HC Deb 19 May 1980 vol 985 cc54-86

' Schedule (Houses in multiple occupation: revised penalties for certain offences) to this Act shall have effect, in relation to offences committed after the commencement of this section, for the purpose of altering penalties for certain offences relating to houses in multiple occupation.'.—[Mr. Stanley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Stanley

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker: (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

New clause 13—Over-occupation of houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 14—Registration of houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 15—Warrant to authorise entry into houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 16—Provision of means of escape from fire in houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 17—Duty to ensure that houses in multiple occupation comply with relevant standard.

New clause 18—Duty to deal with houses in multiple occupation not capable of complying with relevant standard.

New clause 19—Standards in houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 20—Houses in multiple occupationservice of notices, etc.

New clause 21—Penalties for contravention of provisions relating to houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 22—Amendment of provisions relating to houses in multiple occupation.

New clause 23—Houses in multiple occupationInterpretation.

Government amendments Nos. 87 and 88, and Government amendments Nos. 201 to 204.

Mr. Stanley

Apart from new clause 21 to which, obviously, new clause 2 relates, I shall confine my remarks at this stage to the Government's new clause, the new schedule and the accompanying amendments and return later to the important other new clauses tabled by the Opposition.

In the Adjournment debates of 29 November and 31 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Fins-berg) and I said that we would consider updating the penalties for offences relating to houses in multiple occupation. We think that this should be done, and the Government's proposals are set out in new clause 2, which is the paving clause, and in the schedule to which it relates, which is Government amendment No. 87. Our proposed penalties are in line with the policy followed by the last Government and by this one.

At the bottom end of the scale, the penalties are brought in line with the four-point scale contained in the Criminal Law Act 1977. For more serious offences, the fines are directly comparable with similar existing provisions.

The proposed £500 fine for failure to execute required works is the same as that in the very similar section 290 of the Public Health Act 1936, as updated by the Criminal Law Act 1977. The fines for contravention of registration requirements are the same as those for the same offence in relation to children's homes and old people's homes.

Amendments Nos. 201 to 204 add to the full list of repeals in schedule 22 the four repeals which are referred to in amendment No. 87.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) has tabled his own amendment on penalties in the shape of new clause 21, under which the penalty ceiling is related to the rateable value of the house in respect of which the offence is committed.

I am afraid that I am not able to agree to prescribe penalties in this way. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is also opposed to this system. There are no precedents for it, and I believe that the arguments against it are sound. There mere fact that there are no precedents is not necessarily an argument for rejecting the proposal. However, there are other sound arguments against it.

If we move to a system of relating penalties to rateable values, it would suggest that the degree of seriousness of the offence bore some relation to the size of the house in respect of which the offence was committed. There might be some rough justice there, but it would probably be a fairly coincidental form of rough justice. It is self-evident that there could be serious offences in respect of relatively small houses in multiple occupation and relatively minor offences in respect of large houses in multiple occupation. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Leeds, West will agree that the Government's new clause on penalties is more likely to ensure that the range of criminal penalties bears a direct relationship to the nature of the offence committed.

We accept that it is time that the penalties in respect of houses in multiple occupation were increased. Some of them have not been increased since the late 1950s and early 1960s. I hope that the House will agree that the formulation which we have brought forward on penalties is the right one to adopt.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

As the Minister said, this is the third debate in this Chamber since November about conditions in hostels and lodging houses. Each debate has to some degree progressed us along the way to a better deal for people who have to live in this kind of accommodation.

I can see the logic in the Minister's argument against penalties being related to rateable values. However, perhaps I may be allowed to discuss the policy of penalties in a wider context.

I am not opposed to the principle of raising the current levels of penalties against the owners of houses in multiple occupation who fail to comply with existing legislative requirements. But the Government's first priority should be to simplify and streamline exisiting legislation. It would then be less confused and would give the owners of such houses less excuse for non-compliance.

I believe that fines and other penalties should be only a last resort. Local authorities should be provided with simpler procedures to ensure above all that where works were needed to be done to improve the facilities, management or fire precautions in premises, the authority could do those works quickly in the event of the owner's noncompliance and make a charge on the property against the owner. New Clause 17 is aimed at doing just that.

Merely leaving existing legislation in its confused state but increasing the penalties will just prolong the time, delays and money which authorities have to spend on prosecutions and will bring no quick benefits to people living in bad or unsafe conditions.

On penalties, new clause 21, which would provide across-the-board fines for non-compliance based on a figure not exceeding twice the gross rateable value of the premises, Is well worth looking at, and it may be that other right hon. and hon. Members will wish to air their views on it.

I shall confine the remainder of my remarks to new clauses 13 and 23 which, together with the new schedule in amendment No. 88, make up a comprehensive package of reforms of the responsibilities of local authorities towards houses in multiple occupation. Above all, the new clauses would provide local authorities with simplified and streamlined procedures and with mandatory duties, which in most cases they do not have at present, to tackle the worst of the multiply-occupied sector of lodging houses, hostels and night shelters.

The package is based on the Housing (Houses in Multiple Occupation) Bill, a Private Member's Bill presented in this Session by me and parliamentary colleagues from all parties, and with the support of the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless. The provisions of that Bill and, therefore, these clauses are based on recent judgments in the courts which made it clear that local authorities could treat lodging houses and similar establishments as houses in multiple occupation.

These reforms in the law are needed urgently because the conditions in all too many lodging houses, hostels, night shelters and small seedy boarding houses are a national scandal. Now that we have largely cleared the slums from our cities, these places represent the last eyesore of Victorian conditions in the nation's housing.

On Report, there is no need for me to give yet more examples of these unfit and degrading conditions. In my Adjournment debate on 29 November, the Minister said these are certainly some of the worst housing conditions faced by those who undoubtedly are amongst the most deprived and the most vulnerable."—[Official Report, 29 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1625.] There is no argument between myself, the all-party Committee of CHAR and the Government that these are shocking housing conditions. Indeed, after the tragic fires in too many of these premises which have claimed 32 lives since early 1978, and, in particular, the terrible death toll in the fire at the Kilburn hostel in March this year, there can be no argument between us about the urgent need for these conditions—housing conditions, not just fire precautions—to be tackled as a priority.

