HC Deb 25 February 1983 vol 37 cc1142-207

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When I was fortunate enough to come sixth in the ballot for private Members' Bills did not realise that I would be inundated with requests to introduce Bills on behalf of different pressure groups. Having had the experience, I feel that it is perhaps one that all hon. Members should have.

It is not my intention today to outline in graphic detail all the incidents that have occurred in these properties over the years, nor to narrate the harrowing accounts of people who have first-hand experience of the incidents. However, I am sure that hon. Members who have constituents with such experiences will do so.

I should like to remind the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment that the Minister for Housing and Construction in 1980 used a glowing phrase about hostels, when he said that they were the great unswept corner of English housing policy. Even though the Government have made small steps to improve these properties, much still remains to be done. If that was the view of the Minister for Housing and Construction in 1980, I am sure that it is still the Government's view, and when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate, I am sure that he will reinforce that view. I hope that he will give the Bill the Government's blessing, and ensure it a fair wind on the Floor of the House and subsequently in Committee.

The basic purpose of the Bill is to enforce adequate standards in four main respects: first, better fire safety; second, repairs; third, adequate space for the tenants of these premises; and, fourth, an attempt to improve the amenities and the poor management in many of these properties. I am sure that the House will agree that it is disgraceful that thousands of our fellow citizens are forced to live in conditions of squalor and danger which should have been outlawed many years ago.

My Bill, although a small attempt, is an attempt to ensure minimum standards of comfort and safety in all hostels, lodging houses and bedsitter flats. It commands widespread support in the House, and also outside, and I hope that it will receive a Second Reading and detailed scrutiny in Committee.

The House will be aware that a number of existing laws give local authorities the power to control standards in these properties, but almost all of them are discretionary. Some local authorities effectively use those powers but the majority do not.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that of the 366 housing authorities in England only 44 operate a registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation and only 12 of those 44 operate the minimal scheme of registration purely for information. That would be acceptable if standards in the premises were high, but unfortunately they are not. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers carried out a survey which shows that of the 139,000 houses in multiple occupation 85 per cent. are below an adequate or satisfactory standard. We cannot condone that any longer.

The Housing Act 1980 required local authorities to take necessary action for fire precautions. In December 1981 the Government duly laid an order—statutory instrument No. 1576/81—laying a duty upon local authorities to inspect for fire safety properties of three storeys or more in which the combined floor space was greater than 500 sq m. As was vigorously argued at the time, the floor size laid down by the Government covered only a small minority of the properties in multiple occupation. Therefore, even though the 1980 Act was a small advance, the large majority of properties in multiple occupation were outside the law, because the statutory instrument was not stringent enough to cover all the properties in multiple occupation. However, the 1980 Act was helpful and welcome.

The 1980 Act does not tackle the acute dangers of death or injury by fire in properties of multiple occupation. Nor did it attempt to address the problems of disrepair, overcrowding, the lack of amenities and poor management in such properties. It is as well to remind the House at this juncture that the catalogue of tragic fatalities during the past year only serves to underline the urgent need for much stronger legislation in that area.

Clause 1 places a mandatory duty upon local authorities to inspect their districts at least once every two years in order to identify the houses in multiple occupation and to ensure that adequate standards are met. My city of Leicester has been doing that for several years and the evidence is that it is practicable and can be done at reasonable expense. The only local authorities that need fear increased expenditure of resources are those that have blatantly failed to carry out their discretionary powers. Although Westminster city council has a large number of these properties and operates no registration scheme at the moment it actively supports the Bill, even though it claims that if the Bill became an Act it would require 16 or 17 more officers to police it. Even with the increased resources that would be required, it still supports the Bill because it thinks that it is an urgently required humanitarian measure.

Although one can argue about the need for increased financial resources, that should not be used as an argument against the Bill. If the Minister were to argue that the two-year period imposes too onerous a duty and responsibility upon local authorities to inspect their district for premises in multiple occupation, that is a Committee debating point that can be argued later. I am prepared to accept that local circumstances may dictate a period greater than two years, but that should not be used as an argument against the Bill.

Clause 2 is vital. It places a duty on owners to ensure the health and safety of those who occupy their accommodation. Some of the lawyers in the House may argue that the law already provides for that. They may cite two examples—first, the common law duty of care by landlords for their tenants or, secondly, section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972 which places a duty on owners to safeguard occupiers against personal injury. Although those arguments may be advanced, the hard evidence from recent coroners' court inquiries shows only too clearly that they are inadequate safeguards for tenants in multiply occupied premises. The clause makes it clear that a duty is placed upon the owners of properties in multiple occupation to safeguard the health and safety of their tenants.

Clause 3 requires local authorities to maintain a register of such properties. Right hon. and hon. Members will see that there are two categories of property to be registered; they are defined in schedule 1. In broad terms, category A is the typical type of privately rented bedsitter or flat, where the tenant has exclusive use of part of the building, most probably a bedroom, and shares other facilities such as the toilet and the bathroom. Category B refers to the cheap hostel, night shelter or cheap lodging house where a tenant has no exclusive use of any part of the premises and where all the facilities in the premises are shared. The clause also makes it an offence to fail to register the premises.

Clause 4 is probably the central element of the Bill since it defines the standards which are to be attained. Briefly, the standards are the maximum number of tenants who may be permitted to occupy the premises, and the minimum standards for facilities such as lighting, ventilation, water supply, heating installations and fire precautions. The list continues in schedule 3. By bringing all those measures together, the Bill simplifies as well as strengthens previous legislation. I remind the House that the minimum standards are not thought up by myself or by the pressure groups supporting the Bill, but are based upon the recommendations of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. If any group of people has first-hand experience in this area it is these officers, who are at the front line of the battle against bad conditions in premises in multiple occupation.

Clause 5 provides a single simplified procedure for enforcing standards by local authorities, and, importantly, enables local authorities to recover their costs when they carry out work in default. Clause 7 provides a new procedure for dealing with those properties not capable of reaching at reasonable expense the standards set out in the Bill. It would mean that, if no arrangement could be reached to bring the properties up to a reasonable standard at reasonable expense after consultation between the owners and the local authorities, the local authorities would have to issue a termination order.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I wish to put to the hon. Gentleman a point of central significance to the Bill. Does he think the effect of his Bill will be to increase or diminish the stock of property available for letting to tenants in multiple occupation? If there is to be a diminution in the housing stock, how will the shortfall be made up?

Mr. Marshall

That argument against the Bill has been made before. The local authority in the city of Leicester has been keen to ensure minimum standards in properties in multiple occupation. The evidence is that most owners of such properties are prepared to accept the need for improvement. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will see that in those instances where the owner refuses to comply with the newly enacted legislation there is a duty upon the local authorities to ensure that people displaced from such premises are reaccommodated in suitable accommodation.

I would hazard a guess that most owners would be prepared to comply with the legislation. If they are not prepared to comply with the legislation, that is not an argument to condemn people to live in such inadequate premises. It should then be upon society as a whole, especially the local authorities, to provide suitable accommodation. I do not see a general problem arising. The particular problem should be resolved by the local authorities concerned.

If the two sides cannot agree on suitable arrangements, a termination order must be issued. That means that within six months the premises must cease to be used as premises in multiple occupation, and the local authority must find suitable alternative accommodation for the people displaced from them.

The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to vary that period from six months to a maximum of three years should it mean that a large hostel or lodging house will have to close. The three years would provide for a phasing out period so that either alternative private accommodation could be found, or the local authority itself could provide suitable accommodation. That summarises the Bill's main provisions.

The Bill is similar in outline to that introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) in 1979. I had hoped to pay him that compliment while he was in his seat. Unfortunately, he is probably going about his Whip's duty at the moment.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)


Mr. Marshall

However, the Bill differs in two particulars from that introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West. First, it is much shorter. On that ground alone, it should commend itself to the Government. Secondly, and more important, the Bill sets out standards to be required rather than leaving to the Government the subsequent task of bringing forward statutory instruments. It is far better to do it that way, since the owners of these properties will be clear from the outset about the implications of the Bill.

Mr. John Page

I failed to interrupt the hon. Gentleman earlier, but I wish to consider clause 2. Neither of us is a lawyer. Is it possible for an owner—I was thinking of myself, in my home—to ensure the health and safety of all the occupants of that house? I think that that is an impossible task to impose on someone. Has the hon. Gentleman examined that position?

Mr. Marshall

I have given it some thought. I have seen photographs showing the state of disrepair of many of these properties. If the hon. Gentleman had more firsthand experience of these properties, he would be aware of the matters that I had in mind when promoting the Bill.

Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)


Mr. Marshall

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can control his natural exuberance this morning.

The Bill seeks to ensure that the electrical fittings in such premises are safe, that there is an adequate gas or electricity supply, that the toilets are usable, that wallpaper is not falling off the walls and that damp and water are not pouring down the walls. Those who have experienced such conditions are well aware of what the measure seeks to do. We are asking landlords not to provide accommodation more applicable to the Ritz, but to provide basic accommodation which is safe and which ensures some privacy. Many properties appear, at the moment, to undermine the health and safety of those who are unfortunate enough to have to live in them.

Mr. Pitt

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that the regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 as they now pertain are perfectly adequate for all interior areas, and that all that is involved is an interpretation of those health and safety at work regulations in the home?

Mr. Marshall

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that remark. Had I gone into greater detail to underline the principles behind the Bill—I did not wish to detain the House—I would have made the point that clause 2, and the need to promote the health and safety of such tenants, is based upon the health and safety legislation. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps my explanation will encourage him to support the Bill rather than to delay its passage through the House today.

I have been greatly encouraged by the support that the Bill has received. Inside the House it has cross-party support, although unfortunately I cannot see many of my supporters on the Government Benches this morning. However, I am sure that they will be present if required at the appropriate time. The Bill has the active support of the parliamentary Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless group, which is ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard).

Outside the House, the Bill is supported by housing groups, tenants' organisations, law centres, advice centres and others, which comprise the Houses in Multiple Occupation Group. Perhaps they will forgive me if I do not give all their names. The Bill also has the support of local authorities.

I have received many letters from local authorities asking Members of Parliament to support the Bill. I made sure that I did not bring along a letter sent to me by my local authority because it could be said to have been unduly influenced by me. I have a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond), which was given to him by the old Oldham metropolitan area, asking him and the House to support the Bill. I did not bring either of those letters along. Both local authorities are Labour controlled and they could be said to be a little more progressive, and more willing to spend resources, than their Tory counterparts.

Therefore, I have brought along a letter from Reading borough council and shall read two paragraphs from it. It is dated 23 February 1983 and was written by the chief executive of Reading borough council, Mr. William Henry Tee. It states: The control of multi-occupied houses has been a source of concern and difficulty in Reading for a number of years and Councillors of all parties have been very concerned at the conditions existing in crowded bedsits and lodging houses, and at the difficulty in locating such establishments so as to permit controlling action to be taken. At the meeting of the full Council held on 22nd February 1983 a resolution expressing support for your Bill was passed unanimously. Furthermore, the Council has required the three Members for Reading to be present in the Chamber on 25th February and to vote for the Bill so as to ensure its success. If those three Members of Parliament are not here at present, I am sure that they will attend if their presence is required.

The third group of people to support the Bill consists of the trade unions. I understand that the Fire Brigades Union has written to all Members of Parliament. Firemen unfortunately have to deal with the victims and have a keen interest in the Bill's progress. The Bill also has the express support of the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians.

The fourth main body to support the Bill consists of church organisations that have direct experience of running hostels. Hon. Members may have seen a letter that appeared in The Times on Wednesday 16 February, in which the chief secretary of the Church Army and the director of Church Army Housing Limited voiced their public support for the Bill. Their letter states: As one of the largest Church-based organisations providing hostels for homeless single people … we are only too aware of the terrible conditions endured by thousands of homeless people in inadequate night shelters and hostels, overcrowded bed-sits and rundown lodging houses. We recognise the preference of the overwhelming majority of residents in older institutionalised hostels for satisfactory modern standards of accommodation—as confirmed in the Government's own report 'Single and Homeless', and are working with the Housing Corporation and local authorities to achieve this in our own hostels. The letter concludes by saying: We do believe this Bill is an urgent necessity in order to protect some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, and hope that all Members of Parliament will be prepared to lend their support". To those sentiments, I can only say "Hear, hear."

The Bill's sentiments represent the almost unanimous judgment of those with the most direct knowledge of this subject. It is only one step towards the vital task of ensuring that every citizen has a decent, secure home, but it is an important stride towards that goal, and I commend it to the House.

10.3 am

Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak so early in the debate. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to apologise to the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, for the fact that long-standing constituency engagements will prevent my being here for the conclusion of the debate, although I intend to stay for some considerable time.

Many hon. Members spend their parliamentary careers seeking to obtain first place in the ballot for Prime Minister's Question Time. Year after year hon. Members also seek to come high up in the ballot for private Member's Bills. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South, not only on securing such a prominent place in the ballot, but on choosing a subject that strikes at the hearts and lives of many thousands of our citizens. I largely support the Bill's intent, but regrettably I shall have to be critical of its execution.

All hon. Members have first-hand knowledge — I certainly do in my constituency of Lichfield and Tamworth —of sad and tragic housing conditions. Houses that are let in multiple occupation contribute most to that tragedy. The unsavoury events in Cranley gardens, north London, about which we have all read in the national press in the past two weeks, must be attributable, to some extent at least, to the lack of decent accommodation for perhaps the poorest-off members of our society.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South on introducing a Bill that has engaged the attention of the leader writer in today's edition of The Times. Not every private Member's Bill can command so many column inches in that hallowed paper. I shall quote two paragraphs from it: The motives are admirable, and the need for better standards is clear. The Bill's promoters will need to make headway against the very proper reluctance of most MPs to increase the burden of public expenditure except for very good reasons. At the conclusion of my speech I shall refer to the comments of one local authority association which the hon. Member for Leicester, South omitted to mention and which does not support the details of the Bill because of its implications for public expenditure.

The leader continues: They will need to convince the House that the Bill will really produce benefits commensurate with its cost. That cannot be taken for granted. Even legislation in mandatory form is often ineffective if councils drag their feet and find excuses for not applying it. In housing particularly, there are too many examples of legislation intended to strengthen the rights of the underdog whose main effect has been to reduce the number of kennels for the underdog to lay his head in. That is a rather vivid description. I would rather say that the Bill will possibly throw out the baby with the bath water.

If the Bill is enacted it may reduce the number of rooms available to those whom it is intended to protect. I understand that 20 per cent. of all those who occupy rooms or flatlets in houses that are let in multiple occupation are pensioners, who are in the autumn of their lives and living in twilight accommodation. The Bill will also bring into its net other properties that are let to university students, nurses, and so on, and which serve a perfectly valuable and useful purpose. I think, for example, of flatlet houses in seaside towns. There are 19.5 million homes in this country, of which 264,000 are let in multiple occupation. Of those, 103,000 are in the Greater London area. The type of property that the Bill seeks to improve is concentrated in our cities and conurbations.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight in the Bill the risk of fire in properties of this kind. Sadly, the number of casualties attributable to fires in dwellings let in multiple occupation has not diminished since the very worthwhile measures introduced in the 1980 Act. In 1977 the number of non-fatal fire-induced injuries in the United Kingdom was 1,337, and there were 172 fatal injuries. In 1979 the numbers had increased to 2,113 nonfatal and 282 fatal injuries. In 1982 the figures were 2,319 and 279.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Although it is crucial to tighten fire regulations for premises in multiple occupation, the expense involved is very great because the high standards set by fire and safety officers are often rather too demanding in terms of the materials required and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that careful attention must be paid to achieving a balance that everyone can afford as, inevitably, the expense involved will ultimately be passed on to the tenants?

Mr. Heddle

My hon. Friend anticipates two comments that I was about to make.

The Bill highlights one further point. Notwithstanding the consolidation of housing law in the Housing Act 1980, standards of public health and safety are still subject to a plethora of legislation, including the Public Health Act 1936, the Housing Acts of 1961 and 1967, the Rent Act 1974 and the Housing Act 1980. Moreover, Standing Committee F is now considering the Housing and Building Control Bill. When the Conservative Government are returned at the next election, one of the first priorities must be to consolidate all our housing legislation in one Act, just as all our property law was consolidated in the massive Law of Property Act 1925.

In examining the effects of the 1980 Act I shall seek to answer the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). The Bill seeks to reduce overcrowding. That is a perfectly laudable aim, but the 1980 Act itself consolidated the provisions of the Housing Act 1957 to reduce abuses of that kind. One must be careful not to strengthen the criteria so much as to render people homeless, as the local authorities will then be obliged to rehouse those made homeless. A balance must be struck.

With regard to adequate provision of fire escapes, the 1980 Act brought into its ambit the provisions of the 1961 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will recall that in December 1981 the Government took order-making powers under the 1980 Act to impose upon local authorities a duty to exercise their powers to require the provision of necessary means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation of three storeys or more where the combined floor area of all storeys exceeds 500 sq m, so local authorities already have those powers. My hon. Friend also referred to improvement grants. It is absolutely right that local authorities should have power to impose upon owners the duty to bring houses let for multiple occupation up to a minimum standard of repair.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State for all that they have done to stimulate the home improvement process. As my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt remind us later, a very considerable amount of money is now made available by the Government to insist that property owners provide the basic amenities and improvements that tenants of such properties richly deserve. In their way, those grants will go a long way to stimulate the construction industry.

The Bill also refers to penalties for evasion of statutory responsibilities to provide information to local authorities by owners of houses in multiple occupation. Again, the 1980 Act substantially increased the penalties available to the courts in cases of contravention of notices or orders with regard to overcrowding and the provision of fire escapes. The Criminal Justice Act 1982 further increased the penalties available when unscrupulous property owners seek to evade their responsibilities and put the occupants of such houses at risk.

Close examination of the Bill shows that the hon. Member for Leicester, South believes that the best way to impose penalties is to relate them to the gross value of the property. That suggests that the seriousness of an offence is directly related to the size of the property. There might be some rough justice in that, but it would probably be coincidental, as it is plain that serious offences could take place in relation to relatively small houses and fairly minor offences could take place in relation to larger houses.

Perhaps I may take a quick trip down memory lane to remind the House of the contribution made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), who said on Report on the Housing Bill 1980: My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard)"— I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is present today— reminded us that we cannot rely on further major housing legislation for a long time, if at all, in this Parliament.—[Official Report, 19 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 75–76.] I have referred to the proceedings of Standing Committee F on the Housing and Building Control Bill. Only yesterday my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction referred to his announcement earlier this week of a new clause to that Bill which would give public sector tenants the right to demand repairs to their properties. Those new provisions, which will no doubt come before the House on Report, put the public sector tenant on exactly the same footing as the private sector tenant. Private sector tenants in houses in multiple occupation have the right to demand that the landlord carry out repairs. If the landlord seeks to evade that responsibility, local authorities already have power under the public health and housing Acts to compel landlords to carry out repairs.

