HL Deb 25 April 1986 vol 473 cc1423-39

2.4 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am glad to have the opportunity at last of bringing this little Bill before your Lordships. I think that it is very important and should give a much better standard of living to many people.

I am grateful also to the many organisations which have given me support and assistance in my endeavours to improve the protection afforded to the people who live in shared houses, bedsits, hostels and bed and breakfast accommodation. I should particularly like to thank the HMO Campaign Group, Shelter, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the Fire Brigade and many other voluntary organisations. I should like to say too that I have received letters from both the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Southwark and Birmingham regretting that they cannot be here, as they would both like to have taken part in this debate.

It is a matter of great regret to me that the Government do not appear to share my concern, nor the belief that action is urgently needed, despite all the evidence which was put before the House many times, and by myself six years ago in this House. I therefore feel that their attitude to this Bill appears to be a reluctance to act.

It is clear from the reports of the results of the first part of the research commissioned by the Department of the Environment—which has recently been published—that there are a large number of houses in multiple occupation which are lacking adequate means of escape in case of fire, which are overcrowded, which lack adequate amenities for the number of people occupying them, and, very importantly, which are badly managed. This Bill seeks to ensure that local authorities do more to rectify this appalling situation. It is estimated that there are over 330,000 of these HMO houses in England and Wales and that 53 per cent. are unsatisfactory. However, the Department of the Environment's figures as reported at the IEHO Conference (which was held in April, and which I attended) in the April edition of Environmental Health are subject to some error, as many local authorities do not know just how many such houses exist within their districts.

It is argued that powers are available to local authorities to ensure safe living conditions. What is evident is that these powers are not being used. It is the intention that this Bill will make both local councils and the Government face up to the problem. If the local authorities did not use the legislation before expenditure controls became so tight, it is no good now arguing that they cannot deal with HMOs because of lack of resources.

Indeed, from the information I have received about the Greater London HMO survey, carried out with the same method as the DoE's National Physical and Social Survey, it is not unreasonable for the environmental health officer to inspect 20 HMOs in a three-week period. On that basis I would calculate that in a 4 5-week working year it would need approximately 600 EHOs to inspect the estimated number of unsatisfactory houses in multiple occupation. That figure represents just 10 per cent. of the membership of the organisation. They are often assisted by technical assistants.

It is therefore arguable whether my proposals are unrealistic so far as resources are concerned, and they will give the much needed impetus to improving living conditions for those most at risk from their housing conditions. It must be remembered that there cannot be a once-and-for-all attack on the problem, but there must be continuous programmes of inspection. Some HMOs require more frequent inspection than others—that is, accommodation at higher risk from fire.

Briefly, I should like to turn to the Bill. Clause 1 of the Bill clarifies and makes more specific the general duty upon local housing authorities to inspect their districts from time to time. It is clear from the data obtained by the DoE that many authorities are not complying with the existing duty, and it is unlikely that the Secretary of State will direct authorities to obtain the relevant information so far as HMOs are concerned. Certainly that power has not been exercised in the 17 years that it has existed, which is a very long time.

This clause will require local housing authorities to inspect their district within 18 months of the Bill becoming law and every three years thereafter. This is not an unreasonable requirement; but what is most important is that they prepare and make available for public scrutiny a programme or strategy for dealing with the conditions found as part of the inspection. As the Institution of Environmental Health Officers has said in its report on the legislation published in April 1985, too few local authorities have any comprehensive policy for dealing with the conditions found in HMOs. This clause will go a long way to overcoming this criticism, and also give landlords and tenants information as to what will be done to improve these houses.

Clause 2 imposes clear duties on local housing authorities to deal with certain conditions which may be found on inspection. Clause 2(a) will make it a duty to require the execution of works to render premises fit for the number of occupants, for example, by providing an adequate number of toilets, baths or other amenities, where the power to make a direction order limiting the number of occupiers is not used under Section 354 of the principal Act. According to DoE figures, 28 per cent, of HMOs require additional amenities, and in 1983–84 only 16 notices were served per 1,000 unsatisfactory HMOs, which I think noble Lords will agree is rather shocking.

Clause 2(b) removes the discretion to serve an overcrowding notice where there is overcrowding or over-occupation of the sleeping accommodation within HMOs. According to DoE figures, again 16 per cent. of HMOs are overcrowded or over-occupied, and yet in 1983–84 only six notices were served per 1,000 unsatisfactory HMOs.

