HC Deb 30 November 2001 vol 375 cc1223-87

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

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

I was pleased to draw a high place in the private Members' ballot. I was determined to put my good luck to good use and I am confident that the Bill, if successful, will do just that. We all know that getting a significantly useful piece of legislation through the House via the private Member's Bill route happens only once in a blue moon—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Thank goodness.

Dr. Turner

But today is lucky: astronomers call the second full moon of the month, which happens today, a blue moon. I hope that the shadow Leader of the House agrees that is a good omen for my Bill.

I am grateful to the many hon. Members who have given up valuable time to be here this morning, and deeply appreciative of the support I have had from a wide range of non-governmental organisations and pressure groups outside the House that have supported, promoted and assisted in the preparation of the Bill. I shall not read out the list of organisations because there are too many, but it is noteworthy that they include 96 local authorities that have formally expressed support for the Bill, and interesting that Conservative Future also appears on the list. I do not know of many Bills that can unite young Conservatives and young Labour, but mine appears to have done so—surely another favourable augury.

There is consensus on the need to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Although considerable progress has been made towards that target, there is clear recognition of the contribution needed from energy saving in the home. That recognition was encapsulated in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995—HECA—which was itself a private Member's Bill. The HECA target is a 30 per cent. saving in energy consumption in homes by 2010.

HECA depends for its efficacy on local authorities. My Bill would strengthen existing legislation in that respect. The fact is that some local authorities are more enthusiastic than others about working to achieve their HECA targets.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

When preparing for today's debate, I investigated the position in Wales, where there are about 220,000 eligible households. If the current rate of awarding grants in Wales continues, 67 years will have elapsed before all those households have received grant for insulation work. There is a great need to act.

Dr. Turner

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention because he emphasises my argument that we have to put some backbone into the effort. If we were on track to achieve the target of a 30 per cent. reduction by 2010, local authorities overall would have achieved an 8 per cent. reduction by April last year, but the answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) revealed that most authorities were falling short of that figure, some seriously so, notably Maldon district council, which had achieved a glittering 0.09 per cent., and Nuneaton and Bedworth council, which had achieved 0.2 per cent. About 100 authorities had reported progress of less than 3 per cent.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman intends to address the fact that, through his Bill, he will be urging local authorities to pursue landlords to ensure compliance with the regulations, and that the Bill will impose a further regulatory burden. Will he undertake that the Committee on the Bill will work to ensure that the regulatory burden on individuals and on people who run homes is not awesome? His proposals are worthy, but even the Government have been unsuccessful in their energy conservation programmes—in some Departments, energy use has increased. He is proposing further regulation in an area in which the Government themselves have failed miserably.

Dr. Turner

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He rightly makes the point about regulation. The regulation that emerges from the Bill should be as much as is needed and not excessive. We do not want to drive landlords out of business by over-regulation. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I will strive to ensure that the regulations are reasonable.

The Government's performance in meeting HECA targets in other departments is beyond my influence. Where the Government have failed, they should take note and do something about it.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it will be offensive and difficult for private landlords, many of whom are responsible landlords, if they feel that they are being lectured or got at, either by central or local government, when public bodies are themselves delinquent in respect of their own targets?

Dr. Turner

That is a fair point. In terms of home energy conservation, many social landlords and local authority landlords are doing rather well and setting a good example. That is what we want to see throughout.

Meeting the HECA target is not going very well. The picture is clouded by the fact that it is difficult to interpret or compare the reports that local authorities submit to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There is no consistent basis for the preparation of those reports. We cannot compare like with like, but part 1 seeks to address the problem.

Achievement of the HECA target is not a statutory duty on local authorities. Clause 1 aims to remedy that by making it a statutory duty, and by setting out minimum requirements for energy authorities in pursuing this purpose. It gives the Secretary of State the power to require other bodies, such as registered social landlords and managers of Government energy efficiency programmes, to assist the work of local authorities with the provision of information on energy efficiency measures that they have taken.

In respect of stock transfers from local authorities to registered social landlords, clause 1 would ensure that home energy conservation matters form part of such agreements.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Many of us live in boroughs where stock transfer has already taken place. Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that his Bill will bite—and not merely, as clause 1(3) seems to imply, to new transfers that are about to go through?

Dr. Turner

The hon. Gentleman will know that it is difficult to make things work retrospectively, but every other aspect of the Bill will, we hope, bite on the stock to which he refers.

Clause 1 also makes provision for the Secretary of State to issue guidelines to local authorities so that their reports can be prepared on a consistent basis, and so that progress towards the HECA target is made much clearer. In future, we would have a reasonably consistent and comparable reporting procedure that would mean something.

Another difficulty is that not all local authorities have an officer with clear responsibility for the HECA. Clause 2 would ensure that each authority at least identified a designated HECA officer. He or she would be responsible for their functions under the HECA and under the Bill, if it is enacted. Local government officers who are currently undertaking the work have said forcefully that that would give them more clout within their authority and greatly facilitate their work.

The purpose of clause 3 is to give the Secretary of State powers to act when local authorities seriously fail to meet their HECA targets.

The intention behind part 1 is not to be prescriptive in respect of local authorities, but to give them more support in carrying out their HECA duties. What matters is achieving the target for their area: how they choose to do that is down to them. If they achieve the target, that is fine. That will satisfy the proposed legislation.

Part 2 deals with fuel poverty, which is a matter of great concern to the Government, as we can see from the recent publication of their fuel poverty strategy. The Government estimate that 4 million households are still in fuel poverty. Once again, a private Member's Bill has blazed the trail. The provisions of part 2 are designed to bolster the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which was piloted through the House by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). It would ensure that there was greater progress in meeting the provisions of that Act, and it would make the discharge of the Act's responsibilities a statutory duty on local authorities. It would give the Secretary of State the power to assist authorities with guidance in achieving the objectives of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act.

It is important to note that 39 per cent. of people in the private rented sector are in fuel poverty—a higher percentage than in any other housing sector. The worst accommodation, in terms of energy conservation and fuel poverty, is to be found in houses in multiple occupation. I shall refer to them hereafter as HMOs.

If the objectives of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act and the HECA are to be achieved, their reach must be extended to HMOs. Given the difficulty that local authorities have in achieving anything with HMOs, it is essential that something is done with HMOs. That is what makes part 3 vital: without it, we do not stand a chance of achieving the objectives of parts 1 and 2.

The link between HMO registration and the energy aspects of the Bill are clear enough justification for including it in the Bill in its own right, but a host of other reasons give me particular pleasure in introducing the Bill. My constituency and the city of Brighton and Hove have many HMOs, in which about 25,000 people—about 10 per cent. of the population—live. As we do not have a mandatory registration scheme, it is difficult to be accurate about the numbers; they are guesses, but they are reasonably accurate.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has just said. My constituency suffers from the same problem. I have been campaigning for compulsory registration for a long time. Will he tell the House why he seeks to exempt registered social landlords? I am aware that other legislation and regulations govern registered social landlords, but the fact remains that organisations such as English Churches housing and the Notting Hill housing trust have a lamentable record in some areas. Surely they should be brought within the ambit of the Bill.

Dr. Turner

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Bill exempts registered social landlords on the basis that they are already subject to other regulation and other legislation, but if a serious case can be made to show that that regulation and legislation are not being sufficiently effective, that will be a point amenable to discussion in Committee. I do not expect many properties that are owned and managed by registered social landlords to be affected by the Bill's provisions. The hon. Gentleman has raised a point that we can seriously examine in Committee.

Two of the most notorious landlords ever known in Britain, who made Rachman seem like a philanthropist, made their first millions running HMOs in Brighton and Hove. The House may be interested to know that one of them is now on remand, accused of the murder of the other. I think that Members can all work out who it is; that person has been the target of several local authorities, including Westminster City council.

Some of the worst housing conditions in Britain are to be found in HMOs. As for energy standards and fuel poverty, I am sure that other Members share my memory of living in an HMO as a student and huddling over a miserable gas or electric bar fire, hoping that the coin in the meter would last just a little longer. Decades later, things have not improved that much; there are still Rigsbys out there. Not only is the least comfortable accommodation to be found in privately rented HMOs but the last English house condition survey found that up to 20 per cent. of HMOs fell below the legal standard of fitness for human habitation. A further 40 per cent of houses divided into bedsits were unfit for the people living in them because they lacked adequate facilities—basics such as wash basins, baths, showers, toilets and cooking facilities.

HMOs are the most dangerous area of housing. Not for nothing did the previous Housing Minister, who is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, describe some HMOs as death-traps. That has been graphically illustrated in many fatal fires. Research published by the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions showed that in the two years from 1994 to 1995, 126 people were killed by fires in HMOs—more than one a week. There are other hazards; defective gas appliances are common in HMOs, landlords having failed to maintain gas fires or gas-fired boilers. The danger is exemplified by the sad case of Gillian, a student at Aston university, who shared a bedsit with four other students in Birmingham. She went to bed on a freezing cold night in December and left the gas fire on to keep warm. She was found dead the next morning; her parents were already on their way from Sussex to collect her for the Christmas vacation. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by the flue being blocked by soot and mortar debris, which fire investigators estimated had built up over 18 years. That is an example of the dangerous neglect of HMOs that needs to be dealt with, which is one of the driving forces behind the Bill.

There is a regulatory framework, which should address those problems, and many powers are currently available to local authorities, but they are distributed across different Acts, principally part XI of the Housing Act 1985, which is cumbersome, clumsily drafted and, like the structure of many HMOs, in desperate need of renewal. The Bill starts the process of replacing part XI and paves the way for further action by the Secretary of State to ensure the delivery of HMO registration, which has been a long-standing Government commitment.

Part 3 of the Bill makes provision for a new, streamlined framework for regulating energy conservation, health and safety standards and management in HMOs, and does so in two stages. First, it proposes a revised definition of an HMO, and sets out a requirement for all HMO owners and managers to notify their local authority of the HMOs that they operate and supply basic information. It makes it a statutory duty of the local authority to compile a register. The second strand of part 3 requires the Secretary of State to introduce standards and control provisions to regulate HMOs already registered by the local authority. Clause 5 sets out a new definition of an HMO. The old definition is based on occupation by more than two households and led to difficulties in the courts. It was too imprecise and easy to circumvent; in fact, the lawyers had a fine time with it in the courts, so it has to go. The new definition is based on the number of unrelated adults occupying a property.

The new basic definition of an HMO is a house occupied by adult members of more than two families. The clause specifies certain exemptions—notably hospitals, prisons, monasteries and establishments such as nursing and care homes—that are already subject to other regulatory regimes. I have no desire whatsoever to over-regulate; I simply wish to encompass the sector of the housing market where regulation is most needed.

Clause 6 defines the new duty on every housing authority to compile and maintain the register of HMOs. They can do that alone or combine with neighbouring authorities when they feel that that is appropriate. For instance, Brighton and Hove has thousands of HMOs, but neighbouring Adur has six. Clearly, Adur would not fancy setting up an administrative structure just to deal with six HMOs; it would wish to deal with them in conjunction with other authorities.

Clause 7 requires the Secretary of State, under the affirmative resolution procedure, to introduce by order the necessary provisions to replace those aspects of part XI of the 1985 Act that relate to HMO regulation with a new scheme of control provisions that will ensure compliance with the following important factors. Houses must be registered; the number of occupants must be defined; there must be specific energy conservation standards; furniture and furnishing must meet fire safety regulations: there must be safety certification for all electric and gas appliances; there must be satisfactory amenity standards; and there must be satisfactory arrangements for the management of the house. At the moment, all those aspects are, to say the least, patchily observed in the HMO sector.

Clause 8 sets out a proposal for two tiers of registration. The first is mandatory and applies to HMOs occupied by more than four unrelated adults; it exempts from registration HMOs operated by local authorities or registered social landlords, to which the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) drew attention. The number is set at more than four to deal with the most problematic HMO sector. In the second tier of discretionary registration, local authorities will have the power, if they choose, to require registration of HMOs occupied by not more than four adults. However, that will be a matter for local authorities to decide.

Those are the essential contents of the Bill. Members who were privy to the many drafts as it evolved will be aware that we started with five clauses, but reached 43 as we spelled out the control provisions required for the HMO registration system. At that point, it was becoming quite a sturdy little Bill and there were grave doubts about the possibility of getting such a detailed and large measure through the hazardous shoals of private Members' legislation in the House. Hence we adopted the two-stage strategy that is now before the House. I am satisfied that in its new slimline form the Bill retains all its essential elements; if enacted, it will guarantee the delivery of HMO registration and have consequent benefits for energy conservation and fuel poverty, as represented in parts 1 and 2. It will also deliver significant improvements in the quality of life for millions of tenants in England and Wales.

Not surprisingly, there has been a certain amount of resistance from organisations representing private landlords, but I can reassure them that, so long as their intentions as landlords are honourable, they have nothing to fear from the passage of the Bill. Indeed, at some of the many consultation meetings held throughout the country during the preparation of the Bill, that point was agreed by several private landlords.

The experience in Herefordshire, where a discretionary licensing scheme is already in operation, is that good landlords have welcomed licensing, and that far from driving landlords away from renting, more have entered the private rented sector operating HMOs, because they know that they will not be undercut by unscrupulous cowboys. This is not an anti-landlord Bill.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

Can the hon. Gentleman elaborate on the experience not only in Herefordshire, but in Scotland, where the reverse is true—some landlords have disappeared from the market, there is a shortage of stock because of licensing, and there has been inconsistency in the fees charged for licensing and the application forms?

Dr. Turner

We are aware of the difficulties in Scotland. We intend that they will not be replicated in the HMO registration scheme. We are aware of the high fees charged by some local authorities in Scotland, which in some cases seem excessive, compared with the fees in Herefordshire, which are pitched at a reasonable level—£60 per letting, for a registration period of five years. We are not seeking to make a profit out of fees; we seek to establish a registration system that will be more or less self-financing. It is not intended to be punitive to landlords.

There are other problems with the Scottish system. Some local authorities are finding it difficult to compile their registers because they cannot find all their HMOs. We do not want local authorities to have to search for their HMOs. We are placing the responsibility on landlords to notify the local authority of their presence. It would be a criminal offence if they failed so to do. I acknowledge that there are difficulties with the Scottish system; we intend to avoid them.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I thank my hon. Friend for those reassurances. I, like many hon. Members, have been on the receiving end of lobbying from landlords associations. In Committee, which I hope the Bill will reach, will my hon. Friend deal with the evidence taken by the Social Justice Committee in the Scottish Parliament? Some of the wilder claims that have been made about chaos and non-compliance clearly are not true. Will my hon. Friend agree to consider the evidence?

Dr. Turner

Yes, I shall be glad to do that.

The Bill is not aimed at landlords. For good landlords, it will improve matters, so that they are all working on a clear, level playing field. There need to be clear standards, and if we are to achieve the energy conservation and fuel poverty targets to which virtually all of us aspire, HMOs must be a part of the picture.

I am extremely gratified by the wide support that the Bill has received from all parts of the House and from outside. It is a piece of legislation whose time has come, and I commend it to the House in the hope that all hon. Members will agree to its Second Reading.

10.4 am

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate. I am pleased to be a sponsor of the Bill and to ask the House for its full support.

The purpose of the Bill is to help to meet three targets previously agreed by the House and by successive Governments. The first is to make a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation by 2010. That target was set in the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. The second objective is to end fuel poverty within 15 years. That was the purpose of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Thirdly, the Bill aims to assist the Government's commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2010.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) has wide support for his measure. Early-day motion 20 has been signed by 231 hon. Members, and I know of the hon. Gentleman's herculean efforts, particularly through the all-party parliamentary warm homes group, to undertake consultations before the introduction of the Bill. I congratulate him on that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Credit is also due to Ron Bailey and his roadshow, which has visited many parts of the country, including Stroud district, to go through the Bill line by line with councillors and other interested parties, to make sure that the measure is truly consensual and to get maximum support.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ron Bailey has played an enormous part in preparing the Bill.

I had better declare a technical interest. Many moons ago—I do not know how many of those were blue moons—I qualified as an architect, although I have not practised since I was first elected to the House in 1970. However, I pay annually a not inconsiderable subscription to the Royal Institute of British Architects. The more I think about it, the more I think that I ought to declare a reverse financial interest. I pay the RIBA in order to be able to call myself an architect.

The objective of the Bill is to achieve the targets set in the various other measures. I do not believe that the first target, a 30 per cent. energy efficiency improvement in residential accommodation, has a cat in hell's chance of being realised, unless the provisions of the Bill get on to the statute book. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, to meet the 30 per cent. target by 2010, we should have been at least at 8 per cent. by last year. We are nowhere near that figure.

There are good reasons for that, which must be addressed. The first is that the target in the 1995 Act was only ministerial guidance. The 30 per cent. improvement ought to be a statutory duty.

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend will no doubt have read the Energy Saving Trust's proposals towards an energy efficiency strategy to 2020. The summary states: Our assessment shows that if the full range of energy efficiency measures are taken, energy consumption in households will fall by 12.5 per cent. by 2010. Without these measures it is set to rise. Does that not concern my hon. Friend?

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing that information, which I had not intended to give in my short contribution. I am glad that those figures are on the record.

The second reason for our failure to meet the targets is that the energy conservation authorities—basically, district councils and London boroughs—do not have the monitoring and co-ordinating powers that they need. Very few of those energy conservation authorities have the necessary powers to deal with energy efficiency in the private rented sector, especially in houses in multiple occupation. My researches show that about 1.5 million dwelling units in England alone are homes in multiple occupation. Generally, but not entirely, the worst and least energy efficient accommodation is in such homes. I am absolutely convinced that there is a need for a specific local authority officer to become the spokesman of authority, to co-ordinate and monitor, and to take the lead in fulfilling the Bill's objectives.

As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown has admitted—indeed, we have been reminded of this point by hon. Members on both sides of the House—part 3 will be viewed by some as the most contentious, as well as the most comprehensive, part of the Bill. It deals with the introduction of a registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation. It would set up a new registration scheme and repeal sections 345 and 346 of the Housing Act 1985. Once the Bill gets on to the statute book—1 hope that it will do so—it will repeal part II of that Act, which relates to the revocation of existing registration schemes. Such schemes are already in operation, but the Bill would introduce a new, more modern and wider scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman said, clause 5 defines the meaning of multiple occupation. I think that he would agree that the old definition, a house which is occupied by persons who do not form a single household", has been found to have been inadequate after a number of court cases. I think that the new definition, a house occupied by adult members of more than two families", is much more appropriate. As the new regulations with which the Bill deals are wide ranging, the hon. Gentleman was right to adopt the affirmative resolution procedure, so that the Minister can introduce them in the form of secondary legislation that can be debated and, if necessary, amended by the House.