The real problems that exist is many houses let in multiple occupation are part of a far wider housing problem. That problem has been exacerbated by the mongrel dogma in which political parties tend to engage when dealing with this vital necessity in the lives of all our people—their homes. If that mongrel dogma could escape from the political kennel and we could have some agreement on how the public and the private sectors can best provide homes at realistic prices for the majority of our citizens, the Bill would not be necessary.

The decline of the private rented sector and the failure of successive Governments to reverse that decline, which has continued its inexorable slide since 1919 when rent control first appeared on the statute book, or to enable other housing to fill the gap that is left, means that it is inevitable that people will be left in unsatisfactory accommodation because alternative accommodation is not available. It is also inevitable that those who will suffer most will be those who cannot look after themselves as well as others, such as the less articulate and the less well off. The real answer is to make available alternatives and not to use sticking plaster—the rememdy of compulsory powers—and not to give the town hall a mallet with which to beat the back of someone who is trying to provide rented accommodation. If he did not provide it, the town hall would be responsible and, ultimately, the ratepayer and the taxpayer.

Where rents are regulated, rental income is often insufficient to keep properties in a decent state of repair. The cost of financing repairs and improvements as envisaged in the Bill will be a problem for the majority of owners of properties let in multiple occupation, and may be impossible for many. Even the compulsory powers that the Bill will provide cannot command the impossible. The main thrust of the Bill is based on the belief that property owners neglect their property voluntarily, purely through sloth or greed. That is not true. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt) nods his head as though he believes that it is true. He cannot have met many property owners, the majority of whom intend to provide decent basic accommodation at reasonable rents.

Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

The majority of those who run houses for multiple occupation are responsible landlords, but my hon. Friend must realise that substantial incomes can be earned. In one boarding house in Oxford 75 beds are occupied every night and it has been worked out that the landlord's income in £163,800 a year. Perhaps for that sum he and many other people who run high-market doss houses could spend a little more on tarting up the accommodation.

Mr. Heddle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that example at 131 Iffley road, Oxford, which was referred to in the excellent brief provided by the organisation CHAR. However, the local authority and the Department of Health and Social Security have powers to stop such abuses, so my hon. Friend is not going down the same road as me in presuming that the Bill will obliterate those abuses. The housing authorities and the health and social security authorities already have powers.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

What power does the DHSS have to do anything about that problem?

Mr. Heddle

The hon. Gentleman will know that the DHSS already pays the rents of some occupants of such premises. The DHSS can complain about abuses to the local housing authority, whch can then take the necessary action. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Cunningham

No, of course I do not agree. The answer is that whatever powers the local authority has—they are very limited and that is the justification for the Bill—the DHSS has no powers to do anything about those problems unless the charges levied by the landlord are so grossly unreasonable—and I am talking about the old system of rent allowances—that the DHSS could decline to pay them. It is an impractical power to deal with the problems. The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) realises that.

Mr. Heddle

The hon. Gentleman must realise that in the case cited by my hon. Friend there must be overcrowding for the owner of the premises to recover such an exorbitant and extortionate rent. As there are grounds for complaining about overcrowding, the DHSS can report that to the local authority, which already has powers to cure the problem.

The tampering with the supply of private rented accommodation and the attempt to link it with demand cannot best be achieved by the Bill. It can best be achieved, first, by ensuring that local authorities carry out their statutory obligations, and, secondly, by ensuring that property owners take advantage of the standard and discretionary grants that are available and could be used to greater effect. The only way in which homelessness can be eliminated and the stress caused to those who live in such accommodation relieved is by ensuring a fair market of supply and demand based upon a fair return. If the rent regulation procedure were reduced from two years to one year, so that the responsible and reputable property owner could receive an index-linked income, there would be further incentive and encouragement for him to provide the standard basic amenities of improvement, repair and adequate fire escape precautions. The abuses highlighted by the Bill would be eliminated in the fullness of time.

10.26 am
Mr. George Morton (Manchester, Moss Side)

The speech of the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) was similar to those that may have been heard in debates decades ago, when Conservative Members argued that we could not replace the cellar dwellings of Liverpool, the back-to-back dwellings of Leeds or the courtyard houses in Manchester because we could not supply the houses needed by those displaced by such legislation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) for using his good fortune in the ballot to bring forward this Bill, because it will greatly improve the conditions of life of those most in need. My constituents and those who live in other parts of Manchester urgently require such measures. Many people in London and in most cities have similar needs.

We are not only anxious about housing conditions. As the National Association of Probation Officers has said, many problems arise from the squalid, unhealthy and dangerous accommodation that is the only possibility for many young people. The problems of single homeless people are generally ignored. There is anxiety about some accommodation, but often the problems are dismissed with the thought that those people want such accommodation. That is far from true. Few, if any, of those who live in hostels or in small houses in multiple occupation do not wish for something better. The Government's report "Single and Homeless" published last year showed that the overwhelming majority of single people wish to improve their conditions, and that the obstacle is the lack of adequate provision.

The purpose of the Bill is to require minimum standards of fire safety, repairs and amenities and to prevent overcrowding in houses and hostels. In schedule 1 there is an important distinction between hostels that may have been purpose-built during the last century, or converted to hostels, and houses that are divided into bed-sits with shared washing and cooking facilities. Both are covered by the definition of houses in multiple occupation. My particular interest is the latter, to which reference is made in paragraph (i) of schedule 1—typically the large Victorian family house on several floors, too large for family use now and often in a battered condition and divided into many small units. While there are landlords who look after their properties in a proper manner and who do not exploit their tenants, too often the landlord sees this kind of building as a means of getting rent from fairly undemanding tenants in circumstances where he can expect to keep the building intact for 10 years or so without doing many repairs and then probably sell the site for redevelopment as flats when the building finally crumbles.

The demand for small units of accommodation is increasing. It will be made greater by the lack of growth of alternatives due to the Government's policies. While in the city of Manchester the council is prepared to let flats to single persons, the opportunity that that provides is limited by the refusal of the DHSS to provide grants for furniture for single people on supplementary benefit. Shared accommmodation of this kind is a feature primarily of the cities. In England as a whole, 1.3 per cent. of all households are not in self-contained accommodation. In the constituencies of Ardwick, Withington and Moss Side in Manchester, the percentage is much greater. In Ardwick, it is 4.8 per cent., in Withington, 4.6 per cent., and in Moss Side, my constituency, 4.4 per cent.

I shall continue to press for more action on houses in multiple occupation in Manchester. I am, nevertheless, grateful for the efforts made by the environmental health department in many cases that I have raised. I would not criticise the city council unduly. It attempts to control divided houses and to get repairs done. It is one of the exceptional authorities in that respect. I am also pleased with the principles adopted by the city council for replacing the wholly unacceptable night shelters and hostels. I hope that some physical progress will be seen soon. I would not, however, be so sanguine about the local authorities surrounding Manchester. Those authorities perhaps need the Bill more than Manchester does.

Most urgent of all the reasons for the Bill is that of the need for establishing fire precautions and means of escape from fire. Many of these converted houses are fire traps. The provisions of the Housing Act 1980 requiring inspection for fire safety are inadequate. The space standards that are set exclude a large proportion of houses converted for multiple occupation. It has been reckoned that a resident of a house in multiple occupation has 50 times more chance of being killed in a house fire than a resident in any other accommodation. It is no wonder that the Fire Brigades Union supports the Bill. Its members are closest. They see most of the dangers.

It has been argued that, if standards are raised, places will be closed. That argument could be used against any improvement of standards. Where places cannot be improved at reasonable expense, the Bill provides for local authority control and rehousing either in six months or, in the case of a large hostel, in three years. I believe that improvement is possible in many cases within existing premises, and the requirements on the local authority to provide rehousing will not be great. The need is to catch these houses before they fall into final decay. The support of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers in the setting of minimum standards is valuable.

Most houses in multiple occupation can be improved. However, some places should be closed urgently. It is impossible to argue that the residents of those places should not be rehoused.

I welcome the Bill. I hope that today it will get its Second Reading and proceed within this Session to enactment.

10.35 am
Sir Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

I should like to add my voice to the congratulations extended to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on introducing the Bill and the manner in which he did so. His speech was clear, sensible and thought-provoking. My only slight criticism is that it was perhaps unfair to quote the demands of local authorities about hon. Members attending here. Hon. Members do not have to obey implicitly everything that our local authorities tell us about attending debates, least of all on private Members' day. Apart from that, the hon. Gentleman presented his case extremely well.

The broad principles behind the Bill, which I note has all-party support, are obviously sound. There is no one in the Chamber or anywhere else who would not want to improve standards of health and particularly safety when one considers the horrifying consequences of fire in houses of multiple occupation. There is, however, a need to think carefully about some implications of the Bill. It will apply everywhere. There are difficulties in the main cities, London and the conurbations. It is also known that certain authorities and certain individuals have a far worse record than others. It is, however, bad to legislate on the basis of getting a steamroller to destroy the ants in the strawberry bed. There is a need to consider carefully some of the implications

I have been studying the situation in my own area of Harrow. The number of houses in multiple occupation is increasing. We have not by any means the number that are to be found in the neighbouring borough of Brent, but it is known that there are between 160 and 200 houses in multiple occupation. The number of households is probably between 400 and 600. That is the measure of the problem in Harrow. The consequences of the Bill are therefore a matter of concern to Harrow.

There is a need for much greater flexibility in clause 1 in respect of time limits, at least initially. One must have regard to the different circumstances that prevail in different authorities. Likewise, in clause 3, there should be greater flexibility over the inspection time limits required by the Bill. Clause 2, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr Page) referred, has fairly wide legal implications. I appreciate that this is a Committee point, but I am not sure whether the promoters have taken on board fully the problems that will arise in respect of an individual person having control of a house. I hope that this issue can be examined more closely in Committee.

Clause 4 deals with standards. I am pleased to say that the standards applying in Harrow are considerably higher than those provided by the Bill for lighting, ventilation, water supply, personal washing facilities, drainage and sanitary conveniences, facilities for the storage and preparation of food, installation of heating and overcrowding. The standards applying in Harrow are higher than the minimum required by the Bill, as I would expect in an area administered by such a distinguished borough council.

Having said that, I must add that in my surgeries I have come across a number of pathetic cases where tenants have described conditions of unbelievable squalor, which a landlord declines to improve by having the repairs done because he hopes to drive the tenant out. He can then do the repairs and sell the property with vacant possession, at an enhanced profit. In these circumstances, I have found that it is possible to tackle local authorities. They move in a somewhat cumbersome way, but one can stir the environmental health department into action and ultimately it will serve a sanitary notice of some sort on the landlord. If he fails to comply with it, as he usually does, the great dinosaur starts to move slowly and grindingly and eventually does the work and sends the bill to the landlord, who has probably disappeared by then or gone bankrupt, while the tenant has suffered a year or two of misery. Thus, there is a need for action.

Some differentiation between the standards required is necessary. I have a particular example which I should like the House and the sponsors of the Bill to consider. In my constituency there are many elderly people. Quite rightly, the main concern of the local authority has been to see that they are properly housed. Harrow is such a healthy place that people live there for a long time and we have a greater problem with the elderly than many other parts of the country.

As well as the elderly, because of our geographical position we have a large number of students and single persons seeking bed-sitting rooms or small accommodation. Different standards must prevail. In view of the pressure of students for accommodation, one does not necessarily have to apply the same high standards for students as one has for the elderly.

I regret to say that my own days as a student were a long time ago, but I can recall lodging in Meadow buildings in Christchurch during the war. The standards that we enjoyed would not be tolerated now by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment may have been, at the same establishment, although somewhat after me. I recall that I and many of my colleagues had to share the same lavatory—we did not mind—with such a distinguished person as the late Professor Lindemann, Lord Cherwell. Fortunately, he was busily engaged in winning the war with Mr. Churchill and rarely used the lavatory, but he had the chance to do so. Those conditions did not particularly worry us and students nowadays who are desperately looking for accommodation are not demanding standards as high as those that other people need.

The elderly present a different problem. I understand that more elderly people die from falling over in their homes than from any other single cause. The need to ensure that they have a high standard of amenities is essential.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) touched on the main guts of the problem, which is that one cannot do everything at the same time. His test was whether the Bill would increase the accommodation available for rent. That question has not been answered. People want high and better standards and want to live in better conditions, but their first priority is to get some accommodation, and that is the case for students, while old people want higher standards.

It may be that the Bill will achieve that result, but there are the problems of resources to which I have no doubt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will refer, and priorities. Therefore, the Bill has to be considered in that light. I shall not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill, and I hope that when the Bill goes to Committee we can examine the consequences carefully and consider some of the implications.

Clause 7 uses the term "reasonable expense". I am always doubtful about what "reasonable expense" means. How reasonable is reasonable? How long is a piece of string? What is "fair"? Who will determine that? Such wording gives rise to higher incomes for lawyers. We must have some sign of who will determine what is reasonable in this connection.

We must also examine the consequences of enforcing the Bill. This will involve greater work for overpressed local authorities and ratepayers. It will mean a further burden upon them or upon the Government. I do not know whether the Government are prepared to increase the rate support grant. There will be greater pressure on local authority resources, and, therefore I hope that the tendency will be to use the route of enforcement through, as it provides in clause 7, local authorities serving notice giving the time and place where the conditions of the premises and proposals of work can be discussed. The local authority can accept reasonable undertakings to bring the premises up to the relevant standards rather than use the more formidable provisions under clause 7 of issuing termination orders. That should be the trend, and it is a wise one to follow.

If there is considerable use of the termination orders, I fear that there will be more homelessness, of which there is far too much already. In my area, and in London, we have all the burdens and difficulties of operating the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has the additional problem of people arriving at Heathrow airport. Strange people appear in our areas who are not housed and for whom we have to provide accommodation. Anything that exacerbates the existing problem—and it is possible that excessive use of the termination order procedure would do so—would be intolerable.

Mr. Greenway

Does my hon. Friend agree that people coming in through Heathrow often have very little interest in the accommodation in which they find themselves and that the accommodation suffers as a result?

Sir Anthony Grant

My hon. Friend is right, and this is because they want only to get into the country. That is a form of queue jumping that is unfair on those who have lived for a long time in the borough and been on the housing waiting list for a long time.

Why are there so many people living in multi-occupation houses? Why has this problem arisen to such a degree? It is because for many years there has been a trembling of the structure of the Rent Acts and because of the burden of the disincentive for people to create property for rented accommodation. Ever since I have been in the House, and even before, when I was involved in the law, I have been appalled at the disincentive facing people who want to let property in good condition, sensibly and in an open market to those who want to rent it. They are unable to do so because of the statutory rights and the provisions which have led to their inability to regain possession of their property, which have been set down in a great trembling structure ever since the 1920s, if not earlier.

If we could create a climate in which those who wished to rent and those who wished to let could do so reasonably within the law and be free from interference by the state, that would go a long way towards solving the problems of multi-occupation households. It would also create the degree of mobility of labour that is so necessary if the economy is to survive.

I apologise to the two Front Bench spokesmen for the fact that I may have to leave for another appointment. I intend no discourtesy to them. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South on presenting the Bill. I support its principles—subject to the qualification that a great deal of concern will need to be expressed in Committee.

10.50 am
Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)

I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). I am honoured to be associated with this much needed and very important Bill. I speak not only as a Member of this House but as someone with six and a half years experience in a housing and environmental health department in an inner London borough.

I should like to be able to agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) that all landlords look after their property. I regret that my experience in an inner London borough and my 16 months experience as a Member of this House—seeing people who come to my fortnightly Saturday surgeries—do not enable me to agree wholeheartedly with him.

Far too many landlords do not look after their property. From our own experience, from the briefings that we have been given and from newspaper reports, we know that some landlords are more interested in packing people into buildings, in order to make money out of them, than in maintaining proper standards or providing adequate homes.

It is important to look carefully at the effect the Bill will have on the provision of accommodation. The hon. Member for Leicester, South has sensibly, in clause 2, placed a duty on every owner and person having control of a house in multiple occupation to ensure the health and safety of all the occupants of that house. Those words in the explanatory memorandum mean exactly what they say.

All other premises—save for this palace and premises of the Crown—fall within the regulations of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Offices, Shops and Railways Premises Act 1963. There is a duty incumbent on all the people in those premises—whether they be the owners, the managers or the people who work therein—to observe the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. I do not see why that provision cannot be extended to houses in multiple occupation. The duty would be on the landlord and the people who live in the houses.

If landlords were to maintain proper general standards in their premises, and proper standards of health and safety, there would not be a need to take people out of them. There would be no need for the wholesale denuding of accommodation. Landlords could operate a voluntary self-policing system in maintaining their properties. Bills such as this would not then be needed.

Various grants are available. Landlords can now get grants for the provision of fire escapes and fire-proofing. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) mentioned the cost of fire-proofing. From time to time we read stories of fires in hostels. I do not think that any cost of fire-proofing is too high if it will save lives, and we must look carefully at that aspect.

Mr. Greenway

Life comes above all things, but my point was that the very high cost should not be laid on the individual tenants.

Mr. Pitt

I take the hon. Gentleman's point that the cost should not be laid on the individual tenant. Improvement grants are available. Some hostels have large annual incomes and can afford to provide fire escapes, fire precautions and proper facilities for the prevention of fire and deaths at hostels.

Under the present law, there are no legal standards to control the management of all houses in multiple occupation. Section 12 of the Housing Act 1961 allows a local authority to make an order applying the standards. The standards apply only when the local authority has made the order. A local authority has first to be satisfied that the house falls below the standard. Then the local authority can make the order applying the standards.

One of the complications is that the procedure is very long and protracted. I know that from my own experience in the registration of houses in multiple occupation. The notice must specify the works necessary to bring the house in multiple occupation—the HMO—up to standard, and must give a reasonable time limit for completion of the works. That is usually 21 days. The worse the condition of the HMO, the more work will be necessary to bring the HMO up to standard. The more work necessary, the longer the time limit must be. The worse the condition of the property, the longer the local authority must wait in order to take further action.

Clause 2 will provide legal minimum standards for two different types of HMO, without the need for the local authority to take any action. That will bring HMOs into line with all other matters controlled by standards—motor vehicles, food premises, work places and so on. Owners of HMOs will know whether the house meets the standard and will be more inclined to seek grant aid for improvement. Where works are required to bring a house up to standard—whether related to management or to facilities—only one notice will be required to be served.

