Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Maddock: The Minister has, as usual, been very full and explicit in his explanations, and we are very grateful to him for that. My noble friend Lady Hamwee, sitting beside me, was wondering whether people trying to listen to this debate were wondering what on earth we were all talking about.

I challenge the Minister again with my main point: those people who are going to try to make this happen on the ground—by and large, environmental health officers—are still concerned that when enforcement action is taken, and if somebody challenges it, the legal and technical arguments in court or tribunals could be quite complicated. They are worried about the system getting bogged down. Can the Minister say what his department thinks of this proposition? That was the one thing he did not touch on.

Lord Rooker: I asked that very question this morning, putting my former constituency member hat on. What would happen, for example, if campaigning solicitors in localities, or campaigning groups, wanted to pick off one property against another? I am assured that the nature of the system is robust enough to stand court judgments on the basis of the scoring system across the range of issues, and the fact that it relates to the property and the vulnerability of people who may be in it. It will have to be an issue of judgment in the case of a particular property. That is the nature of the situation, so one cannot draw premature conclusions. I am assured that it is legally watertight. A parliamentary draftsman has prepared it so that it does what it says in the Bill—not to give anybody free advertising. But it will, along with the guidance, do that.

It is a very technical system, as was seen when we had the presentation upstairs by the external experts who designed it. We are satisfied that the system is robust, and the way it is drafted in the Bill is fit for the purpose we intend, without succumbing to the pitfalls of nit-picking in the courts over the judgments of environmental health officers.

Baroness Maddock: I thank the Minister for that response, and for the presentation on how the system works.

The Minister, in referring to Amendment No. 4, felt that it was not quite the appropriate place for it, so I shall read what he said very carefully. It may be that there will be other matters we might want to return to at a later stage, but I certainly will not be pressing the amendment for the moment.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. I come back to the question of whether a "vicinity" is a vicinity or an immediate vicinity. The concept of a vicinity goes very wide, and in terms of individual properties, one has to ask "How wide is wide?". Would a house in danger of collapsing in the street behind be in the vicinity? I presume, if it was a
 
20 Jul 2004 : Column 144
 
hazard to property, it might be. If there was a tree whose roots were coming through, and nobody knew quite how far but the tree was two streets away, would that be in the vicinity?

One has to be really careful about this definition. We have clearly defined some things, but if we do not clearly define this then the environmental health officers will use their own discretion as to how near or how far they are going on what could potentially be a fishing expedition. Perhaps the Minister has an answer to that, then I will come to the next point.

Lord Rooker: It would be unreasonable for people to go on fishing expeditions. It means in the vicinity of vulnerable people in a particular property. Joint entrances, passageways, covered walkways jointly shared with another property but not within the property, would all certainly be within the vicinity and be used by people in the property being inspected. I am not sure about roots of a tree two streets away, but if they are affecting the safety of people in a particular house, maybe because they are making the entrance unsafe, then I would imagine that would come within the vicinity of that particular property. EHOs would certainly not be allowed, however, to go on fishing expeditions.

Baroness Hanham: Thank you. I hear what the Minister says, and I shall read his reply carefully.

I am not clear why the definition of health includes mental health, which is more or less what the Bill says. I cannot think why mental health has been picked out as the only aspect of health. In this day and age, with all that we know about mental health, and all that health means, the word "health" should be all-encompassing. There should be no need for an Act specifically to pick out that one word. That is one of the reasons we have put in the others, to define the extent of jeopardised health. It appeared to be a curious single word—and a curious aspect of health—to include. It might have been easier for it simply to be removed. We needed to debate the reasons for its inclusion.

Lord Rooker: I do not know. I cannot say more than I have said. I regret that there is nothing in the Explanatory Notes. I am assuming that in Acts of Parliament and Bills the way in which "health" has been used in the past has been found not to cover mental health, and perhaps this approach involves redefining health. The fact that mental health must be specifically stated must mean that it has been held in the past that the term "health" did not cover mental health. For the purposes of this Bill, "health" includes mental health. I assume that it is included for some historical reason involving other legislation. I shall get further particulars on this, however, because I need a better explanation. That is the only common-sense view of why subsection (5) appears as it does.

Baroness Hanham: I am grateful to the Minister. If it is possible to let us know why it has been included in
 
20 Jul 2004 : Column 145
 
advance of the Bill's next stage, that would be helpful. For today's purposes, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes): I do not believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, moved the amendment.

Baroness Maddock: I knew that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, wanted to intervene so I did not withdraw the amendment earlier. However, at this point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 3:

The noble Baroness said: The housing health and safety rating system—I will not attempt to pronounce its acronym—is to operate in accordance with guidance to be published by the Government. At the moment, an unfinished draft known as version 2 is available. There are 29 proposed hazards including falls, fire, structural stability, crowding and space, radon gas, security and so on.

Where an assessment is required the environmental health officer will assess each category of risk on a structural basis to establish the likelihood of the risk occurring which could cause harm within the next 12 months and the range of outcomes from such harm. The spread of outcomes relate to the risk of death or injuries that require medical attention, by a GP or hospital.

This assessment is always based on the most vulnerable age group, if one exists, and is purely age related. Depending on the category of risk, the most vulnerable are either the very young or the elderly. The reason for this is that the only statistics that exist are age based.

Many properties which will be subject to the housing health and safety rating system assessment are not lived in by the very young or the very old. Indeed, most private, rented properties are occupied by students, young couples and young working people.

The guidance assessment process disregards characteristics relating to the actual or potential occupiers, except in one case; namely, crowding and space, where the number of occupants is taken into consideration.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that this is done as part of the evaluation process in all cases. No guidance is intended despite the structured approach in which the first two stages of the process are to be undertaken. There would therefore be no structured way of doing this.

The effect of not making this change will be to require unnecessary works to be undertaken to properties with the consequent costs involved. This will lead to higher rents or possibly encourage the landlord—for example, an owner of one or two
 
20 Jul 2004 : Column 146
 
properties in a student area—to sell up and so reduce the amount of accommodation available. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, helpfully took us through the Clause 2 components of the new system in his earlier inspection of the way in which we see the new HHSR system working. He did so rather forensically, I thought. He usefully set out how we see it operating. For that reason, having listened to the noble Baroness, the amendment probably misses the point of the way in which the assessment must work if it is to give an objective means of comparing the severity of hazards across the housing stock. I heard what she said about assessments and how they relate to the age of the occupant and the level of risk but she failed to make a leap of faith, as it were, involving the way in which we see the system working in practice.

Amendment No. 3, which attempts to redefine hazards as a risk of harm to the health or safety of an actual or likely rather than a potential occupier, slightly misses the point. It fails to take account of the fact that the assessment system is intended to assess the condition of the property for the most vulnerable person who could potentially live there based on the principle that a dwelling that is safe for the most vulnerable is safe for all.

We need to know not who is likely to live there but only that such a person may possibly do so in future. Having come to an understanding of the degree of hazard, it will be for the environmental health officer to determine the appropriate action to be taken in the circumstances, which involve the property and the way in which it is likely to be used.

The noble Baroness may have failed to take account of that part of what happens after one has understood the level of hazard and risk as part of the assessment. The amendment is not in the end necessary although I can appreciate that it is hard—certainly at the initial stages—to get to grips with the way in which the system might work in future.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page