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Lord Rooker: It is useful to have this large group of amendments as a preliminary to start the Committee stage of the Bill. I shall try and stick to my golden rule about not using acronyms, but I am really being tested. The HHSRS slips off the tongue quite easily, compared with the housing health and safety rating system, which I shall be repeating ad nauseam. So if I use the acronym it is because even I am getting tired of saying it.
I should like to deal with these amendments in the two groups in which they have been spoken to. To put the amendments in context, Clause 2 provides for the components of the new system to be prescribed in regulations. The components are: the method for calculating the seriousness of the hazards; the descriptions of the hazards; the bands into which the hazards may fall according to the seriousness of the hazards; and the numerical scores which determine the bands into which the hazards fall.
Subsection (1) also defines category 1 and category 2 hazards. Category 1 hazards are those which are sufficiently serious as to trigger the general duty on the local authority in Clause 5 to take the appropriate enforcement action. Category 2 hazardsthat is, all the other hazardsare those which trigger the powers set out in Clause 7, under which the local authority will have a discretionary power to take enforcement action.
The assessment of a hazard has two elements: how likely it is that there will be an occurrence resulting in harm, and the potential outcome of that occurrence. By virtue of Clause 2(3), the regulations that prescribe the method will take account both of the likelihood of harm occurring and the severity of the harm if it occurs. For example, a child may fall through a low window with a wide opening and no safety catch. The likelihood of falling out is no different whether the window is on the ground or the top floor of a block of flats, but the likely outcome will be very different. For other hazardsfor example, excess coldcertain factors, such as the presence or lack of effective insulation, will be a factor in the severity of the health outcome.
I have made available to the Committee copies of the current draft of version 2 of the housing health and safety rating system. That document describes the method for assessing hazards; sets out the principles of scoring the hazards and placing them in bands; and lists the 29 categories of hazard covered by the system. It also gives advice on how local authority officers should operate the system using their judgment; that is, what they should look for and what can be done on the premises to remove or reduce the hazards. Most noble Lords present missed an excellent presentation on the technical aspects of the system which we held recently in an upstairs Committee Room. Nevertheless, certain Members of the Committee came to listen to the experts who designed the system.
Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7 would miss the point of the assessment and the way it needs to work. Though new to the Committee, they are not new to the debate on the Bill and they were tabled in almost identical form in the other place. Amendment No. 1 would make technical changes to the meaning of hazards. Unless they are intended to disrupt or harm the introduction of the rating system, they undermine its objectivity, which is its primary aim. It is also clear that they reflect a view that the system is mechanistic and leaves no room for judgment. I accept that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, in moving the amendment, said that the inspector would still use his judgment and knowledge, but the rating system does not deal with numbers at the expense of the inspector's professional judgment and knowledge. We have been at pains to stress that. The system of course uses numbers, but the hazard score is not determined by the system; it is determined by the inspector.
Amendment No. 4 would introduce the concept of relative standards to a system of risk assessment by requiring the "age, character or locality" of a property to be taken into account. That leads us on to a slippery slopethat is not the hazard, but an unintended pun.
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We do not argue that the rating system seeks perfection in every dwelling. That is just not possible in the 20-odd million dwellings in this country.
Some kinds of dwelling will have characteristic defects; for instance, early-20th century terraced houses may have steep staircases that increase the risk of a fall. A local authority inspector will know that and will make appropriate allowance for it. That is my personal experience in London every day. An early-20th century steep staircase would not pass muster in a modern property today.
On the other hand, it will not be good enough for the inspector to say that, because many dwellings in his area have leaking roofs, he should play down the seriousness of that defect in a particular dwelling. The housing health and safety rating system is a tool that provides objective information as a starting point for an inspector to support his judgment of the action needed to deal with a hazard. That judgment should take on board the effect of housing conditions on the health and safety of occupants.
Amendment No. 4 would also introduce considerations of material comfort to a system which assesses the health and safety risks to occupants. That is obviously a reflection of representations that have been made regarding the repeal of Section 190 of the Housing Act 1985. Aside from any merits for a separate power to deal with minor disrepair and discomfort, it is inappropriate to introduce such considerations to the housing health and safety rating system formula.
The rating system formula will pick up disrepair where it contributes to a hazard; that is, any hazard in category 1 or 2. I can assure the Committee that that represents a very wide range of housing conditions. The worked examples that we issued in 2000 to illustrate version 1 of the rating system showed examples of category 1 hazards. We will be issuing an updated and extended series of worked examples to illustrate category 2 hazards and how the defects are taken on board. It would make for very bad regulation indeed and be confusing to those who are being regulated to try to superimpose on a regime that deals comprehensively with everything from very serious to modest deficiencies a regime that simply comes at the problem from another direction.
The housing health and safety rating system provides a tool for authorities to prioritise intervention. They can choose to tackle disrepair that contributes to modest hazards should that be their approach. Where disrepair does not even contribute to a hazard, we should hesitate to provide open-ended powers. Enforcement action needs to be proportionate and evidence based. There is no reason why authorities cannot provide advice to landlords where they judge that defects might lead to discomfort or further deterioration in the future and monitor those conditions.