Clause 2(c) again removes the discretion to deal with inadequate means of escape in case of fire—the most important consideration when dealing with the safety of occupiers of these houses. Clause 2(c) makes it a duty upon local housing authorities to require adequate means of escape in all cases where there is no such provision, not just the largest houses as at present (over 500 square metres floor area and over three storeys in height). It may be interesting to note that there is no provision at all for any houses of two storeys or less. It is estimated that 38 per cent. of HMOs require means of escape from fire. These figures indicate that the discretion of local housing authorities has not been used positively and it is therefore necessary to make it a clear duty to act.

Clause 2(d) repeals Section 365(2) of the principal Act which provides for the Secretary of State to specify by order the type of HMO where there is a duty on local authorities to require adequate means of escape. This section would be made redundant.

It is a matter of fact that houses in multiple occupation require good management, and yet it is estimated that 23 per cent. have unsatisfactory management, possibly because the managers or owners are ill-equipped to cope with the problems associated with a multi-occupied house.

Clause 2(e) makes it a duty for the local housing authority to make a management order applying the management code to all houses where there are unsatisfactory standards of management. There are currently about 78,000 such houses and yet very few management orders are made in any year. The truth is that the management code, as set out in regulations, should apply to all HMOs without the need to make a management order, just as the food hygiene regulations apply to all food premises. However, this clause moves some way towards improving the present unsatisfactory situation even if it is still not the ideal.

Clause 3 is analogous to Section 99 of the Public Health Act 1936, and enables any person living in a house in multiple occupation which is in such a condition as to be prejudicial to health, safety or welfare of the inhabitants to make representation to a justice of the peace—and this can be done at any time—who may then, if satisfied having heard the evidence, make such order or serve such notices as are appropriate to deal with the conditions. He can do both. The clause avoids the need to seek judicial review where a local authority has failed to carry out its statutory duty. Indeed, the justice of the peace may even make a control order, if the conditions warrant it, thereby requiring the local authority to take over the management of the worst HMOs.

It is quite clear from speaking to tenants' representatives and professional officers that much needs to be done to improve HMO legislation. This Bill is one small step, as I hope your Lordships will agree, and provides the Government with an opportunity to help the most vulnerable members of society. Much public money is being wasted by accommodating people in unsatisfactory hostels and hotels because there are not enough decent houses for them in the right location. This Bill, if given a Second Reading, will at least require local authorities to ensure that unscrupulous landlords do not exploit the housing shortage which makes the life of the tenants so impossible. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Vickers.)

2.16 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I should like to support the noble Baroness in bringing this Bill before us and to identify myself with the sense of urgency with which she has spoken and the sense of urgency with which the matters in the Bill need to be dealt with.

The Churches in this country have always shown a very urgent concern for the issues represented by this Bill. In 1980 the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of Westminster and the President of the Free Church Federal Council all made a common statement to support the Private Member's Bill that was going through another place at the hands of the now Lord Dean of Beswick. Later in that year, 1980, with other Members of your Lordships' House, they succeeded in pressing the Government to bring in a limited duty on local authorities to require means of fire escape in large properties.

The latest expression of the Churches' concern about this whole matter comes in various parts of the recent report of the Archbishops' Commission on Urban Priority Areas called Faith in the City. The human concern, let alone the Christian concern, which lies behind this Bill is not surprising. We now have the initial findings of the survey of the Department of the Environment on the situation and we can now see that the number of people involved is far higher than was previously estimated: something like 334,000 HMOs involving 3 million people; and rather more than half of those, as the noble Baroness has said, are substandard. Their figures show that 38 per cent. need fire safety precautions; 32 per cent. need major repairs; 28 per cent. need proper amenities; 23 per cent. are considered badly managed, and 16 per cent. are overcrowded. Those are very high percentages and something like 100 people die every year in fires in HMOs. These circumstances often bear particularly heavily on the ethnic minorities. There is one borough in London where 90 per cent. of the people in HMOs are of ethnic origins.

As the noble Baroness has said, the government policy has been to say that the local authorities have powers, that they should use them and that it should be left to them. The evidence is, as she has also said, that the local authorities are not using their powers. Therefore, I very much support the Bill's proposals to exchange powers for duties so that local authorities have to act. For every 1,000 substandard properties in 1983 and 1984, the local authorities only served—nationally—28 notices with regard to fire safety, 60 notices with regard to amenities, and six with regard to overcrowding. Those are not very happy figures.

