HL Deb 27 January 1993 vol 541 cc1332-48

7.30 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I introduced this Bill in another place just before the general election, when, for the first time, I was lucky in the ballot of Private Members' Bills. However, the dissolution intervened and I now reintroduce it for the reason that it was borne upon me by my interviews every month and by letters from my inner city constituents in the city of Leeds that the Bill deals with many of the problems that were brought to my notice on a regular basis. I have been provided with case notes which prove that, but I will forbear from reading them out.

Housing problems took up a major part of my interviews over the years. They changed very much over the years but the heating problem became paramount. Just before I left the other place I was talking to some Members who, as it happens, came mainly from my side of the House, because they are the ones who represent inner cities. I asked them what was the major problem that they had had to face in recent years and they answered "condensation". They said that if they were to write a paper on the problems they faced in their constituencies it would concentrate on condensation. The big wide world does not know about this but I can simply tell your Lordships that if you go and visit many of the older houses, or indeed some of those built in the 'fifties and 'sixties, you will see the black mould growth that is around and smell the smell that arises from it, and that shows that something is wrong.

This Bill is not designed precisely to deal with that, but I am trying to explain why it matters to me. I regard the Bill as a sensible one in the tradition of health and housing legislation since the days of Shaftesbury and Chadwick. I do not know what the Government's view of it will be, but if the Bill is defective as regards that tradition then it may quite properly be thrown out. However, if there is good sense in it I hope it will be allowed to go forward. Certainly my aim and the aim of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, which has provided all the back-up work and which is a bona fide and, in my view, a very eminent professional organisation, is to show that this Bill should be allowed to go forward.

Many years ago when I used to teach social history, I could not understand why legislation in this field took such a long time. There were the royal commissions and the select committees on health in towns and yet it took a period of 30 or 40 years before a Bill appeared on the statute book. I thought how foolish Parliament was not to realise that there was a problem. I now understand that there are always doubters and that it takes time for these things to be understood and appreciated: history does not run in straight lines in the way that the textbooks write it.

However, there cannot be many doubters now that there is a problem, and I raise it in this Bill. Of course we come up against the problem of the Treasury and money. I understand that, because all governments suffer from the same problem. Also, I have been chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and the Legislation Committee and I realise that very good Bills have had to be bypassed and not allowed to go through because of the problem of time. I simply say that this Bill has built into it a time schedule which would allow it to be introduced in bits. It is better to get it on to the statute book, because it deals with pressing problems, rather than for it to have an untimely death. One of these days the issues and suggestions contained in the Bill will be on the statute book. Why not give it a chance now, because it is vitally important to people in many parts of the country?

Clause 1 seeks to restore the ability of local housing authorities to take action in respect of houses and flats of which part only and not simply the whole is unfit for human habitation. I am advised that there was once the power to deal with this but it disappeared by sleight of hand or by mistake. Why is this? As the law presently stands, such action as either the service of a repair notice or the making of a closing order can be taken only where the whole of the premises is affected, whether it is a dwelling house, a house in multiple occupation, a flat or a flat in multiple occupation which is unfit. It used not to be this way. Can we not go back to the situation that we had for many years? It is a very minor technical change which the Bill proposes. Why not agree to that, at the very least? I have been provided with information which notes that prior to the amendment to the Housing Act 1985 a local authority had powers to close part of a dwelling that was substandard: in the case study with which I have been provided this was an internal room. I fail to see, in a non-partisan sort of way, why we cannot go back to the situation as it was before 1985. It matters to my people in the city of Leeds and it has been put to me by the institution that I have just mentioned.

I am advised that Clause 2 is a tidying-up provision necessitated by the change proposed in Clause 1. It cannot be contentious because it is purely a technical change which is required as a result of Clause 1. Incidentally, there is an error in my drafting of the Bill —a very minor one—where "1B" is shown instead of "1AA". I shall not go into that in detail now: it will be easy to put right.

Clause 3 is a mirror of Clause 1. Whereas that clause provides for the service of a repair notice in respect of part only and not the whole of any dwelling house, Clause 3 seeks to provide similarly for the making of a closing order in respect of part only of a dwelling house. In other words, if Clause 1 allows only part of a dwelling to be dealt with, then Clause 3 too has to ensure that that is allowable.

Clause 4 is, again, a mirror of Clause 2 and should not be contentious. Whereas that clause provides for an express right of appeal in the case of a repair notice served in respect of part only and not the whole of any dwelling house, Clause 4 seeks to provide similarly for a right of appeal against the making of a closing order in respect of part only of a dwelling house.

