HC Deb 29 April 1996 vol 276 cc836-73

  1. '.—(1) The Secretary of State may by order replace the provisions of sections 63 to 67 with a national, mandatory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation.
  2. 837
  3. (2) Any order under subsection (1) above shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'—[Mr. Raynsford.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Raynsford

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

We come to the extremely important issue of the licensing of multi-occupied houses. The purpose behind the new clause is to give the Secretary of State power by order to replace the provisions of clauses 63 to 67 with a national mandatory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation.

The Bill would replace the provisions of sections 346 to 349 of the Housing Act 1985 for registering houses in multiple occupation. These are schemes of registration that can be set up by local authorities. In summary, the Bill would leave a registration scheme for multi-occupied houses to local authorities' discretion. Secondly, it would shackle authorities' discretion in operating such a scheme. On the basis of the Bill's provisions—I accept that the Government are to move an amendment to remove one of the elements to which I have referred, but we do not know yet what will take its place—well over half of multi-occupied houses would be excluded from the proposed licensing scheme. Our alternative is to give the Secretary of State a reserve power to replace the proposed provisions with a national licensing scheme.

7.45 pm

Let us consider the scale of the problem. We know from research findings that the Government have published that there are about 638,000 multi-occupied houses in Britain. There are different types of such houses, and only about 111,000 are what we would describe as traditional HMOs. By that I mean houses that have been converted into bed-sits. There are about 100,000 shared houses and flats, 41,000 households with lodgers, 17,000 purpose-built multi-occupied houses, about 17,000 hostels, guest houses, boarding houses and bed-and-breakfast hotels, and about 352,000 buildings converted into self-contained flats. That makes a total of 638,000.

It is recognised that multi-occupied houses contain some of the worst housing and life-threatening conditions of any accommodation. The Government's consultation paper—I use no other source because no one, I hope, will dispute what it contains—was issued in November 1994. It made that very point. It stated that estimates from the English House Condition Survey suggest that the privately rented HMO stock contains a significantly greater proportionate share of dwellings in poor condition than other forms of housing. It continued: There is little dispute that HMOs represent a significantly higher fire risk than single family homes. Let us put some flesh and blood on those relatively cautious official comments. According to the house condition survey, two fifths of houses in multiple occupation—traditional HMOs—are unfit for human habitation. Anyone living in one of those properties has a four in 10 chance of occupying a property that is unfit for human habitation.

Research undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year—it was undertaken by Geoffrey Randall, a very experienced researcher—revealed the risk of death from fire to be 28 times higher in a multi-occupied house than in the housing stock as a whole. That clearly explains the continuing high death toll in multi-occupied houses. The highest proportion of deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning—the issue was rightly highlighted by the hon. Member for Christchurch in moving new clause 4—is to be found in privately rented multi-occupied houses. There is, therefore, a concentration of severe problems.

Let us consider some of the human consequences. The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to the tragic case of Tracy Murphy, a 19-year-old student who was gassed by a defective appliance in the bed-sit that she was occupying in Hull in November 1993. She had lived in the flat, with her fiancé, for between only four and five weeks. She usually telephoned her family every day. After members of her family had not heard from her for three days, they visited her, only to find her dead. Her fiancé? was away on business. Her blood had a 75 per cent. saturation level of carbon monoxide.

The landlord was subsequently found guilty of breaking the HMO management regulations in not maintaining the gas fire safely. As we all know, he was prosecuted. Tracy's parents, Trevor and Anita Murphy, have had to fight all the way for two and a half years to get the Crown Prosecution Service to proceed with a charge of manslaughter. On 22 April, the charge was confirmed, and the landlord was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, suspended for two years, and ordered to pay £4,000 towards the Murphys' costs.

After the trial, Tracy's father Trevor said: Our only child's death will not be in vain if mandatory licensing of landlords is introduced. You need a licence for a TV and an MOT for a car, yet you do not have to have a licence for something that can kill people. We in the House owe it to the memory of Tracy Murphy, and to her parents who have campaigned so vigorously since her death, to try to get something from her death. We owe it to them to take more effective action, in the form of a national licensing scheme for multi-occupied houses, to stop the hideous, unnecessary and senseless death of young people on the scale that we have seen in recent years.

The problem is not just one of deaths through carbon monoxide poisoning. As I mentioned, the risk of death from fire is far greater in a multi-occupied house than in any other type of housing. Let us consider the case of 20-year-old Matt Cohn. He died in the early hours of Wednesday 28 July 1993 when fire ripped through the semi-detached multi-occupied house in Harrow in which he lived. I stress the fact—this is an important point—that I am talking about a two-storey house in Wealdstone. Matt lived in a converted attic into which he had moved only two weeks earlier. It was his first independent home away from his family.

Access to and from the attic was by means of a wooden ladder. The house had no fire protection and, as the subsequent inquest established, the fire probably started in a rubbish bin near the kitchen on the floor below the attic. There was a fire alarm, but it failed to go off because the batteries had not been replaced. The landlord did not live on the premises; he lived in Cumbria. Despite that, he had allowed the property to be run without adequate arrangements for its management and maintenance and without proper safety protection for his tenants.

According to one of the ex-tenants, Matt didn't stand a chance. If there had been a back way out, he might have survived. It could have been all of us. I will never forget that night. Matt was just a young boy, happy-go-lucky with so many friends. He had his whole life in front of him and now it's all gone. The only way up or down was by the main stairs. There was no fire escape. We'd been told by the electricity board the wiring was unsafe. Claire Jackson, who lived in the attic flat for a year and moved out just a week before Matt moved in, commented: It makes me go hot and cold just thinking about it. It was just a matter of time, I suppose, but you never think it will actually happen. Everything was done on the cheap and the wiring was so dodgy that even when the electricity meter ran out, my bedroom lights stayed on. It could so easily have been me. At the time of the fire, the London borough of Harrow was unaware that that semi-detached house in a tree-lined road was a multi-occupied house. That is an issue of which we should be mindful. Under the provisions to which I have referred, two-storey properties would be excluded from any registration scheme. A local authority would not only not have to do anything about such properties, but it would be prevented, because of the nature and size of the house, from taking any action to register such premises. That is the case tinder the Bill.

I accept, as I mentioned earlier, that the Government propose to remove the relevant clauses. I hope to hear in detail what they intend to put in their place. The Minister owes it to us to tell us whether two-storey properties of that nature will be included in the Government's proposed registration scheme.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Arising out the tragic case in Harrow, of which many of us are aware, what would the hon. Gentleman's definition be of an HMO for the purposes of national registration?

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that important question. When I began my speech, I outlined the different categories of multi-occupied houses. The definition that seems most appropriate to me is one that includes a number of separate households living under the same roof. The actual number can be defined in different ways. The Government proposed a series of different tests depending, first, on whether the household had lodgers, secondly, on whether the landlord was resident in the premises and, thirdly, on whether the premises were self-contained accommodation. I do not think that we have to go to a precise figure. I will tell the hon. Gentleman why, because I understand exactly why he asked his question.

For properly self-contained accommodation, which may be purpose built, different standards apply from those that apply to the bed-sit property that the hon. Gentleman and I know only too well and which we normally think of when we use the letters HMO. If, in the traditional type of HMO that the hon. Gentleman is describing, there are two or more households, it is an HMO that should be separately registered. If we are dealing with self-contained properties, especially if they are owner-occupied as is quite often the case, one can accept the exclusion of properties with three entirely self-contained flats within the premises. That is why I do not think that we can fix an arbitrary figure. We have to look at the different categories of dwelling, but ensure that all properties at risk are brought within a licensing scheme. That is the crucial point to which I shall return in a moment.

I should like now to refer to evidence I obtained in Ipswich last week. I was visiting the town and I talked to the local authority there. It was conscious not only of the publicity concerning the Murphy case last week, but of the fact that the matter was due to be considered in the House this week. The authority brought to my attention a further sad fatality in a multi-occupied house in Ipswich.

The authority's letter to me says: On 24 February the fire brigade and police were called to break into a bedsit in Ipswich, following an emergency call from another tenant. On gaining access they found a nineteen year old man dead on his bed with a gas fire on. Subsequent investigations by the Police, local Environmental Health Officers, the Health and Safety Executive and CORGI revealed that:—

  1. 1. Death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
  2. 2. The fire was found to be spilling carbon monoxide into the room and the flue was found to be capped off at roof level, therefore all flue gases spilled back into the room.
  3. 3. The property had three other gas fires, two of these had similar faults, including flues capped at roof level.
  4. 4. The property had a current CORGI gas safety certificate"
That is, perhaps, the most disturbing of all the comments.

The authority continues:

  1. "5. Inspection of the landlord's entire portfolio of twenty five properties revealed serious defects at sixteen addresses.
  2. Emergency disconnections of appliances and/or supply at all of these properties were necessary. Defects found included capped off flues, undersize supply pipework and various faulty appliances. The majority of appliances appeared to be secondhand.
  3. 6. Disconcertingly the majority of the properties were covered by current CORGI gas safety certificates.
  4. 7. The Council served Statutory Notices in respect of all sixteen properties.
  5. 8. The landlord has now complied with the majority of the Notices."
I have mentioned that case to raise the question whether reliance simply on CORGI—the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers—certificates is adequate. It is clear that, in that case, it was not. Proper inspection by the local authority environmental health officers resulting in notices being served has now led to action on that property.

Those tragedies are the background to the case, which is widely accepted on both sides, for the need for more urgent action. The Government published a consultation paper, as I mentioned, in November 1994. I want to be fair to the House and to set out the reasons given in that consultation paper in favour of a national licensing scheme, which we support, and the reasons that the Government spell out for opposing a national licensing scheme, which is their current position. I shall then invite hon. Members to conclude whether the Opposition or the Government are correct.

The Government spelt out the following arguments in favour of a national licensing scheme. First, it would secure high standards throughout the licensed HMO sector. As with current HMO powers there would be an emphasis on the more consistent enforcement of fire safety standards, both the provision of basic amenities to ensure minimum health and hygiene standards would also be included". Secondly, it would prevent the undesirable proliferation of hostels catering primarily for benefit recipients in resort areas". Thirdly, it would focus any regulatory regime on those areas and types of housing with the worst problems, and hence make possible the removal of planning controls which apply uniformly nationally". Fourthly, it would clarify the regulatory regime so that landlords and tenants know as far as possible which properties need to be licensed and what standards are acceptable". Finally, it would ensure a more consistent approach to the HMO sector, which recognises the value of HMOs in meeting a particular housing need and which is reflected in local housing and planning strategies. Those were the arguments in favour.

