HC Deb 11 May 2004 vol 421 cc169-82 1.19 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

I beg to move amendment No. 100, in clause 2, page 3, leave out lines 10 to 19 and insert—

  1. '(1) Meanings of "category 1 hazard" and "category 2 hazard" shall be prescribed for the purposes of this Act.
  2. (2) Those meanings shall be so prescribed by reference to—
    1. (a) hazards of prescribed descriptions, and
    2. (b) a ranking system for the severity of such hazards by which the question of whether a hazard achieves a particular ranking is decided by reference to—
      1. (i) the results of a qualitative assessment of the hazard in question, and
      2. (ii) an assessment of whether those results meet prescribed qualitative criteria.'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 102, in page 3, line 20, after 'risk,' insert '(a)'.

No. 103, in page 3, line 21, after 'HMO', insert—

'(b) that the dwelling or HMO is or is likely to be below a reasonable standard, having regard to its age, character or locality, or (c) that the condition of the dwelling or HMO is or is likely to be such as to interfere materially with the personal comfort of the occupying tenant, and'.

No. 101, in page 3, line 27, leave out from '218(1)' to end of line 29.

Government amendments Nos. 6 to 13.

No. 134, in clause 8, page 7, line 11, at end insert— '(e) the functions and requirements in respect of new qualifications and training required by environmental health officers. (f) the functions and requirements in respect of the nature and time expenditure required so that these tasks can be considered to have been properly fulfilled. (g) the functions and requirements in respect of the circumstances in which they may be required to compensate landlords for costs incurred in the carrying out of their duties'. (h) their functions and requirements in relation to fire safety legislation and in particular consideration be given to the installation of automatic fire sprinklers in HMOs.'.

No. 104, in clause 44, page 28, line 34, at end insert—

'(2A) In the event of such an appeal being made, the notice under section 40 is not suspended.'.

Government amendment No. 29.

No. 119, in schedule 13, page 231, line 31, after '189' insert—

'Sections 190A'.

Mr. Davey

I begin by expressing our concern for the constituents of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), and I hope that Ministers follow up your words, Mr. Speaker. Let us hope that what sounds like a tragedy does not result in any fatalities.

This group of amendments deals with housing conditions. Part 1 of the Bill significantly changes the way in which housing conditions are considered by environmental health officers, particularly, but not exclusively, in the private rented sector. The new system that the Government are introducing—the housing health and safety rating system—is broadly supported across the House. However, we raised several points in Committee that we want to address again in slightly different ways to ensure that we are clear about the Government's intentions and to see whether we can push them a little further in a few respects.

Amendments Nos. 100, 102, 103 and 101 reflect a concern that I expressed in Committee—namely, that the Bill introduces too mechanistic an approach whereby environmental health officers will have to try to calculate a numerical assessment of the state of the home concerned, using a complicated system to add up the probabilities and risks that particular conditions may harm certain types of people in order to produce ratings that define the problem as a category 1 hazard or a category 2 hazard. That system is based on a quantitative approach, but in our discussions in Committee, the Minister took a more expansive approach that possibly reflected the tone of the guidance that we saw only just before we debated it in Committee. He went so far as to tell the Committee that environmental health officers will be expected to use their professional judgment and that the approach will be qualitative, as well as quantitative.

Although we do not seek to press our amendments to a Division, I hope that for the sake of clarification the Minister can put on the record again some of the comments that he made in Committee. For example, he said:

Let me say a little more about judgment reports and flexibility. I should like to emphasise that the environmental health officer's assessment of the property, which will generate a score, will be based on their professional judgment of the condition."—[Official Report,Standing Committee E, 20 January 2004; c. 48.] He made other remarks along those lines to suggest that despite what it says in the Bill, a degree of flexibility and professional judgment will be involved. Can he give such an undertaking to members of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who will have to try to make the new system work? That would be helpful, because when environmental health officers tested version one of the system, they encountered many problems in trying to use that mechanistic approach.

It is worth commenting on Government amendment No. 6, which changes the requirement in the Bill for a local authority to consider the housing conditions in its district at least once a year. When we debated that duty in Committee, we thought it rather onerous and proposed amendments. At the time, the Government were not convinced, but they have returned with this amendment to allow greater flexibility by removing the frequency requirement to leave a general duty. I welcome that deregulatory measure.

