HL Deb 09 February 1999 vol 597 cc188-202

8.36 p.m.

Lord Tope rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether adequate measures and inspection arrangements are in force to ensure the safety of university students who rent accommodation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to those noble Lords who are going to stay tonight to take part in this short but, I think, very important debate. Perhaps I may say at the start that I have received a letter today from the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, regretting that a prior engagement has prevented his attendance here tonight. He goes on to say that he knows that students have some genuine concerns over the matters we shall discuss.

Perhaps I may also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, for sparing a little time last week to discuss some of these issues with me so that, it is to be hoped, we can have a more useful and more informed debate, and indeed some more informed responses from the Government.

Since I put down this Question every student, or recent former student, to whom I have spoken has immediately identified with the issues and has given me all sorts of stories either from his or her own personal experience or from that of close friends. Furthermore, the issue has generated considerable interest and concern among students and their representatives in all parts of the country I think we have touched here on an issue of wide and great importance.

I want to say a little about the very real problems and difficulties which are causing hardship and real physical danger to thousands of young people at our universities. Then I should like to go on to suggest some relatively small changes in regulations that would have real benefits immediately. I think that in the longer term—though, one hopes, not in the too-long term—a mandatory licensing scheme for the properties that students rent is what we need.

Over half the one million full-time students in England and Wales rent flats or houses in the private rented sector. The overwhelming majority of these students live in shared houses or flats. For example, they have a room of their own and share a living room, kitchen, toilets and bath or shower. For many young students, this will be their first experience of living on their own; yet it is very clear that, frankly, many of them are living in death traps.

The English House Condition Survey 1996 found that 19 per cent. of private rented dwellings were unfit for human habitation under the fitness standard set in Section 604 of the 1985 Housing Act. Dangers include faulty or poorly-serviced gas appliances which release toxic fumes like carbon monoxide. These alone have been responsible for the deaths of at least 10 students since 1990. Other common dangers are inadequate means of escape from fire, inflammable furnishing, dangerous electrics, infestation by pests (including rats and cockroaches), inadequate facilities for the preparation of food and washing, dampness, poor insulation and poor security.

I have been in touch with the student housing officers in a number of universities. From Manchester University I was told that students have suffered badly enough from carbon monoxide poisoning to warrant court action. Indeed, from Manchester Metropolitan University we heard of a case where one young man spent a whole term quite badly incapacitated by drowsiness, missing lectures and even one important exam. It turned out that because his landlord had divided up the property in an illegal way, the student was sleeping with his head very close to a gas boiler, which was leaking fumes. Only the real luck of a spot inspection revealed the true cause of the problem. He was. in a way, fortunate; other students have died. A very common complaint to student unions is that the landlord cannot supply the legally-required gas safety certificate. This is usually a sign that the gas appliance has been installed or maintained by amateurs.

Another major threat to life and limb is collapsing ceilings. Again, amateur decorators tend to skim thin plaster on to existing thick Victorian ceilings. The plaster then dries out and pulls the whole lot down. Ceilings also collapse because of long-standing problems with plumbing or structural defects. Often the student will have reported leaking water or excessive damp problems, but no action is taken. Delays in repair work mean that in the meantime young people have to live and try to study in appalling conditions.

Many students suffer illness and discomfort from damp conditions caused by poor ventilation because windows are nailed shut, or damp courses are inadequate or because exterior brickwork needs pointing.

Every type of vermin you can think of has been reported to us. Slugs often infest damp houses; mice arid cockroaches are common; and in both London and Manchester we have had tales of pigeons infesting the lofts of students houses. Landlords are too fond of filling houses with second-hand furniture which does not comply with the new regulations. When this is combined with poor electrical wiring, lack of smoke alarms and no adequate means of escape, it is no exaggeration to speak of death-traps.

These and many other problems suggest that the time is overdue for some comprehensive solution. Liberal Democrats believe that the Government should introduce a licensing scheme for all private rented properties. Under such a scheme landlords would have to satisfy basic health and safety requirements before they could let their properties.

The evidence we received from the students' union at Livepool John Moores University made the point, which I hope the Government will take on board, that legislation heavily favours the landlord and that it is often a laborious, expensive and time-consuming process for students to pursue enforced disrepair procedures. Students are short of both money and time, and this results in many landlords simply "waiting it out" and putting off the repairs until the complaining students disappear.