8 pm

The Government made three arguments against such a scheme. First, such a scheme would add little to the powers already available to local authorities. These can be exercised flexibly and tackle those properties which represent the greatest risk. Licensing would reduce this degree of flexibility by requiring local authorities to deal with all HMOs, so making it more difficult to concentrate on those properties most at risk". Secondly, as with current registration schemes it would create excessive bureaucracy which would have to be paid for. Only the better landlords would agree to register and the remaining landlords would, as now, refuse to come forward. There would therefore be no significant improvement in the condition of standards of HMO properties as a direct result of licensing". Thirdly, the Government said that licensing would be introducing too high a degree of regulation into a market where both landlord and tenant are willing to agree on a reasonable standard of accommodation, particularly in relation to matters not directly affecting fire safety. Raising standards to an unrealistically high level in all cases would mean that either the landlord would withdraw accommodation from the market or the tenants would be unable to afford the higher rents that higher standards could imply. Let us consider those arguments. First, the Government said that licensing would add little to the powers already available to local authorities. By introducing part II of the Bill, the Government have destroyed that argument. They would not be introducing further powers and they would not include the special control provisions in part II if they believed that the current powers were adequate. There is clearly a need to do more. We are all aware of the appalling examples of lives that have been needlessly sacrificed, and they emphasise that the appalling safety risks require more urgent responses than are currently available.

The second implication of the Government's first objection is that licensing would somehow reduce flexibility by requiring authorities to deal with all HMOs, so making it difficult to concentrate on those properties that are most at risk. That argument does not hold water. We all agree that a risk assessment approach is needed in the introduction of a licensing scheme, as in a registration scheme. The worst properties must be given priority, and there is no difference between the parties on that. Our only difference is that we believe that a national licensing scheme would oblige all local authorities to do that, whereas the Government's voluntary scheme—some may and some may not register—will result in very little happening.

The Government's second objection was that licensing would create excessive bureaucracy which would have to be paid for, and that only the better landlords would register. There are two separate issues here. The national registration scheme that the Government are introducing increases bureaucracy—there is no question about that. Additional notices will have to be served, and additional inspections and measures will have to be taken to ensure compliance. That is implicit in such a scheme. The question is whether we want an effective scheme to justify the bureaucracy or only a partially effective scheme.

The problem is that the Government are arguing for more powers—they would not otherwise be introducing part II. They accept that their scheme will involve bureaucracy, but it is justified because they recognise—as do we—that there is a huge problem about the safety of the people who live in such accommodation. An overall national licensing scheme is more likely to be effective, because the standards will be known everywhere. Landlords who hold their housing stock in more than one local authority area—some have properties in a number of areas—would know what standards had to be met in every area of the country. If schemes vary from area to area, those landlords will be uncertain as to what standards apply in different areas. It would be far more bureaucratic for them to have to pursue the environmental health departments in each area to find out what is required. From the landlord's point of view, there will be less bureaucracy in a single standard national licensing scheme than in the multiplicity of schemes that the Government are allowing for in their registration arrangements.

The argument that only the better landlords will agree to register is fallacious, because the obligation would be on the local authority to ensure that all premises were registered. That would ensure an approach based on risk assessment, and that authorities dealt first with properties in the worst condition. We envisage a scheme in which there would be more regular visits, inspections and enforcement in respect of properties identified as risks, and relatively long periods between registration and re-registration of properties that are clearly satisfactory.

The study by Geoffrey Randall estimated that it would be possible to introduce a mandatory national licensing scheme along the lines that we advocate at a cost of £30 per room registered. That is a modest cost in relation to the appalling loss of life—perhaps 100 people a year—as a result of fire and gas accidents in properties and the appalling conditions that prevail in so many of them, some four out of 10 of which are unfit for human habitation. That is what we must put in the balance.

That leads me to the third argument against licensing in the Government's consultation paper—that it would introduce too much regulation in a market where both landlord and tenant are willing to agree on a reasonable standard of accommodation. We have no problem with a reasonable standard of accommodation, but we have a serious problem with squalid, sub-standard and dangerous places in which people die because the proper standards are not properly enforced. We cannot justify doing nothing on the grounds that the current position is reasonable—it is not. The Government know that something must be done, and the argument between us is whether there should be a mandatory national scheme or the partial and—in our view—ineffective registration arrangements that the Government are proposing.

There is extremely wide support for a national mandatory licensing scheme. Some 76 per cent. of those who responded to the consultation paper on licensing in 1994 indicated that they favoured a new national licensing system. The reasons for their support were straightforward. First, the current law is complex and confusing. In its evidence, Birmingham city council listed 17 different Acts of Parliament and regulations that sought to control conditions in the private rented sector. Secondly, the complexity is multiplied by the different policies and enforcement practices employed by different local authorities. Landlords who own properties in different boroughs were confused by the different requirements and regimes in different areas.

There is a great deal to be said for a standard national framework enforced in a comparable way everywhere so that everybody knows the position and whether the standards in their properties are adequate. The absence of a clear national framework makes it difficult for landlords who are thinking about opening new properties. How are they to approach the problem? Will they look at different areas and see in which one they can get away with least control? Will they say, "In this area we do not have to register, so we can get away with poor conditions; we will open a new house here and not go into that area because the local authority is tougher"? All that that will do is encourage poor standards and discourage the vigilant and conscientious authorities from pursuing proper licensing arrangements.

Let us take the parallel of motor cars. We know exactly what the consequences would be if licensing applied in some counties, but not in others. Motorists would decide to register in the county that did not have a licensing scheme, the purpose of the scheme would be defeated and it would become a nonsense.

The other problem with the current scheme is that it is inherently inefficient because it depends on tenants' making a complaint and on the local authority tracking down each substandard property. Hon. Members will recall the case in Harrow, in which the local authority was not aware that the property was an HMO. That is, sadly, a consequence of the present arrangements. Depending solely on tenants' complaints is inevitably an inefficient way of ensuring that all the properties that need to be checked are identified and made subject to the licensing arrangements. Some tenants will inevitably be nervous about making a complaint, especially if they have an insecure letting and the landlord says to them, "If you complain, you can leave. You need not expect to be able to stay here."

All the reasons that I have given make an overwhelming case for a national licensing scheme. Licensing is supported by a wide range of national, local, voluntary and statutory organisations including the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Association of District Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of London Government, Shelter, the Campaign for Bedsit Rights—which has a remarkable record for campaigning tirelessly over many years to tackle the scandal of poor conditions in multi-occupied houses—the Refugee Council, the National Union of Students, the National Association of Probation Officers and the National Consumer Council.

On 5 March, we held a housing policy conference, at which a number of people spoke. I shall quote not a Labour party spokesman, because the House would expect me to do that, but the chairman of Quality Street, a private sector landlord. Paul Mugnaioni said openly that he saw no reason why private landlords should not have to be licensed before renting out homes. He said that it would cause no problems for responsible landlords. Richard Best, the director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, added that the research conducted for the Campaign for Bedsit Rights showed that a national licensing scheme could pay for itself after five years.

There are overwhelming reasons for going for such a scheme to provide an effective and consistent regulatory framework throughout the country. The scheme would cover all the key factors that are necessary for the proper management and maintenance of multi-occupied houses. It would cover the fitness of the dwelling under the fitness standard; it would cover the safety of the dwelling in relation to means of escape in the event of fire; it would cover the safety of the electrical and gas appliances in the premises; and it would cover the arrangements for the management of the property.

Three or four members of the Committee spoke with great knowledge and concern. Hon. Members representing seaside towns, in particular the hon. Members for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson), highlighted the serious problems of poor management, which allowed a concentration of people in properties in very poor conditions which were essentially benefit hostels. All manner of problems were caused to neighbours as a result of poor management. We need to check to ensure that such properties are managed and that the people who run them are competent.

8.15 pm

I have outlined the elements of a scheme. We are not talking about an unduly rigorous or bureaucratic framework. The elements are a check on the condition of the property and measures to ensure the safety of the residents and the competence of the people managing the property. The landlord would then qualify for a licence. The scheme would probably be based on risk assessment to ensure that properties that were licensed but nevertheless problematic were subject to more frequent visits than properties of a good standard where a licence could run for a good period before it needed to be renewed. That is a matter of detail, but it is wrong to suggest that a national licensing scheme would place an onerous obligation on every landlord, including those who let good property, simply for the sake of complying with licensing requirements.

Instead of responding to all the evidence and all the people who were in favour of a national licensing scheme with a national mandatory scheme, the Government have introduced a revised form of registration of HMOs. Their proposals are inadequate for two main reasons. First, it will be up to each local authority to decide whether it will have a scheme. That will leave the uncertainty, the variations in practice between areas and the unfairness in the current legislative framework. It will be a thoroughly unsatisfactory framework which will be bad news for tenants and for landlords.

The second reason is that, on the basis of what is in the Bill, significantly more than half of the HMOs in the country will be excluded from the registration provisions. The current provisions exclude, first, houses occupied by persons who form only two households, secondly, houses occupied by no more than four persons who form more than two households, thirdly, houses occupied by no more than four persons in addition to the person managing or having control of the property and any other members of his household and, fourthly, houses where the living accommodation consists entirely of self-contained flats.

We moved a series of amendments in Committee. We did not insist that every one of those categories be included. As I said in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), self-contained owner-occupied property would not necessarily have to be subject to a licensing scheme. However, a property in which a number of self-contained properties were let almost certainly would, not only because of the conditions but because of fire and gas safety. That is where some distinction needs to be made between the different categories. There is an overwhelming case for ensuring that many of the categories excluded are subject to a licensing scheme and that the restrictive parts of the Bill are amended.

I welcome the Government's decision to withdraw the clause that contains the exclusions and look forward to hearing from the Minister how they intend the scheme should operate and which categories will be covered. Will there be a restriction on properties of two storeys or fewer? If such properties are excluded, horrendous fires such as occurred in the property in Harrow would not necessarily be prevented. What about houses occupied by fewer than four persons apart from the person managing the property? Many HMOs contain only three or four individuals as well as the owner or manager of the property, and in many of them conditions are very poor. Would they be excluded or would there be a risk assessment approach to ensure that all properties likely to be a serious risk would be subject to registration?