The second reason why comprehensive reform of the present legal framework is urgently required is that the present legislation is confusing to local authorities and owners of premises alike, is, in some cases, archaic—like the common lodging house part of the Public Health Act 1936—and is complex and unwieldly to operate. Too much of it is discretionary and not mandatory.

Brent council, in its published report on the tragic fire in Kilburn, described the range of legislation as a tangled web. I believe that is putting it mildly. Brent council is to be applauded for carrying out an inquiry and publishing a report. Even the council, I am sure, would say that current legislation is so tangled that it did not grasp all its complexities and implications. For example, its report says that the council could not have taken any action over that hostel as a common lodging house except when an application for registration as such had been made by the owners. In law, it is an offence for anyone to operate a common lodging house unless he registers with the local authority under section 236 of the Public Health Act 1936.

I am blaming not Brent Council but the complexity of the many laws governing these premises. I hope all hon. Members would agree that the conditions of too many premises are shocking, that the present legal framework is a positive obstacle to action and that reform is needed. New clauses 13 to 23 and the new schedule in amendment No. 88 would secure that reform.

I am encouraged by the recent support for these changes from many members of the public, from homeless people, from church dignitaries such as Cardinal Hume, from the Bishop of London and representatives of other churches and from a recent editorial in the Daily Star. In presenting my arguments for these clauses and the schedule together, I wish to concentrate on two chief principles behind them and illustrate those from two of the clauses.

I should like to deal with the simplifying and streamlining of procedures for authorities. Even if local authorities want to tackle the conditions of houses in multiple occupation in their areas, the present procedures are complex, lengthy and unwieldy to operate. If an authority wishes to, or ought to, deal comprehensively with a house in multiple occupation over its lack of facilities, management or fire precautions, the authority at present has to serve the owner with a notice under sections 12, 14, 15, 16 and 19 of the Housing Act 1961. Clearly, it would be preferable for one notice to be served for whatever defects exist or for all. The fact that present procedures are so complex is a golden excuse for those councils that want to shirk their responsibilities to do so.

New clause 17 would bring in a simplified procedure to enable authorities to serve only one notice on an owner to remedy a defect of facilities, management, or means of escape from fire, or for all three. This would bring about a major saving in the time and paper work of environmental health officers while ensuring that standards were enforced. It would create a system which authorities, owners and people living in such premises could easily understand. New clause 17 further places the emphasis on getting necessary improvements done in houses that can be improved at reasonable expense by giving authorities greater powers to go in and do works to safeguard the occupiers and then to charge the owners in default.

I come now to termination orders. Some premises being used for multi-occupation are either unsuitable for that purpose or would require too great an expense to be brought up to habitable use. They should be closed for such use. For decades, we have accepted that some dwellings are such slums that they must be cleared. From this principle, legislators in the past developed closing order procedures. Since 1935, at least, they have been on the statute book. Where that has been enforced in some of the larger authorities, such as Leeds, the scene of a tragic fire in which the occupants had to be dispersed, they were absorbed into the local authority housing stock. This can be done in many cases, although certainly not in all. Some difficulty would obviously be created.

4.45 pm

New clause 18 is based upon and develops the principle of closing orders. It lays down that after six months—this might be thought too long a time in the case of the worst places—premises should cease to be used. This period allows for people displaced to be found alternative accommodation. As under established closing order procedures, new clause 18 lays down that authorities must secure that people displaced, like those under slum clearance schemes, have alternative units of accommodation secured for them. I believe that the only authority that could deal with such a situation is the local authority. We can surely do no less for those people who, according to the Minister, are amongst the most deprived and the most vulnerable."—[Official Report, 29 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1625.] I wish to thank Ministers for their response so far to this situation. This is the last occasion for a considerable time that the House will have a chance to debate and legislate on this subject. There will be no opportunity in the rest of this Session for us to deal with it. I quoted in Committee a poignant and tragic letter from the mother of an 18-year old girl who died in the fire at Kilburn after only 12 hours at that establishment. She was giving part of her career to help look after more unfortunate people. Nine other people died in that fire, including the mother of three children. I submit that society cannot carry the stigma of allowing such incidents to happen without doing all it can to prevent a recurrence.

I hope to have the support of Conservative Back Benchers for these clauses. With my colleagues in the all-party CHAR group, I hope that these proposals can push us some way further along the road towards achieving a better deal for these people. That will have been a worthwhile fight. I hope that progressive steps in this difficult matter do not come to be based on further obituaries, epitaphs and gravestones brought about by loss of life in appalling fires that are happening all too frequently.

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

I should say at the outset that I did not serve on the Standing Committee which discussed this Bill. At that time, I was involved in the long and arduous discussions taking place in Standing Committee B on the Social Security (No. 2) Bill. Some of the provisions of that Bill as they affect the single homeless and the all-party CHAR group's views were as important as the provisions of this Bill, so it was impossible for me to serve on both Committees.

However, as with all Housing Bills, I followed closely all the clauses and provisions as they affect local authority tenants, but perhaps more so as they affect the single homeless for which those on the all-party CHAR group have some responsibility. Therefore, I ally myself with those of my hon. Friends who have tabled new clauses and amendments in an attempt to give the Minister the opportunity, even at this late stage, to think again about how the situation can be improved.

I know that there is more good will in this respect among Government supporters than there was on the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, as we learnt from two previous Adjournment debates. Therefore, I hope that the Minister, if he has a mind to reconsider the views expressed in these new clauses, will not be so harsh, as would appear to be the case at first sight, as to reject them. I make that plea early.

I shall speak briefly in support of the new clauses and the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean).