I know that the noble Baroness is at least as aware as I am that we now have an increasing number of students in this country from other European Union countries. If these are difficulties for students of our own country, who speak the language well and have at least some knowledge of our systems, then it is even more difficult for visitors from overseas.

The Liverpool students also report that the council's environmental health officers are normally, very supportive and efficient in their function of enforcing relevant housing law and guidelines. However, they too are subject to the cumbersome policy and procedure that has to be followed to force a landlord to carry out essential repairs. In many cases, by the time government agencies or the courts are in a position to order action, the students' contract has expired. That may be so, but the young people have just gone through nine months of a housing nightmare.

I hope that I have given some brief indications of both the kind of difficulties students face, and the scale of those difficulties, which are, indeed, nationwide. Perhaps I may now turn to at least a few of the possible solutions.

On the matter of gas leaks and carbon monoxide poisoning, we suggest that the time has come to review the enforcing regulations with a view to giving environmental health officers the same powers to enter domestic rented premises to inspect gas installations as the Health and Safety Executive already possesses in law. The plain fact is that the HSE has its hands full already with factories and industrial complexes: the EHOs, however, really could do the job, given the necessary resources.

In a similar way we would encourage the Government to re-examine the powers of environmental health departments to enforce essential repairs. Can they find some way to "fast-track" through the civil courts to force landlords to carry out essential repairs?

We have been examining examples of good practice through which students can be guaranteed a decent standard of private rented accommodation. We are aware of the good work done by regulatory agencies such as Liverpool Student Homes and UNIPOL, the pioneering student housing agency in Leeds. There are many other schemes as well.

Two schemes we looked at in some detail were run, in one case by a local authority, Lancaster City Council, and in the other by a university, the University of Teesside at Middlesbrough. The accredited property scheme set up by Lancaster City Council is a voluntary scheme which landlords are invited to join. The landlords gain in various ways: the kitemark logo which they are able to display in the front window of their properties gives them an edge over other providers in attracting new tenants; the council gives them positive advertising publicity; they get access to discounts on building supplies; they get property services from, for example, plumbers and electricians; and they get preferential arrangements for property insurance. The city council also supply model tenancy agreements.

The renters, for their part, gain handsomely, because in order to join the Lancaster scheme, landlords have to satisfy very thorough and well-thought-out requirements. Properties have to be in "a reasonable state of physical and decorative repair"; be "structurally stable" and "substantially free from dampness". There must be "an adequate level of natural lighting" and "adequate electric lighting". Proper ventilation is required, especially where gas appliances are installed. There are specifications about heating appliances, power points and insulation. A proper means of escape from fire, together with a fire detection and warning system, is also required.

Minimum room sizes are also laid down: the smallest bedroom permitted is 6.5 square metres or, as many noble Lords will understand rather better, 70 square feet. The requirement is rather larger where there is no separate living-room in the house.

The scheme functions by an initial survey of the property by the city council. Thereafter there may be spot checks by the city council, and automatic checks are carried out straightaway if a tenant complains. At the end of the third year there will in any case be a new survey of the property.

I should perhaps make it clear that this service is offered to all potential tenants in Lancaster, not just university students, although there are specific requirements laid down for properties rented to students. Students known to us at Lancaster University profess themselves very pleased with the scheme.

The other scheme I mentioned that we looked at is the head tenancy scheme run by the University of Teesside at Middlesbrough. In this case the university's accommodation service will manage the property on behalf of the landlord and guarantee to pay the rent. The university pays the owners termly in advance by cheque. They then sign a different agreement with a group of students which entitles them to occupy the property under the terms laid down in the contract. The owner is still responsible for the maintenance and insurance of the property. In the event of repairs not being carried out, the university reserves the right to authorise the repair and charge the landlord accordingly.

Before a property can be registered by the accommodation office, both gas and electricity safety certificates are required. All upholstered furniture must comply with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988.

Liberal Democrats feel strongly that the key elements of this kind of good practice need to be formulated into a national code of practice for student lettings, and that all our universities should be developing schemes along these lines—suited to their particular location and situation—so that good standards can be guaranteed. These schemes have in common the registration of rented properties with an inspecting authority. Landlords are given a checklist of all the features they need to have in place on their properties so that all the hazards I have been talking about are eliminated before the young students apply to rent them. At the very least, British universities need to have that code of practice proposing such schemes, or once the current review of the law affecting houses in multiple occupation is complete, the Government should introduce a mandatory scheme for licensing shared houses and HMOs.