Any complacency that local authorities will act because of these circumstances affecting the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people in this country needs to be set against the tempo at which local authorities actually take action. It has been calculated that over a million people would be waiting at this present tempo for remedial action—36 years for fire safety to be dealt with, 62 years for amenities to be improved and 167 years for overcrowding to be remedied. That is the current tempo of local authority action.

Another example of the lack of urgency is the handling by the Home Office of its draft code on means of escape from fire. As the noble Baroness said, two-storey hostels or houses are not included because local authorities have not found it necessary to control such premises, yet it is primarily in these premises that safety is most lacking. We get tragic situations such as the one in Clanricarde Gardens in Notting Hill where eight people were burnt and 100 people rendered homeless.

Again the Department of the Environment is issuing a circular to all local authorities with the 1985 Act, reminding them of their powers, but the DoE survey shows that many local authorities do not know exactly where their powers need exercising. While the survey shows 334,000 HMOs in England and Wales, the precise information provided by local authorities to the Department of the Environment related to only 3,000; less than 1 per cent. This gives great force to the duty laid down in the Bill for inspection of properties within 18 months of the Bill coming into force, and thereafter every three years.

Finally, I should like to affirm and welcome in the Bill the provision for the rights of residents in houses of multiple occupation to go to the magistrates' court and make complaints, and for the courts to have the power to order local authorities to serve the relevant notices. For all those reasons and many others which the noble Baroness has mentioned in her review of the Bill, I hope that it will receive the favour of your Lordships' House because it so greatly affects the welfare and quality of life of some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are least able to fend for themselves.

2.22 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I must apologise if any noble Lord has been taken aback by the change in the order of speaking. It seemed only right and proper that a Prelate should take precedence over a mere parish priest. I did my best to inform the necessary authorities but I am not sure that the messages got through.

It is right and proper that the Church should be speaking up on this occasion. It has already been mentioned that the Bishop of Southwark, my own diocesan, the Bishop of Birmingham, the chairman of the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England, regret that they cannot be here, but they have been good enough to let me know one or two of the things that they were going to say. The Church has something important to say in this field. It has an important witness to make. When I say "witness", I do not mean in the theological sense of the term, although I think it is important that the Church should speak up on these matters. I am also talking about the evidence of the Church.

Here the Church has quite a lot to say, because it is a sad fact that these days our society seems to be getting more and more divided. The number of institutions and individuals from the educated and middle classes who can give evidence at first hand of the effects of poverty is shrinking. That is not because, as most of us who were concerned about this problem in the 1960s thought, poverty is declining. When I initiated a debate in your Lordships' House in that decade I was sometimes less than politely told that I was exaggerating. Today no one would say that.

Yet, although there is general agreement on the existence of poverty, slums and appalling housing conditions, the conscience of "comfortable Britain", as the Bishop of Liverpool has termed it, is not as concerned as it once was. This can be put down in no small degree to the increasing segregation of society. In spite of the growing complexity of communications, the south of England is less aware of what is happening in the north, and the people of Kew, where I come from, are less aware of what is happening in Tower Hamlets. It is for this reason that the testimony of the Church is important, because not only does the Church of England, as a national Church, minister to the whole country, but its clergy, unlike a growing number of police, social workers and teachers—I am casting no aspersions on them—still live among their people and do not commute into the slums from the suburbs day by day. Therefore they are better witnesses of what is going on.

To turn to the particular interests of the Bill, the evidence we have from those living on the ground is horrifying. There are completely authenticated stories of hotels in the Southwark diocese and of HMOs with maximum allowed numbers of 113 holding 280 people. The extent of the work that is required by the notices served by the local authorities, when they get round to it, to bring the buildings up to even minimum legal standards, illustrates the conditions that the racketeers (for that they frequently are) are prepared to allow until they are caught. They are caught, very often, only when somebody dies.

Incidentally it is a terrible thought that the only hotels and HMOs in Streatham, for example—thanks to the ill-considered board and lodging regulations that we have discussed once or twice in your Lordships' House, and according to at least one reputable agency—which now fall into the cost bracket which is allowed for these people are hotels of the kind which are lacking the amenities we are talking about and are lacking the necessary safety precautions.

It is important that this Bill, or something like it, should come on to the statute book. If there are to be any changes they should be changes to make it stronger. This is your Lordships' opportunity to give this Bill a Second Reading and then to consider it carefully in Committee to see whether more should be done and whether it should be strengthened, because it would be over-optimistic to think that this Bill could pass into law immediately. But if we can stimulate the Government to take it up themselves, or can get it into such a condition that it could rapidly be passed through Parliament in another Session, we shall have done something worth while.