I have received from a London borough some comments on two of the clauses. I have not sought its permission nor have I been given authority to refer to those comments but they fall within my experience. Commenting on clause 3, the local authority says: Our registration scheme fell down because it was not regularly updated after the initial registration and inspection. If this Clause were tied up with the biannual inspection requirement I feel it would provide the majority of powers you need, and at the same time reduce staffing input". I am sure that critics on the Conservative Benches would agree wholeheartedly with any measure designed to reduce staffing input.

Referring to clause 5, the writer of the letter from the London borough says: We use the Public Health Act 1961 Section 26 quite frequently, and I fnd that we often receive the Counter-Notice and then nothing happens. We then end up with our lawyers with an uncertainty as to how long you should give an owner when he/she has served a Counter-Notice, the fear being that if you act too quickly the Courts will prevent you from recovering your expenses. The owners keep the local authority on a string for a long period of time with numerous plausible excuses. I have heard that comment frequently in my experience in a housing department.

To overcome the problem of the addressee starting works and failing to complete them—it often happens for perfectly legitimate reasons as well as for non-legitimate reasons—the local authority can step in whenever the timetable is being ignored, under the works-in-default order procedure.

The Christmas Day fire at Hornmead road, Westminster was an example of gross neglect. The three-storey property had a dilapidation order and three works-in-default orders on it. For three years the council had promised—but failed—to carry out the necessary works. Under clause 5(4) of the Bill, the tenants placed in such a situation would have the right to complain to a magistrates court, which would have the power to determine what action the local authority must take.

The illustrations that we have had this morning—and that I hope we shall have subsequently—lend point to the need for the Bill. Indeed, I believe that there is a crying need for it.

I should like to refer briefly to a hostel called the Unique hostel. It was commercially owned and the proprietor was thought to be making at least £40,000 per annum. The catalogue of deficiencies found in the Unique hostel included the lack of washing facilities, heating, suitable lighting, ventilation, and mains drinking water. The lavatory arrangements were described as primitive. They were not, of course, used by Professor Lindemann. They consisted mainly of external privies. I am sure that the good professor would have been appalled. Conditions were so bad that they eventually attracted widespread notice in the local, national and medical press, following startling statistics on death rates in the hotel from bronchitis, tuberculosis and lung cancer.

Despite these horrific facts, the owner was operating under the Public Health Act 1936. He even boasted publicly late in 1978, "For three years they have been trying to get us, yet we conformed to health and building regulations and fire standards."

The Institution of Environmental Health Officers supports the Bill. It agrees that it will need detailed examination at Committee stage". The points made by the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant) could be taken up in Committee. The institution states: there is no doubt that the Bill would aid environmental health officers in securing safe and useful accommodation, and would serve to increase the protection of some half a million people at a conservative estimate. The Institution hopes that all Members will support the aims of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), when supporting amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) in 1980, quoted a letter from the Petrus Community which said: On a wider front we are concerned about the lack of adequate fire precautions and often appalling conditions which are still found in many hostels and common lodging houses in various parts of the country and which represent considerable hazards to the health, safety and welfare of their occupants. My hon. Friend commented: The 1936 Act, the measure with which most local authorities have to comply, is inadequate and insufficient. It is more suited to Charles Dickens than today. To have to talk about such problems in 1980 is sad enough. To have to talk about it in 1983 is even worse. My hon. Friend added: We have the opportunity not to wait for months or years for the outcome of studies, but to act today by supporting the new clauses."—[Official Report, 19 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 75.] I commend those words to the House. I hope that the Bill is given a Second Reading today and that it will come out of Committee much improved and with more teeth to attack appalling abuses.

11.2 am

Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I congratulate the hon.

Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on this much-needed Bill. The hon. Gentleman deserves thanks for two reasons. First, the Bill would impose obligations on authorities to do various things that they already can but do not do. The bulk of the obligations are already within their power. Secondly, if the Bill does not get its Second Reading—I hope that it does—at least we have been given a chance to debate an extremely important subject. This is an important occasion.

None of the parties at the last election focused on the problems experienced by the homeless. I have checked the manifestos to see whether this would be a political debate in which hon. Members would try to score points, but none of the political parties made any reference to the problem.

We are discussing the most neglected housing in the country. I am sure that I speak for hon. Members on all sides when I say that the main aim of us all is to try to help the worst off in our society and the people who stay at the bottom of the pit.

Multiple occupation is a bitter story for the worst off. Such people have little opportunity to lobby us. It is difficult for homeless people, who are often unemployed and have a problem just surviving, to muster arguments and to see us in our surgeries. It is difficult for them to ask us to inspect their accommodation and see the low standards of the places in which they are forced to live.

Such people often feel abused by society. If they do not feel abused, they feel ignored. They think that most of us have not noticed their plight or are indifferent to it. I wish to discuss that catalogue of indifference.

It has come to light recently that many local authorities are not shouldering their obligations and responsibilities. Tower Hamlets, Westminster and Oxford city authorities are controlled by different political parties, but the story is the same—confusion, bureaucratic bungling, poor advice from officers to councillors, no initiative, no urgency and no political will. The story is of political failure. If councillors re-read their election addresses I wonder whether they would agree that they showed concern at the hustings when the votes were to be cast, but complete indifference to the plight of the homeless when in office.

It is not a question of lack of resources. There are examples of enormous waste by local health and social security departments. That is not peculiar to one area. Money is being spent in a deplorably wasteful way.

Not much more than two months ago the previous Secretary of State for the Environment said that local authorities were much underspent in their capital programmes and that they should spend more money on capital projects. Not only would that help the homeless, but if some of the deplorable conditions in houses in multiple occupation were put right jobs would be created. I hope that the following message will go out to the local authorities: "For goodness sake start looking at your capital commitments and responsibilities and see whether you can spend more money to produce jobs and lower the chronic levels of unemployment and at the same time help the homeless". That is part and parcel of the problem.

To continue political indifference is an act of social cruelty. Cruelty comes in many forms—in prejudice against the unemployed and in the exploitation of the homeless by landlords. We have not focused sufficiently on the problem.

I pay tribute to the charities and voluntary agencies who do a remarkable job in helping the worst off. New Horizon and CHAR—the Campaign for Single Homeless People — have done a tremendous amount for many years. They cast spotlights on the murky areas in which occasionally the media show interest. Then the media concentrate on other issues which entertain because the public is usually bored with hearing about homeless people.

The public's attention has been caught by various instances, but then the spotlight has moved on. I remember in the last decade instances which are all to do with the subject under discussion. I remember "Johnny Go Home," the iniquitous so-called Bishop of Medway, Roger Gleaves and the death of "Two-Tone Macphie." Such instances have made the voluntary agencies realise the terrible plight of homeless people and how they are exploited. For a while the public is interested, but other things then happen—perhaps a by-election—and attention is diverted.

The most recent incident involves the murder of at least 13 unknown people in London which has caused shock and anger. That people can simply disappear is a condemnation of policies which continually fail to correct an urgent social need. New Horizon in central London works for the young homeless and has found itself drawn into a bizarre and horrific event which, it feels, underlines the vulnerability of its clients and the glaring omission of any realistic policy. One of the named victims of the recent alleged murders was a New Horizon client. The whole subject is very poignant to New Horizon.

New Horizon is deeply suspicious that there is no will to make effective changes. The extremity of the case points to the continual, day-to-day suffering of many people for whom New Horizon feels responsible. It says that death among homeless people is not uncommon. Isolation, depression and despair are savage realities, as humiliation and degradation are heaped upon people. The resignation of the homeless to unemployment and the silent acceptance of poverty as a fate are inevitable consequences.

Mass murders create headlines and attract attention, but the emergence of public concern must also represent public hypocrisy.

Mr. George Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman will remember that a man has been charged. In those circumstances he should surely moderate his remarks about that incident.

Mr. Benyon

I do not wish to breach the sub judice rule and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of it.

The warning signs have been there for all to see. We have known for years that there was a problem. It has been highlighted by television documentaries, newspaper articles, statements and sensations. There have been a number of reports and recommendations, and the voluntary agencies now know the causes and the best solutions.

We need to look at the problem in the national perspective. Because there are no accurate figures for the number of houses in multiple occupation, the present legal framework leaves it to the discretion of every housing authority to collect information. For example, section 70 of the Housing Act 1969 provides only that local authorities have to inspect houses in multiple occupation "from time to time".

Laws are meant to be clear, concise and obeyed, but these are examples of slabs of legislation that are confused, imprecise and usually ignored. That is wrong, because it brings the law into disrepute and leaves a huge stagnant pool of human misery outside the law in a legal twilight zone of misunderstanding and bureaucratic indifference.

The Institution of Environmental Health Officers estimated from returns from local authorities that of the 139,000 houses in multiple occupation in England, providing accommodation for about 500,000 people, about 85 per cent. require action under various Housing Acts.

In many areas the problem is small. In my constituency the 1981 census showed that only 0.4 per cent. of households live in dwellings that are not self-contained. Only a tiny additional responsibility would be placed on the local authority in such an area.

However, it is wrong to think that houses in multiple occupation are peculiar to major inner cities. There is inner city neglect, but other, perhaps surprising, areas include a tremendous number of houses in multiple occupation that are in a deplorable state of repair. Many of the conditions therein belong more to the pages of Dickens than to contemporary society.

Let us examine the complexity of the existing law, and why it is in a mess and needs to be overhauled. New Horizon says that it has been thwarted in its attempts to break through the maze of funding regulations to establish its own "high care" hostel. Its attempts have resulted in failure. Government initiatives are useless if the law is incomprehensible to bodies that are expert in trying to work their way through legislation to assist their clients.

Grants out of public funds are useless if organisations such as New Horizon cannot make sense of the regulations. There is also evidence that local authorities cannot understand existing law. It is vague and provides only that local authorities "may" register houses in multiple occupation. As a result, only 44 of the 366 councils in England have established a registration scheme. What is the good of a voluntary law?

Local authorities "may" place a control order on houses in multiple occupation where health, safety or the welfare of residents is at risk. In 1981, only 18 such orders were in force. That must be set against the background of the huge problems facing our 366 authorities.

Local authorities "may" require owners or managers of houses to maintain good standards of management. In 1981, the latest date for which figures are available, only 3,983 management orders were in force for an estimated 139,000 houses in multiple occupation.

The effects of the neglect and the confusion in the law are alarming. Houses in multiple occupation, which include bedsits and flatlets with shared facilities and hostel-type premises, accommodate the most vulnerable people in our society. They need great help and have enough problems, without the humiliation of living in degrading and dangerous accommodation.

Those vulnerable people are forced to go to temporary shelters, where many are ruthlessly exploited. Of course, many landlords run excellent homes and I do not want anyone to read into my speech a general smear on all landlords of houses in multiple occupation. I am sure that many do an excellent job, but there is evidence that others—I hope that they are in a minority—are ruthless men who run squalid, overcrowded, insanitary rip-off joints, exploiting the weakest in our society. It is sad that we do not know precisely how many such landlords there are.

If one lifts a stone one sometimes finds astonishing things under it, and sometimes stones are lifted by accident. Amid the spires of Oxford one would not expect to find seedy bedsits and lodgings where landlords are behaving deplorably. However, the neglect and indifference of Oxford city council, which is Labour controlled, though I make no party point of that, has led it not to use its powers of regulation under the Housing Acts since 1964–65. It is clear that the officers advising councillors did not, in the opinion of experts, understand the powers available to the council to deal with the city's homeless under existing legislation and also did not understand that grants were available from the Government.

Every allowance must be made for every authority facing its individual housing problems and shortage of land and accommodation—I have made every allowance for Oxford—but overall the city council has failed deplorably to shoulder its obligations to the homeless. After the considerable publicity surrounding the arrest of 283 people in the DHSS raids in Oxford on 2 September last year—100 of those people were released without being charged—a racket was exposed involving squalid accommodation and a gross waste of DHSS money.

An article in the New Statesman encapsulates what I hope is a problem peculiar to Oxford, though I fear it may exist in other areas. The article said: The landlords continue to operate their boarding houses for homeless claimants. One of them, Jeremiah Cronin, told police that his Iffley Road lodging houses collectively known as the Nanford Guest House, had 75 beds. Even in the 'best' room the atmosphere is grim, filled with the sound of crying babies, cassettes, the television and drunks from other rooms. According to Jane Pannell of Housing Aid, 'a middle-aged alcoholic can expect a room with three others and a caterer's baked bean can as a po.' If all 75 beds were occupied every night, Cronin's weekly income would be over £3,000-£163,800 a year. Cronin, an ex-British Leyland worker with a large house at Sunningwell, Berks, has admitted to an annual turnover of £100,000 and profits of £28,000. The second landlord involved, Mr. Patel, runs about six houses with a greater variety of accommodation but totalling roughly the same number of beds. Besides Cronin and Patel there are a further half-dozen small time boarding houses, run by other landlords. Taking all these landlords into account, it can be roughly estimated that in a typical week the Oxford DHSS is paying out £7,500 to private landlords for homeless claimants—about £390,000 a year. Oxford city council … has now inspected all guest houses in the city. But it has refused to publish a full report on those properties used by its own social services department and the DHSS. An amended report was issued to two local newspapers showing that in a sample of two houses there were 27 faults. In contrast, the report on conventional guest houses, which it did publish showed 19 faults in all 60 houses. The council also produced three more confidential reports. The first, presented to a closed session of the housing committee on 11 January, showed how some of the boarding houses had been operating without even rudimentary planning permission. In the case of some properties, (like 135 Iffley Road) they had been allowed to operate in that way since 1965. The second—'not to be divulged to outside bodies'—gave details of the planning abuses. Some measure of the overcrowding that is condoned is also given: in 160 Iffley Road, 11 adults and six babies were living in six bedrooms. It is a deplorable catalogue of events. A press release from the Oxford city council refers to "guest houses". One wonders how many guests and visitors to Oxford from America, the Continent or wherever, went to stay at that boarding house where a baked bean can was used for a po. The city council came to the conclusion that reasonable standards were being maintained. This was highly unsatisfactory. It demonstrated council complacency. The exposure of some of these "guest houses" produced the astonishing press release to which I have referred.

I believe that the housing conditions in Oxford are not unusual. Subsequent publicity compelled the authority to carry out some inspections. Those inspections have not yet been completed. I have seen a letter that was sent to Councillor John Parker, the chairman of the environmental health committee of Oxford city council, on 13 January from the Campaign for Homeless and Rootless. CHAR had seen the report that was produced for councillors, as I have now seen it. I cannot read it all as I do not wish to detain the House any more than I have to but suffice it to say that it demonstrates that the council had not focused on the problem properly for years.

The offices have "Yes Minister"—ed the councillors for years, to put it at its kindest. CHAR's letter stated: It is our belief that the officers' reports do not form an adequate basis on which to develop a policy. We feel that they are distinguished by an overall complacency and a half-hearted attitude towards tackling serious and chronic problems. As the reports have shown clearly that the city council has not used its powers under the Housing Acts for houses used for multiple occupation and has allowed planning laws to be flouted since 1964–65, it seems remarkable that the council has asserted that the present policies are considered to be adequate and the only problem is that of staffing. This is a highly unsatisfactory situation. I have all the minutes for those who are interested and they can be read after the debate.

I am not singling out Oxford and its officers for criticism for fun. My purpose is to try to learn a lesson from what has taken place. The events that I have described surely demonstrate the confusion and inadequacy of present legislation. That is the lesson that we should learn. Current housing legislation is utterly inadequate to ensure the protection of vulnerable residents. The present laws that relate to housing for multiple occupation are complex and confusing. The complexity of the various statutes leads to confusion when a local authority, with the best will in the world, considers how best to act. This leads to confusion over planning laws and Housing Act requirements. This is an area where the Oxford city council was clearly in error. They were errors of fact.

The present laws on housing for multiple occupation allow local authorities to do nothing to ensure good standards. If a local authority does not want to do anything—if it wants to push the hidden homeless away and out of sight—the complexity of present legislation provides a convenient excuse. The inspections in Oxford of these houses and multiple occupations were to reveal myriad faults and illegalities, yet the officers' official report stated complacently: The present policies are considered to be adequate. The present laws on multiple occupation allow bad landlords to exploit the homeless vis-a-vis the examples that I have given.

The Bill would put right all the major weaknesses in the present laws by placing a duty on landlords to ensure the health and safety of their occupants and to register their houses for multiple occupation. It would provide a clear set of duties for authorities to follow.

Before we talk much more about the difficulties that landlords will face in meeting the financial obligations of putting their houses in order, it is to my mind astonishing that we have comprehensive legislation to stop people going to sea with others in their boats without having proper facilities such as lifejackets or lifeboats—all the requirements are considered in great detail before a licence is given—yet we allow people to run what are euphemistically called guest houses without proper safety precautions and standards. We must make legislation clear and I hope that the Government will see their way clear to do that.

There may be many other authorities like Oxford. It is clear that nothing would have been done without the publicity and the goading that has been going on of the Oxford authority. Messrs. Cronin and Patel are still to this day making a mint and the problem is getting worse.

Oxford city council should at least admit its short-comings like other authorities and be candid. It should publicly state that it will use all the considerable means at its disposal to provide adequate, safe and healthy accommodation with the huge sums of public money that it assists in spending in partnership with the Oxford department of health and social services. It is difficult to know what the DHSS can do by itself and it must be up to the authority to start putting its own house in order.

I shall tell the authorities briefly what I think they might care to do. I realise, of course, that they are autonomous bodies and that it is not for the House to start intervening. We should not do so if we believe in the autonomy of local authorities. It is up to the councils to compel their officials to take action. An authority should require all landlords to bring the houses of multiple occupation—not guest houses, but hovels of multiple occupation—up to proper standards with amenities such as fire precautions and means of escape for residents.

Under existing legislation, landlords are eligible to receive mandatory grants of up to 75 per cent. of the costs of providing certain amenities. They are eligible under schedule 12 of the Housing Act 1980. Clause 15 allows local authorities to work out programmes of work with the owners of houses used for multiple occupation, to take place after the Act comes into force, or to carry out works in the light of the landlord's failure to act and then to send the bill to the owner of the property so that he may pay for them. Having given examples of the money that is involved, it is hardly likely that the owners of the houses of multiple occupation will be facing bankruptcy in the near future.

The primary issue is the way in which resources are spent. We must have the political will to channel existing resources towards helping to provide decent accommodation. Churchill once said—no speech is ever complete without a Churchill quotation—that we should provide a ladder up which all can climb and below which no one should fall. We appear to have pulled up the ladder on the homeless with the assistance of local authorities. It is thanks to the hon. Member for Leicester, South that we are now examining the net that is enmeshing so many to such an extent that they cannot escape. In many instances they are held in the net while predators extort them.

