HL Deb 21 October 2002 vol 639 cc1064-6

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Maddock asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to regulate houses of multiple occupation.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, some of the worst unregulated housing conditions exist in properties of multiple occupation in the private rented sector. It also accommodates some of the most vulnerable in our society. That is why the Government remain committed to introducing further legislation to license these properties, in order to improve the safety and the welfare of occupants.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, does the Minister share my disappointment that the Government have not found time to put that commitment—made not only in the 1997 Labour Party manifesto but in the 2001 manifesto and the Government's housing Green Paper—into practice? The Minister has outlined the dreadful conditions in houses in multiple occupation and stated that such housing accommodates some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Given the Government's commitments on health spending and eradicating fuel poverty, is it not extraordinary that they have not found time to include the issue in their legislative programme?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, although I accept the noble Baroness's comments about the 1997 manifesto, people tend to forget that we are still in the first parliamentary Session after the most recent general election. The department is working on this legislation—it is not on the back burner—because some 2 million people live in houses of multiple occupation and many are at risk. Generally speaking, HMOs are less safe than single-family households. We are actively pursuing legislation, which will be introduced as quickly as possible.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, will much of the housing in which students live therefore be regulated? It may be very difficult for students to find the money to pay for any eventual regulations.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, as we envisage that a five-year licence for a dwelling in multiple occupation will cost about £100, I will have no argument about licence fees forcing landlords to price students out of property. There is, however, an argument about the definition of property in multiple occupation. We therefore intend to license the properties at greatest risk—those of three storeys or more and accommodating five people or more. Although regulation would cover much student accommodation, such houses are very unsafe places to live. On average, every week in this country three people in dwellings of multiple occupation die because of fire.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that any further sale of local authority-owned or public housing can only exacerbate this situation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is estimated that there are around half a million HMOs, and it is essentially a private sector problem because that sector is unregulated. There are multiple-occupied properties in the public sector, in local authorities and housing associations, but those sectors are regulated and action can be taken against them. Local authorities already have the ability to license such properties, but, unfortunately, most choose not to do so.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am glad to hear that the department is actively working on legislation; it is a great comfort to us. I wonder whether my noble friend—who will be driving forward this legislation with his usual vigour—can give us a slightly clearer idea of when it will appear. Will it be 2003, 2004 or 2005?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it may appear more quickly than some people think, but I do not know the contents of the Queen's Speech. It is currently being decided whether the legislation should appear first as a draft Bill or a full Bill. As I said, however, we are actively working on it. We have already consulted on it, and there is no secret about the proposals. I accept that the matter requires urgency.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that houses in multiple occupation constitute a very valuable part of the rented market? Does he also recognise that the number of such properties is decreasing very substantially as they are sold off as private fiats or houses? Does he think that a form of regulation is likely to stem or encourage this trend away from houses in multiple occupation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, if regulation encourages a reduction in the number of unsafe dwellings, we should applaud it. The objective is not to remove such houses from the private rented market, but to make them safe places to live. Safety is at the root of the issue. I hope that landlords will not try to argue that, because we have to get the numbers up, we need to have more unsafe accommodation. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is not seeking to make that argument—which would be wholly unsatisfactory, particularly in view of the statistics I cited on the number of people killed. I accept that HMOs are a valuable part of the private-rented market, but I do not think that anyone can defend unsafe properties.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that many houses in multiple occupation are in a poor state of disrepair and that that applies particularly to energy? I refer to poor insulation and poor energy efficiency. Will that issue have particular attention paid to it in the forthcoming legislation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it will. I do not want to criticise all homes in multiple occupation but it is certainly the case that at least a fifth of them are not fit for human habitation under the present criteria. The safety of such properties and, of course, the capability of landlords properly to manage their properties will form part and parcel of the legislation.