The Government undertook to consider the matter, and we look forward to hearing exactly what their conclusions are. Having said that, even if the scope is widened and the restrictions that I have described are no longer in place, the Government have still missed the historic opportunity presented by the Bill to introduce a mandatory national licensing scheme that makes clear our determination as a country to tackle this scandal of poor conditions in multi-occupied houses. I refer to the terrible, needless death of people from fire and from gas poisoning, and to the squalor and utterly disgraceful conditions in which people are forced to live.

Often, landlords are taking large amounts of money from the public purse in the form of housing benefit for those properties. I do not begrudge landlords a fair return, but I do begrudge their profiteering at public expense and not offering decent conditions. We have to ensure that we get value for money. Housing benefit should be paid for a decent standard of accommodation, where people can live with dignity and in safety.

A mandatory national licensing scheme would allow that to happen. New clause 9 gives the Secretary of State the power to introduce such a scheme. I put it to the Minister that, even if the Government do not want to do so, they should still put the new clause on the face of the Bill so that another Government, on coming to power, can take action more speedily than would be possible if they had to go down the legislative route. The new clause does not require the present Government to act if they do not want to, but we hope that they will be persuaded that it is necessary. We think that this is a scandal that is crying out for action.

We believe that new clause 9 is a pragmatic and sensible amendment that would allow the inadequate registration scheme that the Government are proposing to be replaced with a proper, mandatory national scheme that applies to every area at a consistent standard to ensure that people who live in HMOs are properly protected and to ensure that landlords are clear about their obligations and the regime with which they have to comply.

Sir Teddy Taylor

We should be grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue. It gives me the opportunity to remind the Government that this is a serious and urgent problem that is causing a great deal of concern, resentment and worry. The only thing that we have to decide tonight—it is very important—is whether the issue is best tackled by allowing each local authority to have its system of rules that may be tougher in one area than in another or whether it would be better to have a national system of registration.

Having listened to the very able and coherent speech of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), I am worried about the danger that we will give the public the impression that the problem—which currently exists and which will remain—will somehow be resolved by national registration and by more bureaucracy, and that the sins, failures and ails of society will disappear if we have a new management system. I hope that the Opposition will bear it in mind—they may be in government before long—that social problems cannot always be resolved by bureaucracy.

I have been in this place for far too many years—31, in fact—and I can remember when people in my area in Glasgow found it impossible to get a rented house. We had strict rules on the renting of property and the result was that people could not get a house to rent. The Government changed the rules and houses are now more readily available.

We should also think through the nightmares that some of our residential homes for the elderly are going through at the present time. We have rightly introduced new rules and regulations, some of which are costly and some of which are rather irrelevant. Some of the pleasant and acceptable residential homes are now facing closure, so we will have the growth of much larger institutions where the same care and personal relationships may not exist.

I think that the Government's proposal of a voluntary regulation by individual local authorities, bearing in mind the special needs of the area, is probably the better option. On the other hand, it might reassure some of us who are worried about the situation, and particularly worried about some local authorities, that if by chance it turns out that local authorities prove to be irresponsible or neglectful in not applying for registration the Government would not close their mind and may consider the need to have national registration if local registration does not work—the Conservative Government may choose to do this perhaps five years from now, if they still exist. Perhaps the Minister can address this issue in his reply.

As the Minister may be aware, I have been in consultation with my local authority for a considerable amount of time in relation to the current limited voluntary scheme—so far without success. I do not want to make any political points in this regard because, irrespective of who is in power in Southend, I try to get on well with them. I know that the officials try extremely hard to resolve real problems. The Minister must be aware that there is a danger that some local authorities—controlled by all the parties—may say, "There is no urgency here and we are managing very well so we will not put forward for a scheme".

The Government—who have greater faith in local government than I have—may say that I am incorrect. If by any remote chance I am correct, and if there is a shortage in the number of applications for local management schemes, I hope that the Government will not close their mind to some kind of national registration. I accept that this would not be the best option—clearly, the best option is to have a scheme that allows for as much flexibility as possible, bearing in mind the special needs of the locality.

The second point that I wish to make is that there is a great danger in the Government responding to what they believe to be public opinion. Houses in multiple occupation are the kinds of institutions that every single individual, in every locality, would like to see abolished almost immediately. Wherever one has HMOs, one certainly has damage to the value of property and social problems. In the delightful area of Southend there are glorious large houses that are ideal for the location of HMOs. Local residents complain that when milk is delivered in the morning, it suddenly disappears—and that is only one, small problem. There are many others.

In an avenue near the sea front there are three HMOs together. Local residents rightly complain about the problem of noise pollution. There is also appalling neglect. There was a case where an individual had been dead for a considerable amount of time in a room that was meant to be attended to daily. However, it was some considerable time before the unfortunate chap was discovered. We also have unfortunate landlords. I would like to take the Minister to one particular HMO—the landlord is not present because he is in goal for drug trafficking. It is difficult to chase him at the present time.

The Government, in their local plans, have made provision for unacceptable individuals not to get licences. However, it is not terribly clear what happens if a person gets a licence but then goes to prison for drug trafficking. Would the licence then be removed? I accept that what the Government are proposing is a major step forward. If taken advantage of by local authorities, it could improve the situation. I hope that the Government will seek to get the message across. There is a real danger of inadequacies. Even though I accept that the Government are extremely competent, exciting and effective, they occasionally have inadequacies. One of those inadequacies is in getting the message across.

My fear is that following tonight's debate—after the superb and exciting speech of the hon. Member for Greenwich—the general public may conclude that the Labour party wants to do something about HMOs and that the Tories rejected its interesting idea. That is not the case at all. I hope that the Government will get across the message to local authorities and to local communities that what they are proposing in the legislation is something rather important that could give substantial powers to local authorities.

The third thing that I want to say—I hope that it will not make me too unpopular where I live—is that we should have some regard to the individuals who live in HMOs. I have a weekly surgery, my phone number is in the phone book and I speak to a lot of people. Therefore, I am well aware of the situation facing people who live in HMOs. Quite frankly, the conditions that people endure in HMOs—whether they are adequate or inadequate—are pretty dreadful.

Although the Government very kindly arrange for the housing benefit to be available, the nasty landlords usually shove an extra £5 on the charge on top of what is allowed by the housing benefit authorities simply to get what they regard as reasonable. It means that what is regarded as the minimum living standard under the income support rules is usually that less £5 and it is not a very pleasant situation.

I hope that the Government will accept the need for standards to be maintained. The only additional concession that I will make is to ask for extra action to be taken if, by chance, local authorities prove inadequate in applying for, and enforcing, licences. In Mr. Barker we have an excellent director of environmental health—the department has subsequently changed its name to the department of consumer services and goodness knows what else; the name seems to change nearly every day—and I am sure that, given the extra power, he would use it very satisfactorily.

8.30 pm

I want to mention two problems to my hon. Friend the Minister. I am not saying that there are easy solutions, but I hope that something can be done. I think that the majority of the public in Southend-on-Sea are sickened by those two problems. First, it is abundantly clear that individuals with problems are being dumped on Southend, simply because some authorities do not have HMOs, do not want them and do not want them to be encouraged. Southend contains many large properties that would be suitable for conversion to HMOs. It is a real problem; authorities are passing their social problems to us.

I have heard that Labour authorities, and even a Conservative authority not far from here, thought that they could solve their problems by dumping them elsewhere. I am sure that the Government disapprove of such action, whether it is taken by a Labour or a Conservative authority. I hope that they will realise that the problem has a serious impact on areas such as Westcliff-on-Sea, and the Milton ward in particular. Do they believe that local authorities—all of which must deal with individuals with special needs—will have an obligation to provide accommodation for those people? Unfortunately, two boroughs in particular that have no HMOs, or an inadequate number, cannot provide accommodation there. It can only be provided in Southend, and that is unfair to us.

The second point that I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind is this. Some areas, whether or not there is dumping, are attractive to people looking for HMO accommodation, because they contain many large houses that are suitable for conversion. Southend suffers from that a great deal, as do other seaside resorts. I hope that, in the allocation of funds, the Government will remember that some areas have special problems. Southend is certainly one of them.

If we talk too much about special problems, we are in danger of giving the impression that the place concerned should be avoided. I have lived in Southend for many years, and it is a delightful borough, but we have specific problems in certain areas, and something needs to be done.

Irrespective of what we do tonight, I hope that the House will not give the impression that there is an easy solution. It appears to me that there are more people looking for such accommodation now than there have ever been in the past, for all sorts of reasons. Some may stern from unemployment, some from family break-up and some from the consequences of such break-up; others relate to the personal problems of individuals. Moreover, many of the authorities involved have not applied even for the basic rights that they could have under the existing licensing scheme. I hope that the Government will take firm action, on an urgent basis, to convey to authorities that new, strong powers exist to help proper management of their affairs, and also that they have an obligation to act.

Why on earth do not local authorities apply? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think about that carefully. Is it because they do not want the bother of applying, or because they think that the powers are a waste of time? I have the impression that some authorities regard the existing powers as inadequate; the powers in the Bill are much stronger and more precise. Could the Government perhaps send the simple message that, under the new powers, individuals who break the rules can have their licences removed and, consequently, their properties closed, and may end up with a serious court conviction?

I also have the impression that many people living in certain local authority areas who have suffered from the consequences of HMOs feel that no one is doing anything. I believe that, if it is made clear that those who do not apply for the appropriate licences can have the licences that they have been given revoked, and that those who have not applied may be subjected to fines and imprisonment, the Government's proposals will make a substantial difference. I certainly hope so. We must ensure that local authorities realise that tough new powers are available if, and only if, they apply for them.

I hope that the Government will give some thought to the "dumping" problem, and the undue attraction of individuals to such accommodation. I hope that they will see a case for doing something very simple. I have mentioned Southend, and the Milton ward in Westcliff. Is it unreasonable to ask the Government to consider asking an individual—or part of the Minister's Department—to consider what action might be appropriate in the area, in terms of the Bill? Nowadays, there is a terrible danger that the Government will produce an enormous number of reports, employing huge numbers of consultants, holding huge numbers of seminars and spending huge amounts of money, while no attention is being given to real problems. I have mentioned the problem in Southend and Westcliff's Milton ward. The council would be very pleased if the Government thought it appropriate to consider how the problem has arisen and what further steps could be taken, perhaps in consultation with the council and all those involved with it.

As most hon. Members probably know, Southend is in an interesting political position. The majority of our councillors happen to be Liberal Democrats. I am involved with Southend, West—which I do not represent—where there are a good many Liberals, no doubt for good reasons. However, we have a Conservative party, and also a Labour party. I believe that we will probably still have three parties after Thursday's elections; but, irrespective of who is in charge, it is desperately important for everyone to work together to try to solve the problems.

