HL Deb 17 May 1991 vol 528 cc1890-3

1.12 p.m.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th April be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, a draft of the order was laid before the House on 15th April and was debated and approved in another place on Tuesday. Despite the length of its title, the order is short but because the background to it is rather complex, and the processes that have led to the order have involved a good deal of time and consultation, the House may find it useful if I go into a little detail.

Houses in multiple occupation are found in a number of Scottish towns and cities, but in particular in cities and in areas where there are many single people—often young—needing accommodation. University and college students are one of the largest of these categories. HMOs for that reason are prevalent in areas such as the West End of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling. The existence of HMOs in large numbers, and the fact that landlords find it worth their while to provide them, clearly indicate that they are giving a service for which there is a real demand. It is not our intention to interfere with that or to prevent that demand being met.

However, in recent years there have been increasing indications that many HMOs are falling below—sometimes well below—proper standards. We are anxious that local authorities should be enabled to tackle the problem. Local authorities have powers under various Acts, going back to the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1897, to control HMOs. The largest and most important group of these powers is in Part VIII of the 1987 Housing (Scotland) Act, and the 1964 regulations for the management of houses and buildings in multiple occupation. Those enable local authorities to register HMOs in their areas, obtain information about them, ensure that work is carried out to keep them in proper repair, and, if all else fails, take over management of a HMO.

To understand how much use local authorities made of their powers and whether they thought that they could be improved, the Scottish Office in 1988 asked all local authorities for returns showing how much use they made of their Part VIII powers. It followed it up with a consultation paper setting out the problem in detail and inviting comments. The results of that exercise showed that authorities found Part VIII powers somewhat difficult to use. However, they would very much welcome action by the Government to draw up and issue guidance on the various Acts and regulations which apply to HMOs, in order to set out clearly local authority powers and duties. They were also generally strongly in favour of a scheme which would require the operator of an HMO to be licensed.

We do not at present have a legislative opportunity to revise the statutes which apply to HMOs. But we have taken steps to deal with the other two points. A guidance document setting out the variety of powers and duties which are available to local authorities is being drafted. Should the order be approved by the House today, it will give guidance on the use of the new powers. It will be ready for issue very shortly at about the same time as the coming into effect of this order.

The order will increase the powers and effectiveness of local authorities in dealing with HMOs. They will be able to impose conditions which must be met before an HMO licence is issued. If a landlord does not comply with those conditions he commits an offence.

The order has three effects. First, it adds the use of a house in multiple occupation to the activities for which a licence may be required under Part II of the Civic Government Act. That means that where a local authority resolves to make a licensing scheme, every person wishing to carry on that activity must have a licence. But he must comply with any reasonable conditions which the authority attaches to that licence. He must give access to local government officers and provide relevant information on request. He is liable to a penalty if he fails to meet those requirements.

Secondly, the order defines the term "house" and "house in multiple occupation" for the purpose of licensing. The definition that we have chosen of a "house" is one that we consider should cover all the categories and properties within which a house in multiple occupation may fall. For the purposes of the order we had to take a view on what constituted the kind of house in multiple occupation which it was desired to catch. It seemed unreasonable, for example, that the system should apply for a single family who take in a lodger. We therefore decided that on common sense grounds the qualifying level should be a house which is the "only or principal residence" of more thin four people who are not all members of one family or of one or other of two families.

Finally, the order excludes from the conditions which a licensing authority may impose on that grant of a licence any condition concerning rents or other charges. Controls on rents and the relationship of rent control to housing benefit are regulated separately under the Rent and Housing Acts. It would not be appropriate to bring them into a system of control aimed at the physical condition of the premises.

We believe that the order meets a real demand and will usefully strengthen the hand of those authorities which have to deal with poor-standard houses providing a low level of accommodation. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th April be approved [16th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne).

1.15 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Strathmore and Kinghorne, for his explanation of the order. I am grateful too for the notes that have been sent by CoSLA, Single Homeless and Shelter. I have also read and considered the debate in another place on Tuesday.

What arises from the discussion is that we are attempting a solution to a difficult problem. For a long time in another place, I represented an area that had many districts containing multiple occupancy dwellings. The matter had to be very delicately dealt with. If restrictions were suddenly applied too rigorously one found lodgings officers at universities in a panic with students suddenly discovering that lodgings were no longer available to them. That happened more than once.

I was reassured when listening to the Minister in this House and in reading what was said by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in another place. He made clear that all the relevant planning and building control requirements would remain operative. The draft order provides an additional power to local authorities if they wish to take it up.

After what was said by a number of Members in another place, and in the light of consultation documents sent to the Scottish Office, I was slightly disappointed by the definition of houses of multiple occupancy. I am not being a carping critic because I know that the situation is difficult. However, there is a genuine belief that specifying four or more persons as being the criterion for multiple occupancy is laying a minefield for the bad factor.

I can do no better than quote from the letter sent by Shelter. It stated: Shelter (Scotland) believes that the definition of an HMO must be broad enough to ensure that bad HMOs do not slip through the net. Local authorities need to balance a licensing scheme so that they are able to control bad HMOs but at the same time ensure that they do not discourage landlords from operating well-run, high quality HMOs". That is the difficulty.

Will the Government give more thought to the representations that have been made on the question of definition? The discussion document is to be issued at the beginning of June. Will there be an opportunity to discuss the matter formally or informally with local authorities and in the House before the full order is put forward?

We are pleased that the Government are trying to tackle the problem. We hope that ultimately we shall find a formula that will increase the well-being of those who are using HMOs and the good people who are letting out part of their houses for those who require that.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for his remarks. Responses to our consultation exercise differed on the question of definition. For example, Glasgow District Council argued that there should be no numerical limit of this kind. On the other hand, other consultees supported the inclusion of the limit proposed, or suggested different limits. At present, on balance we have not been persuaded that the limit proposed in the draft order should be changed. However, I am happy to give an undertaking that if the order is approved by Parliament the effect of the numerical limit will be kept under review. If it appears to be seriously undermining the effects of the licensing power we shall be ready to consider amending it.

Perhaps I may remind the House that the introduction and use of licensing powers is entirely voluntary and at the discretion of local authorities. An individual local authority making such powers could choose, for example, to exempt from its licensing scheme housing provided by an educational establishment for use by its students. Licensing scheme powers are additional to the powers that are already available to local authorities. It is for them to decide which, if any, are required for use in their areas. I hope that I have answered the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael.

On Question, Motion agreed to.