On new clause 2, the Minister made what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West said was a telling point in relation to rateable value. I am not absolutely convinced. It is a telling point, except when put in its proper context and one gets a mental picture of what is being said. The Minister appeared to be comparing a semidetached with one of those multi-occupation houses in our inner cities. I think that there should be an in-between position. It may be that the suggestion in new clause 21, which would link it to rateable value, is not the right way, but the motive behind it ought to be taken by the Minister and his draftsmen and he should seek to bring back something somewhere between the two.

New clause 2 would take us back to the age-old procedure of passing a new clause and the local authorities would then be bound up with the delays in the procedure that would emanate from trying to implement the clause. Often, such clauses are impossible to implement. A whole range of penalties would have to be discussed and argued.

We do not put that forward as our priority. We suggest that we should simplify it. Strange as it may seem, I am not a great supporter of private landlords. One would have thought that anything that attracted private landlords would get my automatic support! Our priority must be not to try to collect fines or to impose penalties, even if they could be enforced, but to get the job done. We want to enable the local authority, wherever and whenever possible, to step in quickly—no new clause covers that aspect, but it is part of the same principle—and do the job in default. It is more important to us to get the job done, to get standards brought up, than to have long drawn out legal arguments about this or that penalty. But I am afraid that will be the effect of new clause 2. However, new clause 21 and the motivation of trying to get round that difficult situation by preventing local authorities from embarking on even more expense as well as time, will enable these matters to be dealt with quickly and will improve standards.

New clauses 13 to 23 and amendment no. 88 represent a package of provisions dealing with the housing of people who are inadequately housed. It is aimed at providing the kind of standards and conditions that were outlined in the Private Member's Bill that my hon. Friend tried to introduce last year. That Private Member's Bill had the support of the all-party CHAR group, amongst others. This package of reforms, because of the publicity that has surrounded many tragic accidents, has attracted a great deal of support from religious and voluntary organisations and those who are responsible for and have to work among the single homeless. This is a package to take care of that situation.

The Bill, as I read it, is concerned mainly with the conditions of decently housed people—the owner occupiers, the mortgagees. It also deals with security of tenure for public sector tenants, home improvements and so on. That is all very good and something that we could argue about for months. But the new clauses to which I refer relate to a different category altogether—thousands of people who are not decently housed, single homeless men and women, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the low paid, the deprived, the disabled and so on. Those thousands of people, to whom we have been referring for many years and whose plight has recently been spotlighted, require some kind of protection in any Housing Bill, such protection is long overdue. Therefore, this package of new clauses and amendments is an attempt to put into the Bill what should be in any Housing Bill.

Unless these new clauses are accepted, the shocking conditions that have been outlined and discussed and focused on in the media recently will continue and will remain a scar on society for as long as they continue. I can find no better quotation than that of church leaders recently, who could have given us a title for this set of new clauses and amendments—" No choice, no chance, no hope." New clauses 13 to 23 are the "No choice, no chance, no hope" clauses because they attempt to put right the conditions of the homeless.

There has never been more concern for the conditions of the single homeless than there is now, both inside and outside the House. That concern straddles both major parties. It is not the prerogative of any one party. We have excellent colleagues on both sides of the House who are concerned about this matter.

Only recently my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West, the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) and I addressed a mass rally in Trafalgar Square. The people directly involved had organised that mass demonstration to focus further attention on their plight Therefore, we are speaking to each other not as Opposition and Government supporters, but as people who have supported this campaign for a long time. Indeed, the vice-chairman of the all-party CHAR group, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), who is present, has given sterling support to all the Adjournment debates that we have had on this issue. Therefore, there is great support across the Chamber for these new clauses and amendments. We should not shirk from putting that concern into legislation.

When the die is cast, who will stand up and be counted? I think that there will be a fair number of hon. Members on both sides. It may not come to that. However, if it does, I hope that such support will influence the Minister in the decision that he has to make.

I make that special plea because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West, I am concerned that it might be a long time before we are able to do anything about this problem. Unless there is a Housing (No. 2) Bill, as there was a Social Security (No. 2) Bill, or even a Housing (No. 3) Bill—who can tell with legislation coming thick and fast from the Government—I fear that it will be a long time before we can again have this kind of discussion in the constructive atmosphere that prevails now and be able to do anything about this serious problem.

As has been pointed out, there has been a series of sad, tragic fires. Only last week there was another in Glasgow. There were four deaths in that tragic fire. Since early in 1978, 32 people have died in such tragedies. That is far too many. Two are too many, but 32 become ridiculous and scandalous. It is about time that we did more than mouth slogans and express sympathy. We have to do something about it because it is an unacceptable state of affairs.

While I welcome the Government's concession, it is a pity that the grant for the provision of fire escape equipment—as I understand the proposal—does not apply to Scotland. I am not certain, but as I read the proposal it seems that the concession does not apply to Scotland. No doubt, Scottish Members will correct me if I am wrong. But if it does not apply to Scotland, that is another terrible omission.

5 pm

However, welcome though it is, the concession is not enough by itself. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the amount of money. It has been said that the Government have increased the grant to £5,000. As I understand it, they have raised the eligibility for grant to £5,000. It is a different thing. Perhaps I have not studied the Bill closely enough. I do not know exactly what the percentage grant will be. It is said that it will be 75 per cent. Therefore, the amount, it seems to me, will be less than £5,000.

However, this is not the only provision with which we are concerned. Even if all premises were to receive a grant of £5,000, it would not be nearly enough for some hostels and similar establishments. Other things require to be done before we get anywhere near a solution to the problem.

I am concerned, as much as anything, about the number of pensioners who stay in hostels and similar premises. A Government survey of 1976 demonstrated that one in five of the residents in hostels and lodging houses throughout the country was a pensioner. That is a fairly high proportion of those who are, by any standards, more vulnerable than most other people. Pensioners have other problems besides the conditions in hostels and lodging houses. They have problems of deprivation which should be examined and taken far more seriously than we have taken them hitherto. Those problems should not be pushed to one side because we believe that, perhaps, they will not last long and we shall not have to make provision for them.