We must act, and act as soon as we can. We must learn from the problems of the past. New Horizon, CHAR and other agencies are convinced of the need for a reappraisal of Government policy for homeless people, be they young or old. They believe that the media are not telling the story as it is experienced by those on the streets, the unemployed and the homeless. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) about the need to consolidate housing legislation, and I hope that our Government will do that in their next term of office.

Local authorities have much responsibility for the misery that is abounding as a result of their policies of neglect, indifference, and sheer ignorance of their powers to act under existing law. They should act now or for God's sake go and let someone else do the job properly. I support the Bill and congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on his initiative.

11.30 am
Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) has outlined adequately the reasons for the Bill. He has explained the complexities of the existing legislation and the need for all of us who are concerned with the single homeless to ensure that they enjoy standards of accommodation that are acceptable in the 1980s. If we see it in that context, we know what we are talking about. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will translate his words into action, as I know he will, and support us, if necessary, in the Lobby, and in the future stages of the Bill.

I hope, too, that the hon. Gentleman's words will have been heard by his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is to speak on behalf of the Government, and by some of his other right hon. and hon. Friends who spoke and then said that they could not stay to vote. They try to have it both ways. They appear to be in favour of the Bill, but are not prepared to go the whole hog and do something positive about it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have persuaded some of them.

I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on winning a place in the ballot and on choosing this subject. I confess, if am honest, that he could have chosen a happier day, but perhaps this is just as good a time as any. It is raining. I congratulate my hon. Friend also on his excellent introductory speech and the amount of care, trouble and research that he has obviously taken. He gave us a lucid outline of the problems and of the contents of the Bill.

It is significant that no one whose opinions I have listened to or read has condemned the Bill. I have read a great many reports since the Bill was first proposed. No one has opposed the principles or motives of the Bill, not even those who have spoken this morning with forked tongues. They have looked for excuses and reasons and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Morton) said, one can read those reasons and excuses in some of the old journals at the far end of the Library. However, I shall ignore that and come up to date.

I repeat that no one has opposed the Bill, though there have been criticisms in the press about the practicalities. Some have queried the financial implications, and the hon. Member for Abingdon gave an excellent rundown of some of the financial benefits that might accrue from the Bill. It is my opinion that most of the criticisms could be dealt with adequately in Committee, and I hope will be.

Even the comments of the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant), who is obviously well aware of the increasing problems in his area, were Committee points. I have listened to his argument about the word "reasonable" ever since I entered local government and politics nearly 40 years ago. The argument about "reasonable"—apart from those about "may" or "shall"—is probably the most common argument in this place, as well as elsewhere. He should be the last to complain about the use of the word "reasonable", because he is probably one of the inventors of such discussions. I believe that the Committee would take care of most of the criticisms that have been made so far.

The London Boroughs Association sent the Department of the Environment a long report of its reservations about the Bill. We understand those reservations, but they do not amount to direct opposition. The honorary clerk to the housing and works committee said: In conclusion I would like to emphasise that the above comments concentrate on aspects of the Bill that would seem to require further consideration. In many respects the Association would wish to support the objectives and provisions of the Bill, although as you would expect we would need to seek the resources to allow authorities to take on any additional duties". That association represents the views and opinions of London boroughs, where the biggest problem probably exists.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the other local authority association, the Association of Municipal Authorities, whose member authorities can be deemed to have the largest problems outside London, expressed similar sentiments?

Mr. Stallard

I am aware that authorities up and down the country, not just in the major cities, are beginning to realise that this problem has to be faced and that the Bill provides an excellent opportunity to do that. The reports have been exceedingly favourable.

I hope that the Minister will accept that broad sweep of agreement and recommend that the Bill be allowed to go to Committee. His recommendation may persuade some of his fainter-hearted colleagues, who see all kinds of bogymen in the Bill. It might persuade them that this measure could be whipped into shape in Committee. I am sure that in Committee we could reach agreement on a number of the points that have been raised by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the reaction from another large conurbation. The all-party parliamentary group of CHAR has consistently campaigned for the improvement of standards for the single homeless. All the Members who have discussed the Bill with me and who have attended the various meetings that we have held have welcomed it. We see it as a major step forward in an attempt to introduce proper standards. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) introduced a similar Bill—though a slightly longer one—in 1979. We had a lot of support for that measure from voluntary organisations, churches, individuals, local authorities and Members of Parliament, who saw the need at that time and have never wavered since.

Mr. Joseph Dean

Is my hon. Friend aware that the improvements which the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) said were incorporated in the Housing Act 1980 were made because of the pressure that my hon. Friend and I exerted by various means such as Adjournment debates, and so on, and my Bill?

Mr. Stallard

I am far too modest to accept any credit for that, but none the less I think that it is true. We welcomed those improvements—we still do—but we believe that there is room for further improvement. We shall never be satisfied until we have achieved the standards that are acceptable to all in the 1980s.

The Bill has all-party support in both Houses. I have spoken to several Members of the other place who have given us support and are delighted that the Bill is being put forward this morning. They will give us all the assistance that they can. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers has also given the Bill its blessing. Those officers will, after all, be the people who will be largely concerned with its implementation, and it is they who know the size of the problem. They understand the complexities, and they are the victims of the confusion that results from the legislation that is passed in the House month after month and year after year. Those officers, with all their understanding of the problem and its implications at ground level, have decided that they will support the Bill.

Local authorities which have major problems, particularly those in London such as Westminster, Lambeth and certainly Camden, have said that they support the Bill, and they say that in the full knowledge of its financial and other implications. They and we know the problems of cardboard boxes and embankment seats, and the ever-increasing problems of homelessness in London, which must be faced, expensive or not. We are convinced that we can do that.

I have had letters from many people reiterating their previous support in even stronger terms because the position has worsened in the past three years for many reasons which we all understand and need not go into deeply in a short debate such as this. The Church Army, the Church Army housing association and the Salvation Army housing association understand the problem and say that the Bill is long overdue. The Churches single homelessness group similarly supports the campaign. We all remember that in 1980 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume, and Gerald Ellison, the Anglican Bishop of London, signed a joint statement in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South when he tried to introduce this measure before. That was a unique event and they have reiterated that support.

We cannot just brush aside all that support and say that some landlords might not be able to afford to meet the Bill's requirements. That is not good enough in the face of the support for the Bill and the anxiety over this serious issue. The houses in multiple occupation group contains many organisations, such as CHAR, Shelter, SHAC, the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the organisation of private tenants, which support the Bill. The national housing liaison committee, the national tenants organisation, the national anti-dampness campaign and many others who are also worried about the problems support the Bill.

Some people will ask why the Bill has attracted so much support. Cynics will point to the imminence of a general election and say that hon. Members generally find time to support all kinds of Bills and causes in those circumstances which they might not otherwise consider. I do not think that that is the case, because, as has been said, this is not a vote-catching area. This is not one of those subjects with which people involve themselves for an electoral advantage. Is it because of the genuine concern that has been aroused by recent tragic events, which seem to have been piling up at a wholly unacceptable rate? I think that that is partly the reason. The hon. Member for Abingdon said that the press takes an interest in tragic events and that if there are several that cause the press to take a little more interest than it normally would have done the problem is before the public eye for slightly longer. Therefore, more people are becoming interested and saying so.

That is part of the reason, but there is another important one. Those who are living in houses of multiple occupation are saying that they have suffered for long enough and are demanding the right to decent accommodation. It is significant that among the Bill's supporters there are various organisations that are springing up among residents of such premises in different parts of the country. Those organisations include men and women who have suffered the indignity of living in such places, who have suffered the loss of their homes and other injustices for many reasons, which we all meet from time to time. One of those reasons is that the present laws do not adequately protect such people.

It is important to note the groundswell of opinion behind the Bill. Growing numbers of single homeless people who are forced to live in lodging houses are no longer prepared to sit back and let it all happen and, as I have said, they are organising themselves. My constituency has one of the biggest hostels in the country, Arlington house. It is significant that the residents there have formed an action group to try to improve their standard of living. That group is actively engaged with the local authority and others in trying to achieve better standards.

As a result of weekly advice surgeries in London and other cities hon. Members are becoming aware of the problems of the neglected multi-occupied housing sector which will not go away and which will have to be dealt with. Now is as good a time, if not the best time, to do so, with all the support, knowledge and expertise that is available to us, and when a Bill is available which, with some alterations, will do exactly what we want. Therefore, I hope that before the end of the debate the Minister will intervene to support the Bill, having recognised the massive support for it up and down the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South and others have rightly said that the problem is a national one. The hon. Member for Harrow, Central seemed to be saying that we should have a series of Bills because there were different problems in different areas and this might not be the right Bill for all areas. That is almost like saying that we should have different food and drug Acts for different parts of the country. National problems should be dealt with by national legislation in the same way as we deal with special aspects of our health, safety and welfare. We must accept that it is a national problem and must be dealt with by national legislation. However, depite it being a national problem, we know that London—about which I speak with a wee bit of knowledge—probably has the biggest share of that problem.

It is not my intention to burden the House with the thousands of statistics that could legitimately be quoted in support of the Bill, but I mention a few to point to the problems that exist in the capital. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures about the single homeless, and they are not often included in local authority statistics on housing problems. However, the 1981 census gives some examples. In Wandsworth, 9,862 households are in multiple occupation; in Haringey, 9,435; in Lambeth, 9,378; in Hammersmih and Fulham, 8,631; in Camden, 8,415; in Brent, 8,217; in Westminster, 7,316; in Kensington and Chelsea, 7,270; in Islington the figure is almost 7,000; in Hackney, 6,670; and in Ealing, 6,548. In those few boroughs the figure is well over 100,000.

The number of households living in multiple occupation in other areas is massive, and the percentage of people in areas of London living in multiple occupation is equally staggering. In Hornsey, 16.2 per cent. of households live in multiple occupation. That is a massive figure. One cannot say, "There is not a problem", or "Let us hope that it will go away" or, as an hon. Member said, "Let us not deal with it, because all sorts of other problems might be uncovered". It is not possible to dodge the figure of 16.2 per cent. of people living in multiple occupation in a constituency.

The figure in Brent, East is 13.8 per cent., in Hampstead, 13.7 per cent., in Battersea, South 13.3 per cent. and in Paddington 12.1 per cent. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), who has highlighted the problem in his constituency, in his place. I hope that we will hear from him of some of the problems which he and I know exist in that area of London. In Islington, North, 11.4 per cent. of the population live in houses in multiple occupation, and in Acton the figure is 10.4 per cent.

Those percentages must be looked at with the seriousness that they deserve. One cannot push those figures to one side and say that it is a problem that affects a few people. The problem affects far more people than many hon. Members and people outside realise. If more than 10 per cent. of the household in London—that is certainly more than 10 per cent. of the electorate—are living in houses of multiple occupation, there are a great many problems that must be dealt with. The Bill is an attempt to put them right.

I do not wish to quote endless statistics, much as I should love to take up some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle), who has left the Chamber and is a classic example of the Dickensian landlord or someone acting in defence of the Dickensian landlord. I do not think that his views are acceptable to most hon. Members.

I shall not go down the road of statistics, but many thousands of people, who are in those statistics, will watch the outcome of this debate with extreme interest. To them this is probably the most important occasion of this Parliament. They have been arguing and campaigning for so long that they will be shattered if the House does anything less than send the Bill to Committee.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Abingdon outlining the problems in Oxford. Hon. Members have no doubt read the recent report, produced by the voluntary organisations, entitled "Poor Law'', in which several examples are listed. There are horrific examples, and the fantastic profits that are being made out of the misery and squalid conditions in which people are forced to live could be repeated in many places throughout the country. It needs someone to move the stone that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are many stones to be moved and we shall probably move a number in Committee, which will show the size of the problem. Hon. Members will know of the appalling tragedies that have resulted from those conditions. Some of the tragedies have been mentioned so I shall not go into those in any detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South spelt out the benefits of the Bill, and it is important to put them into perspective. Clause 4 and schedule 3 set out in statute form the two types of house in multiple occupation and provide standards that should be observed by the owners and controllers of such houses. I and a great many other people have been advocating a clarification of minimum standards.

I remember carrying out an exercise in the early 1970s on what became the Housing (Amendment) Act, which was allegedly a consolidation measure. I decided to look at what had been excluded from that measure and make a list to establish what remained. It took over 12 months of searching in my spare time to list all the items of legislation still in existence despite the proliferation of consolidation measures. Hundreds of items of legislation that have been in existence since 1928 are largely ignored, because local authorities tend to invoke the most recent legislation. If it is not mandatory they ignore it, but if it is they operate it. There is no compunction about doing that. Many items in the Housing Act 1936 are ignored.

For a long time there has been a need for the clarification contained in the Bill. I support especially clause 4 and schedule 3. When my hon. Friend introduced the notes of guidance from the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, I strongly supported them. I thought that they were an excellent idea and should have been acted upon. I agree with that institution, which states that the schedule will help everybody who is concerned with the problem. It must help landlords who do not understand the legislation and who unconsciously break the law from time to time, as well as helping the local authorities which do not understand, acknowledge or recognise that there are items of legislation which they could use to overcome some of the problems. The Bill will help local authority officers who are struggling to get something done about the problems. It will be generally helpful all round. It will help hon. Members if this legislation is enacted.

The Institution of Environmental Health Officers said: One of the most important aspects of the Bill is that it would set minimum standards for HMOs. The standards set are those which the Institution included in Guidance Notes published in January 1982. These Notes were published in an attempt to stimulate action to safeguard the health and safety of HMO occupants. The Institution therefore welcomes inclusion of these appropriate minimum standards for different types of HMOs in the Bill. Because of the undeniable need for further action and the complexity of existing legislation the Institution supports the Bill introduced by Jim Marshall, MP with all party sponsorship. That is a fair resumé of what is contained in the part of the Bill to which I have referred, where it tries to clarify and set down minimum standards which people are entitled to expect. Whether they are in large hostels or in the multiplicity of small houses that have been converted into small units, they will all be brought into a framework of housing law, and at the same time standards will be set for different types of houses in multiple occupation.

Because of the confusion, the Bill is necessary to clarify the existing legislation. For example, there is a hostel owned by Rowton called Tower house, which is in Fieldgate street, El. It is a large hostel, having been built in 1902. It has 703 beds on seven floors. It is one of the three Rowton hostels whose future—together with that of more than 2,000 residents—is threatened because of the activities of that group. Tower house was recently inspected by Tower Hamlet officers on behalf of the health and consumer services committee, who visited during the day by arrangement. Tower house was then inspected by an independent environmental health officer working with a public health project. He stayed in Tower house for two nights. Both inspections were based on the assumption that Tower house was in multiple occupation, but they reached different conclusions. Two inspections were carried out independently by people who apparently understand what is involved, yet apparently different conclusions were reached.

That is where the confusion arises. The independent inspector stayed the night in a cubicle with a floor area of 35 sq ft, which is only half the minimum standard of 70 sq ft for hostels set out in the Housing Act. He therefore recommended that such small units were unsuitable for human use. The official inspection involved looking at alternative space standards to that of 70 sq ft, such as the lorry drivers' standard of 55 sq ft and the common lodging house standard of 40 sq ft. Quite shockingly, the conclusion was: Whilst it might be felt that the minimum standard of 70 sq ft is too high, bearing in mind the type of accommodation provided, there is no doubt that some improvement should be made. The inspection recommended the standard set nearly 50 years ago of 55 sq ft. Thus, there was confusion between those involved and they could obviously find no mutually acceptable minimum standard.

The independent inspector found a catalogue of fire risks. On one visit, every fire-door across access corridors was wedged open. He also found that toilets and bathrooms were deficient and that disrepair and uncleanliness were such as to lead to a recommendation that the local authority should give serious consideration to the making of a Management Order or Control Order or Compulsory Purchase Order to protect the health, safety and well being of the occupiers. That was the opinion after an independent assessment of Tower house. However, the conclusion of the official inspection was: The occupiers are not in danger of their safety, welfare or health as a result of the conditions. No control order or compulsory purchase order was recommended. Therefore, there is confusion and the Bill will help to sort it out.

It would be wrong not to mention the problems connected with Rowton houses. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the situation, because I have written and spoken to him, just as others have done, and I know that he has had many discussions on the problems of Rowton houses. Although the issue is relevant to the search for decent standards and to improving accommodation, it may not be entirely relevant to the Bill. That private company said only the other day at a meeting that it had responsibility not for its residents, but only for its shareholders. That has been that company's whole approach during negotiations to improve standards for the 2,000 people who live in such accommodation. On another day I shall return to the problems of Rowton houses.

The House has discussed at length the paramountcy of the views of 1,800 people who live on an island 8,000 miles away. We are prepared to spend £1 million per day on maintaining them. However, I am also concerned about the views and wishes of about 2,000 Rowton residents. Even on Rowton figures it would cost £4.3 million—the equivalent of four days' expenditure in terms of the Falkland Islands—to solve the problem, but surely that is a small price to pay for the medium-term security of those residents. In the meantime, we could enact this legislation and thus begin seriously to banish the awful conditions that exist in houses in multiple occupation.

12.4 pm

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I am particularly glad to congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on using his success in the ballot to raise the subject of housing in multiple occupation. It is very much a subject that should occupy the time of the House. Unfortunately, the issue is mainly confined to London, but it is a pleasure to see hon. Members from other parts of the country in the Chamber to support the Bill. I hope that the Bill will make progress and that the Department will hear our message. We undoubtedly live in a society in which the private rented sector offers many disgraceful examples of squalid and unsafe housing, which ought to be tackled.

We should look at the issue—as the Bill does—partly in terms of cash and partly in terms of administration. The Bill is a useful effort at a rational approach to the whole problem. This is a broad subject and I hope that the hon. Member for Leicester, South will not take it amiss if I say that it is almost too big a subject for a private Member's Bill. However, that does not mean that it is not a good initiative and that today is a wasted day. Whether or not the Bill completes all its stages in this Parliament, I hope—I look forward to what the Minister will say—that the Department will be aware of the strength of feeling in London and elsewhere, and will be ready to come forward with more legislation to deal effectively with this serious and squalid problem.

I should like to split the cash aspect into the current account and the capital account. The difficulty—as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) said—is that the private rented sector has been in decline since 1919. There is not enough money flowing into it to maintain premises in the condition that we should like. That is not to say that one cannot find horrible examples of people taking far too much out of the private rented sector by exploiting their tenants, and particularly the ignorant, the handicapped or the immigrants, who cannot fend for themselves.

The decline of the private rented sector has given rise to a social problem that we have not adequately tackled, but it is easy to see why the private rented sector has declined. It is not eligible for the substantial subsidies that go to housing in one way or another through Government measures. Those measures have bypassed the private rented sector. Those interested in housing often draw attention to the fact that mortgage interest relief provides freeholders with a substantial allowance through the tax system, which encourages people to acquire freeholds and consequently maintains the quality and price of the freehold housing sector.