Part 3 is vital if the target set by the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 is to be met. The hon. Gentleman told us that the Bill was supported by almost 100 local authorities and by the Greater London Assembly, as well as by many national organisations. It is important to remember that the Bill does not seek to make new policy as much as to ensure that existing policy can be met. I ask hon. Members who have doubts about certain aspects of the Bill to remember that. I also believe that the Bill would have very little effect on public spending. The Government must have provided the funding after the enactment of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which was previously a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. The Bill would carry out policy that has already been agreed to.

If we are to be serious about tackling global warming, promoting sustainable development, reducing harmful emissions, encouraging energy conservation and eliminating fuel poverty, we need to do more than merely mouth words. We need to take hard decisions on the ground to achieve those aims and objectives. I believe that the hon. Gentleman's Bill is a much-needed step towards achieving the objectives that he has set out and I commend it to the House.

10.14 am
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

I do not intend to speak for too long, because I am perfectly aware that many colleagues wish to contribute and that we do not know exactly how long the debate will take.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) for introducing the Bill, although I could not help but reflect during his speech and that of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) on what has happened in the past; indeed, I can now think back many years. I do not want to be too political about my view that one of the biggest mistakes that has been made in respect of home energy was the abolition of improvement grants, which would have gone a long way towards helping with fuel poverty and energy efficiency. I do not have the up-to-date figures, but three, four or perhaps five years ago, about 17,000 houses in Coventry were without basic amenities, which include central heating and so on. That was one of the areas in which a big mistake was made. I am sure that that demand is growing, as well as the figure to which I referred, and I imagine that that is repeated throughout the country. That is one of the reasons why I support the Bill.

Many local authorities already have energy efficiency or energy saving schemes, although they have been very patchy over the years. The problem with many of the schemes is that they seek to budget and encourage saving. That is the essential strategy, which means that such schemes are very much about saving money rather than doing a bit more, although they are obviously constricted in many ways as to how they encourage people to be energy efficient.

I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown say that at least 100 authorities are not doing very much about energy efficiency. That is another area of concern. Although we laud the Government for the targets that they have set, one of the weaknesses that emerged from his speech is that there does not seem to be much co-ordination within Departments on doing what is necessary. If we are to establish strategies and set targets, the first thing that we should do is use ourselves as a good example, on the basis that when the Government set an example, everybody will follow. I notice that my hon. Friend the Minister is looking at me with a little concern.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Does my hon. Friend think that we might need an energy tsar to bring all the parties together? We have tsars in many other areas, where they seem successful.

Mr. Cunningham

Tsars are usually despots, so I am not so sure about appointing one.

Age Concern recently conducted a survey of pensioners from which it emerged that they badly need advice. They need some sort of agency to give better advice on their options. One of the suggestions made by Age Concern was that pensioners could be encouraged to move to smaller accommodation, although such a proposal would have to be examined much more closely. Furthermore, a strategy published in November redefined the criterion for energy poverty, which, I think, was said to exist when more than 10 per cent. of the household budget is spent on fuel. I do not know whether that is the right criterion. We all have our own views about that.

In conclusion, I welcome my hon. Friend's Bill, which is long overdue. Much more must be done to make improvements and I hope that the Government will consider that. I support the Bill.

10.18 am
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

There is clearly widespread support for the Bill inside and outside the House. It is part of a series of such Bills that have been introduced by Back Benchers in the past few years. They have been promoted by Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and now by a Labour Member. Indeed, the sponsors of this Bill and the speeches that have been made so far demonstrate that it deals with an issue that hon. Members are anxious to address. Some of us feel somewhat frustrated that Government policy is not being prosecuted with the same enthusiasm as hon. Members in all parts of the House seem to share about the issue.

I hope that when the Minister replies, she will not only deal with the content of the fuel poverty strategy but state that the Government accept that we have much to do to achieve even an approximation of the targets. It is not good enough to set targets when the policies that are being pursued have no chance of meeting them. Back Benchers and the Government need to ensure their achievement together.

It is inevitable that a private Member's Bill cannot always have the required force behind it. That is why the measure expanded to 43 clauses and then contracted again. People wanted a Bill that would be genuinely effective. I commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his approach, which has two benefits. First, it greatly increases the chances of the Bill becoming law. Secondly, it increases the partnership between Back Benchers and the Government, who will implement the measure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is not in his place, raised the practical point that many local authorities have transferred their housing stock to other agencies. I understand the reason for the Bill's concentration on those that have not yet done that, because it is possible to incorporate a condition in the measure. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend made the valid point that we need to work out how to deal with the problem that a large amount of rented stock in the affordable sector has been transferred from local authorities but requires the same attention as the Bill applies to housing stock before it is transferred.

Fuel poverty has been the subject of many debates in the House. In the 18 years I have been a Member of Parliament, and before that, I have been involved in many discussions and debates about it. It is sad that we continue to discuss fuel poverty with such intensity and that it remains a big issue. I should have liked to believe that, by now, the phrase would have dropped out of current parlance.

Fuel poverty peculiarly affects this country. The term does not register in continental or Scandinavian countries, because the phenomenon hardly exists. In the past, Scandinavian countries have had cheap energy, but they have also had efficiently designed, built and insulated houses. Consequently, they do not suffer the same problems as we do.

In the mid-1970s, when the activity of the oil and gas industry in the North sea was expanding rapidly and putting a lot of pressure on local authorities in my part of north-east Scotland, we imported 500 houses by ship from Norway. They were erected in the village of Kemnay, which was then in my constituency. Twenty-five years later, those houses remain the warmest and most energy efficient in the north-east of Scotland. They have a special characteristic that surprises door-knockers and canvassers: the doors open outwards for the good reason that they are designed to sweep the snow away. They are also effective at sweeping away canvassers and unwanted intruders. We need to improve not only the design of new houses—perhaps we are better at that than we were—but existing stock, which is clearly not up to standard. That is a substantial problem.

I am conscious that the Bill applies to England and Wales and that I speak for a Scottish constituency. However, we all acknowledge that the problem is United Kingdom wide and that we must look to best practice wherever it occurs. If Scotland has encountered some difficulties, doubtless England, Wales and Northern Ireland can learn from them. However, I accept the intervention of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who said that the problems may not be as great as has been reported. When the Bill is enacted, as I hope it will be, perhaps it will provide for practices that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will try to improve on. We are working together to try to achieve the best results. We need a UK-wide definition of fuel poverty. We must stop arguing about it, agree a UK definition and provide for polices that will clearly and measurably reduce it.

The Bill is described as an energy conservation measure. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown made it clear, however, that it is fundamentally a social measure that happens to have important energy conservation implications. That is the right approach. We are all concerned because too many households struggle to stay warm and have to juggle family budgets between food, other priorities and staying warm. We need to find a system that enables people to keep warm.

In many cases, if we improve energy efficiency, we will not necessarily reduce the energy bill. However, we hope to ensure that the people who spent 10 per cent. or more of their income on fuel and were still cold will be warm and comfortable, even if they spend the same amount of money. They will also be healthy, or healthier, and less inclined to contract illnesses. The figures on which we concentrate are those for deaths that are related to the weather or fuel poverty. Most of them inevitably occur among elderly people. However, we must not underestimate the number of people who may not die as a result of living in damp and cold homes, but who suffer illnesses that have a serious effect on their well-being and involve a cost to the rest of society through lost working time and burdens on the health service.

A pilot scheme was tried out in the south-west of England, allowing general practitioners to prescribe home insulation as a requirement for some patients. They could say, "The main reason the patient is in my surgery is that his home is damp and cold. Solving that problem would improve his health." What assessment has been made of the scheme? It has clearly not been extended and perhaps it needs to be modified. However, health is a legitimate consideration in the context of home energy conservation.

There are several proposals in the UK fuel poverty strategy that most of us welcome, even if they are modest. They involve better methods of insulating and improving fuel efficiency to benefit the fuel poor. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that although I welcome the pilot scheme for microscale combined heat and power, I do wonder how it will work against the current background of arrangements that have caused a collapse in take-up. Sixty to 80 per cent. of installed CHP schemes are not generating electricity for the benefit of the grid. The problem is that the same companies, which use the same adapted technologies, will want to develop the proposals. It is important to get CHP back on course as a major contributor to energy efficiency at all levels.

The microschemes mean that one can envisage having a CHP boiler in a household or, perhaps even more appropriately, in a household in multiple occupation, which can generate the required warmth more efficiently and contribute to the electricity needs of the household. It may, in due course, be able to export electricity to the national grid. That is a genuine energy conservation measure, which also provides a reduction in fuel poverty. I welcome the Government's commitment to the scheme, but CHP industry specialists must be able to perceive CHP as a growing sector, and not an option that, for technical reasons, is not being taken up in the way people initially hoped for.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, which is a further step in the direction of eliminating fuel poverty. We need to ensure that we continue to co-ordinate our actions across the United Kingdom, adopt best practice and strive to achieve genuine reductions in fuel poverty and improvements in the quality of life of people who live in homes that are damp and hard to heat. We also want to make an important contribution to energy conservation that will uphold our wider energy policy. That is the fundamental aim of this highly commendable measure. I hope that hon. Members will support it today.

10.29 am
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), not only on securing such a high place in the private Members' ballot but on choosing this Bill to steer through the process.

I was pleased to be asked to sponsor the Bill, for a number of reasons. My hon. Friend has already referred to the serious safety hazards in some of the worst houses in multiple occupation. As honorary secretary of the recently formed all-party group on gas safety, I believe that the measures in the Bill will be of great interest to those of us across the parties who support the initiative on that issue.

I am especially pleased to sponsor the Bill because of its importance for the constituencies that my hon. Friend and I represent in the city of Brighton and Hove. He has already referred to the housing situation there; it is one that makes these measures particularly important. Forty-two per cent. of the city's housing stock is pre-1919, which is twice the national average. Many of those houses are in a severe state of disrepair; many are old, rambling buildings converted into bedsits and flats.

The city has the country's largest private rented sector: 20 per cent. of our housing stock is privately rented. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, we have in the past harboured some of the most scandalously irresponsible landlords ever seen in this country. One, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, is currently detained by Her Majesty awaiting trial next spring for murder. We have a population of 24,000 students, and also a transient and mobile population. In parts of the city centre that I represent, about a quarter of the residents move home every year—some to other parts of the city, some out of the city altogether—according to the electoral register.

Brighton and Hove city council's admirable housing investment strategy document for 2001–06—appropriately entitled "The Well-Being of the City"—recognises the importance of improving the housing stock, whether council or privately owned, as central to the well-being of our citizens. The authors of that strategy also say: Many of our residents are living in unsuitable, unfit, unsafe, overcrowded accommodation with consequent damage to health, educational attainment and life chances. The strengthening of the statutory framework proposed in the Bill to improve energy conservation and efficiency will go a long way towards improving the situation that Brighton and Hove city council seeks to address.

The council is already working with landlords to encourage investment in the housing stock, and improvements are happening. They have jointly published a good landlord guide, whose emphasis is on work under the terms of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. In its fifth progress report on the Act's provisions, the council states: About 650 households in the city have benefited from insulation and/or heating measures at no cost to themselves, as a result. That is one element of the council's joint promotional strategy with the Energy Action Grants Agency"— the EAGA, with which I am sure many hon. Members are familiar.

The council also reports an Ongoing comprehensive programme for prioritising gas central heating and insulation installations in council housing. Criteria for priority action include ill health, inability of tenants to afford current heating costs, and poor energy efficiency of individual properties. Those are among the criteria for the support being offered. The council also announces The launch of the East Sussex Heat and Sun home insulation, solar water heating discount and energy efficiency advice initiative. All those measures are excellent. Unfortunately, some councils have still not taken their responsibilities under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 quite as seriously as others. While I am proud to report the record of my own council, others may have different stories from other parts of the country. Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill will strengthen the councils' hand in carrying out those responsibilities.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Is not the important point that my hon. Friend is making that councils need a change in the law? The current law is totally inadequate to deal with the problems in houses in multiple occupation, and we need part 3 of the Bill to get to the bottom of all those difficulties.

Mr. Lepper

My hon. and co-operative Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has anticipated my next point. Brighton and Hove has, for the past year or so, been running a pilot registration scheme for houses in multiple occupation. The scheme is, admittedly, including only a very small part of the city and encouraging landlords to register under a voluntary scheme. The feedback from the landlords after the year or 18 months of the scheme is quite interesting. Many have welcomed it, because they see it as a way of improving the standing of their role in the community. They see it—I quote from a report—as a way to bring a form of pride and respectability to a sector which has suffered a poor reputation.

The landlords also see the scheme as a way of dealing with some of the more disreputable landlords. Such landlords are in a minority, but unfortunately it is often a minority that owns large stocks of housing. They may be small in number, but their influence is great. The local voluntary registration scheme in Brighton and Hove is seen by the landlords who have taken part as a way of improving the standing of their profession, as well as improving the quality of the housing stock. The city council is now considering extending the voluntary scheme across the whole city over the next year or so. Obviously, part 3 of the Bill will be an incentive for it to do that. It is also offering quite substantial grants towards the improvement of housing stock to those landlords who come forward.

Despite the concerns expressed in the November 2001 issue of "Residential Renting"—which may have been distributed to other hon. Members; I have been sent copies by four or five landlords in my constituency—that registration would drive out landlords and decrease the available housing stock, that has not been the experience of the Brighton and Hove pilot scheme. We have seen no diminution in the number of flats or bedsits in housing in multiple occupation available to local people.

I am sure that the Bill will receive wide support across the House. It deserves that support. It will strengthen the hand of the many responsible local authorities and landlords, and it will provide more extensive and stronger measures both to deal with councils whose approach to the HECA initiative is not wholehearted and to ensure that unscrupulous landlords are brought to book.

10.40 am
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on achieving such a high position in the ballot, and on introducing a potentially valuable Bill. If my opening remarks show a degree of envy, that is because since 1983, when I was first elected, I have applied every year to be high on the ballot, but I have never appeared above the waves.

The Home Energy Conservation Bill has three distinct parts. One part we support wholeheartedly, one part we support in principle—although it exposes weaknesses in the Government's overall energy strategy—and the other part needs much attention to its detail and possible effect before we can consider giving it our support. I intend to deal with the three elements of the Bill individually.

Part 2 is about the elimination of fuel poverty. It has the unreserved support of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. We know that the most vulnerable people in our society are hit hard by the winter and often lack the income to keep warm. Office for National Statistics figures for October 2001 show that last winter 298 people died of hypothermia in England alone: 298 people died of cold in a rich, civilised and generous society. That stain should be removed.

As Help the Aged has said, behind the mortality statistics that are reported each year, people suffer enormous misery and illness. The Bill seeks to deal with fuel poverty and, as I said, in that it has the support of the Conservative party. My party has made many efforts to eradicate fuel poverty. The percentage of United Kingdom households with central heating rose under Conservative Governments from 60 per cent. in 1981 to 90 per cent. in 1997–98. Figures from the House of Commons Library show that since the Gas Act 1986, which privatised British Gas—incidentally, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor voted against that—domestic gas prices are estimated to have decreased by 29 per cent. in real terms.

It was a Conservative, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who introduced the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, and in that he was supported by our party. That Act sought a reduction in the high number of excess winter deaths in the UK, and a reduction in illnesses exacerbated by cold and damp, with a consequent cutting of costs in the NHS by helping to reduce pressure on hospitals during winter months. It is estimated that fuel poverty costs the NHS £1 billion a year. Another aim of that Act was to reduce the costs of maintaining properties by about £350 per property. That measure is reinforced by the Bill before us.

In 1991, a Conservative Government introduced the home energy efficiency scheme, which is a grant programme created to improve the energy efficiency of the homes of people living in cold conditions. More recently, the new HEES-plus is aimed at people aged 60 and over who receive an income-related benefit—income support, minimum income guarantee, income-based jobseeker's allowance, council tax benefit or housing benefit. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has estimated that as many as 3.7 million households are eligible for the new HEES-plus.

However, the Department of Social Security figures for 1999–2000 showed that between 39,000 and 77,000 people did not claim income-related benefits to which they were entitled, so they would not be able to claim the new HEES-plus. I urge the Government to ensure that those who are eligible are aware of the fact, and are assisted and encouraged to apply for the scheme.

Despite all those measures, there are still too many people who cannot afford to keep warm. The common definition of a fuel-poor household is one that needs to spend in excess of 10 per cent. of household income to achieve a satisfactory heating regime, which is specified as 21 deg Celsius in the living room and 18 deg Celsius in other occupied rooms. The latest available figures quantifying fuel poverty in the UK are for 1996, when at least 4.3 million households in England had to spend more than 10 per cent of their household income on fuel.

It is universally agreed in the House that any Bill that seeks to address the issue of fuel poverty deserves cross-party support. Age Concern estimates that 77 per cent. of single pensioners and 43 per cent of older couples, with at least one of them of pensioner age, are fuel poor. It is estimated that those households spend £700 to £800 a year less than they should to provide adequate warmth. Dying of cold should not happen, and we will help, as we have helped in the past, to ensure it does not happen.

Part 1 is concerned with home energy conservation. The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 gave energy conservation authorities—district, metropolitan district, London borough and unitary councils—the target of achieving a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency in residential accommodation by 2010. At that time, the House took the view that improving the energy efficiency of residential accommodation was important for two reasons: first, because of the environmental impact of energy use in the domestic sector, which was estimated to be responsible for more than 25 per cent. of emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide; and secondly, because of the obvious desire to establish access to affordable warmth for all.

The helpful explanatory notes to the Bill give us five reasons why the target of a 30 per cent. improvement by 2010 is very unlikely to be met. First, achieving the target is not a statutory duty; secondly, energy conservation authorities have insufficient powers of monitoring; thirdly, energy conservation authorities have insufficient co-ordination powers; fourthly, authorities have inadequate powers to deal with inefficiency in the private rented sector, especially houses in multiple occupation; and fifthly, the 1995 Act reporting system is unsatisfactory. We agree with those five reasons and seek reassurance from the Government that the implementation of this Bill will enable them to guarantee that the targets in the 1995 Act will now be achieved by 2010.