In Southend—unlike Glasgow, where everyone seemed to regard political discussion as almost a recurrence of the civil war—I have the impression that, by and large, the parties work together if there is a real problem that they feel can be resolved. Does the Minister think that it might be appropriate for his representatives to discuss Southend's problem with representatives of all its parties? Could they say, "Here is a real problem; this is what the new legislation can do", and ask whether there is a way in which they can work together to improve the lifestyle of those living in HMOs and try to resolve the general difficulties?

The Minister should be aware that there are appalling cases of neglect, some of which I have mentioned. Individuals have been exploited, and property has been found to be in an appalling state. I had the pleasure of visiting one property with local authority officials, and what I saw appalled me. In fairness, it was years ago, but I saw no fewer than 14 people sleeping in one room—and it was not really a room; it was at the top of some stairs, in a sort of hallway. The local official involved was so appalled that he somehow managed to get the place closed. Of course, all the people there went somewhere else. I do not know where they went, but it is quite possible that they went to another place with serious problems. Such problems have to be faced. The Government are giving local authorities the opportunity of solving them with the exciting new powers in the Bill. I hope that authorities will respond to that by taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the Government, but I also hope that the Government will say that if, by any remote chance, it does not work as successfully as it should, they will not close their mind to a national registration scheme. It would be a second best, but it may be the only alternative.

Mr. Betts

The issue is not simply one of technicalities, models or schemes but of the rights of individuals who live in houses in multiple occupation to be protected from landlords who need to be controlled by the sort of scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) proposed. The need for control is clear from the weight of evidence of our observations in our areas and from what he said about the tragedies that have shown the failures of the current system.

Instead of giving tenants rights to ensure that they get protection from a control system in each local authority, the Government have given local authorities the right to apply for a registration scheme if they wish. That is our fundamental disagreement with the Government. In giving local authorities that right, there is an assumption that they may not take it up. Tenants in some parts of the country may lose the right to have their homes properly regulated and to be properly protected from the excesses of landlords who may not behave in a fit and proper manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich spelled out the danger of fires to residents of such properties. People are 28 times more likely to die in them than in ordinary rented property. Such properties are twice as likely to be unfit. We examined that evidence in great depth in Committee. The Government had no substantive argument against the fact that they are more dangerous to their occupants than other private rented properties.

Most Opposition Members would instinctively want to argue for freedom for local authorities to take decisions that reflect the needs of their areas. In many respects, it is right that local authorities should be free to choose priorities related to the requirements of their areas. In this case, however, we are talking about what are issues of health and safety at the very least and which have on several tragic occasions been issues of life and death, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich. In those circumstances, there should not be a right for local authorities to decide whether to introduce the aspects of the Bill that could enable them to prevent lives from being so wastefully expended, so tragically lost. Local authorities should have a duty placed on them to ensure that they take all appropriate action under the legislation available to give protection to people in such circumstances.

The people who live in HMOs are often there not through their choice but because of their desperate needs. They are often families that have been made homeless from other properties and are in HMOs because that was all that was available. They are often the poorest and most vulnerable people. Often they are students or young people who do not always think of the problems and difficulties that can result from inadequate fire safety provision or gas fires and gas equipment that has not been properly serviced. Such considerations are not the first things that come into young people's minds when they set off full of hope and expectation to university. After two or three weeks of desperate struggle looking around, they find somewhere to put down their heads at night. They deserve and must have full protection from the Government.

Young and transient people have other things on their minds. At their age, they are rightly thinking of their studies, their futures and of social activities at university. People in such properties have often come from being homeless. They may be vulnerable people of other sorts such as people struggling desperately to bring up families on low incomes. They do not easily make a strong pressure group to push local authorities into applying for registration schemes as one of their top priorities. Local authorities are under pressure in a variety of different ways and from different people and groups in their communities. However, the residents of HMOs are not likely to form the strongest pressure groups. There should be a national mandatory scheme because of the sort of people who live in such properties, the nature of the properties, the record of many of the landlords and because, in the end, there may not be any pressure from such individuals as a group to ensure that their voice is loudly heard.

8.45 pm

Opposition Members would champion the case for local authority freedom on many issues. In Committee, we had some moments of humour. The issue that caused the greatest collective hilarity among Opposition members was the Minister's conclusion that we could not have a national mandatory licensing scheme because we had to give local authorities the freedom and choice to act on behalf of their residents as they thought fit. From a Government who have imposed so many extra duties on local councils in the past few years, taken so many responsibilities and powers away in other respects, and controlled their expenditure absolutely, that came a bit rich. That argument cannot be meaningfully sustained.

The lie to the suggestion that the Minister was a champion of local authority freedom and local democracy was given by the wording of his model registration schemes. Local authorities have the freedom to act only in so far as they can apply to have such a scheme. They can have any scheme they want, as long as it is the Minister's scheme. They can have a different scheme as long as they get approval from the Minister for it. That is nothing to do with local authority freedom. The Government are apparently not willing to stand up to certain pressure groups that are forcing them away from imposing a duty on all local authorities to have a proper licensing scheme for HMOs.

There is no real argument for local authority freedom in this respect. Local authorities are not making one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich said, when the Government consulted, the local authorities associations unanimously said that they wanted a mandatory national licensing scheme. The only organisations that appeared not to want such an arrangement were the landlords and the fire officers. The latter had a peculiar view about who should be responsible for the enforcement of the schemes and wanted more authority for themselves rather than directly for local authorities. Apart from that, the Government chose to side with the landlords.

Perhaps the Minister could tell us about the results of the consultation. The Government started by considering both a national mandatory scheme and one that local authorities could choose whether to adopt. What single factor in the consultation responses decided the Government in favour of an optional scheme? Which single organisation or group of organisations gave such powerful evidence to the Minister that the Government were persuaded of that point of view? Why did the Government, who said that they were neutral and had an open mind when they set out on the consultation process, come down for an optional scheme rather than a mandatory one? Was it the pressure of landlord power? Apparently, no other group seriously argued for the course of action that the Government have decided upon.

The hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) seemed to be arguing that the Government were right to have a scheme that local authorities could choose to adopt if they so wished but that the Government—and I agree with him on this—should do everything that they can to bring the availability of the scheme with its enhancements to the attention of local authorities and to encourage them to take it up because it was a good idea that it should be extended across the country. But he then seemed to say that if local authorities relax and do not take up the offer and the Government's suggestions, the Government should consider a national licensing scheme. If the result that the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve is that the registration licensing scheme that is available for local authorities to take up if they so choose should be taken up by all local authorities and applied on a national basis, why not begin from that position and place that duty on local authorities? We shall then achieve much more quickly the end that the hon. Gentleman apparently desires.

Sir Teddy Taylor

The basic reason why I prefer the voluntary scheme is that authorities have different problems and the schemes will not all be the same; they will vary according to the applications put forward by the different councils. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the legislation makes it clear that it would not merely be a matter of applying for a licence and getting a stamp on it. The licence for Southend-on-Sea would be simpler than those for other areas. I would prefer that, but I agree that if councils do not apply, we should consider a national scheme, which would be uniform.

Mr. Betts

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have slightly misunderstood the possibilities that will be available to the Secretary of State under a national mandatory licensing scheme. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that different HMOs pose different problems in different parts of the country. In response to an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich explained the different aspects of HMOs and how they might be treated differently under any system.

While a national licensing scheme would place an obligation on every local authority to license HMOs in their areas, it could contain slight differences of approach—as the Government suggest may be available to local authorities under their model arrangements. But, under a national licensing scheme, every local authority would have to have a scheme and apply it. Under the Government's proposals, a scheme is taken up only if a local authority so chooses—that is an important difference. There could be variations in individual schemes and variations in the way in which different HMOs are treated, even under a national licensing scheme. The essential difference is that every local authority would be required to have a scheme. The universal application of a scheme would be that much quicker if the Secretary of State were given powers to introduce one—as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich suggests.

I wish to raise one further issue that I hope my hon. Friend and, in particular, the Minister, will address. I raised the issue in Committee, and it remains important. When I moved an amendment in Committee I accepted that its wording was not necessarily correct—and I accept that it is difficult to draft the correct form of words.

We have discussed in the debate the difficult and sometimes complicated issue of defining multiple occupation. There is another difficult issue—which may seem simple at first sight, but can prove to be more complicated—and that is the definition of household. There has been a difficult case in the courts involving Sheffield council. The issues involved in the Barnes case, which we talked about in Committee, still need to be addressed as part of any national scheme.

In the Barnes case, the landlord was able to avoid being affected by the local authority exercising its powers through a local control scheme by claiming that the students who occupied the property were living as one household. Without going into the details of the scheme, when students occupy houses, even if they are individuals leading individual lives and not sharing many of the household duties in the home, they may well turn up on the doorstep of the property as a group. They may have been sent there by the local students union or whatever body organises accommodation for new students arriving at university. If four, five or six people arrive at the property, they may collectively be required to find a replacement if one of them leaves.

In the Sheffield case, such issues meant that the court found that it was dealing with one household, which could not be controlled by the local authority scheme dealing with houses in multiple occupation. That is worrying and puts many students at risk. Other local authorities are already encountering problems as a result of the system and I hope that we can resolve the problem of definition—if not under the Government's current proposals, certainly under the national mandatory licensing scheme that the next Government will surely introduce.

The problem has been recognised; the need for a scheme has been recognised in the sense that the Government accept that they will draw up model schemes for local authorities to follow—that is hardly an issue between us. Our argument involves the need to replicate that scheme so that all local authorities run such a scheme in their area. We do not disagree on the nature of the scheme, but on the extent of its application. Even a national scheme could reflect slight differences in different areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich said, the problem is not even—as the Government have tried to claim—that a national mandatory scheme would be more difficult to enforce or more bureaucratic. If it is a good idea to have control schemes for houses in multiple occupation, it is a universally good idea and should be universally applicable. If it is recognised that it is necessary to deal with the problems of houses in multiple occupation and the activities of some landlords, that need should be recognised everywhere. If it is recognised that it is necessary to protect tenants and to uphold their rights, it is necessary to protect tenants throughout the country. If it is necessary for some houses in multiple occupation to be registered, why not register all houses through a national mandatory licensing scheme?