Now I come to the substance of the Bill. Up to this point, I would say to your Lordships that I fail to see why the change should not be made. The matter goes back to before 1985. The Bill will correct a problem which local authorities need to face up to. Clause 5 seeks to amend the fitness standard itself. That standard is set by reference to nine criteria. I will go through them very quickly because I want to add two more to those that the local authorities have to deal with at the moment.

The criteria are: Is the house structurally stable? Is it free from serious disrepair? Is it free from dampness prejudicial to the health of the occupants? Does it have provision for lighting, heating and ventilation? The heating side is minimal and I shall come to that later. Has it got an adequate piped supply of wholesome water? Has it got satisfactory facilities for the preparation and cooking of food, including hot and cold water? Has it a suitably located water-closet for the exclusive use of the occupants, if any? Does it have a suitably located fixed bath or shower and wash hand basin for the exclusive use of the occupants, with a satisfactory supply of hot and cold water? Does it have an effective system for the draining of foul waste and surface water? Those are the criteria on which the local authorities have to work.

We want to add two extra criteria to that list of nine. The first is that the dwelling house should be free from poor internal arrangement. The second is that the dwelling house should be thermally efficient. These additions will apply equally to houses and to flats, irrespective of the way in which they are occupied.

Perhaps I may deal first with the issue of internal arrangements. Most of us, when we are students, live in a house or a flat the internal arrangement of which needs to be questioned, and some of us saw such things when we were young—a long time ago. There may, for example, be steep and winding staircases which may be dangerous, particularly to the disabled and elderly. Front entrance doors may open straight into living rooms and provide poor security. In many parts of the country, security is now a much more important issue than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Rooms may lead off other rooms. In the case of bedrooms, that leads to a loss of privacy. Bathrooms and toilets may open directly into kitchens. It has been put to me that that is unaesthetic, but I should have thought that there is a much stronger word for it than that. That problem commonly arises where the property has been extended, for example, by adding a ground floor bathroom to a Victorian house. So, our first objective relates to internal arrangements. The need for this provision has arisen because of the sort of housing that I have seen in the city of Leeds. Those of us who live in proper housing are very lucky. It is important that we all take into account the fact that the internal arrangement of a house should be suitable, sensible and healthy.

I come now to our second objective: thermal efficiency. Last night on the television I saw what appeared to be a very expensive, but a very good, advertisement which had been paid for by the Government. It talked about the importance of thermal efficiency and about how we should try to avoid the emission of CO2 because of global warming and things of that kind. I presume that it was paid for by the Department of the Environment. As I sat there having a quiet drink at half-past ten last night, it came to my mind that my Bill met exactly that requirement, but without the expense of advertising. It gives the task to the local authorities. The advertising companies will not be very pleased, but I warrant that my Bill would bring home the importance of that thermal efficiency criterion far better than all the television advertising that the Government are likely to undertake—and it would save a lot of money.

The Government are committed to reducing energy consumption in the residential sector. They have made resources available for upgrading the energy efficiency of council-owned dwellings. But what about privately owned dwellings such as I am talking about? The building regulations set out minimum standards for new construction. They have been revised and now prescribe a much higher standard than was hitherto the case. However, fewer new properties are being built—I do not want to make a point about that—and even fewer older properties are being demolished. That is the sector that I am concerned about in this Bill. We need to examine the ways in which the existing housing stock may be improved.

We have heard a lot recently about the Select Committees of the House of Commons. When I was a Member of the other place I never realised that they were so important, but I read about them every day now and about how the Secretaries of State will take notice of them—I shall be surprised if they do—because they are so important. When the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment considered indoor pollution, the institution to which I have referred gave evidence. It recommended that the fitness standard be amended to include a requirement for adequate thermal insulation. So, I am asking only for that for which a House of Commons Select Committee has already asked.

I do not want to let go of the issue of thermal efficiency for a moment. I regard it as one of the most important matters in the Bill. Indeed, the provisions which relate to it form the most important part of the Bill. The 1985 English house conditions survey highlighted the fact that 1.3 million households were very dissatisfied with their heating arrangements—that was eight years ago—and having spent time visiting constituents, I can only say "Hear, hear!" to that. I do not think that half of us know the problems that exist in the private sector when homes are concocted out of old houses in city centres that were better in Victorian times.

I have some words to say about the environmental issues, but I shall keep them for the Committee stage, if we get that far. I should, however, like to deal with one such issue which I encountered in my long period in an inner-city area. I first learnt about this as a junior Minister at the Home Office many years ago. I worked flat out in the early days of the urban programme to do something about the inner cities. Some of the problems to which I am referring, however, arise in rural towns also and, although on a smaller scale, conditions there are as bad as in the Newcastles, Leeds, Hulls, Bradfords and Birminghams. The urban programme—or whatever it was called—no longer exists, but apparently it will reappear in a different form and on a wider scale.

