HL Deb 11 February 1985 vol 460 cc2-4

2.34 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any further proposals in mind to protect people living in houses in multiple occupation.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, local authorities have wide powers to protect those living in houses in multiple occupation. These should be used in the light of local knowledge. The Department of the Environment is currently carrying out research into the condition of these houses and local authorities' use of legislation. The need for further measures will be examined in the light of the outcome of that research.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. But as a matter of urgency will he ask the Government to make mandatory those powers which at present are optional for local authorities? He must know that since 1978, 600 people have died in houses in multiple occupation or properties that could be described as such, some of them in quite horrendous circumstances. Is the Minister also aware that most of the national organisations of repute which deal with housing are firmly of the opinion that it is now time to introduce mandatory legislation?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, while I would not rule out future legislation on this issue, the Government would not be justified in considering the need for it until we have a clear picture after the research project to which I referred has been completed.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, can we have an assurance that action resulting from the research project will not be delayed because of any possible financial implications that may fall upon local authorities in carrying out any recommendations contained therein? Surely the Minister is aware that when legislation dealing with homeless persons has gone through both Houses there has clearly been a marked reluctance on the part of local authorities to carry out what they genuinely want to do, particularly in respect of fire precautions, safety and hygiene. Is the Minister aware that local authorities are reluctant to take on those responsibilities because of financial implications? Can the Minister assure us that any delay in the report will not be due to any financial restrictions?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I should say that the research to which I have just referred is in two parts: the first part is a postal survey which will provide information about the number, type and condition of HMOs and about the local authorities' use of their powers. The second part involves visiting a range of HMOs. This will provide detailed information about conditions, the possible costs and the rehousing implications in dealing with those conditions where it is necessary, as well as information about the residents.

With regard to the existing arrangements, which I believe confused the noble Lord's thinking, the position of the homeless is heavily weighted in the generalised need index.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend how many houses in multiple occupation have been inspected to see whether they conform to the fire regulations?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am afraid I must tell my noble friend that those statistics are not available to me at the moment. I doubt that they are available centrally because this is the responsibility of the local authority.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Government's fire statistics show that people living in houses of multiple occupation in the circumstances which have been mentioned face a risk of death eight times greater than those who live in normal circumstances? Does that not point to the need for some more urgency in dealing with this situation? How can the Government continue to maintain that local powers give people adequate safeguards when report after report into the tragic fires that have occurred in the last couple of years point to confusion, irresponsibility, uncertainty and very often the failure of local authorities to use their powers? Can the Minister not inject some urgency into the actions of his friends elsewhere on the reviews?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, of course, I accept the tragic figures which the noble Lord has underlined in the first part of his supplementary question. The second part of his supplementary question referred to extending the Housing (Means of Escape from Fire in Houses in Multiple Occupation) Order 1981, No. 1576. We considered this very carefully. We concluded that local authorities can exercise existing powers whenever they consider it appropriate to do so. Extending the order would have imposed an unnecessary burden on local authorities to use those powers in respect of HMOs which they had already decided did not merit action under Schedule 24 to the Housing Act 1980.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, do not the national housing surveys reveal the number of houses in multiple occupation? When was the last national housing survey?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I must confess that I am bowled by both those supplementary questions. So far as I know, the English national housing survey does not give details of houses in multiple occupation. I shall have to let the noble Lord know the answer to his second supplementary question.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will not the Minister agree that while there are no plans to ensure that there is value for money in board and lodgings, then, provided that the accommodation is within the limits set down, it will be supported by the Department of Health and Social Security, however bad are the standards? Will he not agree that that is a very unsatisfactory situation?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, there are afoot discussions as to what might be done in regard to health and social security in this area, but I do not think that I ought to anticipate any outcome.