One cannot argue against the logic of such a scheme; we did not hear a convincing argument from the Government in Committee and I am not sure that the Minister will do much better tonight. I hope that he might keep an open mind on the subject—that is probably too much to expect. The Government should recognise that this is a serious matter and tenants are at risk everywhere. That is why the protection provided by a licensing scheme should be available to tenants everywhere.

Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

The Government deserve credit for recognising the importance of the issue, and for ensuring that provision is made in the Bill for raising its profile and trying to tackle some of the worst problems. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), who clearly showed that concerns are felt on both sides of the Chamber. That said, the plans for a voluntary registration scheme strike me as convoluted, confused and a cop-out. At worst, they seem designed to limit the effectiveness of real attempts to tackle the problem. I suspect that, if the proposals had been suggested by the Labour party, the Government would be pouring scorn on the details.

Houses in multiple occupation come in different shapes and sizes. They have different uses, ranging from bed-and-breakfast accommodation to hostels and flats with shared facilities. A common factor is that they often tend to be older properties—perhaps Edwardian, Victorian or even Georgian—and are usually substantial. The average Wimpey or Barratt box that one finds on modern housing estates is unlikely to be the perfect accommodation for a landlord who is seeking to make money by filling every room with tenants.

9 pm

As a councillor, I recall visiting a property in Canning street in Toxteth, Liverpool, some 12 or 14 years ago. It was perhaps typical of the impression that is created by the acronym "HMO". It was a grand four-storey Georgian property, with a magnificent classical frontage. However, as one reached it, one realised that the building's structure had decayed. At the side of the door was a block of nine bells, of which some worked and some did not—a few were simply wires hanging out of the wooden frame. One would eventually find a bell that worked, and someone would come and open the door.

One would then enter the gloomy interior of what was once a magnificent and prestigious house, which probably belonged to a merchant. However, the lighting now came from a single bulb hanging from an extended cable, and the plaster was rotting on the walls. The electrical wiring clearly needed to be redone, as one could see stretches of cable protruding from the plasterwork. The carpet on the once magnificent staircase was threadbare, and people could easily trip if they were to walk down the stairs in the dark.

One eventually reached the top landing, where a separate toilet had been provided behind a 6-ft high containment of hardboard, which reached nowhere near the top of the 12-ft. ceiling. That was unfortunate, as one of the tenants had a disorder which meant that odours emanated from the landing throughout the day, which were unpleasant for all residents and visitors.

The once magnificent rooms had been converted by dividing walls into relatively small bedsits. They had very high ceilings and minimal heating, and were very cold in winter. The washing and kitchen facilities were scarcely adequate, being of the most primitive kind; and I have already described the toilet. To be fair, that property was hardly a seething mass of human beings—it was semi-derelict.

It was occupied by only a handful of people: a teacher, a student, a council employee and several unemployed people. If the property had been exploited to capacity—if it had been in a fit condition to do that—it could have accommodated five or six times as many people in conditions which might be regarded as unacceptable, but which would have allowed each person a fair amount of space.

It is all very well for single people to live in such circumstances, so long as they choose to do so—as was probably the case with the five tenants in that property. However, it would be unacceptable for a property such as that to be occupied by those such as the elderly, who had no alternative but to live in such premises. It would be particularly unacceptable for families with children to occupy such a property.

To be fair to the landlord, the cost of renovating such a property and making it fit for habitation was completely unrealistic. That property—a listed building—has now been restored, at public expense, at a cost of more than a third of a million pounds. There is no way in which a private landlord would ever spend that amount on a property, as he could never achieve that sort of return.

Despite the difficulties that all local authorities face in trying to raise the standard of houses in multiple occupation owned by private landlords—for the very real reason that the money is not available to carry out a substantial programme of improvement—it is essential that Parliament lays down minimum standards. During the debate today—and many times in Committee—we heard about the risks associated with HMOs compared with smaller, privately rented accommodation that is let to perhaps one family. The risk of a serious fire is 28 times greater in HMOs. For those reasons, the Liberal Democrats support the amendment calling for mandatory licensing.

It seems odd that the Government are posing as the friend of local authority freedom. After all, most Opposition Members condemn them as the most centralising Government in British history. It is strange that they now advocate that local authorities should have the freedom of choice in these matters. Those of us of a cynical nature would suggest that Government give freedom to local authorities only when it suits them.

I wonder why the Government advocated the proposals in the Bill. It cannot be because a national scheme would be difficult to enforce, yet that was one of the preposterous arguments that were put in Committee. We can imagine a director of housing facing the publicity of a fire such as the one in Harrow that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), and being exposed to the full scrutiny of the press and his own councillors, and then finding that there was a mandatory scheme but that the local authority and the officers under his direct control had not enforced it properly. At best he could kiss his career prospects goodbye.

The idea that a mandatory scheme would not be enforced properly is ludicrous. It is more likely that it would help the Government to ensure that local authorities received no further support from the Department of the Environment to carry out the obligations that such an amendment would place upon them. Perhaps it would be convenient for the Chancellor to say that local authorities had the freedom to choose whether to take on the additional responsibility; and, if they chose to do so, they would have to decide whether or not to pay the money. Such measures involve costs, and I fear that the new clause represents one way to avoid any burden falling upon the Exchequer.

I wonder whether—I suspect that it is most likely—there are those within the Conservative party—perhaps on its right wing, or perhaps they are now regarded as part of mainstream Conservative thinking—who believe that imposing further regulations on landlords is somehow unacceptable. Some years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) said that all landlords were cast in the same mould, but some were more mouldy than others. It was a difficult time for him, as, in a blaze of publicity, he had just dealt with a particularly notorious Rachman landlord.

If we are to solve our housing problems and provide choice and flexibility for those seeking accommodation. it is important to encourage the private sector, but we should not forget that encouragement to private landlords and the freedom for them to earn money in that way involves responsibilities. The Opposition do not avoid that.

In practice, the Bill is concerned more with the appearance than the reality of dealing with HMOs. The hon. Member for Southend, East was concerned that the Government would not reap the full benefits of the initiative that they were attempting to take, and that they would not gain advantage from their proposals. I fear that his words were prophetic. Although the Government are making a gesture towards dealing with the problem, they will not gain the blessing of the housing associations involved, because of the way in which they are promoting the registration scheme, which I fear will not do the job.

In Rochdale, some 180 HMOs are known to the local authority, but the officers there say that there exist probably half as many again that are not known to the local authority. In neighbouring Oldham, the local authority is aware of about 140 IIMOs. It is likely that there are another 140 that are not known to the local authority. The scheme proposed by Minister places the onus upon the local authority through the need to publicise the arrangements and ensure proper enforcement, yet many of the landlords who avoid their legal obligations by not making their presence known to the local authority will continue to slip through the net.

Although the proposals contain methods of enforcement, and place obligations on the landlord, and although it may be argued in law that ignorance is no defence, in practice, if a local authority takes to court an HMO landlord who has not previously made himself known, I fear that the court will deal with him leniently if he pleads ignorance. The landlord will receive a rap over the knuckles, and only then will the enforcement procedure commence. It is in the interests of landlords who do not care about their responsibilities or about tenants to find ways of circumventing the Government's schemes, even if local authorities decide to implement them.

A mandatory licensing scheme introduced nationwide would place the obligation firmly on the landlord to declare his properties and their condition; it would make available tough penalties to enforce the Bill's provisions, and would bring into line landlords who might not otherwise comply. Such a scheme would still allow local authorities freedom and flexibility to determine their assessment criteria above the minimum to meet the regulatory standards.

I imagine that local authorities would draw up their own five-star schemes. The basic requirement for one star would be to pass the minimum test laid down by statute to gain registration. A two-star property would still not be considered ideal, but would be deemed suitable for single persons having the freedom to make that choice. It would take five stars for a local authority to say that a property was acceptable as long-term bed-sit accommodation for a family with children. The local authority would have flexibility to determine the arrangements most appropriate for its own circumstances.

Such a scheme acknowledges reality, but the House must deal with the rogues who seek to circumvent regulations, and with slum landlords.

New clause 9 is supported by local government associations, because it would create a national framework and require landlords to face their responsibilities and take action. It would also give local authorities a firm base on which to build. I cannot say that I am particularly sympathetic to the exact wording of the new clause, which seems to give the Secretary of State the right to say yea or nay—something that we have criticised over the years, because that power is not to be given lightly.

I hope that it is not suggested that the blue centralisation of decision taking of the past 17 years will shortly be replaced by red centralisation, but I will give the hon. Member for Greenwich the benefit of the doubt, despite his argument that the Minister should accept the new clause so that a Labour Government could immediately implement the procedures. I like that argument, but I do not think that it will persuade the Minister to change his approach. I assume that the hon. Member for Greenwich tabled his new clause as a way of presenting something different from the proposals debated in Committee. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats will be supporting new clause 9.

Mr. Burden

Some powerful speeches have been made in support of new clause 9. Some extremely ambiguous messages have come from the Government about a national licensing scheme and registration. To give credit where it is due, the Government have indicated to some extent a willingness to do something. As the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said, the Government have made certain proposals, although I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about their potential effectiveness. I acknowledge that Ministers feel the need to do something—hence the proposal for a registration scheme.

I find it odd that Ministers have undermined their proposals' effectiveness by making the scheme voluntary, which seems to be contradictory. That ambiguity has been present throughout the Bill's passage, and it even predates the Bill's publication. We had quite a long discussion in Committee about some of the consultation documents that preceded the Bill's publication. An odd contradiction and ambiguity was pointed out then, because a lengthy and very good consultation paper was published by the Department of the Environment in November 1994, entitled "Consultation Paper on the Case for Licensing". A rather thinner, two-page document was published by the Welsh Office.

9.15 pm

The DOE paper was very balanced and very clear, and, on its first page, stated that there was a problem that needed to be dealt with. The fact that there was a problem was widely recognised. Paragraph 3—under "secondly", which is odd—of the consultation paper stated: there is widespread concern that in many HMOs, physical and management standards are often poor and fire safety precautions inadequate. Although most local authorities are addressing these problems, the proponents of licensing claim that their current powers are too weak or progress in raising standards is too slow. It is absolutely fair to say that that paragraph does not come out and say, "Therefore, there shall be a licensing scheme." It recognises that there is a problem, and that a large body of opinion recognises that something substantial must be done.

The two-sided letter that came out in Wales also had a third paragraph. It stated: There has been some criticism about HMOs which appear to be at a higher risk from fire and in a poorer state of repair. However, providing these homes are in good condition and are safe and well managed, they can successfully meet particular housing needs. The tone of those two documents was very different, and some of us wonder whether the fact that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was at the Welsh Office at that time had anything to do with it.