Significant social and health consequences arise from the inadequate heating of dwellings, so I turn now to fuel poverty. Simply defined, fuel poverty is the inability to afford adequate warmth in the home. Apparently, the phrase was first coined during the mid-1970s. The inability of many people to pay their fuel bills is a growing problem. The people most affected are those on state benefits: pensioners, the sick or disabled, lone parents, the unemployed and the low paid. Such groups of people spend a larger than average proportion of their income on heating bills—I have the figures with me—so when they are short of money they save on heating. That is particularly true of the older generation. My area contains a large number of widows. That is a statistical fact of life. They come from a different age and they save on heating, but they are saving to their disadvantage. It is because a high proportion of their income is spent on heating that that is the one saving that they feel they can make.

One can talk about the health effects of all this and about the cycle of poverty that is caused by high fuel bills in the attempt to remain warm in a house. It has been estimated that the National Health Service spends £800 million each year to assist people who suffer from bronchitis and asthma which has been caused, or at least exacerbated, by living in cold and damp housing. I have been reading with interest the research that has been carried out into this. I have copies of it with me. I had not realised (because it is not my field) the extent to which concern is expressed in medical and other circles about this problem. It is a major issue.

I referred earlier to the condensation and dampness that is caused by moist air coming into contact with cold surfaces, leading to moist walls. Many such problems arise in the housing that was built in the late 1950s and the 1960s, when this country attempted to build more housing but with the same amount of material. One of the greatest social errors made in my lifetime in politics was in the mid-1950s when the then Mr. Harold Macmillan urged that we should build 300,000 houses instead of 200,000 but using the same amount of housing material because there was a shortage.

One can detect the annual building rings in our inner cities. One can tell the houses that were built before a certain date because they are better houses. Now when they are sold, they command a high price. The next ring of houses was produced to lower standards. It is in those houses that much of the condensation and dampness arises.

The two extra criteria I have proposed are important. Of course public expenditure would be increased through additional renovation grant expenditure, but work would be provided for small builders. They require work, as we are only too well aware, for other reasons. The scheme would provide work and effect social change in inner cities and the old areas of our big towns. That explains Clause 5, which is a major part of the Bill.

Clause 6 is merely an interpretation clause. Clause 7 will be worth studying in Committee. I have a copy of the Housing Act 1985, and the clause would enable the Government to put the Bill on to the statute book even if full implementation could not take place straight away. There is much sense in the Bill. I hope that it receives a fair wind. The bottom of a slump is the time to provide an opportunity for work. We should not wait until the top of a boom is reached. That is the great mistake that we have made over the years. I shall not rehearse the arguments again, although at one time I thought that that might be necessary. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time —(Lord Merlyn-Rees.)

7.52 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, it falls to me to welcome the Bill, the case for which the noble Lord argued so cogently. I once had the pleasure of visiting him when he was a distinguished Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that he played a part in improving the housing conditions in the Province. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been an outstanding success. If one wants to see good public housing these days one has to go to Ulster. It has some of the best housing in the kingdom.

The noble Lord explained the Bill in great detail. I wish him every success with it. I hope that the Government will take it on board. As I read it, the key to the Bill is contained in Clauses 1, 3 and 5. The measure calls for the Housing Act 1985 to be amended so that it applies to part of a dwelling-house, flat, or flat in multiple occupation. It should cover thermal efficiency and poor internal management. The noble Lord explained those points in considerable detail. Like him, I cannot understand why that is not already the case. I gather, as we know from environmental health officers, that they were able to deal with that position only a few years ago. I fail to understand why it is not possible to do so today. It is obviously a loophole that should be closed, and the sooner the better.

I suspect that when the Minister replies he will refer us to an Answer given in the other place only yesterday which said that a consultation paper had now been issued setting out proposals for strengthening the requirements for Part L of the Building Regulations 1991 for the conservation of fuel and power. Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain a copy of that document although I have tried. It is obviously to be greatly welcomed, if somewhat late in the day. I wonder whether the timing of the document had something to do with the fact that we are debating this Bill, because it covers some of the same ground.