One of the matters to which the House may wish to turn its attention in Committee, the Bishop of Birmingham has suggested to me, is the definition of a house in multiple occupation. The definition in the 1985 Act is officially described as "wide-ranging". It is far too wide-ranging, and the Association of Environmental Health Officers has suggested a much sharper definition. There are probably other amendments that we should take on board. It is sad today that we are not only without those two Bishops, though the contribution we had from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln made up for that to a large extent, but we also do not have the noble Lord, Lord Banks, who I understand would have liked to have spoken but who has unfortunately been prevented from doing so. We could have done with his very great knowledge of the whole of the social security field on which this Bill borders.

Will all that is being suggested cost money? Yes, of course, it will. But before that is made an excuse for doing nothing, may I remind your Lordships that doing nothing will cost even more. Recently, the City of Birmingham, in introducing its housing strategy, declared that disrepair in the private sector is now reaching such a level that unless major injections of capital are made an irreversible spiral towards long-term slum clearance will follow. We all know how much that costs and we all know how much are the social costs of wholesale slum clearances; and that, of course, is without counting the far more important cost, in terms of the quality of human lives, of what we are doing at the moment. It is only natural that our imaginations and those of the public should be caught by the fire hazards. The thought of people burning to death is not a pretty one; but the thought of individuals and families living in these surroundings is sometimes even worse.

I have just one excerpt to read from the many individual cases that I have. This comes from Newcastle. When I arrived at Hotel 'A' in early November, I was five months' pregnant. I was given a room in the attic. The state of the room was appalling. The skylight window was leaking, and when it rained the water dropped on to the floor. There was no heating. There was one blanket on the bed so I had to sleep with my clothes on. I had to wait a week until I was given another blanket. My friend had to give me one of her blankets because it was so cold. Two blankets still wouldn't keep me warm. After complaining about the cold, I was told by the landlady that there was no reason for heating as heat rises and the heat from the rooms below would be enough to heat the attic. I was visited by the doctor and he informed the landlady I would have to be moved into another room because if I had stayed in the room any longer it would have been dangerous owing to my condition. It was then I got another room". That is just one example. I have long been a proponent of the idea that if possible central government should not take on responsibilities which local authorities can perform. There are always exceptions to that rule, and it seems to me that this is one of them. The whole question of houses in multiple occupation has become a national scandal, and it is time that the state stepped in. The Government really must act, and, if they do not, then the legislature must act on its own. I congratulate the noble Baroness on putting forward this Bill, and I beg your Lordships not to rest until it, or at least something like it, is on the statute book.

2.35 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I apologise for speaking without my name being on the list. I wish I had known before half-past twelve today that my noble colleague Lord Crawshaw was delayed by family illness and could not give the support which this party and the Liberal Party—the Alliance Party, in fact—most strongly feel. I wish to stress this, because we are used to these views being put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, but as he has chosen a different seat he can no longer speak for us.

My appearance, as your Lordships will realise, is almost entirely cosmetic, just to emphasise that we on these Benches do support this matter. Since half-past twelve I have not picked up enough to be able to say anything which is very useful, except one thing that I have developed while listening to the excellent exposition that we have had so far.

This is a fairly simple, limited problem which anybody with any courage at all—I was going to say "anybody with the courage of a woodlouse", but that is not quite right—could deal with. It is perfectly simple. If this Bill is passed there will be an absolute obligation on local authorities to do what they have to do—as the right reverend Prelate says, in some cases 176 years later. It is simply a question of each authority having an additional inspector—perhaps in some cases two and in other cases three—to inspect these places and see that the law is carried out when the law is made. This, with unemployment as it is, is a job for the Manpower Services Commission. The Government tomorrow, without any legislation whatever, could authorise the employment of something perhaps under 100 altogether or at any rate under 300 newly-employed characters, properly trained (the universities are turning them out by the dozen) to go out and deal with this matter at least on the basis of one to two years running.

If that can be done I am sure the thing would work. I will not say any more because it is superficial to come in late without having studied the problem; but I have studied property quite a lot in my life and I am perfectly clear that this is a prime instance of the weak being allowed to go to the wall and nobody bothering about it. I wish to congratulate the noble Baroness and if the Government will not accept this Bill, or something like it, we will all come back and make them.