Therefore, it is not enough simply to provide fire precautions. We must provide the other resources in order to make available to people in hostels and similar situations the same facilities that are available to their fellow citizens. The facilities in the rest of the community should be theirs by right. The provision of such facilities should be our goal. We say that the legislation should ensure a high standard of housing. That does not simply mean the provision of fire precautions. It means all kinds of other provisions.

New clause 19 gives power to the Secretary of State to set a national range of standards for houses in multiple occupation. That provision should commend itself to anyone who is genuinely concerned that the premises we are discussing should be brought up to an acceptable standard. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will give the reasons why he does not accept the new clauses rather than say that the Government do not like them. I hope that he will tell us why new clause 19 does not come up to the requirements laid down by his Department. I thought that the new clause would enable him to set appropriate standards for the different types of houses in multiple occupation.

We are conscious of the range of houses in multiple occupation, and new clause 19 attempts to set up standards that could be applied across that range.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I could give my hon. Friend a reason why the Minister might intervene to say that the new clause is defective. That intervention would be on the basis that there is no provision in the new clause that would stop Polyurethane foam being used in furniture. I can assure my hon. Friend that unless there is such a provision—whatever else is covered by the new clause—if there is a fire in a house or hostel in multiple occupation the people there will not get out.

Mr. Stallard

I know of the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) about the fire hazards created by polyure-thane foam. It is a topical issue, and I share his concern. He has argued that point for many years, but I do not think that we could have included provisions about furniture in the clause. However, I would be happy if the Minister would take that point on board and let us hear his views.

New clause 19 taken with new clause 14—where we have categorised the types of houses in multiple occupation—I would have thought stood a reasonable chance of being accepted by any Government concerned about standards in such houses.

We say that this package of reforms is long overdue for a number of reasons. I give one or two of those reasons. First, under current legislation, there is no clearly defined standard for houses in multiple occupation. Consequently, local authorities are often left to set their own standards. I am aware of the various Acts dealing with standards from the 1920s to the 1960s, and many of us involved in work concerning public health have studied them. The issue of standards is very confused. In many cases, no acceptable or understandable standard is laid down.

An example of a local authority setting its own standards is Leicester city council, which adopts a range of standards for different premises. The standards cover multi-occupied family dwellings, students' hostels, boarding houses and hostels.

That seems a sensible approach to those of us in CHAR. But Leicester city council is a rare exception. I do not know of any other local authority which takes that sensible approach and defines houses in multiple occupation by category. Few local authorities look at such houses and their uses and attempt to set standards. New clauses 19 and 14 seek to remedy that.

Some local authorities have standards for family dwellings only, and they find those standards exceedingly hard to implement in hostels. Therefore, they do not try. It is not always possible to adapt a set of standards which apply to family dwellings to hostels or houses in multiple occupation.

An inquiry showed that Brent council had difficulty in classifying the standards applicable to the Kilburn hostel. It was aware of the difficulties, as all local authorities are. I am not criticising local authorities—they are only too well aware that there is nothing on the statute book that adequately defines the situation or assists them.

That is what the new amendments are about. Had definable and understandable standards been laid down over the years, perhaps local authorities such as Brent and others might have had something to refer to. Brent council experienced difficulty in applying a set of standards to the Kilburn hostel because its reference point was houses for family occupation. Many local authorities do not even go as far as that. They do not even try. They let it all hang out. They let it all happen, as it were.

There is a grave need for the kind of legislation outlined in the new clauses. I am aware of most of the arguments against the new clauses. It will be said that there is adequate current legislation and that it is not being implemented. But it does not work any more. We have tried to bring the jungle of legislation together. To bring together the bits that have not been repealed is a massive task. Voluntary organisations have to try to do it. Unless we can bring together the legislation, we shall not begin to tackle the problems to which we pay lip service as a result of the recent tragedies.

I ask the Minister to spell out exactly how the Government intend to deal with the problems which I have outlined. If there are objections to the new clauses, I expect the Government to explain the alternatives. The Government have a duty to do that if a solution is to be found to the conditions imposed on the single homeless and the most deprived and vulnerable people in our society.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

The new clauses and the amendments linked with them deal with a group of people who had no advocate until recently. The rally in Trafalgar Square coupled with the interest in the House this afternoon and two Adjournment debates on the problem in the last six months prove that there is a resurgent interest in the problems of single homeless people.

We must consider the magnitude of the difficulty. It is easy to talk about a problem but not so easy to judge it within the confines of its true proportions. Insufficient has been done to gauge the size of the difficulty. In the last few years, local authorities have rightly concentrated upon the housing problems of the elderly and families. As a consequence, single homeless people have been forgotten. That is changing. The Government are aware that action must be taken on behalf of single homeless people.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I use some facts and figures to set the problem in perspective. Between 1961 and 1976, single person households increased by 86 per cent., compared with a 19 per cent. increase in all other households. By 1986, one-person households will account for 25 per cent.—or 5 million—of all households in England and Wales.

On 25 March 1976, an article in New Society stated that of about 11 million single adults in England and Wales, 8 million were unmarried and that there were almost as many single adults as families composed of married couples or parents with children. The 13 million families in England and Wales almost exactly coincided with the number of household units of accommodation, but only 3 million of the single adults had places that they could call their own.

A year later, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) said: the rising housing standards of the great majority of the population contrast sharply and starkly with those of people still living in poor or unsuitable housing …in slums, houses lacking basic amenities, overcrowded conditions, or sharing against their will and in difficult circumstances. The people who suffer most from poor standards of accommodation are the single homeless who are forced into lodging houses, sub-standard hostels and night shelters, over three-quarters of which lack the basic amenities.

5.15 pm

I welcomed the debates in November last year and March this year. They were introduced by the hon. Members for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and Leeds, West (Mr. Dean). My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) participated in one of the debates. He stressed that single homeless people not only have the deprivation of not having a roof that they can call their own but suffer from a variety of other infirmities such as alcoholism, psychiatric difficulties and related disorders.