Amendment No. 104 would ensure that there is a procedure to allow environmental health officers to go into a property very quickly if a hazard exists with the potential to cause an emergency. As the Bill stands, if an environmental health officer serves a notice on a landlord to say that there is an emergency that requires urgent investigation, the landlord can appeal. I understand that an appeals procedure is necessary, but some in the profession are worried that if a genuine emergency arose, the appeals procedure could get in the way of its being tackled. The amendment would ensure that the emergency can be dealt with even while the appeals procedure is going on. That might sound odd, but we are talking about situations that could threaten the lives of occupants, neighbours and even passers-by. Perhaps we misunderstood the various amendments that were discussed in Committee, but we certainly did not debate this point. Will the Minister confirm that if a real threat arises, the appeals procedure will not get in the way of its being dealt with?

Amendment No. 119 would reverse the Bill's repeal of section 190 of the Housing Act 1985. We are not convinced by that change, which was not debated in Committee. I remind hon. Members that section 190 enables a local housing authority to serve a repair notice on the landlord where the house is

in such a state of disrepair that, although not unfit for human habitation, substantial repairs are necessary to bring it up to a reasonable standard", or

its condition is such as to interfere materially with the personal comfort of the occupying tenant. The Government want to repeal that right because they believe that other measures introduced in the Bill make it superfluous. However, the professionals feel that although the Government have provided some new powers to deal with disrepair, they do not measure up to the section 190 powers. They are worried that in trying to raise the standard of conditions of housing, the Government are shooting themselves in the foot by getting rid of a piece of legislation that was helpful and putting in place measures that are not as effective. Environmental health officers and groups such as Shelter have told me that section 190 should be retained, arguing that although the new rating system is good for dealing with current threats to the health and safety of occupants, it is not so good for dealing with future threats.

There is some fuzziness around the edges, but the basic point is that the Government's proposed system deals with current threats, but not future threats such as rotting window frames or damaged guttering, which do not cause a problem immediately but will do so in the foreseeable future. People are worried that the new system, unlike section 190, will not cover disrepair that causes inconvenience or misery to residents—for example, ill-fitting windows or poor lighting—and fear that we may end up with a worse regime for dealing with housing conditions than the present one.

It is worth the Government reflecting on that. I doubt whether they will accept the amendment—that would be a turn-up for the books—but they might at least take time to reconsider my arguments when the Bill moves to another place and perhaps decide that section 190 of the 1985 Act is worth retaining.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)

I wish briefly to endorse some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). I should say from the outset that I speak as vice-president of the Institute of Environmental Health Officers.

I have corresponded with the Minister on some of these issues, and he was kind enough to respond to me in a very lengthy letter dated 5 March. I want to take this opportunity to flag up the day-to-day work of environmental health officers on housing repair and the huge responsibility that they take and put into action on a daily basis. They want to ensure that any new legislation that reaches the statute book does not put us in a worse position than that which obtains under existing statutes. I would hate us to make a decision today that would take us back a step rather than taking us further forward

The Minister has been very courteous already, but I must tell him that the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health still has certain concerns. Bearing in mind the fact that these issues are not to be pressed to a vote, will he agree to continue the dialogue that he has been having with the institute? Perhaps, between now and the time when the Bill goes to the other place, he will be kind enough to have further talks with the institute to ensure that the changes that we are proposing will enable the proper repairs to be carried out to the nation's housing stock.

1.30 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con)

For the purpose of the debate, I should like to declare that, as shown in the Register of Members' Interests, I am a director of a family property company with building interests.

This part of the Bill is highly complex, and I must admit that, even having had a briefing from the civil servants in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and having sat through the Committee stage of the Bill, I still do not feel wholly confident to lecture or give advice on it. We have given our broad support to the housing health and safety rating system, but with 29 categories of housing hazard and a numeric way of assessing them, it will be complex to administer.

An issue that arose in Committee, and to which we return in amendment No. 134, is the uniformity of the application of this part of the Bill. The amendment proposes that the appropriate national authority—be it the United Kingdom Government or the Welsh Assembly—should set out clearly what is expected of the respective institutions in regard to the qualifications and training of environmental health officers and the functions and requirements relating to the operation of this part of the Bill.