It is also obvious that local authority housing responsibilities result in a considerable amount of public money flowing continuously on current account into supporting local authority tenants. However, those who want to rent in the private sector do not have that form of subsidy and inevitably the private rented sector has fallen behind.

Some changes are taking place that may improve the position, but they are not really a matter of conscious Government policy. They are taking place almost by accident. I refer, for example, to the enormous rise in the number of people qualifying for supplementary benefit. We are now approaching the terrible figure of 7 million people who are reliant on supplementary benefit for their basic income. Under the provisions for the payment of supplementary benefit, the rent is allowed more or less in full, unless it is a completely unreasonable figure.

An enormous amount of public money thus flows into the private rented sector through the supplementary benefit system. Although that is not satisfactory, one may welcome it to the extent that it should mean that better housing conditions can be imposed by local authorities without their having to be paid for by tenants who are not in a position to do so.

Uniform housing benefit has also brought changes that are not yet fully understood. As I understand it, the rent and rate rebates that tenants may claim will no longer have an upper limit. Thus, in areas of housing stress where rents tend to be high, much greater funds will be available for people in the private rented sector to meet their rents. Again, if money is becoming available by those means, it is a matter not so much of housing policy as of relief of need. Nevertheless, it will put tenants in a better position to afford higher quality housing.

It is not good enough, however, to leave matters as they stand. We need to rationalise the whole tax and benefit background to the renting of premises in private ownership. As the Minister knows, for a number of years I have advocated the introduction of a positive housing allowance as part of the long overdue reform of the tax system.

Who is to find the capital sums required for the long overdue improvement of so many houses in multiple occupation? There are three possible sources—the tenants, the ratepayers and the taxpayers. There is no likelihood of the tenants being able to do so in the short term even with a reformed system of housing income support, nor can the ratepayers be expected to hear the very uneven burden. In my borough, the problem of sordid housing in multiple occupation has been for many years—and is likely to remain—an enormous burden on the ratepayers. They cannot be asked to bear an even greater burden. Therefore, the capital required to solve the problem of inadequate housing in an acceptably short period will have to be found from general taxation.

A number of people in Kensington have expressed resentment at the idea that owners of squalid property who have been exploiting tenants for many years and not keeping their property in good condition should suddenly become eligible for substantial grants. Certainly one does not want public money pouring into the wrong pockets. In effect, however, grants are in the nature of loans. On the face of it, they are not repayable, but once they have been put to proper effect the rates of the premises should increase. Thus, in paying higher rates, the owner is in effect repaying the improvement grant. We should ensure that that happens. Through the rates the money will flow back to the local authority. I have said that the initial sum should come from the taxpayer and not the ratepayer. That difficulty brings us of course to the major question of the reform of local authority finance, which I hope that the Government are now proceeding to tackle.

Capital expenditure on housing always involves the difficult decision whether to renew rundown property and restore it to its original condition or better; or whether to demolish and rebuild on the site. Both policies have been carried out in Kensington, in most cases with great success. Anyone who has not recently visited North Kensington and who expects to find the conditions that existed in the past will have a pleasant surprise. The borough has done its utmost to remedy the appalling squalor that existed in North Kensington 20 or 30 years ago.

In deciding whether to demolish or rebuild, the local authority must have discretion; but it must be borne in mind that newly built premises will almost certainly be beyond the reach of the former tenants, because the high capital cost will inevitably find its way through into the rents. One does not want the social upheaval of people being driven out of the area because, having been decanted into other premises while Improvements take place, they cannot then return and have to try to make a life elsewhere.

The health and amenity question is entirely separate from that of fire. The schedule sets out highly desirable standards of accommodation that I am sure we should all like to approve at once. I understand that the Institution of Environmental Health Officers has helped with the Bill. Those people certainly know what they are about, and their recommendations are unlikely to be contested. Unfortunately, however, there is a danger in aiming too high. We all remember the ambitions enshrined in the Parker Morris standard of 15 or 20 years ago. We must be careful not to set an unrealistically high standard, which people on the lowest incomes cannot possibly afford. One does not want to make the best the enemy of the good, but that does not mean that we should not set higher health and amenity standards than we now have.

I am afraid that the Bill may be attacked on the ground that it may create homelessness if it is enforced too quickly, or if the House falls into the trap of over-specification. Outside London, where properties of the type at which the Bill is aimed are less common, local authorities may be able to rehouse the people displaced due to the application of stricter limits on overcrowding and so on; but in areas where homelessness is already a major concern, the social problems placed on local authorities by over-hasty implementation of the Bill must be borne in mind.

In this context, it may be worth pursuing the suggestion that when rents are fixed more account should be taken of the condition of the premises than is now the case. The deplorable conditions that some landlords undoubtedly allow should be reflected in punitively low rents, to remain in force until the defects are remedied. Often it is simply a matter of redecoration, new carpeting or relatively inexpensive improvements such as the installation of proper fuse boxes, fire-proof doors and so on. Through the level of rent it might be possible to bring immediate pressure to bear on landlords to collaborate with the local authority in making the necessary improvements.

On fire hazards, I saw people being rescued from the horrifying fire in Clanricarde gardens in my constituency. We must not allow that horror to be repeated. I have consulted the fire authorities. What I have to say is not necessarily an expression of their views, but I have tried to take account of the opinions of the experts in these matters.

We must take a policy decision on fire hazards. Do we try to make premises such that fires do not arise, or do we try to help people escape from fires without undue risk? We must concentrate on the latter, because, even if we brought electrical wiring or ventilation of kitchens or other matters to the highest standard, in too many cases people who live in densely packed conditions will allow cigarettes to fall on carpets or bedding or may put an electric fire too near to soft materials. Even if we aim at the highest standards in the reduction of fire risks, there will still be fires, especially where people are separated and do not know what is going on in the room next door so that they cannot be certain whether a fire has started at any time of the day or night until it has taken such a hold that it cannot easily be put out.

I do not place too much emphasis on the provision of fire escapes, which tend to be unsightly and which can be enormously expensive to install if they are to be effective in high buildings such as the one in Notting hill where there was a fire. The mandatory provision of outside fire escapes or escape ladders is not the most cost-effective solution. However, some devices that are not unduly expensive could and should be introduced. Smoke detection devices could be made obligatory in some classes of premises at no great expense. If the Department made it an aim that smoke detection devices should be produced in large numbers, for installation in such properties, they would help to give early warning to others living in the same building or in neighbouring buildings that they must take precautions and get out while they can.

Other systems of automatic warning or extinction of fires, such as sprinklers, should be examined by the Department. At present, the sprinklers available in Britain are expensive and would be difficult to make obligatory, but there are cheaper solutions to the problem. We could reduce the specifications for fire sprinklers and require some classes of premises to install them without undue financial outlay.

I support the fire experts who wish to see much more extensive enclosure of staircases so that those on the upper floors can escape by the normal method of descent from the building instead of having to go up and out over the roofs, it was very easy to get the wrong impression of the fire at Clanricarde gardens. What happened there was that several tall buildings had been knocked into one by holes being made in the party walls. There was access to accommodation from one side of the block to the other. Flimsy partitions were installed between each house. One might have thought, as I did, that that was an advantage to those living in the property, because if they found one staircase blocked by fire they would have a choice of two or three others to which they had easy access and so could escape from the building.

However, that was the wrong interpretation. People suffer in fires not so much because they are exposed to the flames but because they are exposed to smoke. They die from suffocation rather than from being exposed to the hideous consequences of the conflagration directly by being burnt. That is the most horrifying aspect of fires, but many people die unnecessarily because they are trapped in the smoke and cannot escape into the fresh air. The Department should re-examine the lighting and enclosure of staircases and make them mandatory in many cases.

We must also examine the problem of hostels that are really hotels but that are masquerading as hostels to escape the provisions of the Fire Precautions Act 1971. That is simply a question of definition, and the fire officers could apply rules that have been established and accepted for hotels to bogus hostels that are no different from cheap hotels and ought to be caught by the Fire Precautions Act.

The Housing Act 1980 provided that premises of three storeys or more, or 500 sq metres, should be treated as a separate class of accommodation. My hon. Friend the Minister might consider it fruitful to see whether the time is drawing near when the definition of the larger multiple occupation premises could be reduced. We might aim to catch more premises by the more severe 1980 legislation, without placing an undue burden of enforcement on local authorities.

Clause 2, which relates to inspection and enforcement, states that inspector should return every two years. Some hon. Members have said that inspection should be renewed after two years, but I consider that places too big a burden on the inspection service. It would be better to place a duty on the owners to maintain the property, because breaches would soon be found out and the owners could be punished accordingly. Once a minimum standard of fire and health precautions has been attained, the owners should ensure that those standards do not deteriorate as soon as the inspectors have left.

The Bill is almost too big a subject for a private Member's Bill. An urgently needed reform is clarification of the obligations of parties under the long series of Public Health Acts, building regulations, Housing Acts, corporation Acts and other requirements by which the House has tried for many years to give effect to our feelings about housing. The GLC might be able to deal with many of the matters that we have discussed today in a special GLC Bill, and in some cases boroughs might be able to introduce further legislation. Kensington and Chelsea has done so in the past.

Multiple occupation is a matter for the Department of the Environment which should now prepare to bring in a consolidating and clarifying Bill for the whole country, laying down standards that are so clear that they become public knowledge. In the building regulations, one finds that even in relation to elementary matters, such as the height of stairs, kitchens and bathrooms, different rules apply in London from those that apply outside. The public will never grasp what is regarded as a minimum entitlement in respect of accommodation until all these matters have been tidied up and put on a rational basis.

I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to investigate whether this is a subject that could become a Conservative election commitment. If it is not possible for all these matters to he dealt with adequately in private Members' legislation, that does not mean that they should not be dealt with at all. As a House, we must insist on progress. We want a Government initiative. The Department should set a timetable and a target for what is attainable, give authorities the necessary powers and financial support, and, over the course of time, turn the discretionary rules that are not always enforced into mandatory ones. By that means they could ensure, over the whole country, the attainment of satisfactory minimum standards of accommodation in the private rented sector.

12.29 pm
Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The Social Democratic party supports the Bill. It would be possible for me to speak at considerable length. I intend, however, to be brief because it would be a tragedy if, on a technicality, at the end of a debate in which only one hon. Member has expressed anything remotely like outright opposition the measure failed to gain a Second Reading because all those hon. Members who wish to speak had not been able to do so.

I wish to join in the congratulations and thanks expressed to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) for choosing this subject. I thank him especially on behalf of those in my constituency, especially in the northern part of the borough of Islington, who live in houses of multiple occupation. I thank him on one specific point to which he referred. The hon. Gentleman and those who have assisted him to prepare the Bill are to be congratulated on tackling in the body of the Bill the difficult points about the objective. Too many hon. Members, in bringing forward private Members' Bills, leave it to the Government to draw up the difficult bits later. When that is done, the House is in no position to decide whether these difficulties can, in fact, be met. The hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on facing the issue.

Over the last 100 years, most social improvements in this sector have taken place as a result of the progressive, persistent and relentless extension of statutory regulations. They have taken place not as the result of voluntary improvement on the part of landlords, factory owners and the like, but by statutory means. It has often been done by a process of first creating the powers and later transforming those powers into duties, which is very much the operation with which we are concerned today.

In the housing sector, houses in multiple occupation were always the most vulnerable part of the sector—the part where the worst conditions existed, as one would expect. Today, although this was not always the case in the past, it is mainly single people, the elderly or otherwise vulnerable people, who live in places of multiple occupation. These are the people who have lost their opportunities to find accommodation in the truly private sector of the private landlord because of the enormous diminution in that part of the market. They have also lost their opportunities to be housed because of the rules inevitably applied by most local authorities, which operate against the single individual compared to the family, especially the family with children.

Unfortunately, that part of the quasi half-private half-public sector—the housing associations—to which such people might have been able to look, is being attacked in one respect by the Government in the Housing and Building Control Bill, which is going through the House separately. It is a tragedy, given the falling size of the private sector in housing, that the part of the non-council sector represented by the charitable housing associations is to some extent having its capacity to assist these people limited by that Bill.

I ask the Minister to imagine that one of the great charitable housing associations like the Peabody Trust, Samuel Lewis, or the Sutton Trust was to adopt as an objective the provision of housing for single people. Some of them, of course, do. If they set out to build new places to accommodate that objective and if they received Government grants—it would not normally be possible to undertake such an operation without that assistance—they would immediately encounter the risk to which the Housing and Building Control Bill exposes them. I refer to the obligation to sell their places to the tenants who occupy them. The Government have been extremely misguided to adopt that proposal. I hope that, even at this stage, the Government will have second thoughts and will accede to the request of the charitable housing associations not to impose this limit on their operations.

As the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) said, in an excellent speech which well illustrated the all-party nature of the support for the Bill, the hostel and the multi-occupied home sector is perhaps the last one where one can make a bomb out of housing. It is notorious that one cannot do so now in the normal rented sector. If one buys a place, one will not recover, normally, the capital costs from the rents that one can get under the rent-control system. However, if one lets it in single rooms on a multi-occupied basis one will not only be able to recover the costs but, if one wishes, one can make a fortune in a short time.

The word "Dickensian" has been mentioned several times in the debate so far. It is an apt word for the conditions that apply and the exploitation that occurs in some parts of the sector. That is what justifies the extension of regulations and statutory control, just as it was that kind of abuse in the running of factories that justified the introduction last century of statutory control there.

It has been said that such statutory control will reduce the number of properties available for this kind of occupation. I remind the House that that objection is raised every time anyone suggests the extension of statutory control. It is true to a certain extent, but the question is where one draws the line. We have a line at the moment. Local authorities can do many of the things that the Bill would require them to do. The question is whether we want to require them to do this or only to allow them to do it, and where we want to draw the line as to what they are allowed or required to do.

One of the most important aspects in respect of which control is required is fire regulations. We are all familiar with the terrifying accidents that have occurred in recent times, and there is no need to go over that. They take place particularly in hostels. I remind the House that the Institution of Environmental Health Officers has estimated that places such as these suffer a risk of fire nine times greater than in the case of other residential accommodation. That is something that calls for compulsory action, not only permissive action.

There is also the problem of the facilities for the residents in these places. The trend again over the decades has been for central Government and Parliament to lay down standards which must be adhered to. The hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) made a critical remark about the Parker Morris standards, but it was the Parker Morris standards that uplifted local authority dwellings to a great extent. Similar regulatory powers have been responsible particularly, for example, for the installation of heating in such accommodation over the decades. Experience shows that one gets the improvement of standards if one requires the higher standards, not if one relies on people voluntarily providing them.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams

I should like to clarify the point that I made about the Parker Morris standards. I welcomed the standards and they were right, but I mentioned them in my speech because in many cases they have had to be abandoned.

Mr. Cunningham

That is another story and I should like to go into that in detail because they have been abandoned and exceeded. It is a more complex position, and the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that, than he is suggesting.

I have a few, I will not say quibbles with the Bill, but points that I wish to mention at this stage and to say that if the Minister is to draw attention to any faults that he might think there are in the text of the Bill, they are not faults that should prevent the Bill getting a Second Reading today. Some of them are quite trivial and none of them is incapable of correction in Committee.

For example, I find clause 11, which relates fines to the Criminal Justice Act 1982, incomprehensible, in that it does not seem to me to achieve the connection with the Criminal Justice Act 1982. That could be corrected very simply in Standing Committee.

I am not happy about clause 2, which lays a duty on every owner and person having control of an HMO to ensure the health and safety of all the occupants of the house. I perfectly understand what the hon. Member for Leicester, South is trying to achieve. He is saying that HMOs are to be run in such a way as to secure no disadvantage and no threat to the health and safety of the occupants. As it stands, it is a tremendously wide provision and I do not know how anyone could possibly achieve it. But that is a drafting point for the Committee and not one that goes to the root of the Bill.

I am doubtful whether the words "suitable and sufficient" in clause 4(2) are truly justiciable. I think that the word "reasonable" is truly justiciable and would present no problems for the courts.

More fundamentally, I think that the procedures in clauses 5 and 7 are very complex. They have got to be, otherwise we shall be leaving loopholes, but I am not certain that they need to be quite as complex as set out in the Bill. None of those mild points of doubt goes to the root of the Bill. They can be dealt with in Standing Committee with the assistance of the Government.

There is something that I think should be added to the Bill, and it is referred to in the briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Local authorities have a significant difficulty at the moment when they seek to use their powers to get essential services, such as gas, reconnected for the benefit of residents after a disconnection made by the supplying body as a result of the landord failing to pay for the service, even when the residents have paid for it within their rent.

The local authority is usually required by the gas board, for example, to pay off the arrears before the reconnection takes place, as well as having an arrangement for the future with the residents whereby the money is secured to the gas board. That is a very significant disadvantage in providing essential facilities to residents in HMOs—a disadvantage which lies on the local authority. That point has been gone over before in other contexts, but, since it is a point which applies particularly to HMOs, it is one which it would be appropriate to try to deal with in the course of the Bill. I agree with the AMA that an attempt should be made to add that provision to the Bill during the course of the Standing Committee.

There is no dispute that the matter covered by the Bill is very important. There is no dispute—the Government do not dispute it—that action by local authorities, that is to say, more action than they have taken in the past, is required. We have only to look at the Government's own circular of last October on fire precautions to see that they feel that local authorities should be doing a great deal more on the matter. We know—the last paragraph of the circular tells anyone who does not know—that the circular imposes no additional statutory burden on local authorities. It is merely a chivying, a bullying, a pressurising of local authorities to do things which they are allowed to do. If it was right—and I am sure it was—for the Government to issue that circular, it is right for Parliament to require local authorities to do the things which they are chivied to do in that circular. The Government want more action to take place, and experience suggests that it will not take place—in many parts of the country at least—unless there is a statutory obligation to do so.

The Bill is needed. We cannot rely only on circulars in future. We should, therefore, give the Bill a Second Reading. Given the number of hon. Members who have been present for the debate and the opportunities to express any opposition that there might be, it would be a tragedy and an abuse of the procedures of the House if, come 2.30 this afternoon, any hon. Member endeavoured to prolong the debate and prevent the Bill getting the Second Reading that all except one hon. Member who has spoken seem to want.

12.45 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

It is a special pleasure for me to take part in the debate. Like the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), I shall be brief, because I share the view that the Bill should make progress and go to Committee. My experiences in my inner London constituency justify the Bill's purpose and illustrate why we should take the Bill seriously.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on the energy and work that have gone into presenting the Bill. He has done a great service to a number of people, particularly those who are vulnerable and whose interests often go by default. They do not command great blocks of votes. The Bill is essentially about the well-being of humanity. That is the noblest reason for wanting it to go to Committee.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury regretted that the tenants of housing association accommodation would be able to enjoy the right-to-buy privilege, but I welcome that. Many of my constituents would like to buy their homes. Housing associations are rapidly stimulating the shared ownership concept, which brings more property on to the market, makes better use of public money and affords the opportunity for more people to enjoy home ownership. For that reason alone, I welcome the Bill.