That is why I welcomed the eight-point plan introduced in the Adjournment debate on 29 November by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. It is encouraging that the Government made a few moves in the right direction after only six months in office. Mandatory grants are to be made available for securing the means of escape from fire. I congratulate the Minister on that. One can argue about the limit which is perhaps too low, but it is a step in the right direction.

Secondly, the Minister referred to a special grant for the provision of basic amenities. That has come to fruition in the Bill. Thirdly, he referred to the updating of penalties. That has also come to fruition in the Bill.

I shall examine the Minister's fourth point critically. He said that he had been in touch with the Law Commission and that it had confirmed that the consolidation of Housing Acts was a priority. I urge that course on my hon. Friend. Even hon. Members who suffer the burden of being lawyers and all that entails, including the opprobium that so often attaches to them, appreciate the complexity of existing legislation.

I welcome the researches into the problems of single homeless people. I particularly welcome the announcement of a major research effort by the Department of the Environment into the accommodation problems of disadvantaged single people. That research effort was announced on 29 November.

The Minister wrote to me on 12 May to confirm that that major research effort was going ahead and that the report could be expected fairly soon. I disagree with the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North when he says that this will be the last opportunity for some time for us to discuss the problems of the single homeless. I hope that, when the result of the research is known, we shall be able to debate the matter on the Floor of the House.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the new clauses and the amendments cannot be accepted because they place an additional burden on local government.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I have listened with great attention to what has been said. The subject is close to my heart. My hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) referred to more talks, further discussions, further legislation, more cackle—and on and on it goes. I have been a member of my local authority for 30 years. We were saying then exactly what we are saying today. We were saying that we must get rid of the prolific flea-pits in which people are expected to live. There is only one difference—the conditions in those flea pits faced by the single homeless are worse 30 years later than they were then.

Would my hon. Friend be prepared to help by suggesting to the Minister—who has a deep concern about these matters—some way to remove those eyesores? Instead of cutting Housing Corporation money, the Government should allocate more money to remove a continuing national scandal, of which we are all ashamed.

Mr. Best

My hon. Friend speaks with great emotion on the subject. I know that he feels sincerely—as we all do—about these matters. He has pre-empted my final thrust at my hon. Friend the Minister, who will say that the new clauses cannot be accepted because they change the powers into duties and that that is something which the Government do not wish to do, as it would impose further burdens upon local authorities.

When we receive the result of the research project, that will be the time for action. We have discussed the matter for far too long. If the Minister had been with me and some Opposition Members at the rally in Trafalgar Square, he would have seen the tempers of people becoming a little frayed. So often they have been given hope about what might happen in the future, but so often they have had those hopes dashed.

The Government are moving in the right direction, but they are not moving fast enough. Something more concrete must be done. The Government may try to encourage more involvement by voluntary organisations. Heaven only knows we realise that, because local and national government in the past have totally abrogated their responsibilities for the single homeless, it has been the voluntary organisations on which the burden of the problem has fallen. I do not want to see that continue. The voluntary organisations will always have a part to play. I know intimately of one that provides a soup run on Brighton beach. I do not pretend that that function could be undertaken by the Government, but they have a part to play in ensuring that the squalid conditions that have been described in the debate are ameliorated. They can do that along the lines suggested by the hon. Members for Leeds, West and St. Paneras, North.

I understand the present difficulties, but many hon. Members look to the Government with great hope to remedy the problems that have confronted the single homeless for far too long. A research project is being carried out, and we have discussed the matter on many occasions, even since the Government came into office. That is encouraging, but my hon. Friend the Minister must realise—and I am sure that he does—that the time for action is at hand. The House will not continue to talk about the problems of the homeless. We need to see action being taken, which may have to be along the lines proposed by Opposition Members, namely, by placing an additional burden upon local authorities. That may be the only way in which the problems can be solved.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I support the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) and the series of amendments that he has tabled. I also echo the sentiments that Conservative Members have expressed in their concern about the condition of many common lodging houses and houses in multiple occupation.

Many hon. Members who represent the great cities know that within the cities exist the appalling flea-pits that were so adequately described by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving). It is all very well for Ministers to say—I suspect with a certain amount of crocodile tears—that the conditions are dreadful, but they now have the opportunity to do something about those conditions. I hope that they will not throw away that chance. I agree with the hon. Member for Leeds, West that it could be a long time before the House has the opportunity to consider further legislation of this magnitude, and to do something about the conditions in our common lodging houses.

I do not speak in ignorance on the matter. When I was the chairman of the housing committee in Liverpool we tackled the problem of a common lodging house that was owned by an entrepreneur who practised and traded in the misery of those who lived there—numbering more than 140. I visited the hostel. In some of the rooms there were eight or nine people—in one room up to 14—sleeping together in the most abject conditions that I have ever seen. It is a shame, a scandal and a reflection on all here, and on those in local government, that we have allowed such conditions to continue for so long.

My local authority tried to tackle the problem by serving a control order on the proprietor of the "Unique" hostel, and by invoking the Public Health Act 1936. Eventually, on Christmas Day a couple of years ago, the local authority moved in and took over the hostel, threw out the owner, and took it into its own ownership. That authority was not hellbent on State control, or anything like that. I hope that the Minister will accept that there are times when intervention by a Government is necessary.

Although we believed that many people wanted to own their homes, and tried to encourage a policy of home ownership and many of the other things that the Minister will talk about when he refers to other parts of the Bill, we accepted that there were matters that should be the legitimate concern of local and central Government.

There were 14 people sleeping in a room with bare floor boards. There was a range of outside toilets—there was no inside sanitation in that house. There had been no heating until the winter before. Year after year, the proprietor of the hostel had made £40,000 to £50,000 profit on that house. Those were matters of concern to members of all political parties in that city.

