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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, anyone who has gone door to door over the past few weeks, taking our party's wares around like some modern version of the travelling salesman, will have been reminded how varied is our housing stock and how varied is its condition. One cannot tell everything from observing the front of a house, although I have noted over many years that there is a preponderance of Conservative voters among those whose gates are shut. I challenge noble Lords to deny that!
Anyone who has managed to find a voter at home will have found, too, that the supply of housing is often very high on that individual's list of concerns. People who deliver leaflets often find that slips of paper from decorators and pizza companies have got there just before them. I have never actually seen a note from one of those who encourages a tenant to exercise a right to buy and then buys the house from the new ownerbut that is one of the abuses which I very much welcome being tackled in the Bill.
One evening last week, I was asked by a carer, who was just leaving, not to disturb Mrs "So and So" because she had just been settled for the night. The house, which was divided into several units, had a disabled parking bay outside and a chairlift on the long flight of steps up to the front door. It looked to me like a very good example of the services working together to keep someone in her own home, making the best use of existing stock. The Disability Rights Commission has given us many ideas as to how the Bill can be tweaked to deal with the interests and, indeed, rights of disabled people, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, have reminded us.
Now that we have the Government's announcements about the tenancy deposit scheme and the empty homes management arrangements, I am happy that noble Lords from these Benches can be on the welcoming side of the line regarding the Bill. It will be our stamina, not programme motions or knives, that will determine the effectiveness of our scrutiny of it. Because so much of the Bill is welcome in principle, we are bound to spend quite a lot of time looking at the detail. Reading the Bill, it
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struck me that definitions will be very important, as will the balance between primary legislation and what the Secretary of State can determine or change through regulations and orders.
I must say that I am finding it a little difficult to work out what has already been published in draft, a matter to which my noble friend has referred, but we can come back to the detail later. If the ODPM could produce a flowchart of what is an HMO within the legislation, it would be helpful. If it cannot produce a chart showing what falls within which bits of the Bill, that would prove the point of how difficult it might be for those affected by the Bill and those operating its provisions.
If the Bill is about protecting tenantsand it must bethen the number of storeys is not as relevant to the hazard as is being presented. Whether, at any given time, there are four or five occupants is another matter that we will have to look at. How long should one have to live with a hazard? These are points, among others, that the Local Government Association has raised. I have been surprised that it has not also said that local authorities will need the resources to operate the Bill. I hope that that means that it has had all the right reassurances from Government but it would do no harm for them to be repeated in this House at some point.
Should scoring against ratings determine a judgment as to whether there is a hazard or rather inform that judgment based on qualitative assessment? Hope triumphed, as it often does, over experience and I was surprised when I found that the details of hazards are to be prescribed.
As to licensing, we have heard from the Council of Mortgage Lenders that it is concerned that investors should not be deterred or the buy-to-let market damaged. I am sure that they do not mean by that that bad landlords should be able to let unfit, in the broadest sense, accommodation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Best, having supported encouraging investment in housing, I am beginning to be concerned that it is pushing up prices and making things particularly difficult for first time buyers. I take the point of the CML about the complications of the proposal and the difficulties envisaged if different schemes operate in different areas.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned the position of parents of students who buy a property for the student and let rooms to other students. Perhaps, to put fears at rest, the Minister can tell the House the estimated cost of licensing for a good landlord. On the question of students, I have been far from convinced by the Government's arguments about excepting student accommodation. In a world of PPPs and PFIs, I do not think that one can rely on saying that universities are responsible public organisations; I do not deny that, but I do not think that it is relevant to this issue.
On reading the Bill, I found a number of matters not easy to understand. I look forward to exploring how the Bill interrelates with provisions elsewhere about antisocial behaviour. I hope that the Government can
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convince us that this is not another example of a nanny government knowing best, and also convince us that licensing in designated areas will improve conditions and not confirm that area as undesirable, consolidating its reputation in a vicious spiral.
One of my first thoughts about the Bill was that the level of penalties against landlords in breach was pretty low for them to be an adequate deterrent. I then found, though, that the Secretary of State can uprate the level of fines for some offences if he considers that there has been a change in the value of money. I thought that that was a function of standard scales. I hope to explore just how all this will operate and whether the fines will be an adequate deterrent. Mind you, I then went on to read that the Secretary of State can confer jurisdiction by order on the residential property tribunal. So anything seems possible, I suppose.
On both the rent deposit schemes and empty homes management, we will have to see the detail, although my guess is that there will be heavy reliance on regulations, which is where the devils mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, may be. However, perhaps the Minister can tell the House tonight what consultation there will be on the detail of both of those matters.
One issue that has been raised but on which the Government have barely moved is the protection of houseboat owners and occupiers, to which both the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer have referred. I say "barely" because until recently there was no movement at all. Indeed, I have seen a letter from an official at the ODPM to a houseboat owner that was almost entirely about park homes. And then the official said at the end,
"seem similar to that of park home owners, but there are important differences between the two tenure types . . . I am unclear of the extent and nature of the problems with houseboats and whether statutory intervention would be justified is not clear. I hope this information is helpful to you in setting out the bill's provisions in relation to park homes".
So I say to the Minister, can Defra and the ODPM please join up and find it in their heartsand if necessary by changing the Long Title of the Billto "spatchcock", to use the term used by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, the protection that the Bill extends to park home owners to houseboat owners and occupiers so that we do not have to hear tales of uncontrolled service charges levied by the licensors of moorings, charging for 25 years in advance, cutting off water and electricity in order to move a houseboat owner on, and so on?
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As so often, there is far more in the Bill than one can hope to address at this stage, although the array of expertise available to the House and contributing to tonight's debate has meant that we have given it a pretty good airing. But for my final remarks I should declare an interest. I am still a practising solicitoralthough I have to say as regards conveyancing matters that "practising" is probably still the right term. But my real interest is in achieving the best for the consumerfor both the buyer and the seller, not for the professional. So I take seriously the support of the Consumers' Association. I take very seriously, too, its campaign to regulate estate agents, who are too often not clear who is their client.
Returning to the issue of home information packs, I take seriously, too, the concerns of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Law Society, which the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, used to such great forensic effect. If the packs are to be useful and if they are to include a home condition report, that report must be acceptable to lenders for mortgage purposes.
At the time of the Homes Bill three years ago, I recall being very surprised to find that only about 30 per cent of purchasers arranged their own surveys. I suspect that part of the reason for that is their cost. By imposing that new requirement on sellers, very many of whom are also buyers, the Government will make things more difficult and more expensive. The Government are talking up a solution that is not a solution to the real problems of the time and complexity of assembling a chain of vendors and purchasers. My observations do not lead me to the same conclusions as those of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie.
I attach less importance to the packs than some but, if we are to have them, let us sort out their validity, their contentsthe remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, were very useful on thattheir format, and questions of liability insurance and inspection. I am with those who want to make them voluntary. If they are as useful as is claimed, they will catch on very fast. We will have an interesting time at further stages of the Bill's passage.
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