HOUSE OF COMMONS
Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
(GRANTS FOR FIRE ESCAPES IN HOUSES
IN MULTIPLE OCCUPATION)(PRESCRIBED PERCENTAGE)(SCOTLAND) ORDER 1990
Wednesday 24 October 1990
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairman: Mr. David Knox
Bevan, Mr. David Gilroy (Birmingham, Yardley)
Brown, Mr. Ron (Edinburgh, Leith)
Davis, Mr. David (Boothferry)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas (Perth and Kinross)
Howarth, Mr. Gerald (Cannock and Burntwood)
Ingram, Mr. Adam (East Kilbride)
Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Leeds, North-East)
McAvoy, Mr. Thomas (Glasgow, Rutherglen)
McKelvey, Mr. William (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
Maxton, Mr. John (Glasgow, Cathcart)
Michie, Mrs. Ray (Argyll and Bute)
Walker, Mr. Bill (Tayside, North)
Waller, Mr. Gary (Keighley)
Ward, Mr. John (Poole)
Watson, Mr. Mike (Glasgow, Central)
Whitney, Mr. Ray (Wycombe)
Younger, Mr. George (Ayr)
Mr. B. M. Hutton, Committee Clerk2 3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 24 October 1990
[MR. DAVID KNOX in the Chair]
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Grants for Fire Escapes in Houses in Multiple Occupation) (Prescribed Percentage) (Scotland) Order 1990. The order gives local authorities greater freedom of action and more discretion and was specifically requested by Glasgow district council, with the subsequent agreement of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Section 162 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 gives local authorities the power to serve a notice requiring the provision of means of escape from fire in houses of multiple occupation if the current means of escape are inadequate. If such a notice is served, the owner must carry out the required works. However, once a notice has been served, the owner is entitled to apply for a grant from the local authority towards the cost of the works, and section 249 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 requires the authority to approve that application as long as the works concerned are those specified in the notice or are necessary to carry out those works. Subsection 249(4) of the 1987 Act lays down that the grant to the owner is to be 75 per cent of the eligible costs. If the local authority considers that undue hardship would be caused to the owner, the percentage of grant may be increased to a maximum of 90 per cent. The draft order does not alter local authorities' discretion to pay up to 90 per cent in cases of possible hardship, but it reduces the minimum that they must pay from the present 75 per cent to 20 per cent. There are several reasons for that. Until now, local authorities have made little use of their powers under section 162 of the 1987 Act. Accordingly, there has been little risk of substantial claims for grant. However, some local authorities—notably Glasgow district council—are now pursuing more actively those houses in multiple occupation where facilities and standards are unacceptable. They expect to serve more notices under section 162, but fear that if that results in a large number of claims for 75 per cent grant, the strain on their financial resources would he too heavy. That would mean reducing other worthwhile grant expenditure or refraining from serving notices under section 162, even when they are justified by the facts. Glasgow district council fears that it would have to cut improvements to tenements through grants and other projects or not take action on safety. Under the 4 order, that problem would be reduced to a minimum. It believes that the case for the district council having more discretion is overwhelming. In many cases, owners of houses in multiple occupation should be able to finance most of the required work on their houses. Certainly the rents that they receive from residents in the HMOs should be high enough to enable expenditure on necessary repair and improvement work. That suggests that a minimum grant rate of 75 per cent is too generous in most cases. Nevertheless, we intend to leave local authorities with discretion to pay up to 90 per cent when hardship would otherwise result. That should ensure that, if an HMO owner is not able to fund the bulk of the cost of work himself, he will be eligible for a larger amount of assistance from public funds. We consulted the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the matter. It believes that it would be preferable to give local authorities full discretion over the amount of grant payable in such circumstances, including the option of paying none at all. COSLA realised that that would require primary legislation and that our proposed reduction could be implemented more quickly. On that understanding, COSLA supports the reduction which is now presented in the draft order before the Committee. Licensing provisions, on which we are now consulting, are also important. There will be an opportunity for a debate on that subject, which is much wider. I am sure that the Committee agrees that the order is important, because it will ensure that all houses in multiple occupation have adequate means of escape in the event of fire. We believe that the provisions in the draft order will encourage authorities to use their powers to ensure that HMOs are properly provided for. I ask the Committee's support for this modest but important measure.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride): I shall be as brief as the Minister. We welcome the change which, as the Minister said, arose from a request made by Glasgow district council. I note from its correspondence that the matter was raised on 3 October, so events have moved quickly. There may have been earlier discussions, but my information shows that Glasgow district council raised the matter on that date. I should say that it was 3 October last year, but the response has been quick as such matters usually take a considerable time to reach a conclusion. When primary legislation is required, issues go into a big melting pot which they sometimes never leave. It is good to see that Glasgow district council's approach has taken on board. As the Minister said, it has the full support of COSLA and local authorities who have problems to resolve. I should have preferred the figure of grant payable to have been zero up to whatever discretionary maximum was deemed necessary. We recognise that the 90 per cent ceiling will remain. Given that the proposal to allow no grant to be paid would have required primary legislation, for which we should have had to wait, we accept that the 20 per cent limit should apply. 