Earlier today we debated traffic control in urban areas. Much was said about the need to reduce emissions of CO2, carbon monoxide, lead oxide and so forth. In this debate it is only right to refer to the link between insulation/thermal efficiency and global warming. I am told that domestic energy use in 1987 contributed 172 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. I am not sure how that was weighed, but the figure appears in official statistics and so one presumes that it is correct. Almost half of that came from energy used to heat homes. We have been talking about coal-mines and the fact that we should not use so much gas, but it would be a good idea if we used more gas to run motor cars and heat our homes because gas is one of the more efficient methods of burning fuel.

It is further claimed that up to 6 million householders in the UK cannot afford enough fuel to keep their homes warm and fit. I lived in the Isle of Wight for 36 years. When I left the other place I spent two years trying to encourage investment in commercial property on the island. Every time I rose in the other place the honourable Member for Bolsover said, "Another bloody estate agent". I was a chartered surveyor and I was involved with property. I went round some very seedy properties in my old constituency, many of which were in multiple occupation. They need attention and the Bill would contribute to that.

The Isle of Wight now has the oldest population of anywhere in the country with the possible exception of West Sussex. We may have now overtaken West Sussex which has been called the Costa Geriatrica. What the noble Lord said was right: to save fuel, elderly people often go to bed in the afternoon with a hot water bottle. I am sure that vast numbers of my former constituents do just that. It is not a satisfactory situation, but it is a fact of life.

Statistics relating to deaths from hypothermia in the UK compare badly with those of other countries, especially Canada and Sweden. We do not have a good record. More therefore needs urgently to be done, although I am not certain where the money is to come from. We need to find it, that is for sure. Research in Glasgow shows that a scheme using loft insulation, fibre cavity wall filling and double-glazing cut fuel bills for those families lucky enough to have that done from an average of about £20 a week to £8.50 a week. However the cost of the work per unit was an average of £4,600.

In my dotage I am now a member of a housing association in mid-Wales. I was at a meeting only last week. Some of the houses we have been able to buy as a result of the Government's initiative which I support fully will cause the housing association some problems in bringing them up to a proper standard. There is also another problem which is not covered by the Bill, although it should be and that is the issue of smoke alarms.

In Welshpool the other day at two o'clock in the morning someone put a lighted taper through the letter-box of a flat. That was presumably done to try to burn the occupant. I think it was probably put into the wrong flat. If it were not for the fact that the person involved awakened at four o'clock to go to the toilet, he would probably be dead by now. That block of flats was built in 1986. The housing association is now faced with costs of about £50,000 to install proper smoke alarms. We cannot install battery-operated alarms because there has apparently been a court ruling that they are unsatisfactory. Unfortunately tenants take the batteries out of them from time to time and so we have a problem. We have considerable difficulties in obtaining the money to do these things, but they must be done. We must find the money somehow. I believe I am right to say that smoke alarms are now required under the building regulations.

The great need is to get things right in the first place. I gather that the Association for the Conservation of Energy is producing a handbook for this year's annual conference of the Institute of Housing. It relates to the conserving of energy in buildings, and of course it is very welcome. Having said all that, there is an interesting article in this week's edition of the Christian Science Monitor. I do not know why it has been sent to me. I imagine that it has been sent to other noble Lords. I did not have to pay for it. The article is by Mr. Robert Cowan. It points out that if we were too successful in reducing CO2 emissions we could destroy the whole process of life. We do not want to go too far, but we have a long way to go yet because CO2 emissions are regrettably still increasing at 0.5 per cent per annum. The heat in this House this evening tells me that there is no shortage of CO2 coming from the House of Lords at the moment.

I believe that most of us are aware of the appalling standards of fitness in many properties of multiple occupation. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, mentioned condensation. He is quite right that condensation occurs in even the most modern of buildings. It is an absolute disgrace that we have still not been able to conquer that problem. Therefore, it is surprising to me to learn that since the Local Government Housing Act 1989, environmental health officers have not been able to issue orders in respect of parts of buildings—attics or cellars—which are regrettably being used for accommodation in some properties in this country today. It is very important that that should be dealt with. At present action may only be taken in respect of a self-contained unit of accommodation, whether an entire house or flat. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it seems to me that that omission should be dealt with and the pre-1989 procedures should be restored.

Among other things the Bill will remedy that defect. Therefore, it must be supported. We owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, for bringing forward this legislation.

8 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, first, I must declare an interest, although not a financial one, in that I am vice-president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers to which my noble friend referred. That body has been extremely active in promoting the Bill.

At the risk of boring your Lordships, I wish to concentrate on Clause 5, which is the clause which has attracted most attention so far, and in particular I wish to concentrate on that part of it which refers to the provision of thermal efficiency.

As we have heard from my noble friend, the Government are committed to the reduction of CO2 emissions and to the conservation of energy generally. Housing makes a sizeable contribution to that. I do not have the percentage figures although I believe that my noble friend gave them.