That pledge is necessary as the Government have so far not shown themselves to he as committed to achieving their environmental objectives as their fine promises indicated. The Energy Saving Trust is of the view that current Government policies will not enable them to meet their targets for reducing CO2 and other household emissions. Then there is the Government's target of 10 per cent. of electricity generation from renewable resources by 2010. The current lamentable figure is only 2 per cent. Energy efficiency matters, and Government action is essential. Our general support for part 1 is conditional on the Government's reaffirmation of their commitment to the targets of the 1995 Act.

Part 3 deals with the licensing of homes in multiple occupation. I must admit that I am concerned about many aspects. I want to be reassured that the problems encountered in Scotland since the scheme went live there in October 2000 will not be repeated in England and Wales. I welcomed what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said about that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said on 22 October 2001, in column 117 of Hansard, the Conservative party broadly supports the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. In both its 1997 and 2001 manifestos, the Labour party promised to provide protection for tenants in such houses. It then said that a proper licensing system for local authorities was needed to benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike. It is regrettable that, more than four years on, it has taken not a Government Bill but a private Member's Bill to present proposals for such a system.

This month the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a consultation paper on the selective licensing of private landlords, in which they reiterated their long-standing intention to protect the community from bad landlords and bad tenants, as well as ensuring acceptable management standards for tenants, through the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.

In general, HMOs are the preserve of younger people: more than 50 per cent. of occupants are under 30. The 1996 English house condition survey found that the age of occupants was reflected to some extent in the fact that nearly a third were in full-time education, but—notwithstanding stories to the contrary—more than half are working, and only about 5 per cent. are unemployed.

In a document entitled "Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation", published in April 1999, the Government highlighted a number of risks that HMOs can present to the health and safety of those who live in them. We have all heard stories in our constituencies that illustrate the deficiencies experienced by some HMO tenants. In particular, there has been widespread concern about fire safety standards. The EHC survey found that 40 per cent. of houses that had been divided into bedsits were unfit for the number of occupants. In more than 40 per cent. of cases that was due to inadequate kitchen facilities, but about 80 per cent. of houses also lacked adequate means of escape from fire, and other fire precautions.

Faulty gas installations are a well-documented problem. They often lead to the production of carbon monoxide. According to the National Union of Students, since 1992 at least 10 students have died and thousands more have been made ill through exposure to the gas.

Although local authorities have a range of powers enabling them to improve standards in HMOs—most recently contained in the Housing Act 1996—it is generally acknowledged that too many tenants, notably students, have little or no support against negligent landlords. The NUS estimates that at least 600,000 students rent accommodation in the private sector, and that the vast majority live in multi-occupied properties.

We want safe, secure and decent housing; we want to get rid of bad landlords and dangerous properties; but we also want a flourishing, profitable, quality rental market, and what we do must not drive good providers out of business. The renting sector has obvious concerns—many representative organisations have expressed their disquiet about the Bill, and the licensing system has been described as "unnecessary regulation" that will drive out decent landlords and discourage others from letting their properties.

Nor are reports about a licensing system that came into force in Scotland on 1 October 2001 at all reassuring. A publication called "Residential Renting" describes the rather pessimistic outlook of Scottish landlords: Once licensing starts, its purpose, scope and method of implementation broadens wildly. Landlords have to confront new and unforeseen problems and deterrents. Enforcers pronounce and threaten in efforts to overcome the massive non-compliance. Elsewhere it states: Scotland thought that HMO licensing was relatively simple and straightforward. Landlords were consulted but were then effectively sidelined. The remit and scope for licensing ballooned as activists took over on a costs no object basis.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Will the hon. Gentleman consider the position from the opposite perspective? A number of local authorities, including Weymouth and Portland in my constituency, operate voluntary registration schemes for HMOs. Those responsible for their operation—such as the deputy fire officer to whom I spoke yesterday—are keen for a mandatory scheme to be introduced because the voluntary schemes are not working.

Mr. Sayeed

I shall deal with that point a little later, when I explain our criticisms of this part of the Bill.

Landlords in Scotland have found that local authorities have been left to determine their own licence fees, which have varied widely. Landlords have also had to submit detailed and apparently costly drawings of their properties with their licence applications, regardless of whether local authorities really need them.

With reports like those circulating north of the border, we are right to be concerned about the cost to good landlords of complying with such a scheme, and the cost to local authorities. It is imperative that good private landlords should not be forced to meet unfair or unnecessary costs and requirements as a result of the Bill. That would only harm the very tenants whom we seek to protect, because if the licensing costs are too high that will merely be reflected in their rent, or reduce the availability of rented accommodation.

It is estimated that 78 per cent. of private tenants are very or fairly satisfied with their landlords—compared with, interestingly, 73 per cent. of housing association tenants and 67 per cent. of council house tenants. We must ensure that the Bill does not interfere with the generally high percentage of satisfied private tenants.

Mr. Love

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned good landlords. Is it not equally important to good landlords for the small rogue element to be dealt with through schemes such as this?

Mr. Sayeed

I agree entirely. I do not want any rogue landlords. I do not want any bad and dangerous properties. I want bad landlords driven out of business. It is undoubtedly true that if we drive the bad landlord out of business, the good landlord can prosper. If we allow the bad landlord to continue, the good landlord will find it more difficult to prosper, but we must ensure that we do not make things more difficult for the good landlord.

I hope the House can agree that we must ensure that the Bill does not interfere with that generally high percentage of satisfied private tenants. We have doubts about the wisdom of excluding registered social landlords from the Bill, a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). We believe that where there is an effective, existing registration scheme—I stress "effective"—consideration should be given to allowing permissions to run out before the landlords are required to register.

We think that the licensing system should be introduced with flexible time scales that will realistically allow landlords to meet the requirements of the scheme. Consequently, we question the statement in the DEFRA consultation document: for HMO licensing, the Department envisages setting a single date (possibly three years after the commencement date of the legislation)".

Mr. Boswell

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important, even if it does require expenditure of public money, that the obligations to be imposed on landlords of HMOs be clearly set out in a publicity campaign? If, for example, a criminal offence of non-registration is to be enacted, it should be made absolutely clear what is required of them. It should be made as simple as possible for them to join the scheme and to participate.

Mr. Sayeed

I understand my hon. Friend's point. I would prefer that landlords were consistently consulted to ensure that they understood what was required of them and that they were involved in the decision-making process.

As I said, we think that the licensing system should be introduced with flexible time scales to allow landlords to meet the requirements of the scheme. Consequently, we question the statement in the DEFRA document. We are sure that one thing that is not in the Bill must come in at the Committee stage, if we get there: an effective appeals system must be implemented from the inception of the scheme. It is essential that landlord associations are consistently consulted on the Bill and on any secondary legislation. Another complaint about the way in which Scotland handled its licensing system was that although landlords were consulted at the outset, they were then sidelined. Ignoring the needs of those providing private rentals will result merely in a reduction in the number of properties available for rent, or even in non-compliance.

In summary, the Conservative party supports wholeheartedly the part of the Bill that deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. We offer support in principle to the part of the Bill that deals with home energy conservation, subject to the renewed undertaking from the Government that they are serious about their environmental promises and will reiterate their commitment to achieving the targets of the 1995 Act. We need reassurances and evidence that the part of the Bill that deals with the licensing of HMOs will work in practice and not damage the decent landlord in the private rented sector. We look forward to receiving that commitment, reassurance and evidence. Given that, we are minded to give the Bill a Second Reading in order that it can be altered and improved in Committee.

11.5 am

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I am pleased that the Opposition are minded to give the Bill a Second Reading. That reflects the extent to which the campaign to eliminate fuel poverty in Britain has over the years built up on a cross-party basis.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot, on choosing this subject for his Bill, and on the manner in which he has set about increasing his understanding of the detail. I am sure that he would be the first to recognise that the campaign has been a relay race rather than a competitive sprint. Over the years, many hon. Members from all parties have carried the baton and passed it on to the next person in the ballot.

That is an example of the House working at it best, and Parliament seeking to connect itself to an agenda to which the public wanted us to respond for many years. It has been a triumph of Parliament. We are able to celebrate the position that we are in today on eliminating fuel poverty because of our ability to work across party divides. That is the overall picture. It is in that context that my hon. Friend would want to place his role.

I put the matter in a specific and immediate time frame. We should not undermine the achievement of the House and Parliament in passing the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. We had been talking for many years about the importance of having such a policy. The Government's commitment to eliminate fuel poverty within 15 years is of enormous importance to the political process: that is now a fixed benchmark against which all of us will be judged. That transformation has meant that the challenge now is different: it is to talk not about policy, but about strategy. The Bill requires us to move from joined-up thinking to joined-up doing.

For all the important aspirations that were set out in the 1995 Act, the picture on delivery is at best chequered. Some authorities were leaders then and are leaders now, and others were laggards then and are laggards now. We never had the mechanisms to give those at the back of the queue an obligation to reach the new benchmarks that other authorities around the country were rightly setting; there was only an outline. Part 1 of the Bill helps us to deal with the question of how the rest can catch up with the best.

Part 2 deals with the elimination of fuel poverty. Although small, it is of enormous importance. It follows the recent publication of the Government's fuel poverty strategy. It must dovetail with our discussions with local authorities, social landlords, tenants and residents' organisations, environmental organisations and the energy-generating industry.

We should recognise that the energy supply industry is massively behind the proposals. That is so partly because all the major political parties have encouraged it to play a positive role in reducing or eliminating fuel poverty. The response of some parts of the industry has been brilliant. They have been very imaginative and have demonstrated their willingness not only to supply low-energy light bulbs, for example, but to enter the more difficult terrain of making substantial changes to improve energy efficiency in poor and low energy efficiency homes.

The energy supply industry says that it is willing to be our partners in that process, but that we cannot ask it also to take on the role of legislator. That point is nowhere more true than in the private rented sector. The industry says, "We'll happily talk to landlords about how they can make their properties more fuel efficient, but you cannot ask us to oblige them to make those changes." The industry would face resistance if it tried to do that, and it simply wants to offer a hand. It is acknowledging that there is a national commitment on the issue and saying that it can offer options on how to deliver it.

There is support for our fuel energy objectives not only on both sides of the House but probably across the country—it has become a great virtuous circle. It is difficult to find anyone who does not sign up to the importance of eliminating fuel poverty or recognise the health gains, disposable income gains and environmental gains to be won by achieving that goal. We shall all win by reaching that goal. That is the critical point that gives meaning to the fuel poverty strategy.

There are, however, disconnections between various parts of the strategy. Many of the individuals and all the bodies who have campaigned on the issue and helped to formulate the Bill—including the Association for the Conservation of Energy, Friends of the Earth, the right to fuel campaign, Neighbourhood Energy Action—know that there are imperfections in the strategy. However, all of them know that we are part of an incremental process that is beginning to narrow the gaps and contradictions. We are in the process of delivering a comprehensive strategy and answer to the scourge of fuel poverty.

I am chairman of the all-party warm homes group. Over the years, although members of that group have raised various issues, they have often specifically highlighted the intractable problems in the HMO sector. Most hon. Members have constituency cases of people living in the most abject properties; indeed, many of us have children who are now students living in properties that are not much better than the most abject ones. We are aware of the health risks caused by inadequate and poorly maintained gas supplies in miserably fuel inefficient properties.

For all the encouragement that successive Governments have attempted to give landlords to improve properties, there is now—as landlords themselves tell us—a clear divide between landlords. The best landlords whom we have consulted over the years have told us that a voluntary framework would be helpful; but who will be part of a voluntary framework other than the best landlords? Those who wish to be judged by the best current standards have no problems with joining such a framework. Their problem and frustration is that the cowboys in the industry have set benchmarks that are so low that they discredit the whole sector. The issue is how to recognise legitimate landlords who rent high-quality properties as those who provide a service that is valuable not only to their tenants but to the community as a whole.

It is landlords at the other end of the spectrum who drive their tenants into ill health and their communities to despair. However, it is very difficult to encourage people to devise mechanisms to prevent the worst landlords from dragging a whole sector into decline, which is very difficult to reverse. A national licensing framework would make a difference in that.

I appreciate many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who made a number of important points that I am sure will be considered fully in Committee. My only real reservation about the Bill is whether we should seek to persuade the Standing Committee and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to choose a more flexible time scale for implementation. The point on existing licences is both clear and very good. Those who currently hold licences are already complying with a voluntary scheme. It is less certain that we should offer the same flexibility to those who would be required to join the scheme.

I tell those who foresee implementation problems to cast back their mind to arguably the best parallel in parliamentary history—implementation of the Clean Air Act 1956. We recognised that there was a major problem that was not going to be resolved by exhorting individuals to change their pollution patterns. The then Government set everyone a clear target and a clear deadline. The essential point is to give people sufficient time to make the changes necessary to comply.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

As an interim measure, should not provision of housing benefit depend on registration? Would not landlords pursue registration more quickly if they were not receiving income? Presumably housing benefit is paid to households occupying some of the worst housing.

Mr. Simpson

Although the idea is attractive, the more we explore it, the more uncertainties we discover. It is difficult to separate the issue of housing benefit entitlement from the question of whether added costs will be transferred to the tenant. Consequently, it may not be possible to use such an arrangement as a lever to effect improvements in the quality of the property. That is one of the main reasons why a national licensing scheme is the answer. It would clearly tell landlords that they must meet minimum standards if they want to hold a licence to operate a house in multiple occupation. Such an arrangement would ensure that we do not trap those who are often the most vulnerable tenants between their landlords and their housing benefit.

Mr. Sayeed

The hon. Gentleman has doubts about my suggestion that there should be some flexibility. However, as some of the properties that we are considering are older, and some of them may be listed, obtaining the consent of Government agencies may be one of the steps required to make a house more fuel efficient. If experience is anything to go by, obtaining such consent can be somewhat time consuming. There may therefore have to be some flexibility.

Mr. Simpson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which seems entirely reasonable and should be covered by the regulations. Parliament needs to provide clear delineation between what is flexible and what is optional, because optional provisions have left those who are most reluctant to comply feeling that they have no real requirement to do so.

I am quite relaxed about the timetable—I do not want landlords to feel trapped into compliance—but we need to establish a commitment that commands the overwhelming support of the House and the country. We need to decide how to achieve a great social good in order to eliminate a serious and embarrassing social evil, and everyone who so wishes should feel empowered to be part of that.

We have to deal with the optional avenue and ensure that landlords will not be in a position to presume that gaps in the legislation provide opportunities for non-compliance, which would expose tenants to fuel poverty. However many would be affected by an optional opt-out—the 20 per cent. in HMOs that are below minimum standards or the 40 per cent. who are in fuel poverty—Parliament has a duty to prevent that from happening. The elimination of fuel poverty is a huge challenge and meeting it will require both ingenuity in respect of insulation and new ideas about providing access to renewable energy supplies for the poorest tenancies in the land.

Many of the options involving renewables that figured in the energy review or the national fuel poverty review will be taken up by those who are environmentally conscious and economically powerful in the housing sector; the challenge will be to make the same options available to the fuel poor. The ability to access renewable energy goes beyond low-energy light bulbs, double glazing and extra loft insulation; the challenge is to transform ourselves into a low-energy consuming society in which the poor can participate and live in comfort.

I look forward to consideration of the Bill in Committee. It is a terrific triumph of the partnership that has been built up in the campaign to end fuel poverty. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown on having the courage and wisdom to promote the Bill and I look forward to the solidarity and support that has been declared today by hon. Members on both sides of the House being reflected in Committee.

11.23 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot for private Members' Bills. We all enter raffles where we are not so keen to win one of the prizes, but I had to wait until my 17th attempt. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was very pleased to be successful this time and I commend him on his splendid choice of Bill.

As all hon. Members have said today, it is a scandal that so many people live in fuel poverty. It is also crazy that when people heat their houses so much energy is lost into the atmosphere, thus damaging our environment. The hon. Gentleman has certainly persuaded me completely this time; he failed to do so yesterday on cloning, but today I am entirely at one with him.

I hope that all hon. Members will support Second Reading of the Bill. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) expressing his rightful and justified concerns. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said, let us get the Bill into Committee, examine it more carefully and deal with those issues.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the concerns that the Government could address is the fact that there is no arrangement for outside validation of the success achieved in reducing the amount of energy used and the emissions caused? Why have the Government so far refused to have independent monitoring? My fear is that we will reach 2012 only to discover that the Government have not met their targets.

Mr. Amess

I cannot answer my right hon. Friend's second question. He has enormous expertise and travels the world making his case on these matters. I thank him for his intervention and I am sure that when the Minister returns to her place, a note will be passed to her and she will address those points in her reply to the debate.

Returning to the legitimate concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I hope that the Bill will progress into Committee. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said, let us all work together on this excellent Bill, perhaps improve it and make sure that it delivers our intentions.

On the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and the strategy that the Government announced a few days ago, there was a long consultation period between February and November involving nearly 300 organisations. I do not wish to sound churlish, but I have two outstanding concerns. I do not know whether a date has been set for the elimination of fuel poverty and I am still somewhat concerned about the definition of that term. We can have all the strategies in the world; we can set targets, consult and review, but if our role is to mean anything, we have to scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive to account. We do not know who will be in Parliament in five or 10 years' time, but if the 2000 Act is to mean anything, it behoves hon. Members to make sure that the Government of the day honour the commitments that they set out. It is up to all hon. Members not to say, "We have the 2000 Act and that is the end of the matter. Let's forget about it; it will happen", because nothing will happen unless we examine the strategy and hold the Government to account; I trust that we will do that.

The Bill ties in with the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act. I salute the fact that it provides a mechanism for tackling fuel poverty among those who are hardest to reach. When, in Committee, we were considering what became the Housing Act 1996, we were limited in our approach. We know that a higher proportion of people living in HMOs are in fuel poverty than those living in any other type of housing, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown seeks to address that in the Bill. I cannot remember who the Minister was when we were considering the Housing Bill in Committee, but at the time I thought the Government were doing a splendid job. Looking back at it now, however, it could have been a more robust measure in some respects. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is right to have raised concerns, but I am still pleased that the private rented sector constitutes a major plank of the Bill. That sector is the hardest to improve with Government schemes, because there is less control than in public housing. There are fewer incentives for landlords than for owner-occupiers to improve energy efficiency. I hope that we can consider that in Committee.