Another theme that we have identified is that, if it is clear from the Bill, through guidance, what is required, it will be much easier to ascertain the cost of providing those services. We raised the issue of cost on a number of occasions in Committee, and the Minister replied that the Government expected the one-off set-up costs of training environmental health officers and of information technology to be in the order of £4 million to £5 million. Perhaps that might be a recurring cost each year. I come from a local authority background, and I am still a little suspicious, given the complexities of this system and its implementation across the country, as to whether such amount would fully cover the costs involved.

We are not going to press our amendment to a vote, mainly because, given the programme motion that the House has passed, we might want to discuss other, weightier issues later. I would like the Minister to reassure the House, however, about how even-handedly this part of the Bill will be applied. We believe that it is important to include guidance in the Bill. Perhaps he will also briefly revisit the topic of the cost of the system. Every time the House passes legislation that places a duty on local authorities, or changes the manner in which they carry out their services, it is important that we should fully compensate them for that, particularly in this age when we often throw allegations across the Chamber at Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's Question Time about who has the worst record on council tax, for example. One of the major engines for generating higher costs for local authorities is legislation that puts too much of a burden on those authorities, which is not fully reflected when the revenue support grant is produced.

We have more important matters to discuss later, so I shall end my remarks now, to give the Minister an opportunity to give the House further reassurances on this important part of the Bill.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

I am grateful to have been called to speak and I shall be very brief. I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). The hon. Gentleman mentioned an occasion on which a person from a local authority might have to enter premises in an emergency. It would be quite wrong in those circumstances to require prior notice, and I believe that that also applies to a landlord. It would be wrong of us to think that there is permanent conflict between tenants and landlords. I hope that, in the main, a very harmonious relationship exists between them.

My other point is on the application of this part of the Bill. Of course we must get rid of unfit homes, and of course we must bring homes of a poor standard up to the standard that we expect to find at the beginning of the 21st century, but let us remember the context in which we are doing so. In recent years, the amount of public money invested in housing has been dramatically cut, although I am delighted to say that the Chancellor has recently announced that he is increasing the provision from £4 billion to £5 billion. However, the amount going into housing in 1990 was £11 billion, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It is vital, particularly in a place such as London, that we do not suddenly cut off a vast proportion of the private rented properties. All local authorities must employ an even-handed touch in giving time for conditions that are not necessarily or immediately hazardous to be improved. I support this part of the Bill in general, but it is the application of it that will be the decisive matter in practice.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

Before I respond to the debate, may I take this opportunity to express the Government's great sympathy and concern in regard to the explosion in Glasgow, which was brought to the attention of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin)?

The House will understand that I want not only to deal with the issues that have been raised in the non-Government amendments, but to explain and commend the Government amendments to the House. Clause 2 of the Bill provides for the components of the new hazard assessment system—the housing health and safety rating system to be prescribed in regulations. These are: the method for calculating the seriousness of hazards; the descriptions of hazards; the bands into which the hazards may fall, according to their seriousness; and the numerical scores that determine the bands into which the hazards fall.

Subsection (1) defines "hazard" for the purposes of part 1 of the Bill as a

risk of harm to the health or safety of an actual or potential occupier of a dwelling HMO"— a house in multiple occupation—

which arises from a deficiency on the premises or on

any building or land in the vicinity". It also defines category 1 and category 2 hazards.

Under the rating system, the assessment of a hazard has two elements: the likelihood of an occurrence resulting in harm, and the potential outcome of that occurrence. By virtue of subsection (3), the regulations prescribing the method will take account both of the likelihood of harm occurring and of the severity of the harm if it occurs. Whether a hazard is in category 1 or 2, and whether, within those categories, the hazard falls into band A, B, C, D or E is a matter for the judgment of the inspector. I use that expression advisedly, and I hope that in doing so I can provide the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) with the reassurance that he seeks. I must underline that point.

Regulations will describe the method for assessing hazards, set out the principles for scoring the hazards and placing them in bands, and list the 29 hazards to be covered by the system. Guidance to be given under clause 8 will give advice on how local authority officers should operate the system using their judgment, what they should look out for, and what can be done on the premises to remove or reduce a hazard.