The state of our present housing stock is poor. The Department of Energy supplement to the 1986 House Conditions Survey provides extremely depressing statistics. I shall quote your Lordships a few brief items from that. For example, only 8 per cent of private rented accommodation can be categorised as energy-efficient, compared with 31 per cent. of owner-occupied homes. That is not an impressive statistic in itself. Council properties achieve only 11 per cent., although 52 per cent of local authority stock reaches what is called average efficiency. The housing associations do better, as 40 per cent of their stock is thermally efficient.

Clearly at the time of the report there was plenty of room for improvement. I do not know whether the Minister has any more recent statistics. Although the survey was produced in 1986, it was not published until October 1991. Moreover, I understand that when it was finally published, it had been severely edited. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to explain to the House why there was such a delay.

My noble friend told us a great deal about the poor who are most affected by the need to pay so much for their energy. Proportionately more of their limited incomes must be spent on fuel. They are not only unable to afford to install insulation but they cannot cope with the increases in fuel prices which have taken place in recent years and which have outstripped any increases in pensions. Pensioners, the sick and disabled, and indeed people who are out of work, must spend more time in their homes. Therefore, they must have a higher heating level for longer than those of us who are more active and can leave our houses for a large part of each day. It is in all our interests to avoid the extra social and financial costs of cold-induced illnesses.

The present requirements are flawed. Age Concern quotes a case to illustrate that. It tells us of an elderly woman whose home was undergoing major work, including re-roofing, at a total cost of over £7,000. She could not have her loft space insulated at a cost of only £180 because the council said that it was not covered by the fitness standard. As she was already making a £400 contribution towards the work, she could not afford to pay for the insulation work herself. That is a flaw in the present arrangements.

The Institution of Environmental Health Officers quotes an equally frustrating situation of an elderly widow living in a house in poor structural repair lacking even a bathroom, with no heating or hot water system. Quite rightly the house was declared unfit and the occupant applied for and was given a renovation grant. All the structural works were carried out under that mandatory grant; but because of the financial and legislative constraints on the local authority, it could not give a discretionary grant. Therefore, that now sound house was left without insulation or heating, although the added amount to provide that would have been small in comparison with the amount spent on the renovation.

If this Bill had been operative at that time, that further modest expenditure would have been mandatory. Further difficulties for the occupant, which will inevitably arise in the future, could have been avoided. Clearly, there is a need for this clause on environmental, social and commonsense grounds. I hope that the Government will support the Bill in its entirety, including the useful Clause 5 which so many of us have supported.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me for speaking although my name is not on the speakers' list. I support the Bill.

Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, brought home to me an occasion when I was in the sometimes unenviable position of my noble friend on the Front Bench. I asked to visit and went to a house in multiple occupation in West London which was sometimes used (wrongly in my view) by the local authority as a bed-and-breakfast hotel. That is by the way because the whole point of the story is that the house that was selected by civil servants for me to visit was, very unusually, a worst case. Civil servants love to show Ministers a best case and very rarely show them a worst case. However, in the example that I was shown, there had been a recent fire and a man had died. Had there been smoke alarms, as noble Lords have suggested, that would most certainly not have been the case, although I have no doubt that the house would have gone up in flames.

That said, I can recall other examples of houses in multiple occupation, council flats, and so on, where the condensation was, in anybody's terms, appalling. I believe that the builders and the building scientists in the past, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, had a lot to be blamed for in that respect because, generally speaking, there is less condensation when there are wooden-framed windows rather than aluminium or metal-framed windows. The point is that one needs plenty of air around a window in order to reduce condensation.

As regards heating, I have been to establishments where I needed to retain my overcoat whereas the old person living there, who was not feeling the cold, could not understand my comment that it was perishing. All those matters can be dealt with by fitness standards and building regulations and by sensible changes, such as those proposed in this Bill, to the Housing Act 1985. I was a Whip at the time, but I am afraid that I cannot remember why these provisions were dropped from the previous legislation and not included in the 1985 legislation. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will remember or perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench will tell us why this was so. Be that as it may, they are not there now, they jolly well should be and I support the Bill.

8.9 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees for bringing this Bill before us. I am delighted that, so far, it has attracted universal support. I hope that the same can he said at the conclusion of the debate this evening.

As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, suspected, I have a particular interest in this Bill because I cut my teeth in local government on this very issue. I came on to a city council in 1969 when local authorities still believed that the right way to deal with unfit houses was to slum clear them.