I turn to the other amendments in the group. Clause 2 provides for the components of the new rating system to be prescribed in regulations. Those are: the method for calculating the seriousness of hazards; the descriptions of
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hazards; the bands into which they may fall; and the numerical scores. As I said, Section 1 defines "hazard" for the purposes of Part 1 of the Bill.
Amendment No. 5 would qualify "hazard" by limiting any deficiencies outside the premises to any building or land in the "immediate" vicinity. This appears to be an unnecessary change as the assessment should take account of all factors that the inspector judged to contribute to the hazard, regardless of whether they are in the immediate vicinity. Why would we not want the inspector to consider all of the relevant facts if they are available?
Amendment No. 6 would add consideration of an individual disability to the assessment of a hazard. I fully understand the motives behind the amendment and I am sympathetic, but it fails to take account of three important considerations. First, the rating system is evidence based and the evidence of vulnerability is mainly age related, although that would not prevent us adding to our evidence base over time. Secondly, the assessments are based not on the individual occupant, but on the generality of vulnerable people.
Thirdly, there are difficulties in trying to use health and safety legislation to deal with disability rights. We have serious doubts that we could reasonably use this legislation to require a landlord to make alterations and provide special adaptations to an otherwise healthy dwelling. There are other processes and procedures for aiding adaptations for people with disabilities.
Amendment No. 8 would require the hazard bands to be clearly defined by the appropriate national authority. The amendment is unnecessary, because we will ensure that the regulations prescribing the bands will be clear. In addition, the guidance may provide additional assistance.
Amendment No. 9 would clarify that "health" should include "physical and environmental" health. That is unnecessary. Clause 2(5) does not preclude physical and environmental health from the meaning of health. The clause merely states:
The purpose of Clause 2(5) is to make sure that mental health is not excluded. The parliamentary draftsman obviously thinks that we need such a provision, but I find it appalling, because mental health is a health issue like any other. Nevertheless, as we normally use it in legislation, I assure the Committee that environmental and physical health are included in the meaning of "health", but subsection (5) is needed to make sure that mental health is not excluded.
I turn to Amendment No. 16 in Clause 5. Clause 5 imposes a general duty on a local authority to take the appropriate enforcement action in relation to a category 1 hazard existing on residential premises. Local authorities may select the appropriate enforcement action from the options provided in Clause 5(2). The amendment would ensure that any category 1 hazard that exists in a dwelling is one that has been "clearly defined". All of us want to be sure that decisions taken
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by local authorities are sound. That is why we want those decisions to be based on an evidence-based system that helps them identify the problems in housing that matter, and to rate and prioritise them.
Amendment No. 16 reflects similar misunderstandings to those behind Amendments Nos. El and E5 to Clause 2I am sure these amendments have been assigned different numbers now, but they were certainly E1 and E5 when first tabled, so far as my notes are concerned. It fails to take into account the fact that the assessment of the hazard is a function of the inspection carried out by the environmental health officer having regard to the guidance. Whether there is a hazard, and whether that hazard is a category 1 hazard, is therefore a professional judgment of the environmental health officer.
Amendment No. 18 is a cousin to Amendment No. 16 in that it seeks to ensure that any category 1 hazard that exists in a dwelling has been clearly defined. Again, this ignores the fact that the assessment of the hazard is a function of the inspection carried out by the environmental health officer having regard to the guidance. That, we believe, is a matter of professional judgment.
Amendment No. 19 is again related to Amendment No. 16, in that it seeks to ensure that any category one hazard that exists in a dwelling is one that has been clearly defined. We want to be sure that these are sound, and it comes down to the fact that Amendment No. 19 reflects what are apparently no more than misunderstandings behind Amendment No. 16 and Amendments Nos. 3 to 9 to Clause 2they must be the Amendments Nos. E1 and E5 I referred to. It fails to take into account that the assessment of the hazard is a function of the inspection, and this will be a matter for professional judgment.
Amendment No. 22, the final amendment in this group, relates to Clause 7, which gives local authorities the power to take particular kinds of enforcement action in response to a category 2 hazard existing on residential premises. Authorities may select the appropriate enforcement action from the options provided. These options are essentially the same as those provided by Clause 5 in respect of category one hazards.
Amendment No. 22 fails to take into account that the assessment of the hazard is a function of the inspection, carried out in accordance with the guidance that we issued under Clause 8, by a professional environmental health officer.
I know it sounds like a bit of a damp spongeI do not say a bucket of cold water. I have gone into some detail with this, because it is an important part of the Bill. The amendments are quite legitimately tabled for the Government to be held accountable, but I hope I have explained the general thrust of this part of the Bill. Much of what has been tabled here is a matter for the assessment, which will be carried out not on a hunch, but by a professional environmental health officer, in line with the final guidance which will be
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issued in due course after the Bill has received Royal Assent. So it will be some time before we have a final version of the guidance.
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