Amendments Nos. 100 to 103 seek to make technical changes to the meaning of "hazards". In our view, they undermine the objectivity of the system, which is its prime objective. I also believe that they stem from a belief that the system is in danger of being excessively mechanistic and leaves no room for judgment—that is, that the rating system deals with numbers at the expense of the inspector's professional judgment and knowledge. The system does use numbers, of course, but the hazard score will not be determined by the system. I say again that it will be determined by the inspector's judgment, and I pay tribute to the professionalism of the officers of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

Amendment No. 103 would introduce the concept of relative standards to a system of risk assessment by requiring the "age, character or locality" of a property to be taken into account. That creates something of a slippery slope. I do not argue that the rating system seeks perfection in every dwelling. Some sorts of dwelling have characteristic defects. For example, early 20th century terraced houses may have steep staircases that increase the risk of a fall. A local authority inspector will know that and make appropriate allowance for it. On the other hand, it will not be good enough for him to say that, because many dwellings in his area have leaking roofs, he should play down the seriousness of that defect in a particular dwelling.

The housing health and safety rating system is a tool that provides objective information as a starting point for an inspector to support his judgment of the action needed to deal with a hazard. That judgment should take on board the effect of housing conditions on the health and safety of occupants.

Amendment No. 103 would also introduce considerations of material comfort into a system that assesses the health and safety risks to occupants. I am sure that that is a reflection of representations that have been made to me about the repeal of section 190 of the Housing Act 1985. Aside from any merits of having a separate power to deal with minor disrepair and discomfort, it is inappropriate to introduce it in the housing health and safety rating system formula.

The housing health and safety rating system will pick up disrepair when it contributes to any hazard in category 1 or 2. I understand that authorities would like to have wider powers to deal with conditions that are not even hazards. The housing heath and safety rating system provides a tool for authorities to prioritise intervention, and they can choose to tackle disrepair that contributes to modest hazards, should that be their approach.

When disrepair does not even contribute to a hazard, we should hesitate to provide open-ended powers. Enforcement action needs to be proportionate and evidence based. There is no reason why authorities cannot provide advice to landlords when they judge that defects might lead to discomfort or further deterioration in the future and monitor those conditions. I therefore invite the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton to withdraw the amendment, but I hope that my remarks have reassured him.

I shall now deal with Government amendments Nos. 6 to 13, which, I am delighted to say, largely respond to representations that were made in Committee. Clause 3 requires local authorities to consider the housing conditions in their district at least once a year, with a view to determining what action to take, for example, under their powers to deal with hazards identified under the housing health and safety rating system, or their powers to declare renewal areas or provide financial assistance for home repair or improvement.

In Committee, I was pressed on the frequency of such consideration by local authorities, and hon. Members presented arguments for both more and less frequent consideration. I undertook to reconsider the requirement. Clause 3 replicates provisions that were enacted most recently in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. However, the Government's approach to local housing strategies has developed since then, and authorities are no longer expected to produce them annually. The requirement in clause 3 to keep the housing stock under review remains important, but the obligation to do so annually is out of kilter with the approach to strategies

Amendment No. 6 therefore retains the obligation to keep the stock under review, but removes the requirement about frequency. The purpose of the clause is to ensure that a local authority maintains a current awareness of the state of the housing stock in its area so that it can reach well-informed judgments about the action that it needs to take. As I said in Committee, the purpose of the provision is not to require an authority to produce reports at specific intervals, although we expect authorities to keep records that can be made available to the appropriate national authority. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton for his welcome for the clause.

Clause 4 deals with the requirements on local authorities to inspect premises to determine whether they contain hazards. It also deals with the requirements on authorities and their officers to respond to complaints about housing conditions. In Committee, the handling of complaints received what I described at the time as "a good thrashing", and I have concluded that the extended discussion that took place was due, at least in part, to a lack of clarity in the way in which clause 4 deals with the issue. The amendments are intended to set out more clearly the way in which the Government expect complaints to be tackled and to draw a sharper distinction between official and other complaints.

1.45 pm

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 remove subsection (3) and establish a general duty on local authorities to arrange for an inspection of premises to be carried out. That duty arises if the authority considers that an inspection would be appropriate, either as a result of a review under clause 3 or for any other reason, to determine whether a category 1 or 2 hazard exists on those premises. The amendment therefore provides for the kinds of circumstances that, in the normal course of business, are most likely to lead an authority to inspect a property and consider enforcement action under part 1. They include ordinary, day-to-day complaints to the authority.