The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act required an overall strategy for tackling fuel poverty in all houses, but the Bill provides a useful licensing mechanism for the worst homes. I understand that we all need somewhere to live, but in two parts of my constituency, Westborough and Westcliff, it is absolutely crazy that some of the houses have been converted for multiple occupation. I recognise that people cannot afford to maintain some of the big houses, but the way in which they have been converted into tiny little bedsits is a disgrace.

What is worse, some of our terraced houses have umpteen people in them. I get inundated with complaints from local residents when new tenants move in and behave disgracefully. I know that the Bill does not deal with that, but I want to flag up my concerns. People who have lived in an area for a long time suddenly find that people with the lowest possible social standards have moved in, chucking their rubbish around, dumping cars on the front verges and having all-night parties. It is an absolute disgrace.

I know that the Bill's promoter is concerned with people who find that the properties they move into are inadequately heated.

Dr. Desmond Turner

If the hon. Gentleman looks at part 3, he will note that one of the requirements of the registration of the Secretary of State's order is that it addresses management of the houses. The real concerns that he raised will be covered.

Mr. Amess

I must look at the Bill more carefully. I am delighted to learn that the matter is dealt with. That is splendid. I am sick to death of these people who move in and make other people's lives intolerable. I—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's point has been answered.

Mr. Amess

I had better move on, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Bill goes beyond fuel poverty to encompass fire safety and general good conditions. The Chief Whip dealt with the point when she was a Housing Minister. She spoke about "death traps" and said that they must be improved.

I want to refer to the views of the younger elements of the Conservative party.

Mr. Love

Where are they?

Mr. Amess

There are many of them on the Benches this morning. They have also written to Conservative Members of Parliament to say that they wholeheartedly support the Bill. There are 600,000 students living in private rented accommodation, many of them in houses in multiple occupation. Young professionals also constitute a significant proportion of HMO residents.

There are 1.5 million HMOs in England. That includes some good accommodation, but the highest incidence of very poor accommodation is found among these properties. Of all sectors, this one has the highest proportion in fuel poverty—39 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) cannot be here today. I had a brief conversation with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown about concerns raised by interest groups in Poole. I have read that into the record now. I understand that the hon. Gentleman intends to look into those concerns and try to respond positively.

Licensing of HMOs will ensure that we have proper fire standards. I am joint chairman of the all-party fire safety group, so I am very pleased about that. Proper amenities and energy efficiency will be promoted. Currently, 16 per cent. of student houses harbour pests, 50 per cent. report damp, 40 per cent. have mould and 20 per cent. do not even have a smoke detector.

All that information has been provided by young supporters of the Conservative party. I applaud their research. They are concerned about proper licensing and feel that it is well overdue. They say that for the Bill to be effective it must apply to all houses with four or more residents. As it stands, applying to five or more, it will certainly miss a large percentage of students living in HMOs.

The Bill's promoter is to be congratulated. Those of us who have had the good fortune to win the ballot know that a huge amount of work goes into preparing a Bill. The hon. Gentleman will have to thank many groups for their support. While some of us are engaged in saving the world, I am delighted that he has decided to save those less fortunate than us. I congratulate him.

11.37 am
Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)

I join the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). The Bill is important, to say the least. When it is enacted, as I am sure it will be, it will become a marker for what private Members can do.

The matters raised in the Bill are of great concern to my constituents. Many of those matters have already been discussed in some detail by previous speakers, so I now have the difficult task of trying to avoid being repetitious. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Perhaps I should just sit down now. It is difficult to do what one's constituents would want when so many good contributions have already been made.

The need for energy conservation is felt as much in my constituency as in any other. It contains housing that was built in the period when houses were being put together—that is an appropriate way of putting it—and described as homes fit for heroes, in the post-first world war housing developments. That was followed by the vast post-second world war estates. Even with the Parker Morris standards, they were not designed for energy conservation and heating was given a low priority, but they met the desperate housing need of people returning from the war, and they repaired some of the damage done by war.

The problem for some of the housing in my constituency is that it is built on the weather side of the highest hill in Leeds, 610 ft above sea level. The Pennines are visible to the west. In an easterly direction—although not visible—the next mountain range of any significance is the Urals. In understanding the bleak nature of weatherside exposure, we become acutely aware of the need to do something about energy conservation. These houses are the coldest, wettest and dampest in my constituency, and they number several hundred.

The social need is no longer in dispute, and Members have mentioned the costs in terms of health and untimely deaths, as well as the direct burden on the NHS. I am not referring only to the housing stock built immediately after the first and second world wars—we also have Victorian buildings, some of which lend themselves readily to conversion to houses in multiple occupation. However, they, too, lack the absolutely essential element—the need to insulate and prevent energy loss.

It is my duty as a representative of people whose needs are desperate, to support the Bill. It is also a pleasure and something that I do with a sense of relief. Finally, we are getting round to tackling these issues. However, there is also another element that is not separate from the need for warm homes, namely, the question of HMOs in my constituency.

Some hon. Members may have visited the area where I live, not to visit me but to go to the famous Headingley cricket ground. We enjoy cricket in Leeds, especially when Yorkshire are doing well and England are winning test matches; then, it is wonderful. I live just outside the cricket ground and, in the past six or seven years, I have seen the area transformed. That transformation has been far from pleasurable.

The area is now famous for those icons associated with HMOs, including the growth in the numbers of licensed premises and cafes and the semi-permanent forest of "To let" signs blighting the street scene. The dramatic growth in crime in my constituency is clearly associated with the ever-changing use of properties in the area. The explosion in the number of HMOs in my constituency has taken place over the last six or seven years. That has been due, in large part, to the unplanned-for massive expansion in the student population attending our universities in inner-city Leeds. Those universities were built at a time when it was comfortable and easy to accommodate the student levels.

Inner-city Leeds was not suitable for the dramatic expansion that has taken place and which has transformed Headingley and the surrounding areas. In the electorial ward of Headingley, more than 50 per cent. of residents are no longer held to be local. They are transients, in the sense that they come and go through the HMOs.

In the recent past, these homes were available to first-time buyers for family occupation. They are now reduced—I use that word advisedly—to seasonal use only. We have term-time occupation, which means only eight months of the year. For the rest of the time, those properties are vacant. It will not be long before they are in that condition over the Christmas period, during which Headingley will lose more than 50 per cent. of its population.

The Bill does not deal with these planning issues but, as has been said, they have to be noted. We cannot separate cause from effect. HMOs create not just the consequences that we are debating this morning, but other things. A former family house with potentially one car, or maybe two, can now have people expecting to park as many as eight cars outside an HMO. That causes massive environmental damage, and the effect has been to drive long-term residents out of the area. Those people now have to travel back into the city centre, whereas previously they walked.

The change in character has turned Headingley and the immediate surrounding areas into a major competitor—if such an unhealthy competition were ever to be held—for the title of "Worst crime record in the UK". Armed robberies and violent robberies take place all too frequently and burglary is on a scale that beggars imagination. We are persuading our police that the problems have to be tackled, but they frequently draw my attention to the effect that HMOs have on the security of their occupants, as well as to the threat of criminality and the knock-on effects on the community.

Who takes responsibility for locking the house at night? Who makes sure that the windows are closed? Who makes sure that waste materials are in place for collection? The not-responsible attitudes that we find inside HMOs are plaguing substantial parts of inner-city Leeds that I represent. I still live in the area. The houses either side of me are both HMOs, one of which was the subject of a serious planning dispute that we finally won after a long and hard struggle.

The people most likely to suffer are not just those who have been obliged to move out of the area to look for peace in their lives, but those who still live there. The most vulnerable are those young people who attend our universities; they need some protection, too. The Bill provides for that kind of protection. It ensures that the health and safety of residents is secured by regulation and registration of property.

An element that people find difficult to understand is the damage done to notions of community. If we strip out of a community 50 per cent. or more of its longer-term residents, we put in jeopardy a number of the services that would usually be found in the area. Ten years ago, close to where I live, the local authority decided to build a primary school. The demographics showed that it had a healthy future. However, there is now serious doubt whether that school and others in the area will survive the next few years. What was seen as a long-term and useful investment in the community has been devastated by the dramatic growth in HMOs. No families mean no children; no children mean no primary schools. Those effects must be looked at, in addition to those elements contained within the Bill.

I do not want to waste the House's time, so I shall end by commenting on the way in which the housing stock in my constituency was built up by pioneers who planned, as best they knew how, to provide for the needs of the needy after two world wars. They did not foresee some of the problems of heat loss that now occur. We can use the broad consensus on the need for a speedy resolution of those problems to ensure that the pioneering spirit of that period is reflected in the swift passage of the Bill through Parliament and on to the statute book.

I look forward to hearing other hon. Members because I want to report back to my constituents personally, as they insist I do, on the approval being given to the Bill today. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has become a hero to us all, especially those who have been struggling apparently pointlessly and without hope, for years on end. I wonder how he managed it—it must have been divine intervention that enabled him to turn up with the sort of legislation that hon. Members find it wonderful to support.

11.52 am
Sue Doughty (Guildford)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on gaining the opportunity to introduce his Bill. As one of those who, before entering Parliament, joined in letter-writing campaigns to support similar legislation, I am delighted to participate in today's debate. Like many others, I have been contacted by my local HECA officer on Guildford borough council, who asked me to be here today to support the work being done by the council. I am only too pleased to do so.

I am concerned about the licensing of HMOs—we all agree on the early parts of the Bill—so I shall dwell on those issues and the position of landlords. Several landlords have contacted me and I have met others who are worried about the impact of the Bill on their viability. I endorse the arguments about those landlords who should not be in the business of running the sort of benefit housing that has been described, but many landlords have only one or two properties—I was such a landlord once. Those landlords might have bought a house when housing was expensive, then married or moved to another property and put tenants in the old house; sometimes people put tenants into houses they have inherited, or treat the house as a source of pension income.

Most landlords want to do well by their tenants. Like most of us, they want a quiet life—they want letting arrangements to work well, their tenants to have few complaints, and to be able to manage repairs within the income that they receive from the property. Landlords have the right to make a fair return on their investment in their property. We need them to be able to do that because we need landlords in the market. None the less, we should not tolerate landlords who provide accommodation of a standard lower than is found anywhere else. I shall not repeat the comments made about students and about the deaths of students and other young people living in poor standard accommodation, save to emphasise that fuel poverty is especially intense in that sector.

I have an interest as one of the many Members of Parliament whose children live in rented accommodation. I rang my student son up to ask about what was happening in his area of Leicester, only to be told that the roof had fallen in on his friends' house—they are still waiting for repairs—and that the pipes had burst; all the usual problems. What worried me most was the local notion that one should line one's loft with newspaper when the weather gets cold—what a hazard with electrical fires. We forget how students keep warm. Most are lucky, but the number of those who end up at accident and emergency or who die is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the risk borne by tenants of HMOs. I hope that the Committee on the Bill will pay particular attention to houses with four or fewer unrelated people living in them. Many student houses are small terraced houses containing only a few people, but they are just as vulnerable as those living in larger properties.

Many landlords are covered by existing rules, but it is important that all landlords have access to clear guidelines. The legislation is not clear, which is bad news for both landlords and tenants. In cases of below standard accommodation or of slipping standards, it is important that the law is enforceable. What constitutes an HMO should be clearly defined in law, and provisions relating to HMOs should be easy to understand.

There is concern about the cost of licensing, even though it is not intended to be a financial burden on landlords. We must be sure that local authorities are not gold-plating the requirements of licensing. What is important is that we raise housing to basic standards of decency, not that we price businesses out of the market when adjustments are needed. On the other hand, we do not want bad landlords undercutting the local market to house people in accommodation that is clearly substandard or dangerous. That is unacceptable.

Good landlords will be encouraged by the Bill and by the moneys that many local authorities make available to invest in properties to improve them. Good local authorities promote such schemes and ensure that their local landlords know how they can benefit. However, I endorse the points made by the hon. Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) about licensing and the need to identify who is in charge of a property, so that when a local authority is called on to take action through its environmental services department, it is able to identify who is the liaison point in the house when dealing with rubbish, cars and so on. So much time is wasted by local authorities, when the problem could be solved much more easily and neighbours' issues dealt with. That is important. Management of property should be clear and transparent, and only through registration will that be achieved.

I welcome the Bill. I look forward to the real benefits that will flow from achieving 30 per cent. fuel efficiency overall in our housing stock. It is important that the 37 per cent. of the population who live in HMOs and are suffering from fuel poverty should be able to see a way forward, to see a means of making low incomes go further and to have the comfort of living in not only a safe home but a warm home. I support the work that is being done in the Chamber today.

11.59 am
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on introducing the Bill, which I welcome. The fact that many Members are in their places shows how much cross-party support and agreement there is for the measure and reflects the seriousness of the issue that my hon. Friend seeks to address. The importance of the issue is recognised throughout the country.

Much of the debate has focused on houses in multiple occupation. Statistics tell us that the worst manifestations of fuel poverty are to be found in HMOs. The provisions that relate to HMOs are obviously an important part of the Bill.

My remarks will relate to parts 1 and 2. Many Members, including me, represent constituencies where there is a high proportion of council housing and where there are old Victorian and small terraced properties. My authority has about 32,000 council houses, many of which require substantial investment to bring them up to a level of heat efficiency that we would deem to be acceptable. Of course, there are implications for the lifestyle and quality of living of those who live in these houses. A failure to deal with the problems could have major implications for other local services.

We are all aware of bed blocking during winter, especially bad winters, that results from many people entering hospital because of fuel poverty in their homes and consequent health problems. We must have joined-up thinking. This will not be the first or the last time that a Back Bencher tries to join up government thinking on this issue.

My local authority is well ahead in achieving the 30 per cent. target set by the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995; last year, it reached 9 per cent. The number of complaints that I receive on these issues shows that there is huge unmet demand for the Government to introduce measures that might achieve improvements on the present targets in the long term. By making targets statutory and stipulating that there should be a dedicated officer in each local authority charged with delivering them, the Bill should ensure that authorities that are lagging behind will enter into partnerships designed to deliver the targets.

I welcome the provisions in part 2. The Secretary of State will be enabled to give guidance on the operation of partnerships to help deliver energy conservation. It is essential that best practice is developed, but a case in my constituency shows where such projects can go wrong. In February, a lady applied for a grant for heating improvements under the home energy efficiency scheme. A gas contractor conducted a survey under the Energy Advice Grant Agency. The company was confident that the lady qualified for a grant. An independent surveyor contracted by EAGA gave her the same advice. When nothing happened, despite frequent correspondence, she eventually contacted EAGA, which told her that she did not qualify for a grant. Because she had a central heating system with a boiler, radiator and pipework, which had been installed in 1964, she had an adequate system, so did not qualify under the Government regulations.

Obviously, I have taken the matter up and am looking into it. However, it is essential that all the agencies in the partnerships to promote energy efficiency work together to ensure that there is clarity of purpose and that the public are not misled in any way or under any misapprehension about the appropriate criteria for qualifying for energy conservation assistance. The partnerships recommended in the closer regulation that the Bill advocates will go some way towards dealing with that. The confusion that I have witnessed in my own constituency is not a good advertisement for current schemes and will not help us to reach our goals.

Sandwell borough council is conducting one of five warm front pilot projects and has set up a partnership with other bodies, including EAGA, to eliminate those problems. Regular meetings are held with council officers and key players in the agencies who are delivering that assistance to try to deal with the confusion and problems that have arisen. We must ensure that we develop models that can be used to implement policy under the Bill.

Finally, I welcome the provision in the Bill to ensure that conservation standards are addressed in the transfer of local authority housing stock. In my own local authority, one reason for looking at stock transfer options is to lever in funds that would otherwise not be available to bring houses up to the appropriate energy conservation level and eliminate fuel poverty. It is helpful to include a statutory requirement so that when local authorities make an agreement to transfer stock to outside agencies tenants are in no doubt that their interests are paramount.

I shall conclude on that point, as many other Members have already raised the issues that I was going to discuss. I urge the House to support the Bill conclusively so that we can all return to our constituencies to tell the people who regularly attend our surgeries that action is in hand and so that we can make substantial progress in the years ahead.

12.8 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I hope to make a brief speech. I have a properly declared interest, as I let a property at a maintenance-level rent. As a landlord, I welcome the Bill. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) is doing the House a great service in introducing an extremely important measure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) has already said that Conservative Members support unreservedly the provisions in the Bill that address fuel poverty, and that we broadly support the provisions that deal with energy conservation. I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks and move swiftly on to the third pillar of the Bill—the registration of houses in multiple occupation. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that that was the most important pillar, without which the other provisions would fall.

Hon. Members who represent seaside towns—many of whom have been in the Chamber this morning—are only too well aware of the deleterious effect of the decline in the hotel and guest house market and the consequent increase in the transfer of those properties to use as houses in multiple occupation. In North Thanet, particularly in Cliftonville, that has been marked over the past 20 years or so. There has been an influx of people from all over the country, and from all over the world, first as benefit claimants and more recently as asylum seekers. They have moved into properties that are unfit for habitation by the numbers of people and the kinds of family who have been using them.

Throughout my 16 or so years in the House I have campaigned for legislation on the proper registration of HMOs. The last Conservative Government gave local authorities powers to introduce licensing schemes. Thanet council applied to the Department of the Environment, as it then was, for a scheme, finally had it approved and introduced it. That has had some beneficial effect, but it would be wrong to believe that it has been sufficient to control the abuse of some of the properties in my constituency.

I could have taken the speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) and virtually transposed it to Cliftonville in my constituency. It is interesting to note that the hon. Gentleman has experienced the same problems in an inner-city constituency as have those of us representing seaside constituencies.

My reservation about part 3 was the subject of my intervention, in which I named two organisations. I feel a need to clarify my earlier comments. It saddens me that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown has chosen, at least for the moment, to exclude registered social housing groups from compulsory registration. Although there is regulation designed to control registered social landlords, and although in theory they already comply with much that is in the Bill and would apply to other landlords, those schemes do not appear to be satisfactorily policed.