The fact that Back Bench Members from both sides of the House, who are members of the parliamentary CHAR group, are expressing deep concern should cause the Minister to think about the problems in a wider perspective than the terms of the Government amendments that are before the House. I have considered carefully the amendments that they have suggested. Compared with the profits that can be made in many common lodging houses, the fines that can be imposed will be inadequate to stop the dealing in misery that is happening at present. The Government must accept that we are discussing rather more than the odd restriction here and the odd gesture there. It is a fundamental problem that causes great misery and hardship to many.

It is not only single young people who end up in hostels, but many in the twilight of their lives, as the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) mentioned earlier. Many elderly people end up with nowhere else to go. Many local authorities do not have adequate accommodation for them. The cuts in public expenditure that we are experiencing will make it even more difficult for local authorities to provide sheltered accommodation, hostel accommodation and flatlets for the single homeless.

I suspect that the paltry fines that are being suggested, and the gestures that are contained in the Government's amendments, will not go far. I do not wish to sound churlish and bitter, but it is a matter about which many people feel incredibly strongly. I commend to the Minister the new clauses in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds, West.

There had to be legislation to deal with such items as fire escapes, following the tragedy at Kilburn. I remind the Minister that hon. Members from all parties raised that question on Second Reading, before the fire took place. We need to talk about the standards. The hon. Member for Leeds, West talked about the duty of authorities to deal with houses in multiple occupation, which were not capable of complying with relevant existing standards. New Clause 13 states: A direction under the foregoing subsection shall have the effect so as to make it the duty of person having control of the house not to permit the number of individuals or households accommodated in the house to increase above the limit specified ". The need to do all those things is a sad reflection on the present state of affairs in many of our common lodging houses and hostels.

I conclude by referring to a letter that I have received from the Petrus Community, which deals with many single homeless people in Liverpool: on a wider front we are concerned about the lack of adequate fire precautions and often appalling conditions which are still found in many hostels and common lodging houses in various parts of the country and which represent considerable hazards to the health, safety and welfare of their occupants. The 1936 Act, the measure with which most local authorities have to comply, is inadequate and insufficient. It is more suited to Charles Dickens than today. To have to talk about such problems in 1980 is sad enough. We have the opportunity not to wait for months or years for the outcome of studies but to act today by supporting the new clauses in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds, West.

5.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

The House will want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) for the way in which he has conducted his campaign on behalf of people who, almost by their nature, are unable to speak for themselves.

I hope that the Minister will not confine himself to endorsing the sentiments that have been expressed from both sides of the House, but will give us a commitment to legislative action in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving pointed out, reports and studies are useful, but action is required.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Paneras, North (Mr. Stallard) reminded us that we cannot rely on further major housing legislation for a long time, if at all, in this Parliament. Therefore, the available vehicle of the Bill ought to be used to deal with the matter.

Although we welcome the changes in penalties and grants that the Government have announced, they are an inadequate response to the problem. All that they are doing is to provide penalties after things have gone wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West and the hon. Members associated with him are seeking to stop now the things that go wrong, so that the penalties will not be necessary. The hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) referred to the studies that are taking place. However, studies are a convenient excuse for all Governments to postpone action that they know needs to be taken and that they know how to take. I hope that the Minister will not say that he requires more time in order to bring forward the necessary legislative provisions.

In the four months since the Bill received its Second Reading, the Government have tabled 16 new clauses and five new schedules, many of considerable length, in order to deal with matters that have arisen during the passage of the Bill. The matter dealt with by my hon. Friend's new clauses was drawn to the attention of the House before the Bill was introduced. If the Government had had the will, they could have dealt with it in the Bill. I hope that the Government will either accept my hon. Friend's new clauses or amend the Bill in another place in the way that the House has shown that it wants the legislation amended.

These inadequate lodging houses and hostels are a burden not only to those who have to put up with the conditions that have been described but to those who live near them. When such lodging houses and hostels are planted in a community, that community suffers from the overflow of problems from that hostel into the surrounding area. I have had such difficulties drawn to my attention by working people in my constituency whose own housing conditions are not as good as they should be and who have to put up with the sort of problems that inevitably flow from the existence of inadequate institutions—I use that word deliberately—in their neighbourhood.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham put his finger on the answer to the problem. He said that it is necessary for the Government to provide extra resources in order to enable the provision of what I take him to mean modern, properly constructed and properly planned buildings with proper facilities for those who live in them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would go further. If the Government were willing to make finance available for the general housing programme in order to provide accommodation for single people through local authorities and housing associations on the scale that is necessary, the demand for the use of the institutions with which we are concerned would inevitably be a great deal less.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Cheltenham was not implying that the problems of those living in such institutions were other than the problems of the general housing situation. It is just that since they are at the bottom of the pile, they have to take what is left when everybody else has been accommodated. Since the provision for everybody else will in future be more inadequate than for a generation or more, these people will suffer more than ever.

The eventual answer to the problem is not simply to provide better, more modern, purpose-built institutions, but to provide more resources for the housing problem, so that such institutions are a last resort places to which society should not have to resort.

I hope that the Minister will not only utter the sentiments that I know spring sincerely to his lips when he is dealing with the problem. We know that he is profoundly concerned about it. I hope that he will give the House a commitment that the Government will try to use the opportunity provided by the Bill, if not here, at least in another place, to deal with the problem, so that we do not have to return to it throughout this Parliament and do not have to keep being reminded of it by the sort of tragedies that my hon. Friends have described.

Mr. Stanley

I start by echoing what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) said about the way that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) has contributed to our debate and, with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) and the hon. Member for St. Paneras, North (Mr. Stallard), to the all-party CHAR group.

One of the happier aspects of the problem, which I do not underestimate, has been the degree of bipartisanship on the issue. I assure the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North that there is good will, and much more, on this issue on the part of the Government.

The right hon. Member for Ardwick said that the Government's response had been inadequate to date. I do not wish to be in any way partisan, but there was no legislation whatever on hostels in the last Parliament, and none of the clauses that have been introduced by the hon. Member for Leeds, West featured in the previous Goverment's Housing Bill which was introduced a year ago. So, in legislative terms, we are all starting from the same position.