There is no duty on authorities to respond to every such complaint but, as I said in Committee, we expect them to respond to complaints that are not vexatious or frivolous. Amendment No. 7 therefore sets out what I might describe as the "default" approach to complaints.

Let me deal with what clause 4 calls "official" complaints. They have a dual significance in that they carry the weight of a justice of the peace or a parish or community council and are made to the proper officer rather than to the authority. The proper officer, who, in this context, is likely to be a senior environmental health officer, has duties independent of the authority's, including a duty to inspect premises in response to an official complaint. That lends those complaints—in both the giving and the receiving—an additional significance. It enables them to be considered without any suggestion that political or financial considerations may have been brought to bear.

Much of the debate in Committee focused on the official complaints and on amendments that would have extended the power to make such a complaint to other institutions. However, I stress again that the official complaints are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, I have to confess to the House that a recent trawl by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has not identified a single authority that can recall the use of the official route for complaints.

That is not to say that the official route has no value.

Mr. Edward Davey


Keith Hill

If I may be allowed to make my argument and the hon. Gentleman still wants to intervene, I would welcome his remarks.

The findings illustrate, as I maintained in Committee, that the ordinary workaday route for tenants and residents to complain directly to their local authority works well in the vast majority of cases and there is no need to widen the official route.

Mr. Davey

The Minister is making an interesting speech, which would have enlightened our previous "thrashing" debate. However, perhaps the current formal route is not sufficiently wide and the findings that he has secured back the case that we made in Committee.

Keith Hill

In Committee, we were in a sort of competition to extend the category of those regarded as official complainants. However, the reality appears to be that the current system works well enough and we perceive the official route as a fall-back, default mechanism or recourse when other more obvious routes fail.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there has always been a tension between the public health and management sides of a council? Does he also accept that, especially when houses have been bought up because of, for example, road widening, the council tends, in its management of the road-widening scheme, to resist pressure from the public health side to make temporary improvements to those properties? There is now a danger that, if local authorities do not have the resources to put their council properties into a state of good repair, the housing authority could manage a house with, for example, poor electrical wiring and be embarrassed by the pressure from the public health side of the council. It is important that the Minister emphasises that the public health side should have priority.

Keith Hill

On the whole, I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend and to emphasise that, of course, public health must have considerable priority. He perhaps takes us wider than the immediate issue, but I have listened to him very carefully and, as ever, I will bear his observations in mind as I pursue these matters.

I took the point made by hon. Members in Committee that not all areas are blessed with a parish or community council, and I recognise that those councils do not have the same independence as justices of the peace, but I am not about to deprive those who have access to such a council of that second string to their bow, even though one is enough.

Subsection (4), as amended by amendment No. 10, ensures that all inspections, whether by the authority in response to an ordinary complaint or by the proper officer in response to an official complaint, are carried out in accordance with regulations, including those under clause 2, which will prescribe the method of hazard assessment. That means that all inspections carried out in response to complaints, whether ordinary or "official", will be carried out with the same rigour.

Amendment No. 13 further strengthens the procedure for official complaints by ensuring that it is properly rounded off with a report by the proper officer, whether the hazard revealed by the officer's inspection has turned out to be category 1 or 2. Amendments Nos. 9, 11 and 12 are technical and consequential.

On amendment No. 134, let me begin by assuring the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) of the continuing even-handedness of the Government's approach in these matters. As I said in Committee, we anticipate the start-up costs of these arrangements to be about £4 million to £5 million.

Members will be aware that in January we had a thorough debate in Committee on an amendment with the same purpose as amendment No. 134. Indeed, the Committee even divided on that amendment, so I acknowledge that certain members of the Committee were not entirely persuaded by my arguments. That said, my arguments against this amendment remain unchanged.

Clause 8 enables the Secretary of State in relation to England, and the National Assembly for Wales in relation to Wales, to give guidance to local housing authorities on the exercise of their functions under part 1. That guidance will be about how properties are to be inspected and assessed using the housing health and safety rating system and how authorities, once they have assessed a hazard, should apply the enforcement duties and powers provided in part 1. Those relate to the use of improvement notices, prohibition orders, hazard awareness notices, demolition orders, and clearance, and also to the use of the emergency measures under the provisions added to the Bill by Government amendment in Committee.