The problems caused by houses in multiple occupation, in London in particular, are frightening and serious. The trouble is that many central London properties were built before the first world war. An additional difficulty is that often the landlord is not in residence. He is neither known nor accountable to the tenants. Often a foreign-based property company operates at a distance, or a foreign national, resident overseas, owns a chunk of property in inner London. Such a person or company has no vested interest in the well-being of the tenants.

The high fire risk in many such properties is noticeable. The tenants tend to be single-parent families, elderly people or ex-soldiers. Traditionally, they move around a lot and are thus especially vulnerable. They live in single rooms in buildings which are not properly maintained and where the electrical, gas, drainage and plumbing systems are defective. Living quarters are typically cramped and it is not unusual to find cooker and electric fires in close proximity to bedding or other furniture.

Other common features include exposed electrical wiring, leaking pipes, dampness caused by the age, structure and decayed state of the building, and the absence of fire precautions and fire extinguishers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) suggested that perhaps a cheaper type of fire extinguisher could be installed. I disagree with him. The British standard for such equipment must be adhered to. In any case, the equipment is relatively cheap; the problem is that property companies do not bother to buy and install it, which is why the Bill is so important.

Disasters have occurred in my constituency, in neighbouring boroughs and in many other areas. In 1978, nine people died in a fire at Victoria house, a privately owned hostel in Clacton for ex-psychiatric patients—people who were especially vulnerable. The Essex divisional fire officer said that there were no proper fire precautions and added that he was sure that if there had been such precautions some of the victims would be alive today.

In 1980, 10 people died in a fire in a Kilburn hostel which was overcrowded and lacked proper fire precautions. In 1981, eight people died and 100 were made homeless in a fire that raged through a rabbit warren of three large, connected, multi-occupied houses in Clanricarde gardens in Notting hill in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington. My hon. Friend did not tell the House that the fire investigation officer described that property as a house of cards.

All the experts who looked at the houses said that it was likely that if there had been any fire precautions some of the people who lost their lives would have survived. It is a scandal that people should lose their lives for the lack of a determination in the House to ensure that the law provides the protection that they need.

Tenants in my constituency have described conditions in a large terraced huse in Inverness terrace, where a fire broke out on 8 January this year. Residents were obliged to jump from the windows of upper floors to escape. The condition of that building was truly horrifying. Hardly anything was working or in proper order. Electrical wiring was in a poor condition and the building was virtually falling down. There were no fire precautions, no exit signs and no fire extinguishers in the hallways. The list was almost endless.

Some may think that the Bill would impose a severe obligation on local authorities. My local authority, Westminster city council, supports the Bill and would welcome its becoming law. The council told me that it would probably require an extra 17 staff in the environmental health office's department. Given the number of deaths and injuries that have occurred because of fires, that seems a small price to pay. The fire figures show that in 1980 in London there were 119 fire deaths and 740 injuries. Many of those deaths and injuries occurred in houses in multiple occupation. There are about 100 cases of murder in England and Wales in any 12-month period. It would be a scandal, and the House would be outraged, if the number of deaths through murder in any way approached the number of deaths caused by fires. That is another good reason why the Bill should make progress.

I accept that aspects of the Bill need to be looked at in Committee. However, that is no reason to stop the Bill at this stage. I am somewhat concerned about the apparent obligation to rehouse people. Certainly that duty could not easily be undertaken by the inner London boroughs, but I am sure that a sensible solution could be worked out in a formula under the mobility scheme.

I hope, therefore, that the House will support the Bill today and that we shall have the opportunity to examine it in detail in Committee.

12.55 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) spoke with feeling and from experience of the situation in his constituency. His contribution and that of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon),—also that of the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams), in so far as I fully understood it—show the all-party support for the Bill. It would indeed be a tragedy if it were to suffer the fate of the many other worthy and progressive Bills that have fallen like nine pins in the past few Fridays and the Government were to seek to find a technical device to prevent this much-needed and much-supported Bill from going further.

My experience—I speak as a Member who does not represent one of the great conurbations—is partly as a councillor for five years in Kensington and Chelsea, where I served on the housing committee. I can testify to the considerable improvement that has taken place there over the past 12 years, largely as a result of the work done by housing associations in co-operation with the local authority. Also, I am president of the Swansea Accommodation for the Single Homeless—SASH—which runs a night and day shelter in my constituency. Although it may be said that this problem belongs to the great conurbations, clearly it is also a problem in personal terms in areas such as the one that I represent.

According to the 1981 census data, the total of households sharing facilities in England was over 287,000. In Wales it was only just over 10,000—about the same number as in Greater Manchester. Within that Welsh total of just over 10,000, half are in Cardiff and Swansea. It is significant that in only one Welsh constituency—Cardiff, North—5 per cent. of the households are in multi-occupied dwellings, whereas in Greater London 32 constituencies have between 5 and 16 per cent. shared households.

In my constituency, only 0.3 per cent. of the households are in multi-occupation. That has its own advantages in terms of the arguments about the resources that have to be deployed to meet the problem, both in terms of revenue and capital needs. In virtually all the Welsh districts, for example, the incidence of the problem is so small that local authorities can deal with it with virtually no additional staff. If one compares Swansea with Westminster, where there are three times as many houses in multiple occupation, and where perhaps 17 additional staff are required, the problem appears very manageable in Swansea. The Secretary of State for Wales is continually urging local authorities to avoid an underspend on the capital allocation, based on the 1980 additional powers. This is in part because of the effects on employment in the construction industry that are generated by this form of expenditure.

In Wales, slightly more than one third of multi-occupied dwellings are unfit. This was learnt as a result of the 1979 Welsh housing conditions survey, which was published in December 1982. The official evidence suggests that the incidence of the problem is greatest in the major conurbations and that the problem in areas such as Wales is of a far more manageable proportion. This may have a bearing, if the Bill reaches Committee, on the timetables that may be imposed on authorities to carry out the various obligations that are set out in the Bill.

The Bill will give private sector tenants a new charter of rights and stop unscrupulous landlords keeping their tenants in misery, while encouraging good landlords to improve their property. The answer to the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle), who always essays to be the acceptable voice of landlordism in the House, was provided very well by the hon. Member for Abingdon when he talked about the Oxford example. There are, of course, the examples that we see about us in London.

With one exception, every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate has supported the Bill's broad principles. As others have said, matters of detail can be dealt with in Committee. There are a number of areas that can be negotiated if the broad principles of the Bill are accepted. I adopt the historical point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Morton) in answer to those who say that there will be increased homelessness as a result of the Bill. It is likely that the majority of landlords will respond positively to the duty to make improvements to their properties, given the new special grant procedure in the 1980 Act.

Whatever the Under-Secretary of State says when he replies, I hope that he will be much in favour of the spirit of the Bill. Surely the Government cannot condone the present position and leave tenants in houses of multiple occupation and licensees in a position in which they have no right to take action themselves, or to seek the aid of a local authority, and are condemned to remain in overcrowded, unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

The Bill is designed to replace the present complex and discretionary procedures and standards available to local authorities, with clear national minimum standards for HMOs and clear duties of enforcement and inspection. In so many instances the present discretionary framework has shown itself to be entirely inadequate and to lead to confusion among local authorities and landlords. It is a recipe for neglect and inaction.

I hope that the Minister will not dwell too long on Revenue implications, especially the two-year inspection period. Obviously that will be negotiable in Committee. If the Minister suggests that he would prefer to leave action to local authorities' discretion, all the evidence shows conclusively that many councils have not used their discretion properly. For example, in England only 44 of the 366 housing authorities have registration schemes, and 12 of them are merely informatory. In England, in 1981, only 18 control orders were made by councils. There are 139,000 HMOs, of which 85 per cent. are substandard. That clearly shows that this is not a priority for most local authorities.

The Bill would protect from homelessness the small minority of dwellers in multi-occupancy houses who would be displaced because of statutory overcrowding or the necessary closure of severely substandard premises. The Minister will surely not justify keeping open severely substandard premises which cannot be improved at reasonable cost or statutory overcrowding, and I hope that he will support the safeguard against homelessness.

It is most encouraging that there has been a positive response from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities to the Bill, although it makes understandable detailed criticisms of matters which can properly be left to the Committee. Similarly, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, of which I am a vice-president, has formally supported the need for stronger legislation.

A reasonable man would surely find something beyond comprehension in the priorities of a Government who are prepared to spend £2 million per head on the Falkland Islands population, yet are not prepared to assist this most vulnerable section of people at home for some of whom the Bill is truly a matter of life and death, as has been shown by the awful results of some fires.

Those hon. Members who have seen the appalling conditions of so many of those vulnerable people and who speak for them from the comfort of the House will surely not accept the stock Administration excuses for inertia. There are many people at risk and in need, and to change the law, as set out in the Bill so ably put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South, would indeed be the best memorial that the House could give to those who died at Clanricarde gardens and in other areas of Britain.

1.6 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

The debate is about the homeless and multiple occupied properties. The Bill is clearly trying to improve matters and that is laudable and commendable. But will it do what it professes to do? I am sceptical about local authorities being given more powers. I am sceptical about local authorities taking on more rules and regulations. I am sceptical about inspectors and registers. I do not believe that they will solve the problem. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that few problems are solved by more laws. I am convinced that the less bureaucracy and the fewer rules there are the fewer problems there will be.

Why is there so much multi-occupation? Why are some properties woefully maintained and others badly overcrowded? There is a scarcity of suitable accommodation, particularly in large towns and urban areas, at the right price. There are more people than there is accommodation at the price that they can afford. There are fewer private landlords and they are unable to get a proper return on their money. That is one reason for the decline of the private landlord. Far from the Rent Acts providing a reasonable return for private landlords to allow them to make improvements and repairs, they have dried up the private sector to the extent that the only problems that are suffered in towns and cities are not because of the Rent Acts and the private sector but because of the large property companies which are exploiting the situation with maintenance and service charges. In fact, rents now bring in one of the lowest returns on investment income. As a result, there is little incentive for the private landlord to buy and let property.

Landlords are often portrayed as sinister, tight-lipped, hard-hearted capitalists exploiting everyone in sight, but in my constituency in Liverpool the vast majority of landlords are retired people, widows or widowers, who have bought one or two extra properties during the more prosperous times of their lives as a hedge against inflation and to augment a modest pension or income.

The absence of incentives has reduced the number of private landlords and there is a shortage of property. That has resulted in a developing problem for those who do not wish, or are unable, to own a home. The problems of multi-occupation go hand in hand with the decline of the rented sector. That decline has created greater scarcity. In addition, the Rent Acts have accelerated the bad conditions found in older properties.

Liverpool has about 3,000 Victorian houses, some with the most beautiful facades, lying empty and derelict. They have gradually fallen into decline because private landlords had insufficient money to maintain them in good repair. As a result, the council has served compulsory purchase orders on the houses and taken possession. Once the council had taken over, far from improving them, it let them lie idle and they decline to the point at which many have had to be demolished.

The scarcity that has been created is caused by the Rent Acts coupled with the insensitive way in which Liverpool city council has taken over such houses and failed to repair them. It let them go to rack and ruin. The homes are vandalised and the council then demolishes them. Three thousand empty houses are waiting to be rehabilitated. Young people would happily homestead them and buy them for a song. Liverpool city council has not yet started a process of homesteading which would allow those properties to be saved.

Politics is about priorities in the use of limited resources and making choices. The difference between the Conservative party and the Opposition concerns those priorities and the different uses of resources. If there were relaxations in the Rent Acts, with certain protections for poorer and more vulnerable members of society, it would go some way towards helping to solve the problem of multi-occupation.

Mr. Jim Marshall

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman has not been present for the full debate. Had he been, he might not have made those pejorative political comments. If the hon. Gentleman had been present, he would have appreciated that support on the Government Benches is as strong for this measure as support on the Opposition Benches. His hon. Friends, who have spoken in favour of the Bill, would agree with his remarks about the Rent Acts. Conservative Members have been at one with Opposition Members about the need to help those in this category. The hon. Gentleman does his case no good whatsoever when he tries to make political capital out of people who are living in squalid, often dirty and unhygienic conditions.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Member should have intervened when I finished my speech. By introducing more laws and regulations, the problems will not be solved. It is a mistake to pile more laws on top of the present laws in the belief that that will solve problems. One of the mistakes that the hon. Member and many other hon. Members make is in believing that, if there is a problem, passing a law will solve the problem. In fact, that creates new problems, for which more laws need to be created. If the hon. Gentleman had let me complete my speech he would understand my argument.

Mr. Marshall

If the hon. Gentleman had been present at the beginning of the debate he would have realised that when I introduced the Bill—

Mr. Steen

I was present at the beginning.

Mr. Marshall

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the full debate he would have realised—many of his hon. Friends have made the point—that there is discretionary legislation which permits local authorities to cope with the problem. Many local authorities have failed to cope with the problem and the Bill seeks to make that a mandatory duty and a mandatory responsibility.

Mr. Steen

I have read the Bill and I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, we are not communicating quite as well as we may do when I have finished my speech.

I was arguing that the relaxation of the Rent Acts would produce more accommodation, with certain protections. My second argument is that the Government are right to sell council houses to owner-occupiers. That is a significant first step. However, there is perhaps a more important second step which the Government may consider in the next, if not in this, Parliament. I refer to the liberalisation of council house regimes. That does not mean another Act, more public money, more offices or bureaucracy, but quite the opposite. It means releasing the vacant housing stock that is currently wasting away in public ownership. There are 300,000 council units lying empty all over Britain. They were built with taxpayers' and ratepayers' money. Furthermore, 20,000 of them have been lying empty for more than a year. Why? Councils blame the Government, saying they have insufficient resources to make the necessary repairs and that until the houses are fit to live in people cannot move in.

Why do not councils tell the hundreds and thousands of people who are purportedly on council housing lists that they can move into the empty council houses and flats and either do their own repairs or get private contractors to do them? Why do councils not say that if they have not got the cash they will give them an advance? In that way people could move into the empty houses and flats and could start paying rent and rates and thus increase a council's income. Is there any reason why local authorities should keep the homeless out of empty council houses?

In Liverpool there are many high-rise blocks and empty flats. Why should not the council tell single homeless people, or single people in multi-occupation, that they can move into such flats? Why do they not say, "You can have an advance to put it right, but the flat is yours." Why should that flat lie empty? Why should we need a Bill to help those living in multi-occupied accommodation when we could try to resolve the problem by looking at it differently? Why should many single homeless people and many of those living in multi-occupied houses—which have been described quite accurately—be compelled to live in such premises, when we could solve the problem through the relaxation of the Rent Acts and the use of vacant council homes?

For example, in Liverpool there are 5,000 empty flats and houses in council ownership. There are 19,000 people on the waiting list. Every week I write to the council's housing director and to the Liberal-controlled housing committee. I say that I have a constituent who would happily move in to one of the council houses or flats and pay for the repairs. I cite case after case of married couples or single-parent families who would be prepared to move into a vacant flat or house and carry out the repairs. Every time, however, the answer is no. A large part of the problem is due not to bad or wicked landlords but to the public sector. Local government refuses to put into use publicly controlled housing stock.

I shall not support the Bill, not because it is not needed or is not excellently drafted. It is not that I do not believe in the sincerity of the views held and in the need for such legislation, but the Bill is the wrong solution. The problem exists, but the solution does not lie in passing more laws. We must allow people to occupy some of the homes that are empty and ready to be used.

The case is augmented by the story of two vast council estates in my constituency—the Belle Vale estate, which is certainly a misnomer, and the Netherley estate. Both were built in the early 1970s by Liverpool city council with the advice of a splendid array of architects and planners. The total cost was more than £50 million. In 1976, I said in the House that those blocks, which housed thousands of people, should be blown up. The suggestion was greeted with dire laughter. It was said that they could not possibly be blown up because they had only just been built. The House will be intrigued to learn that this year both estates are being completely demolished. They have been an absolute disaster and about £60 million has been lost.

How can the hon. Member for Leicester, South ask us to pass more laws to deal with the situation when the problems have been created by the local authorities and by legislation that we have already passed? A great deal could be done with £60 million to help people in multiple occupation, single-parent families, and so on. In other words, we have got things badly wrong.

Therefore, although we applaud the reasons for the Bill, it will not solve the problems. The problems can be solved by lifing the controls imposed on the private sector by the Rent Acts and by allowing people on council waiting lists to move into empty public sector homes, thus relieving the pressure on houses currently in multiple occupation. I am sure that is the right way to approach the matter. Passing yet more legislation is certainly the wrong way.

1.21 pm
Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

We have had a very well-informed debate. I support the Bill. Having listened to all the contributions, I am glad to note that the views that I jotted down before the debate have been borne out and there has been support from all parts of the House. Out of respect, I should mention some of the excellent contributions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Morton) tellingly noted that the fire brigades have the closest view of these problems. I was grateful, too, for the comments of the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), who has an excellent record in these matters, and of the hon. Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant), Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt) and Abingdon (Mr. Benyon).

The Labour party gives this modest and timely measure an unreserved welcome. More than once in recent years, our party conference has urged that the wholly unsatisfactory position should be treated with urgency and compassion. The gap between responsible supervision and the dreadful neglect that exists in practice shows the extent of the shortfall in terms of safety and health. That being so, a responsible society must feel compassion for those whom it neglects at its peril. That is why the Labour party's Programme '82 did not mince words on this. It said: Local authorities should be under a stronger duty to inspect, should be obliged to register some categories of property, and should be provided with less cumbersome procedures for enforcing management and repair standards". I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on his good fortune in the ballot, on his choice of a cause, on the help that he received in preparing the Bill from a host of good friends both within and outwith the House, and on having so faithfully sought to translate into legitimate legislative imperatives the need to protect so many unfortunate men and women. His sincerity, which shone like a beacon, impressed us all. His good fortune will be complete if the Government support the Bill.

The modesty of the provisions demonstrates that the sponsors are aware of many reservations about the Bill in some quarters. We should examine them against the simply stated prime objectives of the Bill. The first is that councils will have a duty, not a discretion, to inspect houses in multiple occupation regularly and at least once every two years. Some have said that that duty will require the employment of additional inspection officers to ensure that standards are maintained. That is true. Westminster council estimates that it will require another 15 or 16 officers, at no small additional cost.