2.37 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, let me join with the previous speaker in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, on behalf of myself and my party, on bringing forward this Bill. My one regret is that the Bill had to have a Second Reading on a Friday afternoon. I am sure, because of the all-party support this terrible problem has received, that if the debate had taken place at a more reasonable time on some evening during the week there would have been a much more extensive list of speakers. A number of speakers who were down to speak when the debate was previously due to be held have conveyed to me that they are desperately sorry that they are not able to come. They have asked me to convey their apologies. Among them are the noble Baronesses, Lady Denington and Lady Ewart-Biggs. I have no doubt that there are other Peers who cannot be present who will feel the same.

Having said that, I do not intend to go too much into statistics because that part of the case was adequately covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, who caused me to feel some gratification when he referred to the fact that six years ago I was involved, with all-party support, in another place in an attempt to deal with this appalling situation. I will not go too deeply into what the present Bill is about. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, this is a simple Bill. What it seeks to do is to make mandatory duties on local authorities which are at present optional and which are unfortunately not being carried out.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred to the question of death by fire. I want to give just one statistic that I do not think has been given so far which will indicate the appalling seriousness of the carnage of death caused by this kind of thing not being put right. In 1982 figures were issued which showed that between 1978 and 1982—four years—over 550 people were incinerated in this type of accommodation. That, I submit, by any dimension is a national scandal we ought to do our best to eradicate.

I want to go back for a few moments, to when I had the luck to draw a high spot in the ballot for Private Members' Bills in another place. The Bill I initiated was serviced by various voluntary housing organisations such as CHAR, and Shelter. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers submitted evidence, as it has recently done, on this difficult subject. I commend the association for that. Under the procedures of another place, my Bill was unfortunately talked out. Shortly after that, a housing Bill started on its passage through the other place. I was the Opposition Whip in the Standing Committee.

The problem and dimension of some of the horrors that were taking place were drawn to our attention by an incident that occurred at a women's home in Kilburn, London. I have a letter from the mother of a girl who died in a fire there. In Committee, I had the poignant duty of reading the letter of the mother of an 18-year-old girl, who had done well in her education and was planning to get married two years later, but who had opted to do voluntary work in society (as many young people do, although they do not get credit for it). The girl left her home in Abbotsbury in Dorset and within 12 hours of leaving she and nine other women were dead as a result of a horrendous fire which, as your Lordships may remember, took place in Kilburn.

That shows the sort of thing that is happening. An incident may go out of the news, but the people who have lost dear sons and daughters do not forget. I frequently receive unsolicited letters from that woman. She wants to know what we are doing to prevent someone else suffering the same trauma and loss. I shall read a letter that I received from her only about two weeks ago. It says: Dear Lord Dean, This is the piece that I put in the local paper, the Dorset Evening Echo, this year: 'In Memoriam' Eilidh.—Six years since your death at 18, on March 18,1980. Still no legal requirement for fire precautions in voluntary hostels, like the one [where] you went to work on March 17, 1980. You would by now have been Auntie of little Elin, daughter of Adam and Hild, born in Iceland, November 26, 1985—Love and sadness from your mother Elsa.' I don't normally go in for the more sentimental variety of these inserts! But I suddenly felt like saying something. Has any headway been made yet? Best wishes, Elsa Boadella.". When I read that mother's original letter in Committee, I think that it played a part in moving the Government at that time. They introduced some measures, which at the time I referred to as hesitant and tenuous steps along the road of putting the matter right.

Without being too critical, I must say that there were pressures on the Government from organisations involved in the problem, including a number of housing associations. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln said, the Government were pressurised. At the time I was delighted to receive the fullest support from the Church body—I am sorry that I cannot remember its official name—which includes the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Cardinal, Cardinal Basil Hume, and representatives from the free churches and the Salvation Army. It culminated in a Sunday afternoon rally in Trafalgar Square. It was one of the more objective rallies that have taken place. Tremendous support was received on that occasion. I believe that it moved the Government.

This Bill does not attempt to score party points. There is wide support for it among many of the Government's supporters, one of whom, the distinguished noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, has moved the Second Reading. I ask the Government through the Minister whether, as the initial measures brought in are not dealing with the situation, they will undertake to give this Bill a chance to proceed so that your Lordships can debate it and put forward various points of view. There could be nothing more insulting than to allow this Bill, with its widespread support from all sections of the community, including the Churches, to be shunted sideways as something undesirable. The cases I have given of appalling loss of life will be repeated if something is not done. There will be that repetition and there will be other fires. I know that because of cuts in public expenditure local authorities have a difficult problem to deal with. Nevertheless, I believe that the nettle has to be grasped. I do not believe that we can afford to say in another four years' time that more than another 500 people have died in fires in this type of accommodation.