I should declare another, vicarious interest, as my daughter occupies a home next door to a Notting Hill housing trust property. It is my personal view that the property is ill managed and has a bad effect on the surrounding neighbourhood. Like many such properties, it consists of terraced houses, and the behaviour and the management of people in one property are bound to impinge, as the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said from his experience, on adjacent properties.

If fire breaks out, if the property is badly managed, and if there are inadequate fire precautions and fire escapes, it is not just the property itself that is at risk, but adjoining properties as well. I feel strongly that organisations such as Notting Hill housing trust that neglect their responsibilities to their tenants and to their properties should be brought within the ambit of the scheme.

The other organisation that I mentioned was English Churches housing. Sadly, over the past couple of years I have received more complaints from residents, constituents and tenants of English Churches housing than from any other single organisation in my constituency. I am sure that the authorities take the view that if the words "English Churches" appear in the title of a business, it must be reputable. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown should reflect on part 3 and review the matter in Committee—I trust that the Bill will reach Committee. He should consider whether there is a strong case for bringing registered social housing within the ambit of the Bill not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire suggested, on the expiry of the current licence for social housing registration, but immediately. None the less, I hope very much that the Bill will get its Second Reading and be given a fair wind so that it can pass through the Committee stage and become stronger and better, and a very valuable Act of Parliament.

12.15 pm
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I, too, am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, just as I was when similar matters were discussed in relation to the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), which became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. I shall not add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), as I think that he has had enough congratulations already and I do not, in this place at least, want flattery to get a bad name. Of course, he has done sterling work in uniting many different groups to sponsor the Bill and we all appreciate that.

I share a constituency office with the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who, despite being without portfolio, has immense political remit and power. Almost every day, we are made aware of the housing problems of our constituents in all parts of Norwich, whether they concern damp, availability or anything else. Even in a fair city such as Norwich—some would say it is the future of Britain—we are acquainted with such problems, which are similar to those in Leeds and elsewhere.

Norwich city council, which has been Labour controlled for many years, has earned the plaudits of people throughout the nation for its handling of council housing and the way it has sought to prevent the slide into profiteering and privatisation. Councillor Bernard Smith, who holds the cabinet portfolio for housing and social care, recently said: our government continues to allow hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on conference after conference, hundreds of thousands of pounds on fees to consultants, hundreds of thousands of pounds on one sided campaigns to persuade tenants to say yes to transfer or some private finance initiative. In the year 1998/99 alone, £25m was paid to consultants, lawyers and public relations firms to sell privatisation. Hundreds and thousands of pounds which surely would have been much better spent tackling the pockets of extreme deprivation that exist in many of our cities that just don't happen to meet the criteria of the latest funding scheme. He went on: We should not be terrified of calling for the renaissance of public sector housing. Surely we've not forgotten that it was only through the intervention of the public sector that housing shortages, chronic overcrowding, and the deplorable conditions that many people were living in were tackled. Surely we have not forgotten that in the past it was the public sector who ensured that good quality housing at affordable rents was available to key workers and not just doctors, teachers, nurses, but also to our school cleaners, our hospital cleaners, our refuse collectors and many others who can rightly claim the title of key workers. Councillor Smith pointed out that Norwich city council owns and manages about 18,500 homes and has 1,500 residential leaseholders. Finally, he said: We carry out some 4,500 repairs every month. Norwich City Council has been a direct provider of good quality affordable homes for many years. Some hon. Members might see that as the East Anglian road to socialism, but throughout the many years the Labour council has been sustained in Norwich, it has continually gained renewed support among the city's tenants and voters.

I make no apologies for mentioning Norwich and using it as an example of some of the issues that we have discussed. After all, Norwich city council and Norwich itself have been savaged many times by the organically grown John Humphrys on Radio 4—criticising policies on chestnut or conker trees and window boxes on high-level flats. It is about time we fought back and talked about some of the amazing things that have happened in Norwich in relation to housing.

On carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, a world-class group, the climatic research unit, is based at the local university. Its interests cover all aspects of climate change and it has advised the Government on many issues in the past few years. It was awarded the Tyndal centre, which is now an international unit that studies the effects of global warming. Mike Hulme, its director, stated: If the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles, the surface temperature of the planet is likely eventually to warm between 1.5 deg C and 4.5 deg C. I will not put that into Fahrenheit. Celsius was mentioned this morning, but many of us still work in Fahrenheit. That is to do with our education. Mike Hulme continues: The observed warming over the last 30 years of our climate can be explained when we consider the effect of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases influenced by human activities. The rise in concentration of human greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane accounts for both local and global climate systems. Considerations of climate change will have an impact on customers, corporations and countries. They will gradually become active agents in pre-empting the effects of climate change through precautionary adaptations and reacting to change by altering their behaviour patterns, investment plans, and regulatory policies, and in planning their homes and communities. The Bill stands alongside that vision and aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases.

How is Norwich handling the problem? The university, city council and other organisations are working in partnership through a new Government initiative called the Carbon Trust. It is a good example of the academic community working with those outside its ivory tower. In Norwich, the requisite reductions will take place, and plans are afoot to reduce emissions to 60 per cent. by 2020, in a pilot study. That means targeting every household, school, housing and development project manager and transport provider in the city.

The study will be especially important for houses in multiple occupation. Many students live there. When I took richer students from the United States around Norwich, they sometimes asked where the poor people lived. I showed them some of the places where the students lived. There are many poor quarters in the United States, but it does richer students good to remember that some students live in the conditions that other hon. Members have described.

We have also considered fuel poverty; it has been discussed in the House several times. As I have said on previous occasions, although the Government's heating allowances constitute a tremendous initiative, people still shiver and suffer for lack of heat in this country. That damages people's health and makes them susceptible to infections. There is a formula, which has been discussed previously, for calculating the increase in deaths in the winter months between December and March. Eighty-eight per cent. are due to vascular problems and infections, not to hypothermia, from which few deaths result. Figures have been produced that show that nearly 23,000 people die as a result of excess winter mortality in this country. I am sure that the real figures are much higher; I believe that they would be 50 per cent. higher if we recorded them differently.

The evidence is clear. The coldest countries do not have the worst winter mortality rates. That is attributed to warmer houses, wearing more clothes and more physical activity. Excess winter deaths vary between the ages of 45 to 75 and between social classes. We apply the formula every year in Norwich, where 200 to 300 extra deaths occur in winter. The Bill will help, through provisions on central heating and so on, to improve the figures and reduce deaths. I believe that that ambition will be easily achieved.

I am not in a position to give individuals advice. I would not want to do that because I believe that we need collective action, for which the Bill tries to provide. My constituency covers Broadland council as well as Norwich's. Those councils have affordable warmth policies. They have standards that they try to maintain, they give grants and they carry out energy conservation. They have a long way to go, however.

I shall outline precisely what Norwich has done recently. It hosted the eastern consultation on the Bill in Norwich city hall, and the conclusion was that there was a need to bring the performance of the poorer-performing councils up to standard. It was decided to focus on activity, and to make the appointment of an energy efficiency officer a statutory post. There were worries that the council might be restricted in exercising its discretion, and that central Government might be over-prescriptive, so I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on that.

A large percentage—some 35 per cent.—of Norwich's housing stock is owner occupied, and large sums have been invested in those houses for energy efficiency. In 2000–01, almost £500,000 was invested in insulation, £1,170,000 in heating and hot water systems, and £866,000 in replacing windows, with private owners receiving grants of £88,000 for insulation and £356,000 for heating and hot water systems. That is an amazing start, but it covers only a small percentage of the homes that need investment. There is a long way to go; only 2,000 homes have benefited so far, and we look forward to more resources being invested. The Bill clearly attempts to empower local councils and to address the problems of persuading and encouraging private owners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

Norwich city council has consistently supported the need for licensing HMOs, and supports the reform of the current piecemeal legislation. We also need to bring the legislation up to date to tackle the problem of irresponsible landlords, and to ensure that it is enforceable and clear in its requirements. It would be a tragedy if this Bill did not soar into legislation.

12.26 pm
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is a near neighbour of mine in South Norfolk. This is my first opportunity to contribute to a debate on a private Member's Bill, and I share the widely expressed sentiment that such debates show the House of Commons at its best. It is my belief that the House of Commons can mean something if the Members determine that it should do so. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on securing this debate, and on having put it to such good use.

In addition to Norwich city council, my own local authority, South Norfolk council, has also expressed an interest in the Bill and asked me to support it, which I am pleased to do. I listened with interest to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed)—who is no longer in his place—about castigating the Government for not having taken action earlier. He may have a point, but I would sooner congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown on having taken this opportunity to do something. This bears out my belief that we would probably be better off if we had less Government legislation and more private Member's legislation. It is, therefore, a great pleasure to speak in this debate.

On energy conservation, there are clearly wide disparities in the energy efficiency achieved by different local authorities. I have no doubt that making the achievement of the targets mandatory will focus minds and will assist the local authority officers responsible for achieving the targets in negotiating for resources and delivering what they are required to deliver.

Some 20 years ago, I lived in Canada for a while. That is a country with a much colder climate than this one. Day after day and week after week, the temperature was regularly minus 35 deg Celsius. The hon. Member for Norwich, North will know that by the time it gets down to minus 40 deg, it does not matter whether it is Celsius or Fahrenheit. When I was living there, the Canadian federal Government had a scheme for home insulation that was extremely easy to access, extremely widely taken up and had a huge impact on the levels of home insulation. This relates to something that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) said about the difficulty of getting grants. If the Bill becomes law, as I hope and believe it will, I hope that the Government will consider seriously what might be done to improve energy conservation through encouraging much more uptake of home insulation.

There is universal agreement in the House that it is extraordinary that we are still talking about fuel poverty, and any measures that can be taken to eradicate it are welcome.

I shall not repeat the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about houses in multiple occupation. He mentioned Conservative Future, which is a splendid organisation with 10,000 vibrant young people who can see which way things are going in the future. It is full of people who recognise that the thing to do with stock is to buy it when it is cheap. They have obviously backed the right horse in that respect.

Conservative Future makes a valid point. When I was a student and first moved to London, I lived in a house in multiple occupation. I was frightened of getting up in the morning because it was so cold. Houses in multiple occupation that lack proper facilities for warmth affect most those who are least able to care for themselves at both ends of the spectrum: young people who have left home and are just starting out or are in tertiary education, and old people who spend most of their time at home and have the most limited incomes. Any measures to deal with fuel poverty will therefore be welcome.

I have a couple of concerns. The first relates to the definition of multiple occupancy. I shall not go into any detail, as that is a matter for the Committee, which should give it close consideration. Any definition that is agreed on when the Bill comes out of Committee should not create more problems than it solves.

My second concern relates to registered social landlords and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who has apologised to me because he has had to leave the Chamber temporarily. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown that good landlords have nothing to fear from the Bill. I am sure that that is right. As my hon. Friend said, many landlords will welcome the Bill.

Mr. Love

Taking a slightly wider view, there is a recognised need for institutional investment in the private rented sector to deal with these problems. The institutions are scared off by the Rachman-like image of the private rented sector. The Bill will be the first step in attracting institutional investment to deal with the problems.

Mr. Bacon

The hon. Gentleman is almost certainly right. When I left university my first job was in a merchant bank, and I was able to afford a warm flat in London. I had an inglorious three years of merchant banking, where I worked longer hours than in this place. What struck me most about my early experiences was the extraordinary concern that people working in reputable institutions in the City expressed about the probity of the organisations with which they were dealing. That was at the time of the Guinness and other scandals in the 1980s. It shocked me that, far from being swashbuckling corporate financiers, institutions were hugely concerned to look for and ensure probity on the part of those with whom they were dealing.

Mr. Simmonds

Does my hon. Friend think that the classification of HMOs and specific properties may deter some institutional investors from coming into the market because of their derogatory perception of HMOs in the residential marketplace?

Mr. Bacon

The precise definitions are matters for the Committee. My hon. Friend may also have a point.

The key issue is that most landlords most of the time are good and honourable and want to do the right thing. A small minority are determined not to do the right thing if at all possible. I shall not dwell on the definition, but it is important.

As I said, my second concern relates to landlords. We should ensure that the regulatory burden is not excessive when the Bill comes into force. That depends on what is written in the Bill, and on how local authorities interpret and act on the regulations. Resources should be disproportionately concentrated on hunting down the relatively small proportion of bad landlords. We should ensure that the majority of landlords who are keen to fulfil their obligations do not feel that they are being hounded or are not welcome. We must also ensure that the Bill does nothing to reduce overall provision by the private rented sector, which needs to expand, not contract.

I support the Bill, and congratulate its promoter.

12.35 pm
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I do not hesitate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner). I have backed earlier moves to tackle fuel poverty, and have welcomed the Government's action in providing winter fuel payments and extra support for their home insulation and heat conservation schemes. I have also campaigned in regard to the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and, last November, initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject. I want to concentrate on that aspect today.

As one of the Bill's main proponents, I was glad to be able to arrange a consultation meeting on HMOs in my constituency. A number of suggestions were made, both for additions to the Bill and on the wider issue of dealing with fuel poverty. The strongest plea came from representatives of the fire service, who said that regulations applying to HMOs must be strengthened. We should seize the opportunity to install domestic sprinklers in the properties that need them most. That was a genuine plea from the hearts of those who have to rescue people who are sometimes injured and burnt, or have to carry dead bodies from homes. They ask all Members to support the Bill and to use it as a vehicle to stop unnecessary deaths in HMOs.

Let me explain how we can prevent such deaths. I hope that everyone agrees that fire regulations should be part of overall HMO regulations. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) that licensing would be appropriate, and neither burdensome nor costly. I am sure that that can be achieved. We need to raise housing standards to the same high level. We can work with good owners and, together with them, secure a sensible timetable for delivery of the improvements that are so vital. We need to tackle the cowboy owners, who exploit the most vulnerable members of the community by leaving them in fuel poverty and at significant risk of fire. By tackling the bad owners, we will strengthen the position of the good ones in the marketplace.

About 3.1 million people live in HMOs—about 6 per cent. of the population. However, 35 per cent. of fire deaths and about 39 per cent of injuries occur in HMOs. Smoke alarms play a part in fire safety, but on their own are inadequate. A recent study conducted in poorer parts of two London boroughs found that only 16 per cent. of homes had functioning smoke alarms. Too often people forget to check the batteries, or turn the alarms off when dinner is burning and forget to switch them on again.

Fire sprinklers, however, are reliable. The technology is simple: the sprinklers are set to go off only when the heat reaches 68 degrees C, and to go off only in the area of the fire, controlling it or putting it out.

We are behind the times. In the land of the free market, Scottsdale in Arizona, a law was passed in 1985 requiring fire sprinklers to be fitted in all new properties. Scottsdale recently published a 10-year report showing no fire deaths, an 80 per cent. reduction in fire injuries and in property damage, and a 95 per cent. reduction in water usage for fire control in properties with sprinklers. Vancouver, whose climate is much like ours, passed a similar law in 1990, and recently published an interim report supporting the Scottsdale findings.

Sprinklers are affordable; they have certainly been found to be so abroad. The technology is getting cheaper as the market develops. Compared with the income that owners receive from their properties and the cost of the estate as a whole, the cost of sprinklers is marginal. Those hon. Members who support the Bill because they are concerned about the lives that are lost through fuel poverty and about people suffering in cold homes should support investment to save lives and to give people security in their homes.

To emphasise the point on affordability, we should compare that cost with the cost of insulating homes against noise. The Government are considering introducing regulations on higher standards of noise insulation in homes, yet the cost of such insulation is higher than the cost of putting fire sprinklers into homes. Surely preventing injuries and deaths deserves at least as much attention as noise reduction.

For those who are unconvinced, I have two more suggestions. First, they should look at the Residential Sprinkler Association's website—www.firesprinklers.org.uk —where there is a description of a demonstration carried out in two houses in Wiltshire, one with sprinklers and one without. In the unprotected house, the blaze caused devastation. In the protected house, the sprinklers effectively targeted the fire, minimised damage and kept the house safe for any occupants. If hon. Members still need to see the effects of fire sprinklers with their own eyes, they are welcome to visit Westlea fire station in my constituency, where a demonstration house has been set up. It shows effectively the dramatic impact of sprinklers.

I hope that the House will remember the plea from the firefighters and accept the case for fire safety and fire sprinklers to be part of regulations on houses in multiple occupation. I have concentrated on that matter, but I equally support the important parts of the Bill that deal with fuel poverty. I urge the House to support the Bill.

12.41 pm
Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot. I thank him on behalf of my constituents in Boston and Skegness, especially those who will directly benefit from the Bill, which I hope will move to its Committee stage and soon become an Act of Parliament. The people who will specifically benefit from the Bill are the rural poor in the immediate surrounds of Boston and those in Skegness who reside in HMOs. Many of the older hotels and boarding houses have not been converted satisfactorily.

I have one or two queries about part 3, but I wholly support the excellent and worthwhile ambition to eradicate fuel poverty to improve many people's lives, particularly the vulnerable—older people and those in lower socio-economic groups.

As an ex-housing chairman at Wandsworth council, I am aware of the many complex issues that surround this subject. When I was doing some reading to research the debate, I was disturbed and horrified to find out that since my time at the council in the early 1990s, despite some important legislation having been enacted, things have not moved on that much. The severity, the continued extent and even the geographical spread of the problem of fuel poor households are unacceptable.

Some interesting statistics from Help the Aged drove that point home. About 25,000 senior citizens died avoidable deaths last winter. Not all were due to fuel poverty, but a large number were either directly due to fuel poverty or allied to it. Seventy-seven per cent. of single pensioners are classified as fuel poor. Forty per cent. of housing comprising bedsits has been deemed unfit for occupation. Those figures are a very poor reflection upon our country and our society when we are the fourth biggest economy in the world.

All hon. Members are aware of the effects of fuel poverty, which include misery, illness and death. The challenge is to find a way of bringing together and enabling the relevant bodies to work together effectively and efficiently towards the common goal. The Bill's provisions strengthening the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 are necessary, welcome and to be encouraged. The 30 per cent. target will not be met without them, and it is essential to allocate resources to enable local authorities to meet the duty imposed in the Bill.