I should like to make two general comments and then respond in a little detail to the important points raised by the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds, West. First, I assure the House that the Government fully accept that there are legitimate grounds for concern in certain aspects of the provision of hostels. That concern does not apply to every hostel or to all aspects of hostel legislation, but there are certainly some dark corners.

It may be helpful to the House if I indicate what we have done to date, and then say what we are thinking about for the future. As the House is aware, we have produced a tenfold increase in the eligible expense limit for the Exchequer contribution to the means of escape in the event of fire. That is wholly warranted, and, although my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) reasonably said that no sum was sufficient, it represents a substantial advance on the figure that was included in the Bill when it was first introduced.

We have also made special provision for grants for repairs in hostels. Following an amendment that was introduced in Committee, we have extended the eligibility for rent rebates and rent allowances to those people living both in local authority and privately-owned hostels. That is an important extension of financial help to people on low incomes.

We have put forward the new clause on penalties, and despite what was said by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton), there is, as he will be aware, a broad structure of penalties which has to go right across legislation. Although he may feel that these penalties are too low, there is a broad Government stance on penalties. There has to be some reasonable comparability of penalties against comparable offences.

During the last few months, we have also asked the housing services advisory unit within the Department of the Environment to carry out a study of conditions in hostels. I assure the right hon. Member for Ardwick that there was no thought in my mind when taking this initiative to use it as a means for delay. We took this step because we found that we did not have sufficiently comprehensive and up-to-date first-hand information about conditions in hostels. We thought that was an essential pre-condition before we could take a further view on legislation. That is why that work has been set in hand. We hope to receive the report shortly, and if it is at all possible we shall make it available before the Bill completes its remaining stages before both Houses of Parliament.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey mentioned, the Government are seeking to consolidate housing legislation. That will add materially to the point highlighted by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North. This is a complex and difficult area of legislation, and consolidation will materially help local authorities and other statutory bodies to understand the exact scope of the legislation.

Reference has been made to resources. That is a wholly legitimate subject to raise. In the current financial year, the Housing Corporation will allocate 5 per cent. of its total London allocation to hostel provision. I shall have further discussions with the Housing Corporation about that figure, but I cannot hold out any prospect of an increase in the overall allocation to be made to the Housing Corporation this year. An increase in the provision for hostels would be at the expense of reductions in other parts of the Housing Corporation's work. I shall certainly examine the level of hostel provision with the Housing Corporation in the context of the current year.

5.45 pm
Mr. Best

I should like the Minister to consider that, though the hostel deficit grant, public resources can be used in an efficient way in improving hostel accommodation which is largely provided through the medium of voluntary organisations. Massive public resources do not have to be employed through that medium. I hope the Minister will bear that in mind.

Mr. Stanley

I agree with my hon. Friend, and may I say, in response to a remark made by the right hon. Member for Ardwick, that I do not necessarily see the housing association contribution as residual in this context. The housing associations have an important mainstream role to play in hostel provision.

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

Is the Minister aware that the local authority in my constituency emptied a large dwelling that was not fit for human habitation in order to carry out repairs? As soon as it became vacant, 130 young people who required accommodation squatted there, showing the extent of the problem, even in that area. How will that sort of problem be solved?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are certain provisions in the Housing Bill governing squatters. Squatting is a matter of litigation between the squatters and the local authority.

My second general point bears particularly on these amendments. There is an important matter of principle in approaching fresh legislation on hostels. Although some of the amendments raise considerable implications for local authority administration, I do not suggest that they are overriding factors. We have considered the new clauses on their merits. An essential dilemma which we face—and which the whole House faces—is that those in hostels are certainly amongst the most deprived and most vulnerable. Yet a critical balance has to be struck in legislative terms. We must provide sufficient statutory protection and regulation to provide the degree of protection that we should like to see for the most vulnerable and the most deprived. But we must not tip the legislative balance so far that a series of onerous statutory obligations is imposed on local authorities, and more particularly on those who own, run and manage hostels, which will force a great number of hostels to close. The House will be aware that about half of the hostels are run by voluntary bodies, such as the Salvation Army and the Church Army. A balance has to be struck between the degree of protection and the level of standard that we wish to see and ensuring that the existing hostel provision—which provides a crucial source of shelter for some very deprived people—remains, and that we do not contract it unduly.

I shall deal briefly with the four main themes running behind the new clauses—overcrowding, registration, standards and fire.

As the House will be aware, there are already substantial powers available for local authorities to deal with overcrowding. This is under relatively recent legislation—section 19 of the 1961 Act and section 90 of the 1957 Act. It is possible for local authorities to fix ceilings concerning the number of people in houses of multiple occupancy in relation to all the items listed in the new clauses. It can be done in relation to lighting, ventilation, water supply, washing facilities, drainage, toilets, food storage and preparation, and space heating.

The one criterion not included in the 1961 Act is that of living space. This was the subject of an amendment tabled in Committee by the right hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones). We said that we would consider a legislative amendment to enable the criterion of living space to be included. I assure the right hon. Member that we have it very much under consideration. I cannot make a firm commitment as of today because we have not gone through the drafting of it, but it is an amendment that I hope will be brought forward in another place. That would then give the local authorities the full range of criteria against which to use their existing powers on overcrowding.

New clause 13, as drafted, would have the effect of reducing the existing powers of local authorities concerning overcrowding. Local authorities would be able to fix a ceiling only when a house was overcrowded, whereas under present legislation they are able to fix a ceiling before overcrowding occurs. That, clearly, is an important additional preventive power that local authorities now have, and obviously should have. For that reason alone, therefore, we feel that it would not be right to accept new clause 13. But I assure the hon. Member for Leeds, West that we are considering whether we should be widening the statutory criteria against which local authorities can deal with overcrowding.

As the House knows, the issue is not whether there should be registration, because there are already substantial powers available to local authorities to deal with registration—under section 22 of the 1961 Act and under section 64 of the 1969 Act. The central issue that we have to decide is whether we should continue with the existing discretionary registration system or whether we should go over to a national mandatory registration system, as set out in new clause 14.