Life at university for young people at the end of this century has become much more hazardous and precarious than it was at the time of our generation. Parents must also have a reasonable expectation that their daughters and sons will live in safe and decent conditions when they live away from home for the first time. I feel confident that the Government will be able to assure us at the end of this debate that serious moves are afoot to address a very serious problem.

8.50 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for initiating this debate and for giving us the benefit of his views based on evidence which he has collected from different parts of the country and to which I have listened carefully and with growing concern. But I note also the voluntary schemes that he mentioned which are obviously encouraging.

I should declare an interest. I am president of the University of Wales. Swansea, and the university has an excellent relationship with Swansea City Council. I have had the benefit of discussing the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, with the student accommodation officer and also with the president of the student union at Swansea. But the views which I express are my own and they are not the views of an expert.

The main problem exists in the private sector where students or groups of students reside in a house which has not been registered with the local authority as a house in multiple occupation or in a house which has not been approved as suitable accommodation by the appropriate university or college. It seems to me that once a house has been approved or registered, that should be a guarantee to the students that its safety arrangements are in good order. On the other hand, if a house is not on an approved list of accommodation or is unregistered as a HMO, students should be on their guard from day one.

Throughout the country people are buying houses which they do up and let to students and others who share some of the facilities. Clearly, there are inherent risks of fire in any residential property but the risks are greatly increased by multiple occupation because each separately let part will make use of its own heating, lighting and cooking facilities.

I read in the Joseph Rowntree report published in 1995 that the risks of death from fires are up to 28 times higher in HMOs than in self-contained housing. To the best of my knowledge, that finding has not been challenged. If a house is in law in multiple occupation, then the local council may serve a statutory notice requiring the owner to carry out fire precaution work. The notice may also require the number of occupants to be reduced. Obviously, some of the work may involve quite considerable sums of money but plainly the protection of occupants of houses in multiple occupation against the risk of fire is extremely important.

I understand that one problem is that it is sometimes very difficult to determine whether a house is in law a house in multiple occupation. That has been defined as a house which is occupied, by persons who do not form a single household". But that definition is less attractive to apply than it might appear at first sight. It requires the combination of a clear mind allied to a fine judgment and information about a wide range of considerations. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are wide variations among local authorities in their enforcement of HMO standards.

There have been a number of decisions by the courts about the definition. In particular, it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who said in a leading case some 20 years ago that there is not a single test to answer the question whether in law a house is in multiple occupation. In 1995, in the case of Barnes v. Sheffield City Council, a case involving a house let by a private landlord to students attending the same university, the Court of Appeal held that there was not a litmus test which could be applied to determine the answer to the question and that regard must he had to all relevant factors; moreover, that the weight to be given to any particular factor will vary widely from case to case, depending on the overall picture. I noted that in the Barnes case, factors such as shared use of facilities, the stability of the student group and the size of the property as well as six other main factors were taken into consideration by the court. One is left to wonder whether the definition of an HMO remains unchanged. For example, should it be provided that a house providing residence for, say, four or more students—the number involved in the Barnes case—should be deemed to be a house in multiple occupation?

I accept that in applying the letter and the spirit of the law, much must depend upon the nature and quality of relationships between authorities and their officers. I mentioned that the relationship between the University of Swansea and the Swansea City Council is excellent. It should be a matter of good practice for university housing authorities and fire authorities to work together in a co-ordinated way to ensure that premises which are in multiple occupation are maintained in a fit state to be used as residential accommodation.

I accept that the Housing Act 1996 sought to address some of the difficulties. It introduced a scheme for the registration of houses in multiple occupation and empowered the Secretary of State to make model registration schemes. Today, three years on, perhaps the Minister will tell us how many such schemes have been adopted. How many registrations have been revoked? Has it been possible for local authorities, faced with many other pressing needs, to devote adequate resources to enable registration schemes to be established, inspected and monitored, and to enable them to tackle poor standards in HMOs? Does local authorities' income from registration meet the total cost of enforcement of the law? If the definition of HMO is not to be changed, will the department issue, re-write or update circulars 67/69, 12/86 and 12/93 which relate to the problem which, I believe, housing authorities still have in applying the definition of HMO. I hope that any new circular will offer guidance in terms that we can all understand.