I think that most hon. Members agree on part 2, which deals specifically with fuel poverty, and I shall not dwell on it. My one possible concern is, inevitably, part 3, which seems initially almost to have been bolted on to the other two parts. Nevertheless, to eradicate fuel poverty, it is necessary to regulate HMOs; as mentioned earlier, HMOs account for 39 per cent. the nation's fuel poverty. However, I would prefer that that very detailed and complex issue were addressed in a Government Bill, so I am slightly disappointed that it is being addressed in a private Member's Bill, good though it is.

It is vital that we improve the standard and quality of private rented accommodation so that people can live safely and without fear of fire, gas leaks, pests, fuel poverty, damp, water penetration, structural problems—the list is almost endless. Not only the elderly, but students—as hon. Members have said—suffer from those conditions. I believe that 600,000 students live in privately rented accommodation, and many of them live in HMOs. If we are to eradicate fuel poverty, HMOs must be registered and play their part in improving the totality of the housing stock.

It is important that licensing is not either a first step or a snowball that will re-regulate the private rented sector. We need to encourage more private landlords and more institutions to enter the private rented sector to provide people with choice and diversity, so that they can decide where and how they want to live. We must ensure that the legislation does not increase unnecessary costs or place pervasive burdens on good, responsible private landlords.

Mr. Love

The subtext of many of the comments from Opposition Members on part 3 is that the provisions would result in fewer properties in the private rented sector. Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence showing that that would be the result? Or does he agree that the number of those properties will increase if we can attract institutional investment to the sector?

Mr. Simmonds

I was coming to the reasons why I hold that belief, one of which I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Institutional investors who may wish to invest in residential accommodation definitely perceive that a stigma attaches to HMOs. If the Bill's HMO proposals require them to register, some institutional landlords may well either not invest or defer investing in the residential sector.

Our experience of the legislation operating in Scotland is that although there may be some debate about how much the sector has beet reduced, there is not much argument about the fact that the sector, and particularly student accommodation, has been reduced. I raised that issue in an intervention on the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, and I was very pleased with his reply that people have been taking on board the lessons learned in Scotland and that they will be applied to this legislation.

Jim Knight

Is there not a chicken and egg situation, in that the Bill seeks to improve the quality of properties in the HMO sector to the level maintained by the better landlords, so that the stigma is removed and institutional investors become very happy to invest in the sector?

Mr. Simmonds

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I take his point. However, whether or not they are investing in residential property, institutional investors are looking for a return on the money on behalf of their shareholders or pension funds. Historically, there has not been much institutional investment in residential accommodation because of the yield gap—the disparity between the money invested and the return on it. Although the Bill is very worthy, I am nervous that it will increase the costs incurred by institutional and private landlords and thus increase the yield gap and deter them from investing.

Mr. Love

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his indulgence in giving way to me again. As my constituency is in London, which has the highest demand for a private rented sector, I would not want there to be any reduction in the number of properties available in Greater London. Does he agree that if the Bill, and part 3 in particular, is introduced sensitively, those problems will not arise?

Mr. Simmonds

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but I draw his attention to another factor. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said that we may need greater flexibility in the time scales for implementing the legislation as certain issues require more time. If costs could be spread over a number of years rather than taken in one hit, people might be encouraged to retain their properties in the marketplace rather than sell them on as residential accommodation or convert them back to single dwellings, which is certainly possible for many London properties which were converted from single dwellings in the first place.

The licensing of HMOs must have a degree of consistency on cost. The recent experience in Scotland, which I mentioned in response to an intervention, has been confusing and, it is fair to say, poorly administered, with local authorities taking widely differing views and charging widely differing fees. That has led to a degree of non-compliance. Hon. Members will agree that the legislation must allow no room for manoeuvre and that everybody should be required to comply with it.

Experience shows that the Scottish legislation has produced a marked reduction in the availability of properties at the lower end of the market. We must ensure that that does not happen here. I shall not elaborate on the point that was made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) with regard to registered social housing, although some of the social housing in my constituency could benefit from the legislation. I very much hope that the Government and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will give serious consideration in Committee to including registered social landlords within the remit of the Bill.

In conclusion, let me put it on record that two of the local authorities that affect my constituency, Lincolnshire county council and Boston borough council, fully support the Bill, particularly as they believe that it will benefit vulnerable people, especially pensioners, many of whom have poorly insulated houses, are on low incomes and are vulnerable to death from cold-related illnesses. I am delighted to add my support to the Bill.

12.54 pm
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I am pleased to take part in this important debate today. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot for private Members' Bills and on introducing this important Bill.

Energy conservation is becoming increasingly significant. Climate change and fuel poverty are challenges that we all face. At the same time, achieving decent standards of affordable accommodation is important in my constituency, especially for the 10,000-plus Reading university students who live in Reading, East. That is why I support the Bill today.

As part of the post-second world war generation, I did riot live in a house with central heating until I was 14, and that is not unusual. In the large-scale building that took place after the war and through to the 1960s, the priority was to provide people with a roof over their head. We were clearing insanitary slums, as it was put at the time, and building homes fit for heroes. Getting people a home was a higher priority than having a warm home.

Times have changed. The various Bills that were blocked by the Conservative party in the early 1990s, and the final enactment of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, are testimony to that. Cold, damp homes are a major factor in ill health. The United Kingdom is the only major industrial nation whose citizens suffer from extensive fuel poverty. In fact, excess winter mortality, described as perhaps the most powerful indicator of fuel poverty, is virtually unheard of outside the UK. We should be ashamed that, in the 21st century, we live in a society where people have the choice: to heat or to eat. We need to tackle those problems, and that is why the Bill is so important.

I welcomed the 1995 Act. At the time, I was a councillor on Reading borough council, and we campaigned for our then Member of Parliament to support the Bill, but I entered a caveat: the setting of a 30 per cent. target for everyone from the time of enactment did not recognise the work that local authorities had already done. Not every council started from the same base line. For example, before the Act became law, Reading borough council had agreed with its tenants to charge an extra £1 a week on their rent. The £300,000 raised was spent on energy efficiency improvements.

The 1995 Act set a target of a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. To achieve that, councils needed to have achieved about 8 per cent. by 31 March 2000. I join the Secretary of State in being dismayed that the average achieved was only 6 per cent. and that more than 100 councils had not even achieved a 3 per cent. improvement.

I am pleased that Reading borough council has continued with its measures to tackle fuel poverty. On 31 March 2001, its improvement in energy efficiency stood at 10.8 per cent. That has been achieved through an impressive array of programmes based on conducting a general analysis of the situation in Reading and then focusing on areas of greatest need. I commend the council's fifth progress report for its wide range of initiatives taken to increase energy efficiency.

The council's approach is to find low-cost measures that can be introduced into many homes and benefit many people. One example is work done with Southern Electric to allow people on low incomes to buy fridges for £25 to £50. In partnership with Southern Electric, the council has distributed 300 energy efficient kettles to elderly people in Reading. It worked with British Gas and Southern Electric to distribute 500 free light bulbs and energy advice in energy week.

The success of the initiatives is shown by the fact that Reading has a standard assessment procedure rating of 48, compared with a national average of 44. The position is even better if one bears it in mind that, because of Reading's ridiculously tight boundaries, most of its suburbs are outside the Reading borough council area. An SAP rating of 48 is reckoned to be high for a borough with predominantly pre-war housing stock, although that is not a reason for the council to rest on its laurels.

The other local authority area that I represent is Wokingham unitary. Its annual improvement to 31 March was just below the national average, at 5.8 per cent. It is a shame that, despite a number of initiatives, Wokingham was not able to record any improvement in energy efficiency over the past year, despite having keen and willing staff who are committed to tackling fuel poverty. I challenge Wokingham's councillors to do more to tackle fuel poverty. I challenge them to give their officers the tools to do the job, to make Woodley and Earley better and warmer places to live.

My main reason for speaking today is to support part 3. A 1995 survey revealed that there were at least 1,700 houses in multiple occupation in Reading, accommodating at least 10,000 people. At that time, 90 per cent. of HMOs in Reading lacked adequate means of escape in case of fire, and a third were in a poor state of repair.

Reading is a university city, and my constituency is home to about 10,000 of the university's 12,000-plus students. At any one time, thousands of students are living in HMOs in Reading. It was for that reason that Reading and Wokingham councils worked with Reading university, Reading college and the school of arts and design to set up a landlord accreditation scheme. The scheme related solely to students initially, but has now been widened to include all tenants. The scheme is nationally recognised, offers a package of training for landlords, holds a number of information evenings each year and facilitates a forum for accredited landlords that gives them a voice on the councils.

The scheme was chosen as one of only seven nationally for a DETR-commissioned study of good practice in landlord accreditation schemes. Reading's scheme includes many of the elements proposed by clause 7. However—this highlights the importance of the matter being linked to energy conservation in the Bill—Reading's scheme does not include energy efficiency. A scheme recognised as one of the best nationally does not currently include energy efficiency. Yet, according to the Government's own figures on fuel poverty, people living in privately rented accommodation are more than 50 per cent. more likely to be living in fuel poverty than the average person in the UK.

People living in HMOs are more likely to be living in less energy efficient accommodation. If we add to that the attitudes of bad landlords in areas such as Reading that experience high demand, we see that including energy efficiency as part of a scheme to register landlords becomes very important. I am pleased that Reading borough council proposes to consult landlords next year on including energy efficiency in the scheme.

Given what I have said, why should we have a mandatory registration scheme? If things are so good in Reading and Woodley, why bring legislation into it? In general, at the moment, the onus is on the local authority to find out where HMO properties are. It must carry out surveys, deal with complaints from the public or get landlords approaching the council for advice to improve conditions. Only the good landlords will do that.

A mandatory registration scheme shifts the onus on to landlords to come forward. Initially, it is likely that only the good landlords will do so. However, if the scheme is properly thought out and involves landlords and tenants from the start, it is likely that, as it progresses, landlords who do not initially want involvement with councils will start to come forward. This has partly been our experience of landlords involved in the landlord accreditation scheme that I mentioned earlier.

I would like to give an example of a case from Reading, concerning a four-storey property with twelve tenants—nine adults and three children, including a baby—sharing two kitchens and one bathroom. There were no fire precautions, the landlord rarely visited the tenants and they had no contact details in case of emergencies. There were also problems with damp. The council is in the process of serving notices under the Housing Act 1985, as amended, on the landlord to improve conditions. The couple with the baby have now been rehoused owing to the baby's medical condition.

One of the problems that the council faces is finding out who the landlord is, as so many companies are involved. A registration scheme would mean that a landlord or owner would need to give the council details of who was responsible, and would not to be able to get lost in various companies.

Reading, East is home to thousands of students living in HMOs like those I have mentioned. As a result of the accreditation scheme, landlords are not all like those whom I have just mentioned. Unfortunately, far too many are. That is why Reading university students union has been campaigning for improvements to HMOs. It is not right that because there is a captive market of demand for accommodation, bad landlords should be allowed to get away with taking money and having people living in substandard accommodation.

The problems of trying to study and work in cold and damp accommodation are too obvious, not to mention the danger of accommodation with improperly serviced heating equipment or which lacks adequate fire escapes.

I started by talking about the shame that we should all feel because ours is the only major industrial country that has such a problem with fuel poverty. We should also perhaps be ashamed about the accommodation in which some of our fellow human beings are living. The Bill will strengthen efforts to tackle fuel poverty. It will improve the conditions in which the people of Reading and Woodley live. Giving the Bill its Second Reading is the minimum that we should do. Our humanity is measured by the way in which we treat the most vulnerable people in our society, for it is they who suffer more from fuel poverty and poor housing conditions, and it is they who die as a result. For the sake of our humanity, we should do nothing less than ensure today that the Bill makes further progress in Parliament.

As a postscript to my remarks, let me say that as a member of the post-war generation it has been difficult to speak in the House today—the day that witnessed the passing of George Harrison. Some of us are inclined to weep now that George's guitar gently weeps no more.

1.5 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important Bill. I congratulate, without wishing to give flattery a bad name, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on introducing it. Any Bill that stands a real chance of improving the plight of the vulnerable and disadvantaged in society is to be welcomed.

I should declare an interest in that I am a landlord who employs professional managing agents to manage the properties. I, for one, have no problem with the introduction of the Bill—in fact, I welcome it. All too often, the image of landlords is tarnished by the small minority of unscrupulous landlords who seek to exploit. My firm belief is that the Bill will go a long way to remedying that problem, so I welcome it wholeheartedly. In reference to a comment made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, I have never been called a Rigsby, and I hope that I never will be.

I shall comment briefly on part 1 before moving on to part 3. I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak, and much of the ground that I intended to cover has been covered already. As we know, the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 set a target to achieve a 30 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency by 2010. We also know, from speaking with local authority members and officers, that that target has been difficult to achieve because they have been given, in effect, little help.

The requirement to achieve the target is contained in ministerial guidance only—it is not a statutory duty. The importance of the Bill is that it will suddenly make achieving that target a statutory duty and so give councils more tools with which to work. That is essential bearing in mind how far we are from achieving the target. Clause 2 is also important. It deals with the concern that because HECA officers often have too many jobs to manage, they have become demoralised. A designated officer will have enhanced influence to bring to bear on the task of achieving the target.

Clause 3 requires some clarification in Committee. To suggest that the Secretary of State may take such steps as he deems necessary in order to ensure that the target is met is a little vague. When is that clause to be tripped? Are targets to be set annually, with the Secretary of State judging at the end of the year whether to take the corrective steps that he deems necessary? I ask those concerned to examine that provision and to provide clarification in Committee.

Part 3 is, as many hon. Members have said, probably the most important part of the Bill because it helps to bring everything together. It deals with HMOs and would ensure better protection for HMO tenants under existing law. As Shelter has pointed out, HMOs provide an important source of accommodation for many young single people, students and others who are unable to access social housing. Approximately 1.5 million people live in HMOs in England and Wales and there is little doubt that their housing conditions are among the poorest and most dangerous in the country. The highest incidence of extremely poor accommodation can be found among HMOs. Of all sectors, it has the highest proportion of fuel poverty, running at about 39 per cent.

The comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) were important. Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions research shows that in many HMOs the risk of death from fire is extremely high. Tenants in bedsit houses are six times more likely to die from fire than people in houses occupied by single families. Adults living in bedsit houses that are three or more storeys high are almost 17 times more likely to be killed in a fire than those living in a single family house. That illustrates the danger from fire in HMOs. I hope that the Bill will enable us to take that issue extremely seriously.

It is clear that the current regulations bearing on HMOs is not satisfactory. They are regulated under part II of the Housing Act 1985, as amended by the Housing Act 1996. The regulations include a discretionary registration scheme, which has not been widely taken up by local authorities. Meanwhile, a series of court judgments have cast doubt on which properties fall within the current definition of houses in multiple occupation. That is giving many of the worst landlords an automatic opt-out from discretionary registration schemes, which I think is deplorable. It helps to tarnish the image of landlords generally.

Licensing of HMOs would give environmental health officials much more chance to undercover defects and to ensure that they are addressed. That is a strong argument for believing that the Bill needs to be enacted.

I shall make one or two suggestions that bear on the provisions that are set out in part 3. First, the Bill does not cover registered social housing, and it should. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) were forceful. There is no reason why registered social housing should not be included in the Bill.

Secondly, as the Bill stands, only HMOs with five or more residents would need to be licensed. If the Bill is to be effective, it should apply to all houses with four or more residents. If it does not, it will miss many people, especially students, who live in HMOs. They would benefit tremendously from such legislation.

Thirdly, we must guard against too much red tape and cost. We must ensure that the licensing scheme does not drive private landlords out of the market and force tenants into homelessness. HMOs supply accommodation that is accessible to many people whose needs are fairly short term. The majority of HMO landlords seek to maintain required standards, and I would like to think that they provide a valuable service.

Shelter, among other organisations, has rightly suggested that the Government should minimise the cost to landlords and tenants by keeping the fees for obtaining a licence as low as possible. We have heard how licensing in Scotland is causing concern in one or two areas, given the disparity in the fees that are being applied by local authorities.

Only unscrupulous landlords running substandard accommodation have anything to fear from the introduction of licensing. I wholeheartedly commend the Bill to the House.

1.14 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on the hard work that he and his staff have done on energy conservation and fuel poverty, and on introducing the Bill.

The partnership that has been created for the Bill draws upon support from organisations that are involved with energy, the environment and housing. There is also the support of more than 100 local authorities. That demonstrates that the Bill has been carefully constructed. I am in the Chamber at the request of one of the local councils in my constituency, Weymouth and Portland borough council. We must build an effective and practical strategy if we are seriously committed to eradicating fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency in our homes, now and in the future; I therefore strongly support parts 1 and 2. However, like other Members, I should like to focus on part 3—the provision to license houses in multiple occupation.

Weymouth is the largest town in my constituency. Yesterday, I spoke at length to Mr. Bury, the council officer who attempts to regulate HMOs in the town. He knows of 632 HMOs in the borough, but he estimates that that is only half the true figure. It is precisely because there is no mandatory registration that he does not know how many HMOs he has to monitor or, indeed, where they are. Often, he only finds out about them when there is a complaint about noise, nuisance or unsafe heating appliances, or when there is a fire. He wants the quality of HMOs to be levelled up to that of properties let by good landlords such as the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). Mr. Bury put it to me that taxpayers subsidise housing benefit for good landlords, but also subsidise rubbish. That should not continue, and the Bill will help to resolve the problem.

Simply introducing a mandatory licensing scheme for HMOs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown proposes in his Bill, would be a major step towards improving safety in HMOs. It is not just me saying that, but my local environmental health officer, building control officer and the deputy chief fire officer of Dorset. As we have heard, 6 per cent. of the population live in HMOs, but 28 per cent. of fire deaths in this country are in HMOs. The Dorset coast has its fair share; since July 1999, there have been 31 fires in HMOs in the county, including one fatality. Last Sunday, there was a fire in Weymouth; someone tossed a lit cigarette into a disused shop full of rubbish, causing a fire and considerable smoke damage to the HMO above. The fire alarm did not work, but the occupants were lucky; the fire was extinguished and they were not harmed.

Earlier this year in Weymouth, a tenant left a candle burning on top of his television in a top floor room and caused a fire. I am told that that is common; many HMO tenants struggle to afford heating and lighting, so when the meter runs down they light a candle. That fire burned out the whole room and damaged the floor below. The HMO has had to be completely refurbished, costing the landlord many thousands of pounds; he has also had to bear the cost of rehousing his tenants while work is carried out.