Having considered this question very carefully, it is our view that we should retain the existing discretionary system. The hostel problem is, in its most acute form, a problem for a relatively small minority of local authorities. Obviously, it exists to a greater or lesser extent throughout the country, but the acute problem is one for a minority of local authorities. That is reflected in part, at any rate, by the fact that only 38 out of 367 local authorities have used the existing registration powers.

Mr. Joseph Dean

But is it not a fact that, although the pressure points are few in number, the authorities concerned cater for the biggest part of the population of England? When we have talked about London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, there is not much left.

Mr. Stanley

I agree with the hon. Member that in geographical terms the essential problem is confined to the major city areas, where there is a heavy concentration of population. But the statutory effect of new clause 14 would be to impose a mandatory registration system on every one of the 367 local authorities in England. It would involve the registration of probably in excess of 200,000 dwellings. That is likely to be a very conservative estimate because, as the clause is drafted, it would require the registration of all dwellings in which there were two households. In other words, it would apply to the dwelling which had the basic family plus one lodger living as a separate household and sharing part of the amenities. That would fall within the definition for registration purposes. It would be a massive undertaking to carry out nationally, and in addition it would have to be kept up to date.

There is a slightly worrying feature about the extension of criminal penalties in respect of the obligation that someone would have, if he came within the B and C categories, to notify the local authority. If he railed to notify the local authority, he could incur a criminal penalty in the shape of a fine. I shall take the most extreme view as an example. If someone took in a lodger on the basis that the lodger was a separate household but shared part of the facilities, and then failed for a year to notify the local authority that he had done so, he could, theoretically, be liable for a penalty of £3,500.

A major burden would be placed on all those in quite small households—houses with just two households—to notify the local authority. If they failed to do so, they could suffer a criminal penalty. The proposal is very far reaching in administrative terms. We feel that the right way to proceed would be through the existing discretionary system of registration by local authorities.

With regard to standards, the question is similar to that of registration. Here, too, there are substantial powers available to local authorities to secure the improvement of standards in houses of multiple occupation. They can require work to be carried out. They can carry out the work themselves if the owner does not do it. They can also, in some circumstances, close hostels.

The new clauses would replace the existing ability of local authorities to apply standards on a discretionary basis—on an authority by authority basis—by a system of national mandatory standards. Here again, we could run into some major problems not merely with regard to local authorities but also with regard to the people who live in the hostels.

There is the most enormous variety and variation in the dwellings that would be covered by the new clauses. They would range from dwellings hundreds of years old to newly-built dwellings. They would range from dwellings with two households to enormous places with up to 1,000 bed spaces. A great variety of individuals are responsible for these dwellings. In trying to prescribe a system, we should have to choose between establishing the lowest common denominator—to be realistic, for this great variety of houses in multiple occupation, that could be below some of the existing standards now applied by some authorities—and having a mandatory system of national standards. The result would be almost certainly the loss of some of the hostel accommodation.

The House might say that some of the accommodation should be closed, but before that is said we have to consider the effects on those who are using the accommodation at present. In our approach to legislation, we should not take steps which could result in people who have very basic accommodation running the risk of losing it in certain circumstances.

I now turn to what has been said about the life and death issue of fire, the most important single issue before us. I assure the House that we shall study very carefully the report that has been made by the Brent council into the Kilburn fire, and also the report that we are expecting to receive shortly from the London Fire Brigade into that fire.

6 pm

There are three central issues that we must examine here—first, the level of public financial support in contributing towards means of escape from fire; secondly, whether local authorities need further guidance in interpreting their statutory obligations; and thirdly, whether the legislation itself should be altered. One can always say that the level of grant is too low. Certainly the original figure of £500 was too low. Some may say that £5,000—the figure now in the Bill—is also too low. However, the £5,000 is a material improvement, and there are powers already in the Bill whereby it is possible, on an individual case, to go above the eligible expense limit laid down. The £5,000 ceiling is not necessarily absolute in each and every case.

We have considered whether further guidance should be issued to local authorities, and we have concluded that it should be given about local authorities' responsibilities under existing fire legislation. Therefore, when we have considered the report on the Kilburn fire, and following the enactment of this Bill, we shall issue further guidance to local authorities. That may be a useful advance.

Finally, I turn to whether there should be fresh legislation. I cannot accept new clause 16 as drafted. I do not just quarrel with the drafting; there is a substantive point of principle at issue. The clause sets in motion a statutory chain of events involving both the local authority and the fire authority, and leads to the compulsory installation of the means of escape from fire. Clearly, it is right that in certain circumstances there should be such a statutory chain of events, but the difficulty with the clause is that that statutory chain of events can be set in motion by someone who is described as "an aggrieved person". It may be done solely by an aggrieved person. It is our firm view that the intitia-tive for taking statutory, mandatory action on the question of fire must lie firmly with the local authorities, in consultation with the fire authorities.

Having said that, I shall consider further, with my right hon. Friends and without commitment at this stage, whether the statutory duties of local authorities need to be strengthened. We intend to complete our consideration of that in time for any amendments—should we decide that any are necessary—to be included in the Bill in another place. I assure hon. Members that we are considering further the statutory position of fire legislation in the context of the Bill.

I hope that the House will appreciate that we have considered very carefully and in great detail the points raised by the new clauses. We have already taken, both in this Bill and administratively, more action over the past 12 months than has been taken for several years. We still reckon that we have further possibilities before the Bill is on the statute book. Therefore, I do not regard this debate as the last chance. I hope that the House will agree that we are trying to approach this matter constructively, in the light of the need to improve conditions in hostels without taking legislative steps that might disadvantage those who use them.

Question put and agreed to

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Mr. Stallard

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. A number of my hon. Friends and I wish to vote on new clause 13. When will that be appropriate?

Mr. Speaker

When we reach it, and we shall not reach it for some time.

Forward to