As venue housing chairman I faced 15,000 unfit Victorian terraced houses. With the help of Conservative colleagues, and in the face of Labour opposition on the city council, we won a stay of execution and obtained improvement grants for 13,000 out of the 15,000. Then, with the aid of the Housing Act 1969 and the enlightened Conservative housing action area Act 1974 these properties have found their way—colour-washed courtesy of Sandtex—into conservation areas where they grace the city and provide housing choice to people of modest incomes. Houses that were in slum clearance areas are now in conservation areas to the enrichment of our city.

Thereafter in places like Norwich, and others, we were able to target our work by using repairs notices and partial closing orders. I am referring, for example, as so many noble Lords have said tonight, to those larger houses perhaps built on a slope where there is a basement room with a front area, or where people are sleeping in back rooms with no natural lighting or ventilation, or in rooms created artificially by partitions or sloping ceiling attics. Two-thirds of Norwich's current closing orders are partial orders, targeting a problem within an otherwise acceptable and fit house.

But apparently, as my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees said, by oversight this power has been removed, and that is simply silly. Problems of lighting and ventilation—for example, of the basement—cannot be placed on a repairs notice even if it is practicable or financially sensible to remedy it, for example, by excavating the front area. In consequence, local authorities have to close the entire property, thus losing a habitable home; they have to rehouse the occupant and possibly pay compensation, leaving a boarded up property in the middle of a terrace to create damp, dereliction, and the risk of squatting for the adjacent terraced houses, which then find their own heating bills, their own repair bills, and problems of damp increasing.

But the alternative to not closing that house is to leave families to live in rooms unfit for human habitation. That is the dilemma in which this Government have placed every decent housing authority and every environmental health authority in the country. I am sure that it is by oversight. If it is by oversight, I hope that the Minister will be graceful enough to acknowledge it tonight and pledge to support the Bill in order to remedy that oversight.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves that point, would she not accept that that particular problem is not restricted to this Government but has been a feature of the policies of all Governments since the war?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, under previous legislation local authorities have had the power partially to close a property. That power was removed by the present Government. That was the point that I was making. If the removal of that power was an oversight—and I have no reason to think that it was otherwise than that—then I hope that the Minister will be graceful enough to acknowledge it and therefore to remedy that situation, and allow local authorities again to have the power to target the problem and to use the land.

We warmly welcome the first part of the Bill. It allows us to address a problem of public and personal health in flexible and sensible ways and at modest expense. The second part of the Bill extends the fitness criteria. As other speakers have made clear and in particular my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, at the moment in order to be fit a house has to meet a nine point standard. If it falls short of these criteria it is entitled to a mandatory renovation grant. Then there is a second order set of criteria; internal arrangement, space heating, insulation and future prospects of repair, which are eligible for a discretionary grant. This Bill increases the nine-point standard to an eleven-point standard by moving two other criteria, internal arrangement and thermal efficiency, from the discretionary range into the mandatory range, thus attracting mandatory grant. That is highly desirable.

Let us take the first of those two internal arrangements. Until 1989 that too was a consideration that could be used by environmental health officers and legal staff in determining the fitness of a house. Again it was removed, I trust and suspect, by oversight. Yet a house condition survey in my own authority, Norwich, in 1990 as to whether people found their internal arrangements satisfactory found that a third of all dwellings, nearly all of them pre-1919 terraced housing, were unsatisfactory, and in a small percentage of cases substantially so. Noble Lords have already given examples of this. Bathrooms which are reached only by passing through a bedroom; kitchens off which the WC and bathroom open, with all the implications for ventilation and hygiene; steep staircases, and the like. It is highly important that internal arrangement, which is the fitness and appropriateness of the house in its lay-out of space for present-day living arrangements, is addressed.

The second criteria, which is currently within the discretionary range and which my noble friend is arguing should be brought over into the mandatory range, is that of thermal efficiency. There is no doubt again that this is a real problem. In Norwich a third of all house condition complaints in the private sector were that the house was damp, and in half of those cases it was due to condensation. That is a consequence not only, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, of metal windows, or as my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees said, of add-on ground floor unheated bathrooms, but also of the unwise adoption by governments of all colour of new and untried building materials, in particular prefabricated materials and concrete. We know that this, especially in blocks of flats, acts as a conduit to dampness and condensation where it hits warm living space, and as a result has made many of the 1960s concrete flats, Yorkshire-designed blocks of flats and the like, places which are unliveable.