I shall not detain the House further. I have risen, partly because of my involvement with one university and also because I believe that students are entitled to be reassured about the safety of rented accommodation. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, has raised critical issues and asked penetrating questions about which I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to enlighten and reassure us.

9 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I do not wish to speak for long in this debate; however, I wanted to take the opportunity not only of thanking my noble friend Lord Tope for raising this subject, but also of reinforcing some of the points that he made in his speech.

I live in a university town, Guildford, and I teach at the University of Sussex, on the south coast. In both cases, students face an enormous shortage of affordable rented accommodation. House prices and rents in London and the south east are considerably higher than elsewhere. "Affordable" is therefore an important issue. Students are of course perennially poor. These days most live on a combination of grants, loans and parental contribution, amounting to £3, 000 to £4, 000 a year, topped up increasingly by casual work in pubs or supermarkets. They live on £75 to £80 a week. They get together and share accommodation. However, by virtue of their very low incomes they are inevitably seeking flats and rooms at the lower end of the market. Because of the shortage, they are open to exploitation by greedy and lazy landlords.

I spoke yesterday to the welfare vice-president of the University of Sussex students' union. She spoke of cockroaches, mice, damp, leaking taps and blocked-up drains. These were common woes. But she had two particular gripes. One was of landlords who took large deposits at the beginning of the year failing to provide any inventory of the effects against which the deposit was supposedly paid—and failing to tell the students that this was the case—but then claiming at the end of the year that the deposit was necessarily withheld to make good depredations. The second was against landlords who promised but never quite got round to doing repairs. As she said, with the students moving in freshly in October, they start making complaints in November. Foot-dragging landlords spin matters out through the spring and, before you know it, it is May and the students are moving on in June. At that point it is not worth their while pursuing the issue because they are moving on so quickly. And of course the following October the repairs are still not done and a fresh group of students pursue the same case.

She also spoke to me about a "host family" scheme, which applies mainly to foreign language students in Brighton but is also used by the university to place first-year students who cannot be placed in campus accommodation. She said that often it works quite well, but sometimes it does not; that sometimes the accommodation is not up to scratch, but because the arrangement is informal there is no contractual relationship between the family and the student and they have no contractual rights.

These days students have a tough enough time without all these other hassles. As my noble friend Lord Tope made clear, the legal position of shared flats and houses—homes in multiple occupation—is unclear. It is not easy for either environmental health officers or the Health and Safety Executive to act. Yet the horrific cases of carbon monoxide poisoning that have come to light illustrate the dangers of doing nothing. It would be good to see local authorities following the lead of towns such as Lancaster or universities such as the University of Teesside and setting up schemes of their own. I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is not present. There is a very strong case for the Brighton and Hove unitary authority thinking of these matters and instituting a registration scheme somewhat similar to that promoted by Lancaster. As it is, neither the borough nor the university has been prepared to act. The students' union is now trying instead to go it alone, setting up a scheme which sounds rather like the scheme in Leeds whereby the union sets itself up as its own accredited letting agency. But at present the union is stymied by the lack of £20, 000, which it needs as start-up money for the scheme. It seems that neither the university nor the local authority is prepared even to help with that.

This is a very real problem. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Tope for bringing it to our attention. I hope that as a result of this brief debate the matter may receive some publicity and something may be done about it.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I apologise for intervening in the gap. I knew that my commitments today were uncertain and that I might not be able to arrive in time. I am very pleased that I am able to be present and take part in the debate. I have a particular interest. I once represented a Hampshire ward that includes a university. There were a lot of houses in multiple occupation surrounding the university that were inhabited by students. When, in another place, I sat on the Committee that dealt with the 1996 Housing Act I pursued many of the points that have been raised this evening. I was particularly interested in fire safety and the regulation of gas appliances. I therefore identified closely with the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

In the brief time available to me, I wish to highlight two areas. One relates to the certificates that landlords are now required by law to provide when their gas appliances have been inspected. I feel strongly about this. I raised this issue during the passage of the Housing Bill. Since that time the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998 have come into use under which a landlord is required to produce the certificate and the students do not have to ask for it. That was identified as a real problem.