I have been delighted to be able to join noble Lords from all sections of the House in support of this Bill. I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, success with it, and my party will do its best, as will other parties, to assist its passage through the House so that when it becomes an Act these people are better catered for than they are today.

2.46 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the House will be doubly grateful to my noble friend Lady Vickers. First, she agreed through the usual channels to postpone this debate from a very late hour on Tuesday 8th April until today; and secondly, she has today successfully drawn our attention once more to the problems of houses in multiple occupation. She has for many years, as your Lordships will readily recall, been a positive virago on the subject of environmental health. My noble friend has explained what is meant by the term "houses in multiple occupation" or HMO, and has drawn attention to the people who live in these properties and the conditions which, sadly, they can experience. I agree generally with what has been said here and I do not propose to go over the same ground.

Inevitably attention is being focused in this debate on unsatisfactory HMOs. Undoubtedly the conditions which can be found in bed and breakfast accommodation and some other HMOs are totally inadequate and unacceptable. Indeed, I am on record as describing them as nothing less than a scandal. But we need to keep matters in perspective. Recent press reports remind me that only bad news sells newspapers. We should, however, keep a sense of balance and not lose sight of the fact that properly-run HMOs provide a valuable service in the housing market. The conditions which exist in many HMOs are entirely satisfactory and owners of those properties are to be congratulated on the important contribution they are making to this country's housing stock.

The Government are aware of the representations for further legislation in this field but we took the view that before we could consider these fully it would be necessary to obtain precise information about the nature and extent of the problems associated with HMOs. It was for that reason that my department has undertaken major research on the subject. I shall be happy to write to any noble Lord who would like details of the research but I think there are a few points which I should emphasise now.

The research falls into two parts, of which the first was a postal survey of all local authorities in England and Wales. This was referred to by my noble friend Lady Vickers. The results were announced on 20th February at the seminar run by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and show, among other things, that there are about 334,000 shared houses which could be classified as HMOs and that about 2 million people live in those houses. The other half of the work comprises a physical and social survey of a nationally representative sample of 550 HMOs. The contract for this work is not due for completion before the summer and the Government wish to see all the results before considering the need for further legislative measures. To act in advance of the physical and social survey would invalidate the information that it will provide. In the meantime—probably next month—the department will be issuing a circular to local housing authorities that will offer guidance on HMO powers and duties as consolidated in the Housing Act 1985.

From the attention given to HMOs in recent years one might be forgiven for thinking that unsatisfactory properties lacking in fire safety and basic amenities, poorly managed and overcrowded, are a product of life in Britain since the general election of 1979. That is palpable nonsense. That sorry state of affairs has a much longer history. So too do local authorities' considerable wideranging and mostly discretionary powers for dealing with the matter.

Much of the legislation goes back to the 1960s, though, as I shall describe later, there have been some significant advances since 1979. I shall not weary your Lordships with a catalogue of the powers available to local authorities (I can write to any noble Lord who wants details) but it is sufficient to say that any local authority that is determined to secure improved conditions in HMOs can do so under existing legislation; and many do.

I must go some way to disabuse the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. The postal survey that I mentioned has revealed that in 1983–84, 3,853 fire notices were issued; 6,594 closing orders were made; 897 over-crowding notices were issued; and 3,866 management orders were enforced. That does not show me that, at this point, local authorities are not using the powers that Parliament has conferred upon them. The Government believe that discretionary powers are the most appropriate because each authority is best placed to know the needs of its own area and to assess priorities for the use of available resources.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to ask him a question on that point. Does he seriously think that the Government believe that discretionary powers about enforcing fire precautions are better than compulsory powers? I cannot believe that I correctly heard the Minister.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, if the noble Lord will follow through with my speech just a little further, he will find that I shall meet his point exactly.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the Minister is giving a misleading impression.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I suggest that a speech ought to be taken as a whole and not in little bits. How easy it is for an Opposition to find fault with a government—any government—in the exercise of their duties. Ah!—what it is to have instant "forgettery". The Labour Party when in government took no steps whatsoever to change those powers into duties. My noble friend, on the other hand, is prodding us to do just that.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords—

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in a minute. As the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has said, there is one area where this Government have acted, and I believe rightly so. In recent years there has been much concern about fire safety in HMOs. The risk of being a casualty in a fire in an HMO is about five times greater than the risk in a single-dwelling occupied dwelling. Indeed, I was deeply affected yesterday when I went round a house in multiple occupation where two people died, and one was rescued unconscious, in a fire on Boxing Day last year. That made me realise why the Government have concentrated their actions on HMOs in the area of protection from fire.