Amendment No. 134 would add to the topics on which guidance may be given. I must declare to the House that I remain entirely unconvinced that those additions are necessary. The amendment appears to question the fact that environmental health officers employed by local housing authorities are already qualified to operate the rating system.

I recognise that the rating system requires a change of approach by local authorities—this is the first time that we have brought risk assessment and housing conditions together under a regime that has been around in some shape or form for the past 80 years—but the housing health and safety rating system is essentially a tool to assist professional judgment, as I have repeatedly said.

Environmental health practitioners are already used to risk assessment methods in other areas of their work. I am comforted by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which in its response to our recent consultation on the enforcement guidance gave an account of the work that practitioners do. The CIEH response points to environmental health practitioners'

experience in risk assessment procedures and ability to take an holistic view of the health, safety and welfare of occupiers alongside traditional building and means of escape defects. It seems to me, therefore, that the hon. Member for Poole takes a dimmer view of the experience and abilities of environmental health professionals than does the CIEH.

The chartered institute is a key housing stakeholder and I do not underestimate the contribution that its members will make to the success of our reforms, but it is clear that we are not talking here about the need for new qualifications. Rather, I have said that we will do what we can to ensure that the rating system is implemented smoothly. There will be training in the system, and we are considering what training will be required, but in the meantime, there cannot be many EHOs or authorities who remain ignorant of the principles underlying the system, as version 1 entered the public domain in 2000 and a draft of version 2 has been available since last December.

Proposed new subsection (1)(f), which amendment No. 134 would insert in clause 8, appears once again to be an attempt to write a regulatory impact assessment into the guidance. That is not the function of guidance on either a technical assessment or the use of the enforcement options. I have said before that inspections are likely to vary considerably in the time that they take, both in the field and back at base. The computer programme that will be part of version 2 of the housing health and safety rating system should enable inspectors to save time by entering data as they carry out the inspection.

As to proposed new subsection (1)(g), which would be inserted by the amendment, it is not clear in what circumstances authorities may need to compensate landlords. Landlords will have a right to appeal on the improvement notices and prohibition orders for which the Bill provides before they take effect, or, in the case of the emergency measures, after the measures have been taken.

Compensation may well be an outcome of an appeal in some such cases. I suggest that compensation is a matter that should be dealt with on appeal. I cannot agree that compensation should be a matter for Government guidance under clause 8, nor, as I said before, can I see that compensation is a likely outcome for a landlord who has kept his tenants in conditions so hazardous that a local authority has felt compelled to take enforcement action.

I turn now to the question of fire, which of course is one of the 29 hazards dealt with by the rating system. There will indeed be guidance on hazards from fire, which will cover the causes and preventative measures. Fire is one of the most important hazards. Nevertheless, I do not think it necessary to single out fire safety in the Bill. All the hazards will be spelled out in the regulations, which prescribe the housing health and safety rating system method under clause 2.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)(Con)

I am trying to be helpful to the Minister, as he knows I generally am. As he is moving on to those matters, will he specifically deal with the report by the National Landlords Association, with which he will be intimately familiar? I see he is looking at it with knowledge and familiarity. The report makes this absolutely clear:

Just over 5 per cent. of England's population live in HMOs, which, statistics suggest, suffer just over 5 per cent. of England's fire fatalities. I do not necessarily make the argument for the association, but I know that he will want to deal with its argument in the fullest and most persuasive way.

Keith Hill

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House's attention, if not mine, to the report in question. I give him the assurance that we shall deal with those issues of fire hazard in connection with HMOs in our debates this afternoon. Not for the first time, if I might say so in recognition of his skills and abilities, he anticipates weighty matters that will come before us in due course.

Though we had a good debate on the issue in Committee, allow me to say again, with the leave of the House, something about how local authorities are being asked to deal with hazards. When inspecting a property, the inspector asks, "What is the likelihood of an incident taking place—for example, the risk of an outbreak of fire—and what harm will be caused, taking account of other factors such as the precautions that have been taken in the property and the means of escape?"