Old insulation grants provided for loft insulation, and now something like 90 per cent. of houses have some, but not to the appropriate six inch standard. Subsequently in its first year the Government's home energy efficiency scheme has helped some 200,000 families on benefit with loft insulation and draft-proofing. I am happy to give credit to that scheme. But unfortunately it is limited essentially to those on benefit. It is taken up mainly by pensioners as a way of avoiding going into residential care. It is limited to insulation and draft proofing, when too often more major work such as cavity wall insulation and new heating systems require additional resource beyond the reach of these schemes.

Extending the criteria for fitness—that is, by internal arrangement on the one hand and thermal efficiency on the other—for the reasons that my noble friend Lady Nicol and the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, have already addressed, is important. I should like to congratulate my noble friend for raising this point with us. Unless proper resources are made available to local authorities, the situation will be impossible. I should like to ask the Minister to respond to us on that.

Local authorities are already struggling with mandatory renovation grants. Last year in 1991–92 local authorities spent £185 million on mandatory grants to bring homes up to the nine point standard. But that expenditure, according to the survey by the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, to which I should like to pay tribute, suggested that barely half of the requests for mandatory grants were being met. Such grants are mandatory, and they are an open-ended demand-led system. But local authorities' resources have been deliberately constrained, capped, reduced and abolished by central government, and therefore local authorities cannot—but are required to —meet mandatory renovation grants.

So local authorities now are spending well in excess of their normal allocation from the Exchequer. In the current year 186 local authorities have asked for additional supplementary credit approvals, or capital allocations, of £94 million to meet the statutory commitments that they have to undertake. Yet the DoE could find only £30 million of the £94 million that local authorities are required to provide. Will the Minister tell us what local authorities are supposed to do in that situation? According to environmental health officers and the Association of District Councils half the authorities questioned had waiting lists of over 300 families, which would require additional expenditure on mandatory existing renovation grants of something like £2 million pounds an authority.

What are they supposed to do? The pressure on credit approvals—that is, capital allocation—is bad enough. However, there is worse to come because central government only refund now 75 per cent of the cost of grant-aided works and next year this will go down to 60 per cent. Local government have to meet the rest at an additional cost to local authorities of something like £80 million. Would the Minister please tell me—I would love to know—how a local authority district council with a budget of perhaps £14 million, which is required under capping to cut £2 million from that (my authority has £18 million and is required to cut £5 million) can then find an additional £1 million or so of revenue to meet its share of mandatory grants which are demand-led and will be a statutory requirement from 1993 onwards? Will the Minister please tell me how that can be done?

Local authorities cannot now meet mandatory demand-led renovation grants. It will be even harder next year when their contribution will rise while their capped budgets are required to fall. The queues for mandatory grants will grow and therefore I fear that to add additional requirements—although I support them wholeheartedly—to the standard of fitness and thus to enlarge the potential demand for mandatory grants in the present perverse system of finance imposed on local government by central government will make it impossible for local authorities to meet those requirements. Does the Minister accept—everyone has remarked on this tonight—the long term wisdom and investment associated with this Bill, and will he do his best to ensure that local authorities not only have the capacity to meet their mandatory renovation grants as presently constituted, but will also have the capacity to take on these additional responsibilities to effect longer term savings?

Like my noble friend Lady Nicol, I too am intrigued by the research that the Government fail to publish—I am sure through oversight. Will the Minister please tell us the numbers and sums involved in such a Bill? Can he give us advance notice of the findings of the house condition survey which took place in 1991 but which has not yet been published? When will that be published?

I support my noble friend Lady Nicol on the following point. Can the Minister tell us how many research programmes since 1988 the Government have commissioned into private housing energy efficiency and how many of those research findings the Government have published? No one doubts that thermal efficiency standards would reduce fuel poverty—that has been argued tonight—would improve living comfort, and would reduce CO2 emissions. Given the Government's recently published document entitled Climate Change—Our National Programme for CO2 Emissions, how do the Government suggest the proposals be met, if not by funding local authorities properly to take the measures advanced by my noble friend in his Bill tonight? We on this side warmly support our noble friend's Bill. We invite the Government not only to support it but also to ensure they provide the finance to meet its objectives.

8.23 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, for bringing his Bill before us today. In doing so he has provided us with the opportunity to discuss the establishment and enforcement of standards for our housing.

While we are not opposed to all the concepts covered by the noble Lord's Bill, I should make it clear that we are not in favour of changing now the contents or application of the fitness standard. Indeed, we find some of the Bill's objectives most worthy and we shall certainly consider them further when the time comes to make changes to the housing fitness standard. But we do not feel we have yet reached that time.

