, that is the area that the Government are trying to tackle. That should be widened. In other areas where there is bad management, even if there is not low demand, the local authorities should be able to step in. I heard what the Minister said in his opening remarks, that there would be possibilities to extend that in other areas for HMOs that were not three storeys.

There is considerable detail in the Bill, in the areas that I have touched on, but a lot of extra detail will come through regulations and guidance. I already have here a very large pile and I am sure that there will be more. We have tried to find out exactly what is available now, and I would be grateful if the Minister would update us.

As the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, the most controversial part of the Bill seems to be Part 5 on home information packs. It certainly is for these Benches. But we are not alone in our criticisms, some of which the noble Baroness outlined. The Law Society particularly feels that some of the new processes already in place are fairly satisfactory and that the packs will not help them—they will not sit very well with new developments in the market.

The National Association of Estate Agents is very concerned about the proposed timescale for the implementation of Part 5. I welcome the Minister's reassurance that the Government will not implement it if it is not ready. That is very important because there are concerns about getting enough trained home inspectors.

The House Builders Federation is also concerned about the shelflife of the pack. One of the interesting points it made was about the problems that it will create for frail and elderly people who want to buy homes, particularly being forced to have the pack upfront when they start, and the fact that it is compulsory. I am sure that we will discuss that in detail; I do not have time to go through all the objections, but we share many of the concerns on these Benches.

Above all, we believe that the bureaucracy that will be set up will not achieve the Government's aim. The Minister shared with me his experiences of using that system; I shared with him my experiences of not having a system, and one going well and one not going well—it was nothing to do with whether you had a pack.

It seems to me that the one sector of housing in this country that really works is the private ownership section: where 70 per cent of people own their own home that does not seem to be the area that has the most problems—but more of that later. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I discussed that the last time we had a housing Bill here, and I am sure we will be doing it again. My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury has very strong views on this; unfortunately he is not able to be with us tonight, but he hopes to take part later.

We support the changes made by the Government in Part 6 on the right to buy. Over the years we have seen a huge erosion of the number of rented houses, particularly, which means that families in the social
 
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rented sector often have to be put into flats. Quite frankly, some individuals have made enormous personal benefit from that: if they happened to be in the right place at the right time, they did very nicely, thank you. I do not begrudge them that, but we need to get the balance across the sectors.

I am still concerned about rural areas. We ought to look much more carefully at how we deal with that. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer will touch on that in her contribution tonight. However, Members on these Benches have always thought that it is for individual local authorities to decide how to operate their schemes, which should be based on their overall housing strategies.

Clause 186, covering grants for social housing, is an important provision that the Minister has already referred to, but which has been little discussed. It allows social housing grants to be paid to bodies not registered with the Housing Corporation such as private developers. It would allow unregulated bodies to bid for public funds to develop affordable housing. I understand that the Government believe that they may be able to get better value for money in this way, but can the Minister tell us what evidence backs that up? When my honourable friend in another place, Ed Davey, asked about average build costs in both the public and private sectors, the answer he was given by the Minister, Keith Hill, was that the average cost of a new building for social rent in England in 2003–04 was £116,000. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not keep comparable information on the private sector. I hope that we will be given rather fuller information than that when we come to discuss the clause.

Questions need to be asked: whether private developers can build more cheaply; will standards suffer; can standards be enforced through contract terms; will there be cherry-picking from other projects, and what about the sustainability agenda? I am sure that we will pursue these matters at later stages.

Some new issues have already been added to the Bill. Both speakers referred to the park home provisions. I was part of the group, along with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, that pursued this matter. When I was a Member of Parliament, my constituency contained a huge number of park homes. They provide many advantages as homes for elderly people. The sites are secure and they take up only a small amount of land. However, they lack the kind of protection enjoyed by people in normal housing. I have sought for a long time to ensure that park homes become a part of mainstream housing. I pay tribute to the Minister, Yvette Cooper. She listened to the arguments, went away and did something about it. We particularly welcome that.

Amendments will be tabled on two issues: to provide a statutory basis for tenancy deposit schemes and provisions to enable councils to compulsorily lease long-term empty properties. We support both of these proposals and we shall look at the details. I recall tabling amendments on deposit schemes to the Housing Act 1996. People have campaigned for a number of years,
 
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and plenty of information is available from voluntary schemes that have already been set up. I hope that that will inform how regulations are formulated, and that those who are operating reasonable schemes are not compromised by new legislation.

Last, but not least, I turn to empty properties. I have been involved in this issue since my earliest campaigning days and I am pleased that the Government are at last going to provide an extra tool for local authorities. Much good work has already been done. As patron of the Empty Homes Agency, I recall giving an award to South Somerset District Council for its good work, undertaken while my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer was there.

This legislation should be several Bills. Housing never rises high enough up the agenda to get into the programme. Whenever a housing Bill comes along, everyone wants to add something to it, resulting in very complicated legislation. Despite what the Minister has said, some parts of the Bill were not adequately scrutinised in another place. The Report stage was appallingly truncated.

We support much of the Bill, but we want to improve the detail and throw out the unworkable in our quest for decent, affordable homes for everyone in our country.


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