Secondly, I wish to pursue the issue of the regulation of houses in multiple occupation. I strongly agree with many of the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. There is a huge raft of legislation surrounding regulation of houses in multiple occupation. We have already identified one duty on landlords to produce certificates when domestic gas appliances have been serviced. Landlords also have a duty to carry out repairs under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. They also have a duty to ensure that the furniture provided is safe and complies with the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988. Landlords also have a duty to ensure good management of accommodation under the Housing in Multiple Occupation Management Regulations 1990.

Local housing authorities have powers to require works to be done to make private rented homes fit for human habitation. That comes under Part VI of the Housing Act 1985. I could continue. There are other responsibilities of the Health and Safety Executive to enforce the requirements of the gas safety regulations. Local trading standards authorities have powers to enforce the furniture and furnishing regulations.

We can see that the current regulatory framework is complex and rather confusing for landlords and tenants. It involves a great number of different enforcement agencies. As my noble friend pointed out, it leaves the enforcement of health and safety standards largely at the discretion of statutory agencies. In addition, there is the legal confusion mentioned this evening about what constitutes houses in multiple occupation. That has led to disturbing developments. The judgment has meant that some landlords appear to be actively seeking to let accommodation on a shared basis to evade the health and safety regulations since the court case that was highlighted earlier.

The second effect of the judgment has been that many local authorities are reluctant to use their houses in multiple occupation powers to inspect shared houses or even to enforce standards because they fear that they will lose such cases in the courts. Shelter carried out a survey and found that 85 per cent. of the councils surveyed thought that the legal definition of a house in multiple occupation should be amended so that shared houses are clearly included. The area urgently needs to he looked at. The current legislative framework is cumbersome. There is a real opportunity for that to happen and I hope that the Government will grasp it. I know that the Government are committed to introducing a new national mandatory licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. The new Labour manifesto pledged: We will provide protection where most needed: for tenants in houses in multiple occupation". I served during the Committee stage of the 1996 Housing Bill in another place. At that time the Opposition spokesman was clear as to Labour's view. Labour wanted to see proper regulation. We supported each other firmly on the matter against the last government.

As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, the matter was discussed in some detail and promises were made three years ago. I hope that today we shall hear from the Minister what the Government intend to do. As we have heard, there have been some dreadful tragedies and many students have died.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the House must be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for bringing this matter to our attention this evening. He outlined in detail many of the problems which students face when they move into the privately rented sector. It seems unnecessary for me to go into detail again on that. He also outlined some schemes which either universities themselves or authorities in university towns are beginning to put in place to rectify matters. It seems to me that those schemes deserve the greatest possible encouragement from the Government.

It must be faced that these are problems of the wider housing sector. It is not exclusively a university student problem that we are discussing. If proper standards are valid for university students, then how can they be separated from proper standards for everyone else?

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, highlighted the complications that arise because of the variable standard of enforcement applied from authority to authority over houses in multiple occupation. This is not a straightforward matter, and it certainly goes wider than simply university accommodation. That said, many universities have their own accommodation and still have problems. One university housing officer commented to me that some students, in defiance or due to ignorance, breach many of the safety regulations that are in place for their protection. That may appear to be a harsh comment but it was spoken with a certain amount of bitterness. It does nothing, however, to excuse the fact that clearly too many students must live in an environment that is beyond their control and in wholly unsatisfactory circumstances.

It is also a fact that the university authorities will need to pay increasing attention to this matter and the general question of university security and safety. It is becoming a matter of note that at conventions where universities seek to attract students parents home in on safety almost as a first item of concern. No responsible parent wishes his or her child—a student will be regarded as a child even though he or she is on the way to being grown up—to go to a university where it is believed that security and safety are not treated with adequate seriousness.

Security is a matter that goes wider than simply housing. Even where a security service is sponsored or provided by the student union, as the bulk of its funding comes from the university such expenditure forms part of general university expenditure. I am aware that one university spends between £100, 000 and £200, 000 annually just on campus security such as closed circuit television. This is designed purely for the security and safety of students. It is another aspect of university life that, sadly, must be treated with enormous care by university authorities.

Other universities have to make provision, either themselves or through the student union for escort services to get students back to lodgings in safety. That may even involve providing a bus service. This does not suggest a happy situation although it demonstrates that universities act responsibly and try to deal with matters within their direct control. But it must be a matter of regret that security costs more and more and so comes into competition with funds that should be devoted to academic matters. Certainly the managerial problems of universities do not get any easier.