Despite the contradiction in the tone of the two documents, both—I shall deal with the DOE document in particular, because it seems to be rather more substantial—made as a substantial argument against a national licensing scheme, in addition to many arguments in favour of one, the fact that it would require primary legislation. That seems odd, because, a short while later, we are now discussing primary legislation on housing. Ministers had every opportunity to insert such a scheme in primary legislation, but have chosen not to do so.

Ministers may have their own reasons for not doing so, which I shall explore in a moment. I should tell the Minister that, if the Government are worried about introducing primary legislation on a national licensing scheme, this new clause will obviate the need for it. It provides a reserve power. Labour Members cannot understand how Ministers believe that their voluntary scheme will be effective. We cannot understand how there can be consistency in standards for accommodation for all tenants across the country, and yet make the scheme voluntary.

I accept that Ministers believe that that can be done. Why are they then removing the option of bringing in a national licensing scheme if the voluntary scheme is unsuccessful? Let us remember what they said before—that the big problem with a national licensing scheme is that it would require primary legislation, that a long process would have to be gone through to introduce it, and that it might be better to take a different route. They do not have to do that now.

The Government should use primary legislation to insert those reserve powers—then, fine, if the voluntary scheme works and all the local authorities opt for an effective scheme, no one is going to say, "Let's have a national scheme just for the sake of it." If those schemes do not work, Ministers should have the power to do something about it.

The consultation papers triggered a response. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has already said, local authority associations were unanimous in their belief that a national licensing scheme was the right option. Apart from those associations, the clear majority of respondents were in favour of a mandatory licensing scheme. The DOE chose, however, to opt for a voluntary registration scheme.

What was odd, however, was that the DOE press notice, which was published on 22 November 1995 and which explained the Government's response, said that the majority of respondents to the 1995 consultation paper welcomed the proposals in principle with a variety of opinion on detail. Sixty per cent. of the respondents called for the Government to consider mandatory licensing for HMOs.

The Government seemed to say in their press release that the majority of respondents supported a voluntary registration scheme, when the respondents to their consultation document patently said the opposite: the majority supported a national licensing scheme.

Hon. Members have already said that fire risk in HMOs is a serious problem. According to the 1991 English house condition survey, 40 per cent. of HMOs are unfit for human habitation; 80 per cent. of them lack an adequate means of escape from fire, and 98 per cent. of local authorities rate the lack of fire safety as the most prevalent problem. Hon. Members have already said that the risk of fire in HMOs is 28 times greater than that in self-contained housing, as is the appalling problem of carbon monoxide poisoning, which we discussed when we considered new clause 4.

In my area of Birmingham, there are about 5,000 HMOs. We know that some of those are in good condition, and that some are run by responsible landlords who would have no problem with a national licensing scheme. There are far too many other HMOs that are in a dangerous condition and a poor state of repair. In my part of the country, as in others, far too many are accidents waiting to happen. In my constituency, 80 per cent. of the young people who are helped by the south Birmingham young homeless project end up in hostel accommodation, which suffer from the precise problems that I have described. Those youngsters have ended up potentially vulnerable as a result.

On Second Reading and in Committee, and even before the Bill was published, hon. Members on both sides of the House did a lot of good work to alert people to the problem. The hon. Members for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) spoke eloquently in Committee about the need to do something about the appalling conditions in HMOs.

I must ask those hon. Members and the Government whether we are solely concerned about HMOs and the risks they pose to safety. Surely not. The Labour party accepts that standards and the extent of the problem may vary around the country, but is anyone seriously suggesting that standards of accommodation and safety should vary between one part of the country and another? No one has suggested, either in Committee or tonight, that standards should differ. Unless that was argued, surely there is every reason to provide at least reserve powers for a national licensing scheme.

In Committee, we were pressed about the need to respect the freedom of local authorities in this matter—no doubt we will hear the same argument tonight. As my hon. Friends have already said, we take that with a rather large bucketful of salt, given the Government's actions on local authority freedoms. Let them remember that their scheme does not provide local authorities with freedom. The only freedom it gives them is the freedom to have a scheme or not to have one. As soon as authorities decide to have a scheme, their freedoms disappear because at that point the contents of the scheme become subject to central control.

Let us explore the freedom not to have a registration scheme at all. It means the freedom to allow an accident to happen in a local authority's area without doing anything about it. No local authority that I know would welcome such a freedom.

Let us think, too, about the people who are arguably more important than local authorities or Members of this House—the tenants. They are the ones who will end up suffering the consequences—the fatalities described by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich—of inadequate conditions in houses in multiple occupation. The Government are giving local authorities the right to opt into registration schemes. Where is the right of the tenants to opt into such schemes? They will not be consulted when it comes to bringing a registration scheme into operation.

Labour Members have made it clear that we want a national licensing system, and we see no reason for delay: we want the proposal included in this Bill. Ministers say that they do not think that that is the right approach; they want a voluntary system. We do not think that adequate. But even if Ministers feel as they do, why are they disallowing the suggestion of beefing up this legislation, which would involve no extra parliamentary manoeuvres at all and which could be put into effect if these regulations, as we believe they will, prove inadequate? There is no reason to refuse the reserve power for which we are calling.

I ask Ministers even at this late stage to consider the tenants—the ones who matter—who will suffer without such a scheme, and to agree to the new clause.

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)

It has been clear in this debate that there is widespread support for a national mandatory licensing scheme for HMOs. There is, for instance, support from organisations such as the Campaign for Bedsit Rights and Shelter, and from organisations representing tenants and would-be tenants. I suppose that no one will find that surprising.

There is also support from the regulatory sector, from the local government associations. The Association of London Government has written to me about this, and I know that other local authority associations take the same view. There is also support from specialists in local government. The head of environmental health in the borough of Newham has drawn my attention to the view of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, expressed when it learned that the Government were not proposing to go ahead with mandatory licensing—contrary to what appeared likely at one stage. The institute said: The Chartered Institute has supported the concept of licensing for HMOs since at least 1985; it considers that licensing would have a number of unique benefits … we still believe that a national, uniform, mandatory licensing scheme is necessary, that its benefits cannot all be achieved otherwise, and we are disappointed, not least given the overwhelming weight of opinion behind our views, that the Government does not accept these arguments. The Government should take note of that well-expressed professional view.

There would be important benefits as well for the landlord sector, the other major player. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) quoted the chairman of Quality Street, who said that he saw no objection to a licensing scheme. One reason for advancing such a scheme is to make life more straightforward for landlords. Current law is extremely complex and confusing; that problem is exacerbated by the differing policies and enforcement practices employed by local authorities, and sometimes by officers and departments within authorities. Both those can make it extremely difficult for landlords to know what standards are regarded as acceptable. They often experience the law and the way that it is implemented as arbitrary and there is a disincentive for them to enter or remain in the market. The uncertainty also makes it difficult for landlords to plan expenditure on properties. A scheme of the kind we suggest would therefore have significant benefits for landlords as well.

9.30 pm

The large contingent of Blackpool hoteliers who attended the sitting of the Committee when we discussed this issue made a great impression on me. Those hoteliers felt very strongly that the Government needed to take a much stronger line on HMOs and they were concerned about the effect of badly run HMOs on their businesses. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson), who is not in his place this evening, said—rightly, in my view—that the problem is not just the effect of houses in multiple occupation on those who live in them but, in many cases—particularly in seaside resorts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and I well know—the effect that badly run HMOs have on businesses and local residents in the surrounding area".—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 20 February 1996; c. 231.] The hoteliers were present for the whole sitting of the Committee that discussed the issue and they were anxious that the Committee took a firm line. They wanted a national mandatory licensing scheme and they were very disappointed that the Committee did not support that. I emphasise the point that there is wide support for the proposal from tenants and local authorities, and from landlords. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when he responds to the debate.

I hope that the Minister will focus his attention on the following questions. Why is it right that HMOs in some parts of the country should not be registered? What are the characteristics—for example, housing or environmental characteristics—that prevail in some parts of the country which lead the Government to conclude that registration and licensing would not be appropriate in those areas? The Government may be able to advance reasons why registration would not be appropriate in some parts of the country, but we have not heard them yet. I have no idea what they might be; if the Government are not able to give us those reasons, new clause 9 should be accepted. I await the Minister's answer with interest, because that point is at the heart of the debate.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), who participated in the debate on this subject in Committee, went so far as to suggest that the councils that did not introduce licensing schemes would fall into the category of rogue councils. If it is the Government's view that the only people who would not introduce licensing schemes would be rogues and lunatics, surely it should be a mandatory national scheme.

Why the Government have not come forward with a national mandatory licensing scheme is something of a mystery to all of us. It appeared from the initial consultation paper that that was in the Government's mind. We know that responses to the consultation paper were overwhelmingly in favour of a national mandatory scheme. It appears to many of us—as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) suggested a few moments ago—that the views of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the previous Secretary of State for Wales, may have had something to do with the change of heart, as may the lurch to the right that was occurring in the Conservative party at that time. That dispute in the Conservative party may be the reason why the Government have not come forward with proposals, but we need to know.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich mentioned a couple of tragic cases in which people have died as a result of conditions in HMOs. Tracy Murphy, who lived in Hull, was one of those people. The other was Matt Cohn, who died in a fire in a two-storey house in Christchurch gardens in Wealdstone. I wish to mention a couple of other cases. Angela Stickland was two weeks short of her 21st birthday when she died in a bed-sit fire in Chesham in Buckinghamshire in November 1989. The South Buckinghamshire coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death in that case, but said that such houses are quite clearly an added fire risk. That happened in the area covered by Chiltern district council. Another case involved Michael Tighe, who died aged 30 in hospital as a result of burns sustained in an horrific bed-sit fire on Outercircle green, Lincoln.

The locations are Hull, Chiltern district, Harrow Wealdstone and Lincoln. There is nothing obvious that these areas have in common. There are no areas where controls are not needed. Controls are needed everywhere. There should be a national scheme. I hope that the Minister will accept that argument, or set out the circumstances in which he believes that registration would not be helpful.

Only a reserve power is proposed. That appeared to be what the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) was arguing for. He said that, if the arrangements set out in the Bill are unsuccessful, a national mandatory scheme should be introduced. That is exactly what implementation of the new clause would provide.