A fitness standard for housing has in one form or another been with us since Victorian times. Over the years there have been many changes to the matters the standard addresses and the way in which it is used. The amendments contained in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 were, however, the first made to the standard for over 20 years and represented the first major revision since 1954. Changes have therefore not been undertaken lightly by any government over the last quarter of a century. That is only right as the standard has much riding on it—not least because of the role it serves as the minimum standard for enforcement by local housing authorities.

Any addition that is made to the already wide-ranging requirements the standard sets is likely to increase the numbers of properties in the country that are determined unfit. This in turn potentially exposes more private individuals to enforcement action by local authorities and will possibly leave them having to undertake such remedial action as the authority decides is necessary. Public intervention in this way is, of course, sometimes necessary and desirable. But it is clearly right that any measures which would increase the likelihood of such intervention are fully considered before they are introduced.

We should not forget the implications for public expenditure that any increase in the demand for grant would bring with it. Owners of unfit private dwellings may qualify for mandatory renovation grants and local authorities are already facing increasing financial pressures because of the existing demand for mandatory grants arising from the current standard. Obviously the Government must have regard to considerations such as this in deciding the way forward.

The changes introduced by the 1989 Act were preceded by extensive consultation and consideration. They were not minor changes. The requirements made by the standard were extended to cover more matters known to be crucial to health, and the way in which local authorities apply the standard was fundamentally altered.

I shall now answer the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Skelmersdale, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, regarding the consideration of part of dwellings. The decision is now based on the property having to meet each individual requirement set by the standard and not on a combination of them, as was previously the case. This means that the standard can only be sensibly applied to a complete unit of accommodation—anything less, such as a single room or cellar, would be most unlikely to ever meet each of the wide-ranging requirements the standard makes. The changes have barely been in place for two and a half years. Of course standards must change over time but it is perhaps somewhat premature to be amending the new standard so soon after introducing it.

This is not a question of dragging feet. The Department of the Environment has a number of research projects in progress to review the standard and to inform the Government of the direction in which it should evolve. One project has been looking particularly at how the standard is being applied by local authorities. This work will conclude very soon and will identify any difficulties authorities have encountered in working with the new system. Recommendations for any government action considered necessary in this area will be made.

A second and more long-term project is currently reviewing the health, safety and—this was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Ross of Newport and Lord Skelmersdale—fire risks associated with housing. This project will also guide us on any revision necessary to the standard and also on any future changes we might make to the building regulations. In addition, a third project is under way which embraces a feasibility study on a minimum rating for energy efficiency, and this has been undertaken with a view to including such a criterion in the fitness standard. Noble Lords will appreciate that we are on very similar lines here with the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, and with the views of the Select Committee on Indoor Pollution, which recommended that a requirement for adequate thermal insulation be added to the standard.

We expect reports from all these projects to become available over the next year or so. We wish to consider their findings most carefully before we seek any further changes to the detail and usage of the fitness standard. Given the importance of this matter, that is only right. In addition to having noble Lords' views this evening, we propose to consult other organisations such as the local authority associations.

I shall now address the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The grant system as a whole underspent in its first two years which made it difficult to justify allocating more resources to it. It is now likely to spend fully this year for the first time. It is also becoming clear that a growing number of authorities are facing increasing financial pressure as a result of demand for mandatory grants. The Government have concluded that we need to take stock of whether the system as it currently stands offers the most effective way of supporting the essential repair and improvement of run-down private housing given the resources likely to be available in future years. We plan to issue a consultation paper in the spring setting out possible options for change. We want a wide debate on what changes are needed and the form they might take.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, raised a point on the results from the 1991 English Housing Conditions Survey. We intend to publish results as soon as our analysis of all the information that we have received is completed. The large size of the survey means that it takes time. We are not yet in that position. Collecting data began in September 1991. For the last survey in 1986, it took just over two years from the start of data collection to publication of the results. I can assure noble Lords that the Government are as anxious as others to have results from the survey.

I hope that it is clear from what I have said that we feel unable to support the Bill at present. We need longer to take stock of the current standard. We need to be absolutely satisfied about the case for changes, which will increase intervention. It would be premature to conclude on the matter in advance of considering the results of our surveys.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, perhaps I may intervene to ask this question. I asked about the energy supplement to the 1986 survey report. It took from 1986 to the end of 1991 before the result was published. I am curious why that might be so. I understand that the noble Viscount may not have the answer. Perhaps he will write to me.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I apologise. I forgot to answer the noble Baroness's question. Perhaps she will allow me to write to her on this specific matter.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount that we ought to have a wider debate on the issue. If we have a Committee stage, other noble Lords could become involved. It is a most important issue. I understand that the Government have undertaken a number of inquiries. Let us have a wider debate soon. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

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

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