5 I hope that the change will encourage local authorities such as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee to follow Glasgow district council in beginning to examine these matters. There are many houses in multiple occupation in their areas, but they have probably been deterred from taking action because of the cost of paying the mandatory 75 per cent of the grant. The Minister's comment that many landlords can meet the costs involved because of the high rents that they charge was useful. Landlords should not wait until an order has been placed on them. They should examine their properties now and initiate, of their own volition, necessary works, after seeking a local authority grant to undertake them. Local authorities can now embark on an aggressive programme of identifying properties with such problems and encouraging landlords to initiate the necessary remedial works. I hope that the financial burden on local authorities will not be too great. It would be useful if the Minister would tell us that the Scottish Office will act promptly—say, within a year—and offer additional funding if problems arise. I welcome the change and congratulate Glasgow district council on pursuing the matter to a successful conclusion.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): It is appropriate for us to discuss fire escapes during national fire safety week in Scotland. I believe that the Minister sent congratulations to the campaign at the beginning of the week. It is extremely important for all houses in multiple occupation to have suitable fire escapes. We have been fortunate in Scotland in not experiencing, too many horrendous tragedies such as have occurred in other places. I have been told that that is partly because of the superior design of our housing, but I have seen some awful student rooms in houses in multiple occupation where leads, cables, wires and hair dryers all come from one adaptor or socket. It was a worry, that there seemed to be no way of escape if something went badly wrong. It can be difficult to erect fire escapes. In some cases, it is not easy, to get planning permission, or a local authority may have no money left for grants. One house in a tenement building may be in multiple occupation and should have a fire escape, but the other houses might not be in that category. The Minister mentioned the lack of uptake of the 75 per cent grant. I would like him to he more specific and tell me what the uptake has been. I welcome the fact that local authorities are to be able to introduce licensing schemes for houses in multiple occupation. That will help to set good standards in relation to housing and fire escape mechanisms and with regard to the suitability of landlords. I look forward to that proposal being set in motion for local authorities. 6 As the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) said, I hope that the Minister will tell us that that will be monitored carefully and that local authorities will not find it difficult to give support to people who need to have fire escapes.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: I thank hon. Members for their welcome for the measure. As I mentioned, there will be an opportunity to return to this subject. We have issued for consultation proposals to give authorities greater powers to control the operation of HMOs, enabling them to establish a licensing scheme under the provisions of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982. Copies of the consultation paper are in the Library. We are are also preparing a guidance document for local authorities on the powers available to them to deal with such houses. We shall, encourage them to make full use of them. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) asked which authorities had made most use of section 162, to which the order relates. Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow were the only authorities to use those powers to any significant extent, although I acknowledge that Aberdeen also has a considerable number of houses in multiple occupation. I advise my colleagues from south of the border that what we are doing today is precisely what happened south of the border with the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, so there is nothing untoward from that point of view. The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) asked about resources. The housing plan which local authorities will submit will cover issues of that nature. We shall take full account of that when making allocations later this year. I believe sincerely that local authorities will be encouraged by the order to take appropriate action when a house in multiple occupation does not have adequate means of escape from fire. By leaving authorities discretion to pay up to 90 per cent of the cost, we should ensure that work is carried out to provide means of escape from fire when it is required without causing undue hardship to landlords. The determination of adequate means of escape will be a matter for local authorities in consultation with a local fire master, but guidance on factors which should be taken into account have been issued by the Scottish Home and Health Department.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Housing (Grants for Fire Escapes in Houses in Multiple Occupation) (Prescribed Percentage) (Scotland) Order 1990.
Committee rose at sixteen minutes to Five o'clock.7
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
Knox, Mr. David (Chairman)
Davis, Mr. David
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Michie, Mrs. Ray