It is widely recognised that the present arrangements are inappropriate. The Government have set out the case for licensing and registration. The question before the House is, what importance do we attach to local authorities taking up the powers that the Bill would make available to them? Are we talking about something that it would merely be nice to have, or is it essential, as Opposition Members argued in Committee and again in the Chamber this evening, that the proposed powers are used so that tragedies can be brought to an end?

Mr. Sutcliffe

This has been a detailed debate. My hon. Friends have put the issues well and truly before the House, as they did in Committee. They have based their evidence on the thousands of people who contributed to the consultation document.

It would be unfortunate if all the evidence was pushed to one side because of political dogma that causes the Government to say, "We shall not regulate any more." It would be especially unfortunate because safety regulations are so important in this instance. It seems that the Government want vulnerable people to take the route of private rented accommodation. Vulnerable people include the single homeless, single parents with young children and families generally. They find themselves on short-term tenancies. Society must ensure that they are protected. In effect, the Government direct such people into private rented accommodation because they do not allow local authorities to build houses.

The Government are taking the gamble that is represented by houses in multiple occupation. They are gambling with other people's lives. A mandatory national licensing scheme would cut the risks that face the vulnerable. It ill becomes the Government to say, "Let's leave it to local authorities. They will sort it all out." The Government have done everything they can to remove powers and resources from local authorities.

The indictment against the Government is that they are not prepared, given all the evidence produced by my hon. Friends and the problems that are to be found in the private rented sector, with the high number of 638,000 dwellings used for multiple occupation that are in a state of disrepair, to be consistent by introducing a national registration scheme. Such a scheme would enable people in HMOs to feel safe and secure while paying an affordable rent.

Local authorities could assist if they had sufficient resources. Local authorities throughout the country tell us that they cannot respond adequately to the massive number of regulations that face them, given their lack of resources. Yet the Government continue to move people into HMOs. They are prepared to exempt certain buildings. We have heard this evening of many terrible tragedies. In many areas, HMOs are death traps.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider even at this late stage. The debate has taken some time, and people have looked at the matter in terms of the evidence from professionals who work in the sector and have tried to ensure that they convince the Government that a national mandatory scheme is the only way forward. The voluntary scheme that the Government propose is not acceptable because it may not operate in the areas where it needs to operate. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the matter.

People will lay the fault at the Minister's door if there are further tragedies. They will blame the Minister's failure to be consistent in this matter, especially when the Government have pointed people in the direction of multi-occupied housing as a means of providing social housing. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will reconsider.

Mr. Clappison

This is an important subject. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) was right on at least one point when he said that we had had a detailed debate. I am not sure that I go along with the rest of his contribution. It has been a detailed debate, and I listened carefully to the contribution by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I hope that I shall not offend the hon. Gentleman too much if I say that I also listened carefully to his speech in Committee and I now feel that I am something of a veteran in terms of the points he raises.

Notwithstanding some of the expressions that the hon. Gentleman used, there is a large measure of agreement on several points connected with houses in multiple occupation. I do not dissent from what he said about this being a big issue affecting many properties and, therefore, many tenants. I do not disagree with him when he says that, in some circumstances, standards are unsatisfactory and need to be addressed. I particularly do not disagree with him when he implies that there is a need for appropriate powers to deal adequately with those problems.

The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that there were two differences between the Government and the Opposition; I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the differences have narrowed to two. First, there is the question whether there should be a national licensing scheme, which is the subject of the new clause, and, secondly, there is the question of which types of houses in multiple occupation should be excluded from the scheme.

In one of the less immediately transparent and direct passages in the hon. Gentleman's speech, he dwelt at some length on that point, but then added that, of course, the Government were prepared to listen on that point and had tabled amendments. I shall come to what the Government propose when I turn to those amendments. The hon. Gentleman can see that the Government have thought about the matter carefully and have taken the exclusions from the Bill. We do have proposals, which I shall outline when we come to the relevant amendments. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, when deciding which types of property should be included in the scheme, we have to judge the degree of risk. I think that that was implicit in what he said.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on a national licensing scheme. What he said throughout his speech was undermined by the fact that he put his case rather too high. He certainly put it too high when he suggested that the Government's proposals were ineffective because they did not include national licensing. He confused licensing and powers, and he underestimated the significant and important powers that the Bill will put in place which will allow local authorities to tackle the problem of houses in multiple occupation—powers that will, most importantly, differ in different circumstances. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the differences that will occur between local authorities that adopt powers under the control provisions and local authorities that adopt the special control provisions that they feel are needed to deal with their local circumstances.

It will assist the House if I take it briefly through the effects of some of the powers. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) was absolutely right when he said, in an excellent speech, that the powers were stronger, clearer and more precise, and would make a substantial difference; he said that they were an important step forward. Those powers will be of benefit to residents in the Milton ward in Southend-on-Sea, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and in Westcliff-on-Sea, as they will assist other local authorities in similar circumstances, possibly in coastal resorts. Local authorities throughout the country will have the opportunity to adopt the powers which, in many cases, are tailored to meet their needs. They certainly reflect concerns that local authorities and residents have expressed.

It is important for the House to concentrate on the control provisions and their effectiveness for the local authorities that choose to adopt them. When the control provisions have been adopted by local authorities as part of a registration scheme, the authorities will have the opportunity to refuse to register HMOs when they fall below standard in a number of important respects—for example, when a house is unsuitable and incapable of being made suitable for occupation; where the person having control of the house or the person intended to be the person managing the house is not a fit and proper person; and where the house needs work to be brought up to scratch. Those important provisions place power in the hands of local authorities.

9.45 pm

I hope that all those who are aware of the tragic cases referred to in the debate will reflect on those powers, which are significant and address the problems of HMOs. The powers go further for local authorities that feel that they have a particular need because of the effect of HMOs on their area as a result of the way in which those houses are managed. Such authorities can go further and adopt the special control provisions, which provide a further tightening of the powers concerned. These important powers will enable local authorities—including those in coastal resorts—to bring to an end the state of affairs that is causing problems to residents.

We heard in Committee from my hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) and for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson), and today the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) referred to the close interest being shown by Blackpool hoteliers in this issue. The hon. Gentleman may not know that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North has been in contact with me both today and in the past about the matter. I believe that he is in the Chamber now, and that he has brought a delegation of hoteliers from Blackpool to talk about the problems. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] My hon. Friend has certainly been here during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who is here, has taken a great interest in the matter, and he is well aware of the problems in his constituency.

The Government have listened to all the representations, and the argument comes down to this: the special control provisions that are in place in the legislation will give authorities in coastal resorts the opportunity and the discretion to deal with the sort of problems that they are telling us about. Authorities can refuse to register the properties in question, or can issue an occupancy direction that will curtail the state of affairs about which the authority or the residents have complained.

The hon. Member for Greenwich said that there was a lack of standardisation in this area, and asked about landlords moving from an area that has control provisions or special control provisions to another.

Mr. Raynsford

indicated assent.

Mr. Clappison

I see that the hon. Member for Greenwich is nodding his head. That was one of the slightly less practical points in his speech, and I would respectfully draw his attention to the other measures in the legislation. Clause 73 establishes a national code of practice that can be used in evidence in any civil or criminal proceedings.

We are building on the provisions that are already in place which create important duties that those responsible for HMOs must fulfil. Clause 71 takes further the duty of people having control of HMOs to prevent certain states of affairs that have a bad affect from coming into being, and makes it an offence for someone to be in breach of that duty, which can be actionable in damages.

In my respectful submission to the House, there is in place in the legislation a tough and appropriate package of powers that will give local authorities the opportunity to deal with the problems in HMOs about which the House has heard. Those problems vary in their nature and incidence throughout the country. There must be flexibility. Flexibility is built into the legislation in terms of the strength of the powers that local authorities can take. It is important that local authorities reflect on that. If they feel that they have a problem in respect of HMOs, the powers are there for them to adopt.

I do not see local authorities permitting a state of affairs in which landlords move from one area to another to create problems with HMOs. The opportunity is there for all local authorities to deal with those problems by adopting the powers, which the hon. Member for Greenwich—who is fair in many respects—will accept are tough and effective. We have not heard any criticism of the effectiveness of the powers. It would be a mistake to undermine the effectiveness of the legislation by confusing licensing with powers and to overlook the fact that the powers that we have provided create opportunities for local authorities to opt, if they choose to do so, in an important way into dealing with the problems that HMOs can cause.

We have introduced a wholly effective and tough set of proposals which provide the opportunity for local authorities to deal with what both Conservative and Opposition Members agree can be serious problems.

Mr. Raynsford

We have had an extremely good debate this evening. We have heard a number of valuable, thoughtful speeches. The debate has shown a clear majority in favour of a mandatory national licensing scheme. My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms), and for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) and the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) all spoke in favour of a mandatory national licensing scheme. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), in a thoughtful and forceful speech, made what I might describe as an each-way bet on the option.

According to my tally, that gives us from the Back Benches five and a half in favour to a half against a national mandatory licensing scheme. If the Front Benches are added in, that gives us six and a half in favour to one and a half against—a slightly larger majority than the majority of 75 per cent. of those who responded to the Government's consultation paper in November 1994 who said rightly that at that date there was a need for a national licensing scheme. As many of my hon. Friends have said, that was all the local authority associations. They all want it.

The voice of dissent here is the voice of the Minister. He seemed disappointed to hear the same arguments as he had heard in Committee. That is the result of arguing these things out. If the Government had accepted our case in Committee, he would not have had to listen to me again today. It is his fault for not accepting the argument. That is the nature of democracy.

I accepted in Committee that there was an awareness and acceptance on the Government Benches that there was a problem of poor conditions, squalor, exploitation, bad landlords and, above all, life-threatening conditions such as dangerous gas appliances and lack of fire safety precautions which killed an unacceptable number of people every year in rotten houses in multiple occupation. All those things argue the case for more effective measures. The Minister said today that the Government were introducing more effective powers. He referred specifically to three items, to which I should like to respond briefly.

The Minister referred to the control powers and placing powers in the hands of the local authorities. I acknowledge that he rightly said that we had not argued against the powers. What we have argued against is the fact that the powers will not be mandatory—that there will not be a requirement on local authorities to operate them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield said, in an entirely accurate and perceptive comment, it brings little or no satisfaction to a tenant living in unacceptable conditions who wants action if the local authority, for whatever reason—be it indifference, lack of care or scarce resources and considering that there are other priorities—says that it will not do anything about the situation and that it is not prepared to introduce the control powers.