Those are just two stories from my patch; they involve some of the most vulnerable people in our society living in the highest risk accommodation. Beyond their own problems, they are vulnerable to cold, fire and asphyxiation. I support the Bill's provisions because they are a major step forward; they will raise standards and, most importantly, improve health and safety for about 3,000 of my constituents who live in such accommodation. It is a sad fact that, as we have just heard, occupants of houses comprising bedsits are about six times more likely to die as a result of fire than adults in an ordinary house; and all those deaths are preventable.

We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). Like me, she is an active supporter of the national fire sprinkler network; there was a race between us to make points about fire sprinklers. I hosted a meeting of the network in the Commons this week to discuss water pressure problems when fighting fires with sprinklers. Like my hon. Friend, I salute the work of the Residential Sprinkler Association in this area. The Bill will make it possible for the regulating authority to insist on fire sprinklers in HMOs. Some landlords may be alarmed about having to install these devices, but I remind the House that no one has ever died in a fire in a building with a fully maintained sprinkler system; sprinklers work. According to the RSA, 227 people die in fires in HMOs in this country every year. Those deaths are all needless, they are preventable, and it is a scandal that we let them continue. I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton. Kemptown for offering us an opportunity to do something about that. As we have heard, similar fire safety regulations were introduced in Scottsdale, Arizona 15 years ago. Since then, no one has died in a property where sprinklers have been installed, and property damage from fire has been reduced by 80 per cent.

It is only because the victims of such fires are particularly vulnerable, poor and lonely that we tolerate the problem. At a cost of just £1 per sq ft, the problem can be resolved. We have heard the myths. Fire sprinklers do not go off by accident when the toast burns. They are not like smoke detectors. My mother depends on the smoke alarm going off to tell her that her delicious caramelised pears are done under the grill. Sprinklers do not work like that. They are started by heat, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon told us earlier. That means that they do not all go off together—only where the fire and the heat are. A fire in one room in an HMO will not cause water damage in everyone's room. The water damage is minimal: 5 per cent. of the damage caused by a fire appliance. A disaster becomes merely an inconvenience.

Most importantly, sprinklers offer so much more protection than a smoke alarm. If someone comes home from the pub after a few too many and falls asleep on an armchair made with dodgy foam, forgetting that he left the chips on, it takes a while for the alarm to wake him up and by then, sadly, it may be too late. And if he took the battery out when he burned the toast or made caramelised pears, and forgot to put it back, the smoke alarm will not work. If it does work, it only warns him to get out; it does not put out the fire.

By clarifying the definition of an HMO and introducing mandatory registration for certain types of HMO, we can go some way to saving the 227 lives needlessly lost each year. I do not believe that landlords like the hon. Member for Billericay will not welcome the extra regulation. It will protect their investment and may make insurance easier or cheaper. If they have sprinklers installed, that may reduce costly fire door and escape requirements.

Regulation should be seen as an opportunity to raise standards of accommodation by working together with the landlord and local authorities so that decent standards are achieved and maintained. The licence fees must be affordable for landlords, but they must also ensure that local authorities have the resources to administer the new scheme efficiently.

Speaking to housing and environmental service officers in Dorset, I realised how stretched the authorities are. Any new regulation system must allow for the resources to enable authorities to follow through with inspections and assistance when required. I also welcome the foresight displayed in the Bill, which allows councils to act jointly, so that small councils such as Purbeck in my constituency can make practical arrangements with their neighbouring authorities.

We have a responsibility to pass the Bill today unopposed. To oppose it is to condemn more people to live in cold, substandard accommodation. It is to condemn people to choose between heat and light. At its worst, it is to condemn people to die in preventable fires. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.23 pm
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on bringing such an important Bill before the House today. As treasurer of the warm homes group, I thank all the many organisations that have given their support to the Bill. They include more than 100 of the 469 local authorities, and I am pleased to say that my local authority, Bolton, is among them.

Several hon. Members referred to the HECA target of a 30 per cent. improvement in energy conservation by 2010. The target for 31 March 2000 was 8 per cent., but it had not been met by that date. As has been mentioned, 100 local authorities had achieved less than 3 per cent. Some hardly made any improvement at all, and in some local authorities there has even been backward movement.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment described the actual improvement figure—only 6 per cent. for 2000—as wholly inadequate. I am pleased, therefore, that the Bill will make targets statutory, and that each energy conservation authority will be required to appoint a dedicated officer to see that those targets are achieved. However, to achieve them, it will be necessary to ring-fence money within the housing investment programme allocations.

I turn now to the condition of housing stock in the United Kingdom. The Government have set a target of improving all housing stock in the public sector to a decent standard by 2010, but the worst conditions are undoubtedly in the private sector. Bolton's most serious housing problem is the condition of its private sector stock. More than 22,000 houses in that sector—almost one in five houses in its complete housing stock—are classed as unfit by environmental health officers, and between 5,000 and 6,000 of them are classed as irredeemably unfit.

That problem exists in many northern towns and cities. It especially affects the old cotton towns of Lancashire and the wool towns of Yorkshire, where mill owners built houses on the cheap as close to the mills as possible. In Bolton, such houses are mainly shot—finished. They were built with inadequate brick on end foundations with outer and inner skins touching, which allowed damp to penetrate, and have common attics that are lethal when a fire starts in any single property in a long terrace. I maintain that no amount of money would allow such properties to benefit from any of the measures in the Bill or any of its predecessors.

If urban regeneration is to be meaningful, and if we are going to meet our energy efficiency targets and reduce fuel poverty, we desperately need to start to replace these very old properties through sympathetic clearance programmes. I am not advocating a return to the large-scale clearance programmes of the past. In the late 1970s, when I served on the housing committee in Bolton, we were clearing between 700 and 1,000 properties a year. We divided communities and scattered them to the four corners of the town. We need sympathetic, limited and small-scale clearance to regenerate our urban stock year in, year out.

In Bolton, houses are falling into a state of unfitness faster than we can improve the existing stock. Between 1979 and 1997, Bolton's housing resources—that is, the money spent on bricks and mortar, rather than on housing benefit—decreased by up to 70 per cent. Fortunately, under the current Government, the situation is improving slowly through the initial release of capital receipts and by increased allocations through the housing investment and approved development programmes, or HIP and ADP. Bolton has used all the available private sector improvement mechanisms. It has improved thousands of its properties and kept communities together. The town promoted five general improvement areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but those areas are now once again in a very poor state.

Bolton promoted its first housing action area in the late 1970s. We guaranteed that properties in the area would have an extra 30 years' life. That sounded like a long time when we declared the establishment of the area, but the period is rapidly running out and the properties are beginning to deteriorate again. These procedures have secured extra life for the thousands of affected properties, but what will happen when the 30 years run out? That concerns me greatly. We already have 22,000 properties that have been untouched by grants and are now unfit, while properties that we have improved in the past are rapidly catching up with them. The problem is immense. Incidentally, grant improvement to properties in the north—this situation is unlike the one in the south—usually produces negative equity, which means that the properties often cost more to improve than their market value after improvement.

I am sorry if I have taken the debate off at a tangent. Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thought that it should be pointed out that the state of some of the stock in Britain is such that the measures in the Bill and its predecessors will be of little comfort to the occupiers of those homes. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the poor condition of many of them is causing ill health, which is costing the national health service an unnecessary £1 billion. I hope that when the next comprehensive spending review announcement is made in the summer, money will be allocated to the housing budget to enable us to overcome those serious problems.

The 1996 English housing condition survey showed that the standard assessment procedures—SAP—ratings for the average house were 44 points compared with a score of 42 only five years earlier, in 1991. That is a measly 2 per cent. increase in five years. That suggests that, unfortunately, the effect of the programmes to tackle energy efficiency was negligible and barely sufficient to offset the natural deterioration of the housing stock.

As many hon. Members have said, HMOs are found in poorer housing areas. I do not want to say more about HMOs, apart from reminding hon. Members that more than 1.5 million people live in them in England and Wales alone, and that up to 20 per cent. of them fall below the legal standards of fitness for habitation.

There were far too many schemes in rapid succession for public sector stock in the past. First, there was loft insulation, for which the specification changed after only a few years. That was often accompanied by cavity wall insulation, which sometimes caused as many problems as it solved. Then, people ran around the town draught-stripping window and door frames. Later came energy-saving light bulbs and white goods, condensing boilers and double or triple glazing. I welcome the concept of warm home zones, where a comprehensive package of measures is applied to all the properties. The patchy, intermittent measures of the past have wasted a great deal of public money.

That leads me to a point that has not yet been made. If the Bill is enacted and we can find the money to implement its provisions, it means jobs. People will be needed to carry out the work. Sadly, there is already a shortage of people to do it. We need more plumbers, joiners and others to be trained so that the Bill can be implemented.

There is much interest in the Bill; more than 200 hon. Members have signed early-day motions 19 and 20. I am sure that the measure will have a fair wind, and I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown luck with it. There has been a lot of talk and consultation. We now need action.

1.33 pm
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I shall speak briefly on one or two important points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on promoting the Bill. It has wide support in the House and I hope that it becomes law. However, it is rather slim; my hon. Friend has obviously trimmed it so that it has the maximum possibility of becoming law and gaining the Government's support. I should like the measure to go further, and I shall speak about that later.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his speech. He spoke intelligently and powerfully on several themes. I endorse everything that he said, especially his references to local authority housing and its benefits over generations. I believe that we should stop stock transfer and reinvest in local authority housing. The policy of selective municipalisation that a previous Labour Government adopted in the 1970s would help to solve some of the problems that have been mentioned today. However, I shall pursue that on another occasion.

I want to concentrate on the energy conservation aspects of the Bill. We must provide for additional measures to encourage householders, local authorities and landlords to invest in energy-saving measures for their housing. That will benefit people in their homes by making them warmer and will bring enormous economic benefits to the country. It will also help us to achieve the Kyoto targets to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred earlier. I hope, therefore, that amendments will be tabled in Committee making specific reference to housing improvement measures that could lead not only to energy conservation and efficiency, but to domestic energy generation. We have discussed insulation, and the many energy-efficient appliances available, but we have to go further than that.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to micro combined heat and power systems, which are supported by the National Energy Association. They represent one avenue. I want to discuss more specific measures on solar panels. They represent a significant way forward, and we should put our weight behind that. At the moment, they are not particularly economic, and we have to sustain the project with Government action.

I am seriously considering putting solar panels on my roof, but I am perhaps slightly better off and have a slightly larger house than some, and I have a commitment to the environment that is perhaps regarded as slightly eccentric. If I were to do that, I might be the first person in Luton to have solar panels on his roof, which shows just how far behind we are and what a long way we have to go.

My constituency contains very few HMOs. There are some in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), but mine contains large numbers of fairly sound homes. Many are houses with fairly expansive south-facing roofs, which are ideal for solar panels.

There are two sorts of solar panel. There are water heating panels and there are photovoltaic cells which generate electricity. The latter can be plumbed into the electricity mains and on warm, sunny days put electricity back into the grid system so that everyone benefits. That has been illustrated in a presentation in this building. There is a dial with a green part and a red part. When the needle is on the green part, we are gaining by putting electricity from the solar panels back into the system; when it is on the red part, we are drawing electricity from the system.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that solar clubs are being formed in my constituency to support people using solar power and to subsidise its use? If he would like any information, I would be pleased to send him details.

Mr. Hopkins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention and I shall certainly contact him after the debate.

We have a long way to go in this respect, certainly in my constituency. The problem is one of finance. Solar panels are still uneconomic, even in the long term, but they could become economic if they were adopted as a mass exercise. If there were mass production and mass installation, the economics would become much more feasible. However, even if they became economic in the longer term, there is still a problem of front-end heavy investment and long-term payback. There might be a 20-year payback, which would be prohibitive for most people.

We need Government action to promote a much higher rate of installation and a major Government programme of investment in solar panels. It is too late now, but if the Government had decided a long time ago to develop solar panels instead of nuclear power, the vast amount spent on nuclear power—which is not going to be returned to the Government; it is a net payment by the Government to the nuclear power industry—could have been invested in solar panels, which would have been much more economic for the nation and more beneficial to individuals in their homes. I do not have the figures to hand, but such a programme could become a reality with the right investment.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown to consider this matter in Committee. I also urge those on the Front Bench seriously to consider the future of solar panels, as they would bring enormous benefits to householders and enormous economic and environmental benefits to Britain and to the world.

1.39 pm
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), not least because he has sat through the whole of the debate. I also welcome the measured support given by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on behalf of the Opposition.

I want to focus my remarks on part 3 of the Bill, which deals with houses in multiple occupation, because I think that that is the most important section. Also, I have a slight lack of knowledge and understanding of parts 1 and 2. I shall try to define the HMO sector. According to the figures that I have received, there are about 1.5 million people in about 0.5 million HMOs. An interesting feature of the debate has been that almost every hon. Member who spoke gave a different number of people in HMOs. That shows the problem of defining who we are talking about. However, we are all united in the view that the poorest and most dangerous housing conditions are in the HMO sector.

I make no apology for going over some of the figures that have been quoted, because it is important to get a measure of the problem. According to the English house condition survey, under its definition 10 per cent. of all HMOs and 20 per cent. of flats and bedsits failed the fitness test. Forty per cent. of bedsits failed the test because there were too many people living in the accommodation. As the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said, 80 per cent. of HMOs lack an adequate means of fire escape. People in bedsits are six times more likely to face the risk of fire than people in an ordinary semi-detached house. If people happen to live in an HMO of three storeys or higher, the danger of fire is 17 times greater. Added to that, a large number of vulnerable people live in HMOs. That is the scale of the problem.

I do not want to go into the issue of management because that has been touched on throughout the debate, other than to say that many properties have no management. There may be a keyholder, but there is no management, and we need to sort out that problem.

I can mention further problems and difficulties. The worst houses in multiple occupation have major deficiencies. There is much disrepair, some of it structural and dangerous. Dampness is a problem, and hon. Members have talked about the difficulties that that causes. Many HMOs have inadequate or non-existent heating and lighting and no proper ventilation, which add to the risk of fire. There is a great lack of basic amenities—there are often no proper kitchen facilities and washing facilities are rudimentary at best. It is difficult for people to look after themselves properly in some of those properties.

Some HMOs are dangerous and pose serious risks to health and safety. There is obviously the risk of fire. A considerable number of people are injured or die in fires at HMOs. Carbon monoxide poisoning is another danger. Those are major issues. Many hon. Members have attested to the utter inadequacy of the remedies that are available to local authorities for people who live in houses in multiple occupation.

The definition of an HMO has been challenged on a number of bases. I was interested to read that, in a challenge to a local authority in Sheffield, the court pronounced that a house occupied by a group of students was not an HMO. Within a year, however, following a challenge by Islington council, it was discovered that a household consisting of a group of students who had just qualified constituted an HMO. There has been enormous legal confusion about what does constitute an HMO, and all it has achieved is a continuation of the current terrible practices. According to the Department's recent consultation document, the present situation is "vague". That has prevented the worst practices mentioned today from being stopped.

Another problem is that all the schemes now available are discretionary, which means that coverage is not universal. Although some local authorities have done their best to take up the discretionary schemes and work with the private rented sector, standards have varied. Some authorities have tried to impose proper standards but others, owing to the weakness of the legislation, have been able to aim for minimum standards. Authorities have not been able to design their own schemes because of the requirement for approval from the Secretary of State. The real difficulty with the discretionary schemes, however, is that very few authorities have taken them up, for a simple reason: it is hard to use such schemes to enforce even minimum standards in the private rented HMO sector.

Existing legislation does not help. It, and the notices for which it provides, can secure only works to the fabric or the fixtures and fittings of the buildings concerned; fire risks, and the other dangers posed by HMOs, cannot be dealt with.

I welcome the all-party support for the Bill, although we must look closely at the terms of each part, and the issues must be handled sensitively. I represent a constituency in London where there is high demand, so we do not wish to lose any of the accommodation that is currently available in the private rented sector.

The Department's recent consultation paper mentioned the difficulties involved in the delivery of even minimum standards. The confusion that has been created has allowed landlords to evade their responsibilities. We need a proper definition of HMOs and we have already discussed today what that definition should be. We must end the confusion and the ambiguity, and I think the Bill's definition will achieve that.

Unlike the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), I think there should be not just a mandatory scheme but a discretionary one. The mandatory scheme would cover larger houses, where most difficulties occur, but local authorities would have flexibility to introduce a discretionary scheme allowing them to deal with some of the problems at the other end of the HMO market. As has been pointed out, many students share their accommodation with three or four people. I hope that local authorities will bear that in mind.

The reality of the legislation is simple. Tenants who currently live in HMOs have very little power to influence their landlord to improve standards, not only because most are very mobile and move frequently from HMOs—students rarely stay more than a year—but because they do not have any security. Most of them are on assured shorthold tenancies, which give them only a maximum six months' security. If they live with a resident landlord, they do not have any security at all. The great fear is that if they raise a complaint, that will lead to difficulties with the landlord and possible eviction from the property.

We need to involve local authorities. It is through that mechanism that we will get the opportunity to improve basic standards. It will also achieve something else—tenants' awareness of their rights and what they can achieve with the local authority to improve minimum standards will be raised.

I commend in particular part 3 of the Bill. It is critical. It will provide some minimum standards, especially for the most vulnerable and those who are in danger because they live in HMOs. Why should we wait for the Government to come forward with legislation? The Bill needs to be passed now. I welcome the fact that it is a private Member's Bill. We do not need to wait. A minimum of 1.5 million people will be positively affected by the Bill and I commend it to the House.

1.51 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

During the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), I had the opportunity to raise one issue in relation to Wales. I would like to talk a little more about the importance of the Bill for Wales. It is undoubtedly necessary. Strategies to achieve energy efficiency and to register houses in multiple occupation have so far been optional. With this Bill, we will have a chance to make that compulsory.

The National Assembly for Wales has been in charge of the home energy efficiency scheme for about 30 months. In Wales, 7,496 grants for households have been approved under the scheme, of which 390 were in my borough of Bridgend. The total spend in Wales has been £2.6 million and in Bridgend county borough council £135,000. In Wales, 220,000 households are eligible for grants under the scheme. At the current rate of take-up, it will take about 67 years for all the families who are eligible for help because of fuel poverty to take advantage of the scheme.

