HC Deb 22 July 1996 vol 282 cc42-5

Lords amendment: No. 93, after clause 73, to insert the following new clause—Works notices: improvement of enforcement procedures. After section 377 of the Housing Act 1985 insert—

377A.—(1) The Secretary of State may by order provide that a local housing authority shall act as specified in the order before serving a works notice. In this section a "works notice" means a notice under section 352 or 372 (notices requiring the execution of works). (2) An order under this section may provide that the authority—
  1. (a) shall as soon as practicable give to the person on whom the works notice is to be served a written notice which satisfies the requirements of subsection (3); and
  2. (b) shall not serve the works notice until after the end of such period beginning with the giving of a notice which satisfies the requirements of subsection (3) as may be determined by or under the order.
(3) A notice satisfies the requirements of this subsection if it—
  1. (a) states the works which in the authority's opinion should be undertaken, and explains why and within what period;
  2. (b) explains the grounds on which it appears to the authority that the works notice might be served;
  3. (c) states the type of works notice which is to be served, the consequences of serving it and whether there is a right to make representations before, or a right of appeal against, the serving of it.
(4) An order under this section may also provide that, before the authority serves the works notice on any person, they—
  1. (a) shall give to that person a written notice stating—
    1. (i) that they are considering serving the works notice and the reasons why they are considering serving the notice; and
    2. (ii) that the person may, within a period specified in the written notice, make written representations to them or, if the person so requests, make oral representations to them in the presence of a person determined by or under the order; and
  2. (b) shall consider any representations which are duly made and not withdrawn.
(5) An order under this section may in particular—
  1. (a) make provision as to the consequences of any failure to comply with a provision made by the order;
  2. (b) contain such consequential, incidental, supplementary or transitional provisions and savings as the Secretary of State considers appropriate (including provisions modifying enactments relating to the periods within which proceedings must be brought).
(6) An order under this section—
  1. (a) may make different provision with respect to different cases or descriptions of case (including different provision for different areas), and
  2. (b) shall be made by statutory instrument which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(7) Nothing in any order under this section shall—
  1. (a) preclude a local housing authority from serving a works notice on any person, or from requiring any person to take immediate remedial action to avoid a works notice being served on him, in any case where it appears to them to be necessary to serve such a notice or impose such a requirement; or
  2. (b) require such an authority to disclose any information the disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest."."

Mr. Clappison

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment embodies the principles of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 in relation to the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Raynsford

This amendment raises a much more problematic issue—the speed with which a local authority will be able to act enforce improvements in properties that are unsatisfactory.

As the Minister said, the amendment draws on procedures in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. The Minister will be well aware that precisely this ethos of deregulation, with which the Government are at times obsessed, is a serious problem in relation to multi-occupied houses, where there is a clear need for regulation.

The risk to human life created by the poor conditions, the threats and the hazards that exist in so many multi-occupied houses makes regulation essential. The Government have had to accept the need for a registration scheme for some multi-occupied houses.

The risk is that, because of their obsession with deregulation, the Government are putting in place a procedure that will make it slow and cumbersome for local authorities to operate, and so delay the process of improving substandard properties that urgently need improvements.

The concept behind the new clause that is incorporated in the Bill by Lords amendment No. 93 is that there should be a procedure for serving preliminary informal notices on the landlord before the local authority moves to impose its actual works notices, setting out what is required to be done. In principle, one has no disagreement with giving an informal notice to a landlord at the earliest possible stage, and only then following up with a works notice if the landlord clearly does not intend to act on it, but putting that in the Bill provides an opportunity, which I fear will be exploited by some bad landlords, to frustrate the process by seeking to challenge a local authority that acts reasonably expeditiously because it knows that there is a serious—possibly life-threatening—problem in that property.

The rogue landlord, advised by clever lawyers who may be less scrupulous than some, might well use the provisions of subsection (4) of the new section 377A, which is being incorporated into the Housing Act 1985 by Lords amendment No. 93, to challenge the validity of action taken by a local authority seeking to serve a notice.

If that were the case, and the authority were prevented from taking expeditious action because of the need to go through all the legal procedures, which can often be long drawn out and tortuous, and if in the meantime there were to be a tragedy and a person were to be killed because of a fire or die from carbon monoxide poisoning, that would be an unacceptable and unnecessary situation, brought about by the potential for delay.

We do not object to the principle, as good practice, of serving an informal notice quickly, but there must be no risk of the actual enforcement action being delayed by the opportunity that may be presented to the unscrupulous or disreputable to try to drag out the proceedings and so delay proper enforcement action.

Mr. Clappison

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) to the way in which subsection 93(7) overrides subsection 93(4) and deals with the point that he has just made?

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 94 and 95 agreed to.

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