While we welcome the powers, we believe that they should apply everywhere, because the problems exist everywhere. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East rightly said, the fire tragedies have occurred in places as far a field as Lincoln, Harrow and other parts of the country. We are not talking about problems that are concentrated in certain areas or in seaside towns; we are talking about national problems—and there must be a national response.

The Minister referred to the special control provisions that apply in coastal resorts. The case for such provisions has been made overwhelmingly by coastal resorts. The exact same argument applies: we welcome the special control provisions, although we shall query one or two details when we come to later amendments, but we want them to apply everywhere: we do not want them to be selected by, say, Blackpool but not by other resorts where the same problems may apply.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I understand that local authorities asked for—pressed for—these powers. Would it not, therefore, be perverse of them not to use the powers when they have been given the opportunity to do so because they have not been compelled to do so?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman may be correct, but local authorities already have powers to register HMOs under existing legislation and only about 100 out of the 300 or so local authorities have registration schemes in place. The existing powers are not adequate—we want to see them strengthened—and they are not used extensively. On that precedent, I fear that the creation of the new powers will not change the position and that some authorities will take a more serious view of their responsibilities than others.

Although we may chide authorities—we may talk about the failure of authorities and about irresponsible authorities—the tragedy will be for the individuals who live in squalid conditions in places where the authorities have not introduced the scheme and who have no effective remedy or redress. We take the view that there is a need for a national framework.

The third issue that the Minister prayed in aid was the fact that clause 73 allows him or the Secretary of State the power to issue codes of practice. Codes of practice are all very well, but they are only codes of practice—they can be ignored. It does not in any way counter our argument that we need an effective national mandatory licensing scheme. Such a scheme is necessary.

Without a national mandatory licensing scheme, the dreadful toll of deaths will continue year after year, and we shall hear the names that we have etched in our memories—such as Clanricarde gardens in London, Palmeira avenue in Hove, the hotel in Scarborough and the recent fire in Harrow. We will hear case after case, name after name, of people who die through carbon monoxide poisoning—such as Tracy Murphy. We will hear again and again of squalid conditions, of people crammed into unsanitary conditions, as the hon. Member for Southend, East described so movingly in his speech—15 or so people were crammed into squalid and unacceptable conditions, which is shocking.

If the Minister and the environmental health officer visit such HMOs, perhaps they will take action and close them. If they do not visit such HMOs, they will not know that they are a fire risk because there is no national framework. Those tragedies will continue, as in the case of Harrow. We owe it to the hundreds of people who are killed as a result of fires and faulty gas appliances in HMOs to take more effective action. We owe it to them to take action on a national scale, not only on a local scale. We owe it to them to introduce a national mandatory licensing scheme.

In conclusion, the one thing that the Minister did not say in his response was what will replace the provisions that the Government have now wisely chosen to remove from the Bill. As I highlighted in my speech, the Government are removing the restrictive provisions in clause 63(2) which will prevent local authorities from registering certain properties. What they are not saying is which properties will be included.

Until we have a clear indication that there will be a comprehensive national licensing scheme covering all HMOs where such risks arise, we shall say that the Government's response is inadequate, and we shall continue to press for a national scheme. I urge hon. Members who feel as strongly as we do—whatever their persuasion—to join us in the Lobby.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 220, Noes 278.

Division No. 113] [10.00 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Ashton, Joe
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Austin-Walker, John
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Armstrong, Hilary Barron, Kevin
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Battle, John
Bayley, Hugh Grocott, Bruce
Beith, Rt Hon A J Gunnell, John
Bell, Stuart Hain, Peter
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Hall, Mike
Bennett, Andrew F Harman, Ms Harriet
Bermingham, Gerald Henderson, Doug
Berry, Roger Hendron, Dr Joe
Betts, Clive Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Blunkett, David Hinchliffe, David
Boateng, Paul Hodge, Margaret
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hoey, Kate
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Burden, Richard Hoon, Geoffrey
Byers, Stephen Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Callaghan, Jim Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Hoyle, Doug
Cann, Jamie Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Chidgey, David Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hutton, John
Church, Judith Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Clapham, Michael Jamieson, David
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Clelland, David Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Cohen, Harry Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Connarty, Michael Keen, Alan
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Corbett, Robin Khabra, Piara S
Corbyn, Jeremy Kilfoyle, Peter
Corston, Jean Kirkwood, Archy
Cousins, Jim Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Cox, Tom Lewis, Terry
Cunliffe, Lawrence Litherland, Robert
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Livingstone, Ken
Dafis, Cynog Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Dalyell, Tam Llwyd, Elfyn
Darling, Alistair Loyden, Eddie
Davidson, Ian Lynne, Ms Liz
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) McAvoy, Thomas
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) McCartney, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Macdonald, Calum
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) McKelvey, William
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Mackinlay, Andrew
Denham, John McMaster, Gordon
Dewar, Donald MacShane, Denis
Dixon, Don Madden, Max
Dobson, Frank Maddock, Diana
Donohoe, Brian H Mahon, Alice
Dowd, Jim Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Eagle, Ms Angela Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Eastham, Ken Maxton, John
Etherington, Bill Meale, Alan
Evans, John (St Helens N) Michael, Alun
Fatchett, Derek Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Faulds, Andrew Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Foster, Don (Bath) Morgan, Rhodri
Foulkes, George Morley, Elliot
Fraser, John Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Fyfe, Maria Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)
Galloway, George Mowlam, Marjorie
Gapes, Mike Mudie, George
George, Bruce Mullin, Chris
Gerrard, Neil Murphy, Paul
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Godsiff, Roger Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Golding, Mrs Llin O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Gordon, Mildred O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Graham, Thomas O'Hara, Edward
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) O'Neill, Martin
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Parry, Robert
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Pearson, Ian
Pickthall, Colin Spellar, John
Pike, Peter L Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Pope, Greg Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Steinberg, Gerry
Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E) Strang, Dr. Gavin
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Primarolo, Dawn Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Purchase, Ken Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Quin, Ms Joyce Timms, Stephen
Radice, Giles Tipping, Paddy
Raynsford, Nick Touhig, Don
Reid, Dr John Trickett, Jon
Rendel, David Turner, Dennis
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Tyler, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Vaz, Keith
Rogers, Allan Walley, Joan
Rooney, Terry Wareing, Robert N
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Watson, Mike
Rowlands, Ted Welsh, Andrew
Ruddock, Joan Wicks, Malcolm
Sedgemore, Brian Wigley, Dafydd
Sheerman, Barry Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wise, Audrey
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Worthington, Tony
Simpson, Alan Wray, Jimmy
Skinner, Dennis Wright, Dr Tony
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Tellers for the Ayes:
Snape, Peter Mrs. Jane Kennedy and
Soley, Clive Mr. Robert Ainsworth.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Chapman, Sir Sydney
Alexander, Richard Churchill, Mr
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Clappison, James
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Amess, David Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Arbuthnot, James Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Coe, Sebastian
Ashby, David Congdon, David
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Conway, Derek
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Baldry, Tony Cormack, Sir Patrick
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Couchman, James
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Cran, James
Bates, Michael Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Batiste, Spencer Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Bendall, Vivian Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Beresford, Sir Paul Davis, David (Boothferry)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Day, Stephen
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Deva, Nirj Joseph
Booth, Hartley Devlin, Tim
Boswell, Tim Dicks, Terry
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bowden, Sir Andrew Dover, Den
Bowis, John Duncan, Alan
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Duncan Smith, Iain
Brandreth, Gyles Dunn, Bob
Brazier, Julian Durant, Sir Anthony
Bright, Sir Graham Elletson, Harold
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Browning, Mrs Angela Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Budgen, Nicholas Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Burt, Alistair Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Butler, Peter Evennett, David
Butterfill, John Faber, David
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Fabricant, Michael
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Fenner, Dame Peggy
Carrington, Matthew Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Carttiss, Michael Fishburn, Dudley
Forman, Nigel MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) MacKay, Andrew
Forth, Eric Maclean, Rt Hon David
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman McLoughlin, Patrick
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Madel, Sir David
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Maitland, Lady Olga
French, Douglas Major, Rt Hon John
Fry, Sir Peter Malone, Gerald
Gale, Roger Mans, Keith
Gallie, Phil Marland, Paul
Gardiner, Sir George Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Garnier, Edward Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gill, Christopher Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Gillan, Cheryl Mellor, Rt Hon David
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Merchant, Piers
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Mills, Iain
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gorst, Sir John Moate, Sir Roger
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Neubert, Sir Michael
Grylls, Sir Michael Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Nicholls, Patrick
Hague, Rt Hon William Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald Norris, Steve
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Hampson, Dr Keith Oppenheim, Phillip
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Ottaway, Richard
Hannam, Sir John Page, Richard
Hargreaves, Andrew Paice, James
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Patnick, Sir Irvine
Hawkins, Nick Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Heald, Oliver Pawsey, James
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hendry, Charles Pickles, Eric
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence Porter, David (Waveney)
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Powell, William (Corby)
Horam, John Rathbone, Tim
Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter Redwood, Rt Hon John
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford) Richards, Rod
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Riddick, Graham
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W) Robathan, Andrew
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Hunter, Andrew Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Jack, Michael Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Jenkin, Bernard Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Jessel, Toby Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Sackville, Tom
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Key, Robert Shaw, David (Dover)
Kirkhope, Timothy Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Knapman, Roger Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Shersby, Sir Michael
Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N) Sims, Roger
Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Knox, Sir David Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Soames, Nicholas
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Speed, Sir Keith
Lang, Rt Hon Ian Spencer, Sir Derek
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Legg, Barry Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)
Leigh, Edward Spink, Dr Robert
Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark Sproat, Iain
Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe) Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Lidington, David Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Steen, Anthony
Lord, Michael Stephen, Michael
Luff, Peter Stern, Michael
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Stewart, Allan
Streeter, Gary Waller, Gary
Sumberg, David Ward, John
Sweeney, Walter Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Tapsell, Sir Peter Waterson, Nigel
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Watts, John
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Wells, Bowen
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E) Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Thomason, Roy Whitney, Ray
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Whittingdale, John
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N) Widdecombe, Ann
Thornton, Sir Malcolm Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Townend, John (Bridlington) Wilkinson, John
Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th) Willetts, David
Tracey, Richard Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Tredinnick, David Wolfson, Mark
Trend, Michael Wood, Timothy
Twinn, Dr Ian Yeo, Tim
Vaughan, Sir Gerard Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Viggers, Peter
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William Tellers for the Noes:
Walden, George Dr. Liam Fox and
Walker, Bill (N Tayside) Mr. Simon Burns.

Question accordingly negatived.

It being after Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), That, at this day's sitting, the Housing Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Brandreth]

Question agreed to.

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