Local authorities' extensive statutory powers governing means of escape from fire in HMOs were strengthened by Schedule 24 to the Housing Act 1980 (now Sections 365, 366 and 368 of the Housing Act 1985). That provides a local authority with three options where an HMO is found to have inadequate means of escape. It may serve a notice that requires the provision of the necessary facilities; it may ensure that part of the house is not used for human habitation; or it may opt for a combination of the first two solutions.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I must ask the Minister to make clear whether that is an option. If it is an option, then it does not have to be taken, does it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it is a duty.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister appears to have turned this issue into one of political argument. I made it quite clear when I introduced my Bill, which was the first Bill introduced in either House on this particular subject, that it was an all-party Bill. At no time did I or my party claim it as our sole entity. It is a little naughty of the Minister to start implying now that certain parties have only just woken up to this matter and that it has been a Back-Bencher from his own party who has brought it forward.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has misunderstood what I said. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will understand very well, I was talking about conversion of powers into duties. We are discussing what governments have done, unprodded—the noble Lord did some prodding and so did my noble friend—over the past few years.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I should hate to prolong the debate, but the Government had to be prodded by myself and other people to take the steps that they have done. They did not take them voluntarily. This Bill would not be here today if the Government had done the job that they should have done when they were asked to do it six years ago.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I honestly do not think that it helps the House to prolong this argument further.

Under powers included in the 1980 Act we made an order which came into operation in December 1981 and which places a duty, not a power—the point that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, was questioning—on local authorities to require adequate means of escape in the largest HMOs. This duty in no way diminishes the importance of inspecting HMOs which do not fall within the scope of the order but ensures that action is taken where the potential risk is greatest.

In this connection, I can tell the right reverend Prelate that the Home Office guide to fire safety in houses of multiple occupation is at present the subject of consultation with interested organisations, including CHAR. The Home Office will give further consideration to the scope of the guide in the light of comments received.

Since the Housing Act 1980 it has also been possible to make special grants for means of escape from fire in HMOs. Grants are generally discretionary, but following the 1980 Act the local authority can be under an obligation to give grant for eligible works which have been the subject of a statutory notice under Section 366 of the 1985 Act requiring means of escape, or under Section 352 requiring the provision of standard amenities.

This is not of course a general housing debate but I think that I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the Government have swung their efforts quite considerably into the inner-cities, where most HMOs are. The House will have noticed that this was not much appreciated in another place by those representing shire counties.

I now come to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 would, if implemented, determine the frequency with which each local housing authority carried out inspections of HMOs in its area. Section 605 of the 1985 Act already provides a duty to inspect housing conditions and hence a means of acquiring knowledge of HMOs. Each authority is best placed to know how frequently conditions can change in the area. It is not clear to me how Clause 1 will be enforced; nor is it clear whether there is to be a time limit for the production of the authority's written statement, and if so, what that limit might be. It is possible that identification of individual properties in the written statement could be construed as defamatory of the landlords involved. The Bill makes no provision for such documents to be privileged; unlike, for example, Section 100H of the Local Government Act 1972 as amended.

Clause 2 would, if enacted, place a considerable financial burden on local authorities by converting certain discretionary powers into duties. I note that my noble friend did not offer an estimate of the cost when she spoke earlier. I trust that she will be able to do so in her concluding remarks. Clearly the House cannot disregard the resource implications.

The Bill makes no attempt to establish priorities. Many people, including the Government, are concerned about fires in HMOs. That is why we introduced a duty, now in subsection (2) of Section 365 of the 1985 Act, on local authorities to secure adequate means of escape from fire. The Government considered extending the scope of the present duty but took the view that it would be inappropriate to place a further burden on local authorities at present. An authority which is concerned about a particular HMO can use its discretionary powers to require adequate means of escape from fire. Although Clause 2 would impose a duty on local authorities, I should remind your Lordships that the existence of a duty in a particular case would depend on the local authority's opinion as to the adequacy or otherwise of the conditions encountered in the HMO in question. I think it would be difficult for someone to bring proceedings against an authority for failure to exercise its duty.