Student unions play their part. They issue an extremely good document in conjunction with the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health that provides very good advice to students who move into private houses or flats. The document discusses all the relevant problem areas that are important to the very large number of students who have to make their own housing arrangements independently of universities. I do not know whether general arrangements are made for the distribution of that document. I suspect that it varies from university to university. But I believe that any university where students are obliged to live in private rented accommodation would be well advised to undertake the distribution of that document to all new undergraduates when they finally accept their places and before they arrive at the university.

We all know that houses in multiple occupation are subject to a regulatory system and that various local authority bodies and others must deal with that matter. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said, the service is variable. It is quite clear that if universities keep a register of approved accommodation and enter into schemes like those at Lancaster and Leeds that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, outlined, the number of situations in which university students have problems will probably reduce.

It is a depressing fact of life that it is probably only a matter of time before one university or another is sued for damages by someone with a perception that the university has been negligent in some way about some aspect of the subject under discussion. That is not a happy situation. But the advent of conditional fees must make it likely. I received that opinion from a university secretary. I should like to hope that the opinion of such a senior administrator in a university might be wrong but I am afraid that time is on his side.

Universities nowadays are free standing, independent corporations, properly responsible for the management of their own affairs. They are, however, dependent on the public purse for a large part of their finances. I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government have in mind to use their strong position vis-à-vis finances to persuade universities to take the necessary action, which they are able to do if they have the will, to give proper protection to the students they take in as undergraduates.

9.21 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for raising this important subject today. I should like to reassure the House that the Government very much share the concerns that have been expressed about the safety of university students who rent accommodation. We are firmly committed to ensuring that student accommodation is safe and provides reasonable living conditions.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to liabilities for universities with regard to any action. I am sure the noble Lord will understand that on a matter to do with the law I prefer to write to him; and promise to do so.

Students can be particularly vulnerable, as many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tope, have said. They are often living away from home for the first time and may not appreciate potential sources of danger in their accommodation. I stress that we are not prepared to tolerate their exploitation by unscrupulous landlords.

There have been too many tragedies which could and should have been prevented. I recognise and pay tribute, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and others, to the efforts of the National Union of Students to increase awareness of those dangers. But in addition we need to tackle the problem at source by minimising those dangers as far as we can.

Existing measures under housing and health and safety legislation have generally proved to be effective in reducing risks to people in rented accommodation. But we are aware of some shortcomings, including those mentioned by noble Lords today. I shall try to respond in detail to the points raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, referred to the general problems of damp, infestation and structural problems. Local authorities have powers to deal with those problems under existing legislation—for example, Section 604 of the Housing Act 1985. That applies to any houses.

The Government are committed to introducing a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) because they play an important part in providing student accommodation. Our aim is to ensure that HMOs are safe and provide acceptable basic living conditions. We intend to issue a consultation paper on proposals for HMO licensing in England and Wales in the early part of this year. We want a new system which avoids the ambiguities—a point mentioned by noble Lords—and enforcement difficulties associated with existing controls. Our objective is to improve standards in HMOs through a comprehensive fair and effective scheme. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies asked for further guidance to be issued on the definition of HMOs. We cannot use guidance to extend the definition. It is clear that what is needed is action beyond that.

We are aware of difficulties with the definition of HMO in England and Wales, particularly in relation to shared houses of the type occupied by students. We intend to adopt a more precise definition. One option would be to use the definition based on that currently used in Scotland. That would apply to all houses shared by members of more than two families. The vast majority shared by students would therefore be covered by this definition.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I point out that primary legislation will be required to introduce this scheme and that the Government will legislate as soon as an opportunity becomes available. In the meantime, local authorities already have wide-ranging powers to ensure acceptable standards for HMOs. In England and Wales, they have discretion to introduce HMO registration schemes which require landlords to register properties with the authority. Schemes may include the power to refuse or revoke registration if acceptable standards are not met. However, as I have indicated, we recognise the problem that local authorities are cautious because of the difficulty with the definition.

The noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the fact that the worst housing conditions are often found in this part of the private rented sector. Poor fire and other health and safety standards are all too common, together with overcrowding and inadequate facilities. We are determined to protect the most vulnerable sections of the community from exploitation by unscrupulous or uncaring landlords. Our aim is to ensure that properties in multiple occupation are safe and provide acceptable basic living conditions. We want the system to be comprehensive and effective. At the same time, we recognise the need to ensure that unnecessary burdens are not placed on HMO landlords. HMOs play an important role in providing housing for groups of people, including students, who may have difficulty in finding alternative accommodation.

In response to the point articulately stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, about greedy and lazy landlords, our aim is to ensure that we improve standards in HMOs rather than close them down. The discretionary nature of the powers has led to inconsistent enforcement, with some local authorities taking a more proactive role than others, depending on local policy. That is why we are keen to introduce a comprehensive licensing system. That issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, asked about deposits. We are concerned about the problems tenants face in getting their deposits returned. We are quite clear that they should not lose part or all of their deposit at the end of the tenancy and they deserve a proper explanation if that is happening. We are proposing a voluntary self-financing scheme to ensure that tenants' deposits are safely held. If, following meetings with representatives, the voluntary scheme is unsuccessful, we have made it clear that we will consider legislating to set up a system which ensures and enforces it.

A similar point was raised by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. Many noble Lords speaking in the debate mentioned the question of gas safety. Gas safety law requires landlords, including HMO landlords, to maintain gas appliances, flues and pipework in a safe condition: to arrange annual safety checks of appliances and flues using an installer registered with the Council for Registered Gas Installers (CORGI) and to provide records of those checks to tenants. The regulations apply to most rented domestic premises, including those occupied by students. Those regulations are enforced by Health and Safety Executive inspectors who work closely with local authority environmental health officers who have enforcement responsibility for other housing legislation, particularly with respect to HMOs.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, it is a critically important area. I am pleased to say that the Health and Safety Executive is currently conducting a comprehensive review of gas safety. That will consider, among other issues, the relative roles of health and safety and other legislation. It will also consider alternative enforcement strategies and bodies. The review's recommendations should be available by the end of the year. The HSE recently launched gas safety web pages on the Internet, which provide information to students on the law, their landlord's duties and what action they can take if their landlord does: not provide them with a copy of the relevant safety check. To focus the landlord duties further, the HSE: published a new leaflet. Copies have already been distributed in large numbers by university accommodation officers to landlords renting accommodation to students and, of course, to students themselves.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in terms of health advice, twice in the past three years the Government's Chief Medical Officer wrote to all GPs alerting them to the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. That advice reminded GPs to be even more diligent when examining patients during the winter months when carbon monoxide poisoning may be diagnosed as flu or other winter illnesses. Each winter all GP surgeries receive copies of the latest government publicity on carbon monoxide poisoning for the information of doctors and their patients.

The question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, implied that he was arguing for licensing of all private rented housing. At present the Government are not proposing wholesale licensing in the private rented sector. However, we are concerned about poor standards at the bottom end of the market. If standards are not improved over time through existing voluntary arrangements, the Government will consider taking action.

I was asked a question by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, regarding non-fire safety approved furniture. Foam-filled furniture legislation applies to the supply of such furniture when letting property for business, enforced by trading standards. However, we acknowledge that there is a real difficulty with enforcement. Houses in multiple occupation schemes may enable local authorities to deal with the problem and licensing will definitely do so.

My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, with the particularly detailed knowledge he has from his valuable connection with Swansea University, and other noble Lords paid tribute to the Lancaster and Teesside schemes. It is extremely important that we recognise the work being done on a voluntary basis at this stage and pay tribute to that. It is important with regard to the specific issue of HMOs that the appropriate action is taken following the proper consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the wider issue of campus security and the problems that universities face. As I have said, I am not prepared on the hoof to impersonate a lawyer, as it were, but I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the need for all young people to be protected in terms of safety. Few people realise that those in our society who are most vulnerable to physical attack are not little older women, like me, but young men. Universities have to work hard to ensure that all students, not only female students, are protected.

I hope that I have covered the points raised. I reiterate my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his courtesy in providing me in advance with information about his specific areas of concern. I hope that noble Lords are reassured that the Government take these issues very seriously, as demonstrated by our intention to consult on the HMO licensing scheme and the review of gas safety legislation. If, on reading Hansard, I find that I have failed to reply to any specific point, I shall, of course, write to noble Lords.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.