However, I become cross when I hear that argument because those whom we are seeking to protect already carry more than a fair share of life's bad luck. They are victims of a range of social evils that are often compounded by their bad luck in living in dangerous, unhealthy and dirty deathtraps. They are entitled to believe that the law will ensure that their bad luck does not extend to a hideous death, a dreadful disease or a crippling injury. We cannot leave that protection to optional provisions of enforcement. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers says that 500,000 people live in 139,000 houses in multiple occupation, of which more than 100,000 require action under the Housing Act.

The Bill imposes an obligation to register two categories of houses in multiple occupation. The interested person who considers this matter will realise that this is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not know the extent of the problem, but we are painfully aware of the consequences of allowing it to fester and grow. Some hon. Members have said that the cost and time in compiling and maintaining registers is a reason for caution in accepting this obligation. I hope that we shall not hear that this afternoon, because we have a responsibility to carry out this job conscientiously and well.

The third prime objective of the Bill is to bring this legislation into one body of opinion as an instrument for ensuring and enforcing humane standards. Some may say that the Housing Act 1980 and the recent joint circular on fire precautions are sufficient to meet our responsibilities, but they are not. It is little use to tell authorities that they have powers—they have had them for the past 20 years and have largely ignored them. We need a Bill to tranform discretionary powers into mandatory duties, and this measure does that.

The Opposition do not flinch from laying further duties on authorities and owners as well as giving statutory rights to tenants at risk. We welcome provisions that lay a duty on owners of houses in multiple occupation to ensure the health and safety of their tenants.

Mr. Steen

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a duty on the local council to get rid of the 300,000 empty council houses and flats all over Britain?

Mr. Graham

Yes. We also welcome the obligation placed on owners to register their property and the duties laid on local authorities to enforce minimum standards of fire safety, repairs, overcrowding, amenity and management. We applaud the powers of enforcement—

Mr. Viggers

As the Labour Party has obviously given the matter much thought, has it estimated the cost that will fall upon the country? If the hon. Gentleman cannot answer that question, may I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell the House whether he has made such an estimate?

Mr. Graham

I am grateful for that intervention. We have not made an estimate of the cost. One does not know the precise size of the problem. We know that there is a problem. We are prepared to say, in support of the Bill, that the costs in clause 9 should not fall upon local authorities but should be borne by central Government. It will not be done at once. We recognise, however, that there will be a burden on the taxpayer. In our view, it is a burden that we should accept.

We also approve of the powers to close down properties that do not comply and the duty to rehouse those who are displaced. Dreadful instances of fire deaths have been given. These deaths could have been avoided. They result not simply from poor fire precautions but from too many people being crowded into too few rooms, excessive strains being put on faulty electrical wiring and all the other risks faced by people trapped in old and poorly repaired houses. In my borough of Enfield, according to the 1981 census, there were 2,443 households living in multiple occupation houses. Of these, 1,732 were living in sub-standard conditions. In the neighbouring borough of Haringey, there were 9,435 households living in houses of multiple-occupation, of which—

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to his borough. Is he satisfied that none of the shortcomings apply to fire regulations? The hon. Gentleman has stated that sufficient powers exist if local authorities were to use them. If he is not satisfied that the fire regulations are being followed to the letter by the local authority, has he done anything about it?

Mr. Graham

I had a telephone conversation as recently as this afternoon with a member of the environmental health team in Enfield. I discussed the problem before the debate. The team is well aware of its responsibilities and its powers in respect of fires. Sadly, the Enfield environmental health team is no different from many others. It is exceedingly stretched and has an enormous number of duties. It needs additional resources.

It has been claimed that the problem would not arise if authorities took seriously their responsibilities by making resources available. Enfield will not be much different to many other authorities. The resources of the environmental health team in Enfield have been stretched to, and, I would say, beyond the limit. It is not looking for trouble. For how long, however, can that trouble be avoided?

Is it not dreadful to have to contemplate that in one's own constituency—in my case, that is Edmonton—unfortunate men and women live and sleep at risk from death and injury just because we allow it to happen? We need not allow it to happen. That is why I welcome the Bill. I invite the House to note carefully the words of the environmental health officers, those at the sharp end, those with responsibility without resources, those with conscience without control. They say: There are aspects of the Bill which we will need detailed examination at Committee stage but there is no doubt that the Bill would aid environmental health officers in securing safe and useful accommodation and would serve to increase the protection of some half million people. They want the Bill to be practical. They want it to be viewed with approval and not disrepute. They want it to have some flexibility. They want the stimulus to bridge the gap between what environmental health departments are able to do and what needs to be done. Environmental health officers have an expertise in assessing priorities and risks. Their welcome for the Bill is much appreciated.

I value the opportunity to pay tribute to the yeoman work over many years by hon. Members. I refer particularly to the hon. Member for Paddington. I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend—a good friend—the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) who has tirelessly sought to make Parliament face up to its responsibilities. No one has greater, deeper or more compelling reasons for welcoming the Bill. No one deserves to feel more satisfaction about taking part in the debate. No one will be entitled to feel more disappointment and despair if the Bill does not make progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) has previously highlighted the dreadful neglect of this inarticulate half million. Both have done it against the background that they bring to the House from service in local government, and both deserve our gratitude.

There is an abundance of evidence that the Bill enjoys all-party support. It is also supported by associations, churches, housing groups, organisations of private tenants, the AMA and the National and Local Government Officers Association. We need support from the Government. Half a million neglected and vulnerable people need that support. We shall not let them down. For their sake as well as ours, the Government must not let them down today.

1.35 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

I join all other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on his good fortune in coming top in the ballot and on the considered way in which he expounded the reasoning behind the Bill and its contents. I am grateful to him and to the other hon. Members who have spoken about their concern for the safety and welfare of those who live in houses in multiple occupation. The Government share their concern, and I welcome the opportunity of reminding the House of the important steps that we have already taken and of explaining our attitude to the Bill.

Houses in multiple occupation are defined in both the Bill and existing Housing Acts as houses that are occupied by persons who do not form a single household. As hon. Members have shown, this definition covers a wide variety of accommodation. Houses in multiple occupation cover lodgings and bed-sitters, various kinds of shared flats and hostels. They range in size from ordinary two-storey terraced houses to large hostels, which may accommodate several hundred people. Some are owned and run by local authorities or by housing associations and other voluntary bodies, others are run as a full-time business by commercial landlords, while others are run by ordinary families who take in one or two lodgers.

The people who use them also cover the whole spectrum of individual needs and circumstances, and apart from living in this form of accommodation they often have little in common. They include some of the lower paid, the unemployed, single-parent families and other vulnerable members of the community—people about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) spoke so movingly. They may also include—particularly in hostels—people with special needs or those who are finding their feet after coming out of institutions. We should not forget that many houses in multiple occupation also provide for people who may have no such disabilities, such as workers whose employment requires high mobility, students—as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant)—young people at the thresholds of their careers who prefer to share and even, I suspect, Members of Parliament.

These buildings provide a valuable service in the housing market for the people who use them. The Government are committed to safeguarding their interests and ensuring that houses in multiple occupation remain a viable sector of the housing market. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) emphasised the problem of viability.

The promoter of the Bill was in some difficulty in dealing with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who asked what the impact of the Bill might be on the supply of housing. The hon. Member for Leicester, South ended up by saying that there might be a reduction in the supply, in which case it was up to the local authority to make good such deficit. That begs other questions. If local authorities are to meet this need in the housing market, it can be done only at the expense of some other need in the housing market; in other words a rearrangement of priorities.

As there are many other hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate I shall not outline the battery of legislation that has been introduced since 1959 to cover houses in multiple occupation. However, I shall outline the action taken by this Government. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) now enthusiastically supports the Bill, but there was a gap between 1974 and 1979 in legislation covering houses in multiple occupation. One of the priorities of the Government's housing policy has been to improve standards in such accommodation and we have carried out the widest improvements in legislation for several years, particularly in the vital aspect of means of escape from fire.

First, local authorities' extensive statutory powers governing means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation were largely consolidated in the Housing Act 1980, which replaced earlier provisions in the Housing Acts 1961 and 1969. Under those provisions, where a local authority considers that a house in multiple occupation is not provided with the necessary means of escape from fire, it may take action to remedy the situation. It may do that either by serving a notice requiring the provision of the necessary means of escape, or by ensuring that part of the house is not used for human habitation. Alternatively, authorities may opt for a combination of the two.

Secondly, we agreed to include order-making powers in the 1980 Act to enable the Government to impose a specific duty on local authorities in respect of means of escape from fire for any houses in multiple occupation specified by order. After wide consultation with a number of interested bodies, we used those new powers to make an order which came into operation in December 1981. Local authorities now have the duty to exercise their powers to require necessary means of escape from fire in those large hostels and other houses in multiple occupation where the potential risk is greatest.

Mr. Graham

Does the Minister agree that, by the nature of the limitations of the order—the gross floor space had to be over 50 sq. metres and the height three or more storeys—Westminster has found that, of the 3,455 houses in multiple occupation of which it knows in its area, only 65 are covered by the order?

Sir George Young

The order is in no way intended to diminish the importance of inspecting houses in multiple occupation which do not fall within its scope. Local authorities have extensive powers to deal with them. If the Government wish to extend the powers they can do it by order under the Housing Act 1980. We would not need the Bill if we wanted to extend those powers.

Thirdly, we agreed to amend the Housing Act 1974 to enable special grants for houses in multiple occupation to be made not only, as previously, for standard amenities such as WCs and baths, but for means of escape from fire. The hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Pitt) mentioned those grants. In either case, grant can also be paid towards repair costs carried out at the same time. Grants are generally discretionary, but following the 1980 Act the local authority is obliged to give a grant for eligible works which have been the subject of a statutory notice under schedule 24 to the 1980 Act requiring means of escape, or under section 15 of the Housing Act 1961 requiring the provision of standard amenities. Ninety per cent. of the loan charges on the grant are contributed by the Exchequer.

Fourthly, in the Housing Act 1980 and in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 we agreed to the first extensive updating for many years of fines for offences relating to houses in multiple occupation. Many of the increases have been substantial, particularly those which are related to means of escape from fire.

Fifthly, last October, we issued a circular—to which the hon. Member for Edmonton referred—to all local housing and fire authorities in England and Wales. This gives guidance on the recent strengthening in the law and clarifies the scope and nature of the wide variety of statutory powers and responsibilities that authorities have for improving fire safety. The Home Office is currently preparing a national advisory standard for means of escape from houses in multiple occupation, as an aid to the process of consultation between housing and fire authorities under existing legislation, which has been clarified in the circular. The Home Office hopes to publish the standard later this year after consultation with the relevant interests.

The variety of measures which the Government have already taken—the 1981 order, the extension of special grants to means of escape and the recent circular—represent a significant advance and we believe they should be given a chance to work. However, even if it proved necessary to impose further obligations on local authorities in respect of means of escape from fire, the hon. Member's Bill would not be necessary. As I have already said, the Government retain their own order-making power to impose specific duties on local authorities and we are keeping the situation under review.

Although we have taken significant steps to improve and clarify the legislation, we have never pretended that legislation alone is the answer, especially for those who use hostels. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) dwelt on that theme. Among the people in hostels are some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community. They include those with special needs, such as the elderly, ex-offenders, ex-psychiatric patients and ex-alcoholics, and those whose main problem is simply the inability to find other accommodation.

We are committed to helping these people. Through our hostels initiative, launched in 1980, we have begun the first major expansion for many years in the provision of hostels and other forms of shared housing. In 1981–82, for the first time the Housing Corporation was given a specific allocation totalling £12 million for housing association hostel and shared housing schemes. Resources channelled to these schemes have risen from that initial commitment to over £50 million in the forthcoming year. As a result, the bleak relics of the Victorian age are increasingly being replaced by new, smaller hostels built to modern standards of safety and amenity.

Mr. Tom Benyon

New Horizon has told me that it has found difficulty in working its way through the complicated grant structure so that it can acquire sufficient funds to build high care hostels. Can my hon. Friend comment on that?

Sir George Young

I can comment—at length if I am not careful. The problem is that the grant for the building comes from my Department or from the Housing Corporation and the topping up costs to help with care come from the DHSS. The problem facing New Horizon is to marry the two and ensure that it receives the care costs from the DHSS if it gets a grant from the Housing Corporation or my Department. Negotiations are continuing between my Department and the DHSS to see whether there is a way round the dilemma. We hope to come to a conclusion soon.

While we are giving a much needed impetus to hostel provision, we fully recognise the legitimate wishes of many single people who wish to enjoy a greater degree of independence. We are therefore channelling substantial funding through the Housing Corporation to housing association move-on accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree made some positive suggestions about the better use of underused local authority accommodation. My colleagues in the Home Office will examine some of the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington about smoke detectors and sprinklers.

Mr. Steen

Surely the Government should express a little more concern about the underuse of council accommodation. We are talking not only about underuse but about abandoned property. About 300,000 units that are empty today could be used tomorrow if the council permitted people on the waiting lists to move in and do their own repairs. The cost could be docked off the rent. Surely the Government should encourage that.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend makes a forceful case for the better use of existing stock. Penalties are imposed on local authorities if their vacancy rate is above a certain percentage. We are reviewing the matter to see whether there is some other way of bringing such accommodation into use. The fact that I did not deal with that at length was no discourtesy, but an effort to conclude my remarks so that others can contribute.

Mr. Stallard

I agree that the maximum use should be made of public sector housing, but does the Minister accept that thousands of houses in the private sector are empty, some deliberately, to keep prices up? About 700,000 houses, are empty. They could be used to take care of what might happen if there were an overspill because of an improvement in standards.

Sir George Young

The Government have taken several steps to encourage property in private hands to be put to better use. The enormous increase in the range of improvement grants is designed to do exactly that. The shorthold provisions which we introduced a few years ago are also designed to encourage those who are sitting on private empty accommodation to bring it back into use. We have not ignored the private sector.

I shall deal now with the question of legislation and summarise the present position. A battery of discretionary powers are available to local authorities and it is for each authority to apply those powers. The Government have taken further steps to protect residents in houses in multiple occupation and have made a number of significant improvements to the legislation. We have also given guidance to housing and fire authorities to help steer them through the legislation governing fire safety.

Therefore, it is difficult to sustain a case that there are major deficiencies in the scope of the present legislation. Nothing that I have heard today leads me to believe that any significant aspect of day-to-day management or the physical conditions of houses in multiple occupation has been seriously neglected. Several hon. Members have argued that there is a risk of suffering from too much legislation on HMOs and it could be argued that existing provisions are scattered through several Acts and that a tidy-up measure is called for.

The House may be pleased to note that the consolidation of housing statutes through the Law Commission has begun and that consolidation of the legislation on HMOs is contemplated. Of course, in view of the amount of housing legislation, that may take some time, but I note the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington to serve on a Committee to consider such a Bill.

Our inquiries show that local authorities have used their extensive powers and have, in general, found them satisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) said that his local authority, Westminster city council, warmly endorsed the Bill. There is little that the council cannot do at present. The major impact of the Bill is to make compulsory what is at present discretionary. The Westminster city council could employ another 16 or 17 staff in the environmental health officers' department and use the existing powers.

It cannot be claimed that local authorities are failing to take action under their existing powers. Substantial numbers of environmental health officers spend much of their time on housing, and local authorities make considerable efforts to improve standards. It is worth stressing that fact.

Naturally, we hear, sometimes in dramatic and distressing ways, of cases where things go wrong. Sometimes the responsibility for the error or inadequacy is clear, but in many cases the situation is far from straightforward and it would be wrong to assume that further legislation, however expressed, would remove such cases. By their nature, we do not hear about the HMOs where standards of management, safety and amenity cause no serious problem. I am sure that the House will bear that in mind when seeking to put into perspective the varying accounts of the present position that have been given in the House.

The nature of work done by local authorities varies considerably throughout the country. As one would expect, the great concentration of houses in multiple occupation in England is found in London and other cities. There are few in most rural areas.

Not only do numbers vary, but the types of HMO vary in size, age and layout. The Housing Acts provide powers from which local authorities can select, according to the needs of their areas. For example, 44 authorities, including 13 London boroughs, have registration schemes in their areas. Those authorities have found that power helpful, doubtless because they have many HMOs in their areas and need to keep track of them. We may surmise that local authorities that do not have registration schemes may have too few houses in multiple occupation or that they are concentrated in one area and can be located without the need to keep detailed records.

The powers available to English authorities are also available to authorities in Wales, which are thus able to vary their approach according to local conditions. Houses in multiple occupation are mainly located in the industrial conurbations of south Wales and I understand that the largest concentration is in Cardiff, where the city council operates two registration schemes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon mentioned Oxford city council. I shall draw his comments to the attention of the council, which has significant housing problems. We have allocated £11.5 million to its programme for next year. The council is tackling its HMO problems with the full range of powers available to it. I understand that it has established a registration scheme and is enforcing planning controls. The guest houses referred to in the CHAR report "Poor Law" are already covered by the Fire Precautions Act and I understand that they have fire certificates. The council is considering what further steps are necessary, and I know that it will note my hon. Friend's severe criticism.

Some hon. Members have argued that the limited use of some statutory provisions such as management orders and control orders is evidence of local authority inactivity. But this line of argument may miss the point. As I have already indicated, many of the provisions governing houses in multiple occupation, such as control orders, were expressly designed as strong remedies to tackle the worst abuses. It would be a disaster if they were necessary for the majority of multiple occupied houses.

One of the most essential parts of the legislation is that which concerns means of escape from fire. Our inquiries show that local authorities throughout the country are making regular use of those powers. I am also pleased that the extension of special grants for means of escape which we introduced in 1980 is proving amply justified.

In its annual report the Institution of Environmental Health Officers stated: Since the introduction of grants to assist landlords of houses in multiple occupation to provide fire precautions and fire escapes, there has been a massive increase in the take-up of special grants. In 1980 127 special grants were paid compared with 522 in 1981". There have been complaints that action by local authorities is slow and that this is caused by the complexity of the legislation. There may be something in this, but some of the complexity is due to the need to build in rights of appeal for the private citizen. After all, the steps which the legislation allows local authorities to take against landlords are drastic, involving in some instances a requirement for the landlord to spend a lot of money on improving the house without reimbursement, or even taking over the management of the house from him. I hope no one would suggest that these appeal provisions should be done away with or weakened.

I shall now compare the provisions in the Bill with existing legislation. If I understand the Bill correctly, it would impose a duty on councils to inspect the whole of their area at least once every two years and would require registration of what appears to be the great majority of houses in multiple occupation.

The Bill would also impose new obligations on landlords to ensure the health and safety of all occupants—the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) had something to say about this—and to observe detailed national standards prescribed in the Bill or to be prescribed later by regulations. Local authorities would have a duty to ensure that these standards were met and in certain circumstances to impose termination orders ending the use of premises as a house in multiple occupation. The Bill would also impose a duty on local authorities to exercise their overcrowding provisions and provide alternative accommodation for those displaced.