We want local authorities to prioritise action against all serious hazards, and in the case of HMOs covered by part 2 they will be required to do so following an application for a licence. We will emphasise that in the guidance we issue to authorities. The guidance will also include advice on how housing authorities can work with fire authorities to ensure that both housing and fire safety legislation work effectively.

2 pm

The Bill now requires local authorities to consult fire authorities before taking enforcement action under part 1 in an HMO. That will ensure that expert advice is available to local authorities. When an authority has assessed a serious category 1 hazard, it will be under a duty, under clause 5, to take appropriate enforcement action. Should an improvement notice be served under clause 9, the action taken by the owner or landlord must, as a minimum, ensure that the hazard ceases to be a category 1 hazard. The authority will therefore need to ensure that any remedial action required in the case of fire is appropriate. It would be inconsistent with a system of risk assessment to prescribe specific means of dealing with hazards. However, the technical guidance to be issued under the clause will recommend that there should be adequate means of escape from fire from all parts of a building. For HMOs, there should be adequate fire protection, including, as appropriate, sprinkler systems. That does not mean that authorities will require such systems in all HMOS, but that it will be appropriate to fit them where the risk justifies it. In conclusion, our technical guidance will be already be comprehensive in its treatment of fire and other hazards, and the elements of the amendment are either misplaced or appropriate.

In the time remaining for this group of amendments, let me turn to non-Government amendment No. 104, as I want to reassure the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. This amendment seeks to ensure that when a local housing authority serves a notice of emergency remedial action under chapter 3 of part 1 of the Bill, in order to deal with a hazard that presents an imminent risk of serious harm to the occupiers of residential premises, the taking of the action is not affected by any appeal that may be made against the notice. I am happy to confirm that the amendment is unnecessary because such a notice will enable the authority to take action immediately.

Clause 44 provides a right of appeal to the residential property tribunal against such a notice, but the appeal will not prevent the local housing authority from taking the action. When an appeal is made under clause 44, the tribunal may confirm, reverse or vary the decision of the authority, although this might be considered unacceptable if works have already been carried out. In such circumstances, schedule 10 allows the appropriate national authority, in regulations, to make provision for additional relief. These regulations might provide that when emergency remedial action has been taken and the tribunal determines that the local housing authority was wrong to decide that such action was necessary, the tribunal may require the authority to compensate the owner for any damage incurred or return the premises to the state that they were in before the works were carried out. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment. In passing, I commend Government amendment No. 29 to the House.

Finally, let me turn to amendment No. 119, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) spoke so eloquently. I assure her that I will continue to listen to the arguments, although she will understand that I can make no commitments. I recognise the reasons for this amendment. I am aware that there is some support among local authorities and housing professionals for retaining powers of some kind to deal with disrepair. Part 1 of the Bill, however, enables authorities to deal effectively with substantial disrepair. Using the housing health and safety rating system, they can apply the evidence of the effect of that disrepair on occupants—not merely on tenants in the private rented sector but on all occupants, should they be at any risk.

Section 190 of the Housing Act 1985 currently gives discretion to local authorities to serve a repair notice when a dwelling, though not unfit, is in such a state of disrepair that substantial repairs are necessary to bring it up to a reasonable standard. Such a notice can also be served when the condition of the dwelling interferes materially with the personal comfort of an occupying tenant. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that, technically, this amendment will not work. By retaining section 190 as it stands, an authority will need to have regard to a standard of fitness, and we are of course repealing the fitness standard. In the spirit of generosity that has characterised our proceedings on the Bill, however, I am happy to address the underlying issue.

We told the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, whose distinguished Chairman is in his place, that we would consider its recommendation to retain an amended section 190. However, having considered this matter, I am not minded to support the retention of a power on the lines of section 190. There are sound reasons for that. Part 1 of the Bill will not prevent authorities from taking action against substantial disrepair. The hazards from structural failure, fire, cold, falls, asbestos and electrical faults, for example, set out in version 2 of the guidance, illustrate the kinds of disrepair that can give rise to such hazards, against which authorities will have either a duty or very wide discretionary power to take action.

To give local authorities revised powers to deal with substantial disrepair would create a parallel regime. That is not good regulation, and if those parallel powers were to deal only with minor disrepair, they would undermine the rationale for the health and safety rating system: that interventions should be prioritised, proportionate and based on evidence.

It being one and a quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKERput forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

Amendment negatived.


then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

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