The powers in Section 352 to require the provision of specified basic amenities such as lighting, ventilation and drainage in sufficient quantity for the people accommodated in an HMO are undoubtedly an important part of the local authority's weaponry, but I find it difficult to believe that authorities should give the same priority to this work as to means of escape from fire.

Before turning to Clause 3, may I just note in passing that if Clause 2(b) is to be implemented—placing a duty on local authorities to take action under Section 358 on overcrowding—it would seem that Section 354 might equally be repealed. Section 354 enables an authority to reduce the number of people accommodated as a means of dealing with a situation where there are insufficient basic amenities.

Clause 3 appears to be based on Section 99 of the Public Health Act 1936 which enables an individual person to make a complaint about a statutory nuisance. The clause is, in the Government's view, out of place in housing legislation because local authorities do not make complaints or need to invoke outside assistance in order to carry out their functions in relation to HMOs. They take action where they consider it appropriate. If Clause 3 became law, it would be very difficult for local authorities to control their expenditure and deploy their resources to the best effect. There are no circumstances in which magistrates' courts have powers under the 1985 Act merely because a property is in multiple occupation. Whether premises are prejudicial to the health, safety or welfare of occupiers would doubtless be the subject of different conclusions by different benches of magistrates. The proposed power of magistrates to direct the authority to remedy the conditions is very vague. Is it limited to the measures contained in the present Bill or does it extend to other legislation on HMOs; and, if so, which?

My noble friend Lady Vickers has done the House a great service today in drawing our attention to houses in multiple occupation. She had been most ably aided and abetted by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, which she has served so well for many years. That organisation is a major influence in efforts to improve HMO stock, and it would be true to say that without its help our investigation into the state of the HMO stock would not be nearly so advanced as it is.

So where does that leave this Bill? The Government are of course traditionally but not invariably neutral in regard to Private Member's Bills. I must in all fairness say that its prospects are not good, for the reasons I have sought to explain, but the Government will not hinder its progress through this House. The House will note that over the years Conservative Governments have not been negligent in imposing duties on local authorities when this has been proved to be necessary, and so far as HMOs are concerned I have illustrated some this afternoon. We shall look forward to examining the results of our survey later in the year.

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Minister for his reply, but I do not thank him for calling me a virago, because I do not think that I am. It think it is a very unfortunate expression. Also, I do not think it would have been necessary to have this Bill if the local authorities had been doing a good job. The environmental health officers and others tried to press them to do it, and they just would not; otherwise, we would not have over 1.25 million houses in this condition.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop for what he has said and also for mentioning the Bishops of Southwark and Birmingham. Certainly I shall be writing to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham to thank him for his suggestions. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who so very adequately put his points of view forward, and for coming in rather at the last minute. I am most grateful to him. He has great experience, and this is what we need. Also I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, came, because he always has real compassion in his heart for many people and many things and he knows the conditions of so many of these people.

Now why would the Government have commissioned a survey which has now been reported to them (I have a copy of the report) to show the necessity of the need for action? When I was at the last conference of the environmental health officers they were feeling very desperate—and I think I can use that word quite appropriately—at the lack of chance they had of having any action taken. It is not so much a question of money. There are a great many people who could do a great deal more work. The local authorities, I understand, do not undertake their share.

As many noble Lords who would have liked to be present and who formerly served in another place know, an important part of the work of a Member of Parliament is the "surgery" where people come to talk about their difficulties. It is amazing what a Member of Parliament can do to bring these problems to the attention of a local authority. I believe that health officers would be happy if they could receive the same attention. The Minister would not need to say anything about this Bill if he or his department took action in response to the pressure of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, whose work in the past I well recall. I am calling today for action.

Sir George Young, the Minister, has said: I realise that local authorities would like more resources—that is human nature—but I cannot accept the lame excuse that simply because an authority has not been granted the HIP funds it requested that it must necessarily abandon all hope of dealing with HMOs, and in doing so abandon the modest hopes of people living in those houses". The Minister has 4,000 of these houses in his constituency. Surely he must have knowledge through being a Member of Parliament of what is going on in his constituency. It is not just a question of the inner cities. I regret to say that Plymouth has 5,000 and that even Torbay has a great number. I have here a whole list. There is universal sorrow and anger among people in regard to the conditions in which they have to live. I hope that in moving that the Bill has a Second Reading I have the support of everyone here. I hope, too, that if we are not lucky here we shall have another go.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at seven minutes past three o'clock.