Mr. Roger Williams

Much of the debate has revolved around the benefits that can accrue to urban housing through the Bill, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that much rural housing is also in need of improvement? My constituency is in Powys, often known as the paradise of Wales. It is paradise in terms of landscape and environment, but not in terms of housing. We welcome the Bill for the improvements that it will bring.

Mr. Griffiths

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was brought up in Brecon, which is at the heart of his constituency, and I confirm that the Bill will be welcomed in rural communities.

At the present rate of take-up, it will take over 60 years for eligible families in Wales to take advantage of the scheme. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is right to seek prescription, making it a duty to achieve energy efficiency targets. In 1997, our target was a 30 per cent. improvement by 2007, but to date the improvement in Wales has been only 2.7 per cent. We have a very long way to go.

Wales does not have the huge problem with houses in multiple occupation that hon. Members on both sides of the House described today. Nevertheless, the most recent survey showed that there are more than 20,000 HMOs in Wales, although only about 100 of those are in my own Bridgend county borough. It is generally agreed, however, that the new definition will encompass many more homes. Consequently, many more homes will be covered by the scheme, thereby improving not only insulation and energy conservation standards but fire safety standards.

I warmly welcome the Bill, which I hope is about to receive a prod in the right direction from the Minister. I hope that we shall see it in Committee very soon.

1.56 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

I am very pleased to be able to speak on the important issues of energy conservation, energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupation. First, however, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) on his success in the ballot and on focusing in his choice of Bill on key aspects of Government policy. I also congratulate him and the Bill's sponsors on the enormous work that the) have done to enable it to progress to this stage.

I also welcome the support of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), who is one of the Bill's sponsors and brings considerable professional interest and expertise to the debate. I also very much welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), another of the Bill's sponsors, who described very graphically the scale of the problem and the importance of all the Bill's provisions. Indeed, I welcome the support shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including that of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), some of whose points I shall deal with later.

The Government have a clear commitment to the Bill's provisions on the environment, energy efficiency and houses in multiple occupation. Indeed, we have a clear commitment to keep the environment at the heart of our policies. Climate change is perhaps the biggest environmental challenge facing us. Our climate change strategy establishes a clear framework for action, and we are making good progress on some key issues. However, opportunities remain, and the domestic sector has a major part to play.

The Government are investing about £1 billion in tackling climate change. Energy efficiency is an important way in which to tackle climate change and to promote sustainable development; it brings environmental, economic and social benefits.

The hon. Member for Mid—Bedfordshire questioned some aspects of our commitment to tackling climate change, and he specifically mentioned the difficulty in achieving the target established by the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995. Although I acknowledge that that legislation has not achieved the improvements for which we and those who introduced it as a private Member's Bill had hoped, it has achieved greater improvement—more than 6 per cent. by March 2000—than could have been made without it. Now we have to determine how this Bill and our review of local authority energy efficiency activity can make even greater improvement.

I hope that, despite the difficulties, the Opposition will continue to support the Bill. It will make a real difference to the lives of very many people, particularly those who are the most vulnerable and most at risk. We are committed to the introduction of a compulsory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation, in line with undertakings in our 1997 and 2001 manifestos. In 1999 we consulted on proposals to rationalise and modernise the controls on HMOs. The proposals were aimed at delivering more effective protection against health and safety risks, and bad management, for people living in bedsits and other higher-risk shared accommodation in the private rented sector. HMO operators would also benefit from a simpler, more consistent, risk-based control regime.

We envisaged that these measures would be included in a future housing Bill, preferably accompanied by provisions to replace the current housing fitness regime and powers to allow the selective licensing of private landlords in low-demand areas. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has repeatedly highlighted some of the problems associated with that.

The Government's commitment is matched by that of hon. Members on both sides of the House and that was reflected in the wide range of contributions to the debate and the obvious interest in and support for the Bill from hon. Members with quite diverse interests. We heard from the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) about the scope of the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke eloquently about the further work that is needed to improve safety in HMOs.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) highlighted the need for independent evaluation of the delivery of the climate change programme, and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) paid tribute to the work of local authorities that is not always reflected in the overall figures. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) also recognised the scope of problems affecting HMOs. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), among others, recognised the real importance of HMO controls and fuel poverty issues, particularly in respect of students. Many of us have large numbers of students in our constituents.

The hon. Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said that, as landlords, they welcome the Bill. The hon. Member for Billericay asked for clarification of clause 3. However, he answered his own question when he said that it should be dealt with in Committee.

The hon. Member for North Thanet raised a number of issues about housing management by some registered social landlords. That is covered by a separate regulatory regime. There is close contact between the Department and the Housing Corporation on these issues; I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they are discussed quite frequently and I hope that he will follow his inclination to support the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) also highlighted the tragedies caused by the fire risks in HMOs. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) wanted the provisions to go much further. The Government are addressing the issues of the micro combined heat and power systems and investing in the development of solar power. Although my hon. Friend may consider that his support for it is eccentric, it will become more mainstream in the longer term.

I now turn to the current activity in which the Government are engaged to take forward our commitments in the key areas covered by the Bill. As I mentioned a moment ago, energy efficiency is a key mechanism for the delivery of our climate change commitments. The energy policy review currently being carried out by the performance and innovation unit is looking at the broad picture. The review—which is due to report to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the end of the year—is developing a strategy to ensure that current policy commitments are consistent with longer term aims. This will help to inform our response to last year's report by the royal commission on environmental pollution. The review will also form the basis for the Government's longer term approach to their policy commitment for the delivery of a sustainable energy strategy.

Some Opposition Members, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), questioned the Government's commitment because the targets are not being met in our own buildings. By the end of the current campaign, energy efficiency in the Departments will have improved by 17.1 per cent., as measured by the total cost indicator. On heating fuels alone, the Ministry of Defence and civil Departments achieved efficiency improvements of 23 and 25 per cent. respectively. It is true that the figures for electricity were not so good, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept our assurances and realise that the Government are indeed delivering on the targets in our own Departments.

Mr. Sayeed

How much of the improvement is due to a reduction in the fuel price, and how much is actual saving in British thermal units?

Ms Keeble

I cannot say, because in the period covered, from 1991, there were various changes in the regulatory regime for the energy industry. There are differences in the detailed figures for the different types of fuel consumption, and I will happily give the hon. Gentleman those figures in writing.

Local authorities have a key role to play in improving energy efficiency in their area, through vision and leadership, statutory responsibility, improved energy management and partnership with local businesses and householders.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is undertaking a review of the policy framework within which local authorities carry out their energy efficiency activities. The review has a broad scope, including issues such as what opportunities exist for greater co-operation between local authorities and others; the role of objectives and targets; and how to improve the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) set out the action taken in his local authority area, and I suspect that some of the work that will take place through the review will focus on some of those areas of good practice.

The Government have a deep-seated commitment to tackling fuel poverty, and that goes hand in hand with the need to tackle climate change. We do not want simply to assist households with their fuel payments. We also want to reduce their fuel use through energy efficiency. Our first target is to ensure that by 2010 no vulnerable household—older people, families, disabled and the long-term sick—need risk ill health as the result of a cold home.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) questioned our commitment to tackling fuel poverty. I ask him to consider these points. The number of fuel poor has fallen, from 5.5 million in 1996 to 4 million in 2000. Among the measures that the Government have introduced—of which Government Members are very proud—is the introduction of the winter fuel payments, which have been a huge help for older people in meeting their fuel bills for the colder months.

We have also supported home insulation programmes. Perhaps most important—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned this—is our decent homes commitment. One of the measures of the decency standard that we intend to apply for all homes is thermal efficiency. That should make a real difference both to helping people to meet the cost of warming their homes and to ensuring that they stay warm.

Many improvements are possible in building itself. I draw attention to the outstanding work being done to improve the thermal insulation and efficiency of homes. For example, an excellent demonstration project in Liverpool is trialling some dramatic improvements in thickness of walls, amount of insulation and other measures. The builders and developers estimate that this can reduce the cost of keeping a home warm to something like £3 a week. If we can achieve such standards of thermal efficiency in the homes of older people in particular, we will make a huge commitment towards ending fuel poverty and the problems that people suffer because of cold. I hope that the hon. Member for Gordon will accept those points about the Government's record.

Last week, we published the UK fuel poverty strategy. The strategy is based on a range of programmes and measures to tackle the main causes of fuel poverty. Improving energy efficiency is at its root. The strategy sets an ambitious target. By 2004, we aim to have assisted 800,000 vulnerable households through the home energy efficiency scheme. There are also schemes in each of the devolved Administrations to address fuel poverty issues and, in England alone, we have committed more than £600 million, up to 2004, to the home energy efficiency scheme, now known as the warm home front.

The Government have a range of measures on HMOs, fitness reviews and selective landlord licensing. As regards HMOs, the term "houses in multiple occupation" applies to a wide range of housing types, mainly in the private rented sector, which are typically occupied by young lower-income single people, including some particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Physical and management standards in HMOs are often low, as the hon. Member for North Thanet highlighted. Some types of HMO, such as multi-storey older houses converted to bedsits, can pose particular risks to occupants' health and safety. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown's constituency has its share—probably a good deal more than its fair share—of such problems.

Current statutory controls on HMOs are a confusing and ineffective patchwork of provisions that have grown up over several decades. Our manifesto commitment is to introduce a proper system of licensing by local authorities which will benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike. This has been discharged in Scotland, where new primary legislation was not required.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am grateful to the Government for supporting this Bill, which my party also supports. Will the Minister give a guarantee today that she will ensure that there is no backsliding in terms of devolution? The Bill does not mention the National Assembly for Wales; it mentions only the Secretary of State, although it applies to England and Wales. Does she agree that we want to make sure that the Bill empowers people in line with the devolution legislation, and that it will be the National Assembly for Wales that works with local authorities to ensure that the HMO registration scheme works properly in Wales?

Ms Keeble

That issue can be dealt with in Committee. The Government support the Bill, but it is a private Member's Bill with an hon. Member in charge.

Last year, our housing Green Paper set out our HMO licensing proposals in their wider policy context as a key measure for promoting a healthier private rented sector. In the follow-up policy statement, "The Way Forward for Housing", we announced our intention to take forward simultaneously our HMO measures and provisions to replace the current housing fitness standard and related enforcement machinery for all housing. These will be relevant to HMOs as well as to other types of housing. That package of measures will deal with the issues mentioned in the debate, including health and safety, and problems in the north to do with abandonment.

We also said that we would develop proposals for selective licensing of other privately rented properties in areas of low demand, where the activities of a small number of speculative or, in some cases, actively criminal landlords have served to undermine local communities that were already in difficulty. We have now completed our consultation on the housing fitness measures, and in October we issued a consultation paper on selective licensing.

The intended effect of the Bill is to increase domestic energy efficiency and help to wipe out fuel poverty in England and Wales. It would also make provision for the licensing of HMOs. Those aims are worth while, necessary and consistent with Government policy.

The Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 requires energy conservation authorities to prepare strategies outlining measures that will improve domestic energy efficiency in their area. Authorities have an obligation to report progress on implementing the strategies, but they are not obliged to implement them. The Bill would require authorities to take steps to implement them so far as is reasonably practicable, and would enable guidance to be issued. We welcome that encouragement to action.

The Bill would also require registered social landlords taking on ownership of local authority housing stock to agree how they will contribute to the strategy, thus helping to ensure that the benefits of the strategy are not lost when stock is transferred. That provision, too, would help to ensure action takes place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown is clearly anxious to keep us up to the mark on our HMO commitments and to speed us on our way lest we allow other priorities to distract us. Accordingly, he has included in the Bill measures that would contribute to the preparation of a fuller HMO licensing scheme. His Bill would also oblige us, in the event that we do not take pre-emptive action by introducing more comprehensive HMO legislation in the next year or so, to bring in by order a simplified control scheme.

Such a scheme would fall some way short of our proposed licensing arrangements in their full scope; nor would it carry with it the proposed reforms to the housing fitness regime or to selective licensing powers. None the less, it would represent an important advance on the current position and provide a self-standing system. The Bill would not discharge our manifesto commitment for us: that will require a much more complex and detailed measure, extending far beyond what can be accommodated in a private Member's Bill.

The Bill provides a new definition of HMO. That is badly needed, as the current definition has led to endless problems of interpretation for the courts and for practitioners. Broadly speaking, an HMO currently means a house that is occupied by persons who do not form a single household—but what is a house and what is a household? What about a hotel that is lived in more or less permanently by people who are supported by housing benefit? What about a large house that has been converted into a conference centre? What about a house occupied by a number of unrelated students? Case law has sometimes led to unexpected and unwelcome conclusions on those matters. It has taken outside the HMO boundary some types of property that we want to be subject to HMO controls, but included others to which HMO controls are clearly inappropriate.

The whole area is a minefield and I commend my hon. Friend for his courage in entering it. His intentions are very much in line with the Government's, although I am sure that patient and detailed work in Committee will be needed to ensure that they are fully realised and that the concerns raised by hon. Members today are fully met. There remains plenty of room for debate on precisely where the line would best be drawn, and we have heard many different views on that point today.

Clause 6 would require every local authority to have in its area a registration scheme for HMOs of the sort that requires HMOs to be notified to the authority. In effect, this will convert what is now a power into a duty, and apply the new definition of HMO to it, subject to certain exceptions provided for in clause 8. It will ensure that local authorities make a good start on identifying the HMOs in their area in advance of their being required to license them.

In clause 7, the Bill requires the Secretary of State, within a year of Royal Assent, to make an order, subject to affirmative resolution, which will in effect extend the registration duty so that authorities' schemes must include control provisions as well as notification requirements. Both my hon. Friend and the Government hope that this provision will not in the event prove to be necessary, and that it will have been possible for us to introduce by then our own more comprehensive measures on HMOs and related matters. However, as Ministers have had to say down the ages in situations of this sort, "I cannot anticipate the Queen's Speech." Clause 7 is a default provision that will ensure that an elementary form of licensing scheme is brought into effect even if the Government's legislation is delayed.

The Government are able to give the Bill a warm welcome, though I am sure that my hon. Friend would be surprised if I were to say that we were content with every word of every clause as the Bill stands. As always, there will be work for us all to do in Committee to ensure that the provisions are technically watertight, and the text has not yet had the attention of the parliamentary draftsman. We will also need to reflect further on some points of detail, such as the references to targets and implementation, and seek to ensure a close fit with the modernising government agenda.

The argument is often advanced that our proposals could be bureaucratic and expensive, and eventually force landlords out of the market. It is said that that would thereby reduce the supply of housing in what is quite an important part of the market in some towns and cities; and HMOs accommodate many thousands of students. I do not accept this argument. Much more important is ensuring that we remember why we want to take action, and the reasons have been outlined during the debate. There are still far too many examples of poor physical condition and poor management standards in the HMO sector. It is a real issue that affects real people in their day-to-day lives. For their sake, we must support and encourage decent landlords and not just drive out the bad ones.

Although a small fee will be involved in the licensing scheme, that must be set against the period of the licence. Good landlords—there are some examples in the House—will not be punished. Some landlords will find that they are required to carry out additional work to meet the standards that we set out. We should not apologise for that. If we are to have a fair and thriving private rented sector, we must ensure that the quality of properties and management practices are raised across the board.

The benefits of improved energy efficiency to householders and businesses are immense. Improved energy efficiency reduces fuel bills and maintenance costs, improves comfort and creates jobs. Energy efficiency therefore makes sense for us all. It saves money that could be better used to improve our homes and to develop businesses. In addition, energy efficient houses tend to be more comfortable. They are warmer and have a low incidence of mould and condensation.

Increased energy efficiency brings advantages to the economy by creating jobs in energy efficiency manufacturing and insulation businesses. It creates marketing opportunities for new and more efficient technologies. Energy efficiency brings benefits to the environment by contributing to the UK's efforts to meet international and domestic emission targets.

Perhaps, most importantly, energy efficiency is also a key to tackling fuel poverty, and that has been one of the key issues for the Government. As we all know, fuel poverty can damage the quality of people's lives and health, as well as impose wider costs on the community.

The likelihood of ill health is increased by cold homes, with illnesses such as flu, heart disease and strokes all exacerbated by the cold. Cold homes can also promote the growth of fungi and house dust mites; the latter, as hon. Members will know, have been linked to conditions such as asthma, ill health can lead to enforced absences from work and certain types of illness such as respiratory disease and can restrict employment choices for people without work. The need to spend a large proportion of income on fuel means that fuel-poor households may have to make difficult decisions about other household essentials, which can lead to poor diets and/or withdrawal from the community.

Although the risks caused by fuel poverty and cold-related ill health apply to everyone, older households, families with children and householders who are disabled or suffering from long-term illness are particularly vulnerable. A number of Members have spoken about the interest of Age Concern and other organisations representing pensioners' interests in the measure. Over the years, those organisations have been at the forefront of campaigns for improvements to energy efficiency.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Earlier, I pointed out that 220,000 homes in Wales are eligible for help with fuel efficiency, of which more than half—117,000—are households with at least one person over 60; 40,000 house lone parent families and 32,000 house long-term sick or disabled people.

Ms Keeble

Indeed. From our constituency case loads, we are all aware that the people who are most likely to suffer from fuel poverty are those who spend the longest time at home, particularly the elderly, people with disabilities and people with young children. That is obviously why the most vulnerable people are the key target group that we hope to help with the Bill. The Government and the devolved Administrations believe that vulnerable households should receive priority assistance.

The measures on HMOs will assist with the safety issues that have been discussed and the management of difficult housing throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East and other Members from the north of England spoke extremely eloquently about the devastation that abandonment has caused in their areas and about landlords who simply move in, buy up properties, sub-divide them into HMOs and let them out to anyone. The result is a proliferation of antisocial behaviour, which has led to people moving out of entire areas. Consequently, people have seen their properties devalued and acute social problems have been created in the north of England.

In bringing hon. Members on both sides of the House together in support of the Bill, I hope that we deal not just with problems in the south and those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, where there are many students, but with important management issues in the north of England to make sure that, throughout the country, everyone has the benefit of good property. The Government recognise the merits of the Bill and I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend that we are happy to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).