Other parts of the Bill would re-enact with slight modifications some existing provisions relating to means of escape from fire, remove Crown immunity and give the Secretary of State wide powers to make regulations. It would repeal much of the legislation from the 1960s.

In formulating the Government's views on the Bill, we have consulted the local authority associations. We have also taken into account the views of other bodies representing those who would be subject to the Bill's requirements. I have also had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with representatives of the CHAR all-parliamentary committee including the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard). In common with other hon. Members, I have received a number of helpful letters from individuals who have particular views on this topic.

I shall outline the reaction of the local authority associations. The opportunity to consult the many organisations has been somewhat restricted because of the limited time that was available. However, one or two organisations have been good enough to give a quick reaction to the Bill's proposals. The Association of County Councils, which represents fire authorities, stated: The Association is keenly aware of the fire risks and because of this has accepted the Government's own recent package of grants for the provision of means of escape and strong enforcement responsibilities for district housing authorities in respect of those houses in multiple occupation judged as posing the greatest risk. This measure, though limited compared to the all-embracing proposals in the Bill, is already making itself felt with county fire authorities through increased demands for inspections. It was introduced at a time when many authorities were falling behind in their inspection programmes for the whole range of buildings presenting high fire risks and this situation has not changed. In these circumstances a helpful and meaningful response will pose considerable resource questions. The letter from the Association of District Councils makes it clear that the matter has not been fully considered by the housing and environmental committee. This is a reply from the chairman: However, I am authorised by the committee chairman to remind you that the previous Bill introduced by Mr. Joe Dean was not supported by the Association because of its cost and manpower implications for local authorities at a time of financial stringency. The present Bill appears to have even more far-reaching implications for local authorities, eg a requirement to inspect HMOs every two years against every five years in the previous Bill, while the financial and manpower constraints are even greater. It is also felt that the extent of the Bill's application and the standards required, although desirable in themselves, could have the unfortunate effect of 'drying up' the supply of this type of accommodation which, while it often leaves much to be desired, does meet a need which would otherwise be unsatisfied". Hon. Members have quoted from the AMA, so I do not propose to repeat its representations.

Mr. Jim Marshall

I have heard about selective minds, but that must be the most selective choice that the Minister has read out. The ACC does not represent any housing authorities, and the housing authorities would have to implement the majority of the Bill. I am a vice-president of the ADC, and, while I appreciate that the Minister has correctly stated its position, I remind him that the vast majority of members of the ADC are the old rural district councils. That may be the view of the more rural parts of England and Wales, but it certainly does not reflect the attitudes of large metropolitan cities such as Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, and so on.

Sir George Young

The ACC represents fire authorities, and there is a considerable implication in his Bill for them. I am quite happy to pass on the views of the London Boroughs Association. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that association represents urban authorities of the kind that he has just mentioned. While it is generally sympathetic with the aims of the Bill, it believes that the duties that the Bill would impose on the association are not practicable, and that for some authorities they would be quite impossible. The resource implications of inspections of every property at two-year intervals would be enormous, and the association has doubts about the proposal for compulsory registration of all HMOs. That is not the ADC; that is the London Boroughs Association, which represents the local authorities that have been mentioned in most of the speeches today.

Mr. George Cunningham

Surely the AMA, too—and I hope that the Minister will not brush over too lightly the views of the AMA just because they have been referred to by others—has criticisms of the content of the Bill, but in general it is supportive of the purposes of the Bill. The points in the quotation that the Minister has just made can be dealt with in Committee.

Sir George Young

I do not accept that the hon Gentleman can describe as a Committee point the substantial resources that are involved in implementing the Bill. All the local authorities have made that point, including the AMA. With respect, that is not something to be glossed over in a small debate in Committee. It imposes fundamental resource implications on local authorities at a time when the Government are trying to keep local authority expenditure down, and it cuts clean across Government policy in that respect.

Mr. Neil Thorne

Does my hon. Friend agree that the London Boroughs Association is much more concerned about the fire regulations and that it is asking him in the letter that he quoted to bring forward a draft code of guidance on fire regulations?

Sir George Young

I think I mentioned that earlier in my remarks. I said that the Home Office hopes to produce guidance later this year.

Mr. Tom Benyon


Sir George Young

I must make progress, out of respect to other hon. Members who wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The principal difference from existing legislation would be the duty on local authorities to inspect at least once every two years and the new duties imposed on them to act, in place of their existing discretionary powers. Such an approach would mark a departure from that favoured by successive Governments over many years of giving discretion to elected local councils within a broad legislative framework. Such a change would also run counter to the Government's policy of increasing local authorities' control and flexibility in their housing and other programmes. Houses in multiple occupation form only one part of the stock, and in many areas a very small part, although it can be a large part in metropolitan areas. Local authorities must consider all the housing needs of their area and decide for themselves how to apportion the resources that are available. If the Bill became law, much of the time which could otherwise be spent tackling the worst houses in multiple occupation, and priorities such as means of escape from fire, would be devoted to indiscriminate registration and reinspection with all the extra form-filling and paperwork that that would entail.

Apart from the resource implications for housing authorities, there is a requirement for consultation with fire authorities in certain circumstances. If the Bill were enacted it would inevitably increase the involvement of the fire service in the regulation of houses in multiple occupation. While it is difficult to quantify the extent of additional work that would be generated, fire brigades are already stretched with existing fire prevention tasks and the imposition of any new duties would be unacceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport asked if the Government had an idea of the cost of the Bill. We have not. Most of the costs would fall on local authorities and it would be up to them in the first instance to calculate what the cost would be. As the Bill would involve significant increases in local authority manpower and expenditure, it would run counter to the Government's economic objective of achieving reductions in public expenditure.

Mr. Tom Benyon

It was surely only a brief time ago that the then Secretary of State was encouraging local authorities to embark on capital expenditure programmes. Would not the exercise that we are discussing today employ people in doing the very thing that the Government are trying to do and at the same time save lives?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is half right. The Government are anxious that local authorities should spend the capital that has been made available to them this year. That is why we have increased the money that is available for home improvement grants to be spent virtually without restriction to the end of March. The Bill has substantial revenue implications for forthcoming years. I think that my hon. Friend will find that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made no similar speeches urging local authorities to increase staff and revenue expenditure. That is why I have reservations about the Bill. We have urged local authorities to reduce their manpower which accounts for about 70 per cent. of the gross current expenditure of local government. The Bill would place considerable extra burdens on local authorities' limited resources and make it even more difficult for the necessary economies to be achieved. At a time when we are telling local authorities to reduce expenditure the extra action on houses in multiple occupation that would flow from the Bill could only be at the expense of other services.

The other main difference from existing legislation is the extensive new statutory obligations on landlords. They would be responsible not only for compulsory registration and observing a range of detailed requirements, but also for ensuring in general the health and safety of all occupants. While the proposed new obligations are no doubt well-meaning, we are not persuaded that they are either practicable or necessary.

Mr. Jim Marshall

May I return to the reply that the Minister gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon)? He will recall that he recently sent a letter to CHAR dated 16 February 1983, the final paragraph of which said: Resource constraints can, however, no longer be blamed for any lack of investment: the Government is doing all it can to encourage a very substantial level of housing expenditure by local authorities. If that is so, why should he take the attitude that he has to the Bill?

Sir George Young

The hon. Member cannot have listened to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon. He knows perfectly well that the expenditure referred to in that letter is capital expenditure for the current year when there is a substantial underspend by local authorities, many of which are Labour controlled. We are most anxious that money voted by the House for housing should be spent on housing, so we have urged local authorities to approve as many grants as they can for the current year so that the money is taken up. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not an argument against what I was just saying.

To impose indiscriminate new obligations on landlords would be yet another disincentive to the provision of rented housing and would hasten the decline in that sector of the market. We have examined the Bill carefully to see whether any amendments might be made which would make it acceptable to us while still meeting the general objectives of its supporters. That would have been an easier task if consideration of the Bill had led us to believe that its sponsors had identified serious gaps in the present legislation. But, as I have pointed out already, that is simply not the case. The Bill's principal purpose is not new powers but the conversion of powers to duties. The Government's deep unhappiness about removing the local authority discretion is based on a fundamental objection to the principle on which the Bill is based. While the Government endorse the concern of the hon. Member for Leicester, South to improve standards, that can be better achieved in more practical ways by following the initiatives that I have already set out. For that reason the Government cannot support the Bill.

2.11 pm
Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) for introducing this Bill, which deals with an urgent, distressing and disastrous problem for many people who are existing in multi—occupied properties. I think not of the Hilton or huge luxury blocks of flats, but of the slummy blocks of dwellings in areas such as Hackney.

I spent time with the Minister in the House at 1 o'clock in the morning discussing some of the serious problems which arise out of homelessness, bad health and living in multi-occupation in the cardboard boxes that exist around London. I speak with some personal experience, having existed in a multi-occupied property in Coventry. Hon. Members for Coventry will know of Pinley gardens, where I lived in a wooden building with a father, mother and eight children, seven of whom slept in one bed, four at the top and three at the bottom. Those conditions still exist. Some hon. Members can speak of such experiences.

There are about 120,000 houses in multi-occupation in England. In Hackney, over 10,000 households are in multi-occupation. In approximately 85 per cent. of such cases the subnormal conditions include sharing lavatories, baths, kitchens, bedrooms and so on. Some 16,000 homeless people are on the housing list in that area and there are 8,000 empty properties, of which the Government have made great play. Most of the empty properties are owned by private people or by housing associations, who cannot repair them or make them suitable for occupation by families because they do not get the necessary financial support from the Government. Hundreds of people are in bed and breakfast ghettos in Hackney. Many of them were sent there from other boroughs in London. The Tory borough of Wandsworth sends its destitute families to bed and breakfast accommodation in Hackney, North.

I saw a young family at my advice surgery last Sunday. The husband, wife and four children had been staying in one room for seven months awaiting rehousing. That is an example of the kind of conditions which families are having to suffer in these so-called multi-occupied bed and breakfast doss houses.

Many deaths arise from fires in such circumstances. I have described Hackney, which lies cheek by jowl with the City of London where massive office blocks are being built while millions of square feet of speculative office space remain empty. Building is taking place in this country—not just in London—for profit, and the buildings remain empty. There are plenty of building trade workers, plenty of cement and bricks and land lying idle which could be used to provide urgently needed homes.

Much filth was thrown around about Tatchell, but there is plenty of vacant land in his area and he wants to see homes with gardens built for people living in it. Those matters are pushed into the background. Other issues are introduced to defeat someone who wants to do something to help those living in multi-occupation.

I have listened to the speeches made today, particularly by Conservative Members. It is easy to describe the squalor and misery that is caused by multi-occupation. The crocodile tears that have been shed will not ease or solve the problem of multi-occupation. The Government, who are responsible for such problems, refuse to make the necessary finances available to local authorities. At the same time they are spending £2 million per head on the residents of the Falkland Islands. Such expenditure in Hackney or in the rest of the United Kingdom would solve all the problems of the British working class. The Nazis in Germany told the German workers that they could not have guns and butter. The Tory Government are saying the same thing to British workers today. The Government say that they cannot spend £16,000 million on arms and £8,000 million on Trident as well as spending money on what is needed to defend the lives of our people by providing decent homes and getting rid of multi-occupied properties that are nothing but slums. However, the Government should spend money on saving lives in a real way, by providing people with decent accommodation.

I demand that the Government should stop talking and making false promises, and should use the massive wealth of this extremely rich country to solve the problems not only of multi-occupation but of the homeless and those who wait for homes.

2.16 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) has been introduced with the best of intentions, and I listened carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts). However, the hon. Member for Leicester, South said that he had received a wealth of advice and help in deciding which cause to support and how to draft his Bill. He has been badly advised in seeking to put forward as a private Member's Bill a Bill with so many clauses. I am particularly sorry that the debate could not have been concluded earlier so that we could have discussed the important Juries (Disqualification) Bill which will not now receive its Second Reading today.

Our attention has recently been drawn to several tragic occurrences in multi-occupied properties. Who, therefore, is to blame for this state of affairs? I must declare an interest, in that when I bought a large old house some years ago I divided it into two units and let off half, fully furnished, to two nurses and two young school teachers. I found that there was such a demand for good accommodation that I advised my friends to follow my example, and a considerable amount of good quality units were provided in this way.

However, as soon as the Labour party was returned to power, it brought furnished residential accommodation into control. Not only did that stop further properties being properly converted, but those already on the market which became vacant were then sold on long leases to individual occupiers. That is quite a common occurrence these days and one of the major reasons why it is so difficult to find the sort of good accommodation that could be obtained not so many years ago.

I think particularly of accommodation in the suburban areas of London, which is in great demand by young professional people setting out on their careers. My local authority takes a positive attitude towards maintaining and improving properties in its area. It uses all the law available to preserve the existing housing stock. Those authorities that give excuses for not using the law which is already available are often those that squander their resources in other ways.

Mr. Jim Marshall

I do not wish to protract the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but, as he is talking about his own local authority, I assume that he is familiar with the 1981 census figures, showing that there are 1,736 houses in multiple occupation in his area, of which I understand that 1,190, or 69 per cent., are substandard. How does that affect his comments about the adequacy of the present legislation and his authority's enthusiasm in putting it into effect?

Mr. Thorne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. I have here a letter from the houses in multiple occupation group, drawing attention to the same figure and pointing out that 69 per cent. of the households are living in substandard conditions. That depends, of course, on what is meant by "substandard". If it means that they have a refrigerator but not a larder, I do not consider that to be substandard. I should need far more detail about specific cases to decide how many I believe are actually substandard.

Certainly very few instances are brought to my attention at my advice bureaux and they are dealt with immediately if they are taken up with the local authority. I certainly have no complaints about the authority on that score. Indeed, some of my constituents complain that the local authority is far too keen on taking action against pensioner landlords struggling on limited incomes, forcing them to put in toilets and other facilities when the tenants themselves could make a far more substantial contribution and there is little chance of making good the expenditure out of the impossibly low rents.

One of the biggest safety problems, I believe, is overcrowding in private homes, where heating is often provided by paraffin heaters which tend to be knocked over by children and animals. That is surely one area that the Government should urgently consider. The present figures which determine overcrowding date from between the wars, if not from before the first world war. The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act has increased the expectations of office and factory staff. It is now time urgently to reconsider the provisions for occupiers of residential accommodation.

I know that time is short and that others wish to speak, so I shall not detain the House long. There are two main criticisms of the Bill. First, it seeks to impose further penalties on landlords when adequate provisions already exist. Secondly, it imposes a duty on local authorities to provide further accommodation for single people. I believe that the law relating to landlords and tenants is wrong in so far as it has entirely upset the free market in private residential accommodation. If that were put right, it would not be long before landlords had to put their accommodation into good order to be able to let it at all. That is the right course of action.

We should, of course, insist on fire regulations being brought up to date and properly enforced and I was glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State gave that undertaking. Nevertheless, it is vital that we should resist interfering in the market as we have so often been tempted to do in the past and then complain later that our interference has caused further trouble and abuse. We must consider the likely effect of legislation before we pass it. For that reason, I oppose the Bill as it is now drafted, as I thoroughly agree with what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has said.

2.24 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I have followed the debate with great interest throughout the day and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) on raising this important issue. Attention should be focused on housing in multiple occupation. I, too, have read the material produced by the housing in multiple occupation group. One document states: Electrical, gas, drainage and plumbing systems frequently become overloaded. Electrical fittings and wiring are commonly exposed to dampness. Rooms are divided by thin softwood partitions and often the most rudimentary fire precautions are missing, such as extinguishers, fire doors, protected stairwells, fire notices and unobstructed means of escape. We should not be complacent about the fact that about 1 million people live in such conditions. My main worry is that about 20 per cent. of them are pensioners. I share that concern with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Sir A. Grant).

We must improve standards of accommodation, but wide powers are available to local authorities to deal with defective fire precautions, to inspect and supervise and to ensure that standards are improved. However, standards are subject to control, and their improvement will not increase the supply of accommodation available for multiple occupation. It is unacceptable that at my surgeries I tell people that I recognise that they have a housing need but that I can suggest no solution. I know of no accommodation that is available for them to rent. I can only refer them to local newsagents and newspapers that sometimes offer accommodation. There is a serious shortage of housing available for multiple occupation. We must do something to improve its supply and not just concentrate on standards.

Mr. George Cunningham

Does the hon. Gentleman intend to allow the House to proceed to a vote on a normal basis in a few minutes' time, or will he use a technicality to prevent—

Mr. Viggers

I have been here all day.

Mr. Cunningham

I realise that and do not deny it, but we know that 10 seconds makes a difference in the procedure. Does the hon. Gentleman intend to use the technicality to prevent the debate proceeding to a normal vote on the merits of the issue?

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if the Bill has sufficient support there are ways for it to be passed through the House. If it does not have sufficient support—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer".]—it may not pass through the House. My position is clear. I agree with—

Mr. Jim Marshall

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put. —

The House divided: Ayes 100, Noes 0.

Division No. 80] [2.30 pm
Anderson, Donald Dobson, Frank
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dubs, Alfred
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Dunnett, Jack
Ashton, Joe Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Atkinson, N. (H'gey,) English, Michael
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Ennals, Rt Hon David
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Fisher, Sir Nigel
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Fitt, Gerard
Bidwell, Sydney Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)
Bradley, Tom Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W) Freud, Clement
Campbell-Savours, Dale Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Cartwright, John Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Conlan, Bernard Ginsburg, David
Cox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g) Golding, John
Cryer, Bob Graham, Ted
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Grimond, Rt Hon J.
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Heffer, Eric S.
Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd) Hooley, Frank
Deakins, Eric Huckfield, Les
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Richardson, Jo
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Johnson, James (Hull West) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Rooker, J. W.
Kerr, Russell St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.
Knox, David Sandelson, Neville
Leighton, Ronald Sever, John
Lestor, Miss Joan Sheerman, Barry
Litherland, Robert Skinner, Dennis
Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W) Snape, Peter
McCartney, Hugh Spearing, Nigel
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Squire, Robin
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Steel, Rt Hon David
McWilliam, John Stevens, Martin
Madel, David Stoddart, David
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Mikardo, Ian Tilley, John
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)
Morton, George Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)
Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Wellbeloved, James
Murphy, Christopher Welsh, Michael
Newens, Stanley Wheeler, John
O'Halloran, Michael Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
Parker, John Wilson, William (C'try SE)
Pavitt, Laurie Winnick, David
Pitt, William Henry Wright, Sheila
Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Race, Reg Tellers for the Ayes:
Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S) Mr. Andrew F. Bennett and
Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Mr. A. W. Stallard.
Nil Mr. Peter Viggers and
Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Neil Thorne.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put accordingly and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committeed to a Standing Committe pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

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