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Draft Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) (England) Regulations 2023

Debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Clive Efford

† Bacon, Gareth (Orpington) (Con)

† Bradley, Ben (Mansfield) (Con)

† Buchan, Felicity (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)

† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Greenwood, Lilian (Nottingham South) (Lab)

† Johnston, David (Wantage) (Con)

† Leadbeater, Kim (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

† Mak, Alan (Havant) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)

† Rimmer, Ms Marie (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)

† Swayne, Sir Desmond (New Forest West) (Con)

† Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab)

† Western, Andrew (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Young, Jacob (Redcar) (Con)

Jack Edwards, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 10 May 2023

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

Draft Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) (England) Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) (England) Regulations 2023.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. There are currently more than 50,000 asylum seekers living in contingency accommodation, mainly hotels, at the cost of £6 million per day. Hotels are neither intended nor suitable to be used as long-term accommodation for asylum seekers. Placing asylum seekers in hotels is burdensome on local communities and expensive for the taxpayer. This position is unsustainable, and the Home Office is working tirelessly, alongside other Departments, to reduce dependency on hotels through a package of short and long-term measures, of which this statutory instrument is one.

Longer-term dispersal accommodation, such as houses in multiple occupation, commonly known as HMOs, are a better solution for asylum seekers—especially single asylum seekers—communities and the taxpayer. All local authority areas in England, Scotland and Wales became asylum dispersal areas in April 2022, increasing the number of suitable properties that can be procured to accommodate destitute asylum seekers across the UK. To deliver on that change and support the rapid provision of alternative, more cost-effective accommodation, the Government laid secondary legislation on 30 March to temporarily exempt asylum accommodation from the licensing requirements for houses in multiple occupation. This temporary exemption is part of a broader suite of measures that the Home Office is implementing to speed up the moving of asylum seekers out of hotel accommodation.

The regulations will temporarily exempt from licensing requirements HMO properties that are used by the Home Office to house asylum seekers. That means that HMO properties that begin use as asylum accommodation before 30 June 2024 will not need to be licensed for a period of two years.

The Minister will remember what happened with Grenfell Tower in her constituency. Does she think it is important to license HMOs? If she does, why are the Government taking that very important safeguard away from very vulnerable people?

We will continue to maintain national housing standards for all properties, and I will explain in detail the regulations that will continue to exist. It is only the licensing regime that will be gone for two years. All the national housing standards will remain. This instrument will cease to be in force on 1 July 2026, after which all HMO properties used as asylum accommodation will require licences. The Government anticipate that this reform will remove barriers that may cause delays or challenges to the acquiring of more sustainable and cost-effective accommodation for single asylum seekers.

On the maintenance of housing standards, my Department and that of the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), will continue to work together to ensure that all properties that benefit from the temporary exemption meet the required housing standards. Home Office contracts with accommodation service providers set out a clear minimum standard, which is equivalent to the national housing standard. The Home Office also employs a dedicated assurance team to inspect accommodation to ensure that national housing standards, such as those on room sizes and fire risk assessments, are met. The team will be enhanced to assure contractual compliance by service providers and will continue to work with local authorities, which can raise potential issues of non-compliance. All asylum accommodation will continue to be subject to wider private sector regulations, including management regulations, which cover issues such as overcrowding, fire safety and appliances being in safe and working condition.

Local authorities will retain their powers to enforce part 1 of the Housing Act 2004. That means that, if a hazard is present—for example, if a property is over-crowded—local authorities can take action to remedy it. Enforcement action depends on the seriousness of the hazard, but could include the issuing of an improvement notice, a prohibition order or a hazard awareness notice. The Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006 will continue to apply to all HMOs, whether or not they are licensable. Those regulations include landlords’ duties in relation to fire safety and their duty to maintain common parts, fixtures, fittings and appliances in safe and working condition. All the regulations pertaining to minimum national standards will continue to apply; however, the licensing regime will temporarily cease for a period of two years.

Let me make some progress first.

The Government will do everything they can to mitigate the risk of homelessness in support of the cross-Government commitment to end rough sleeping in this Parliament and to fully enforce the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. The Home Office dispersal policy will focus on ensuring that no area is inundated with asylum seekers, as we recognise that that would put strain on public services, including housing, and potentially change the character of areas.

To assist with the financial burden that councils are experiencing, more generous funding is being made available to them. For existing dispersed accommodation and beds in hotels, the Government will provide local authorities with a one-off payment of £750 for each asylum seeker in Home Office accommodation as of 1 April. That is up from £250 last year. The payment will be made during the first quarter of the 2023-24 financial year. Councils will receive £3,500 for each new dispersal bed that comes online during 2023-24.

In addition, as part of a four-month pilot, councils will receive a further incentive payment of between £2,000 and £3,000 when a bed is brought online in an expedited timeframe following identification. That almost doubles the existing funding for those local authorities that take on new accommodation and do so quickly. That money will not be ringfenced and will incentivise co-operation and ease pressures on local services. Payments will, however, be subject to the conditions of a grant agreement.

Working with my Department—the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—the Home Office will also monitor any impact and will conduct a full new burdens assessment, working with the Local Government Authority. I ask Members for their support for the regulations, which are a necessary step to accelerate the moving of asylum seekers out of hotels and into more suitable and cost-effective accommodation for the taxpayer.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford.

Despite the Minister’s valiant attempt to burnish it, the purpose of this instrument is nothing more than to rapidly secure—or at least to attempt to rapidly secure—more HMO asylum accommodation across England by exempting it from the requirements used by local authorities to ensure that minimum standards of safety, management and quality are met. It is necessary only because the Conservative Government have completely lost control of the asylum system and, as a result, are now frantically reaching for any and every lever that might enable them to move out of hotels and hostels at least a proportion of the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in the UK by irregular means, heedless of the resulting impact on local communities.

There would be no need whatsoever for the regulations if the Government had not first broken the asylum system then subsequently determined that the solution to that failure was to impose a de facto asylum ban and, in the absence of return agreements, to plan to house tens of thousands of inadmissible asylum seekers in taxpayer-funded accommodation for the foreseeable future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this statutory instrument is another clear example of the utter mess the Government have made of the immigration and asylum system? Instead of taking responsibility for their mess, they are now expecting some of the most vulnerable in society to suffer and have their safety and wellbeing be put at risk.

As I made clear, this instrument is a direct consequence of the mess the Government have created. There would be no need for it had they not broken the system over their 13 years in power.

To add insult to injury, instead of being honest about the fact that the rationale for the regulations is to secure more HMO accommodation for asylum seekers by exempting such accommodation from minimum standards, the explanatory memorandum suggests, entirely disingenuously, that the need for it arises instead from a concern that

“asylum seekers accommodated at taxpayer expense should not be entitled to more spacious accommodation than the national standard that applies to everyone else.”

However, the instrument does not merely exempt asylum seeker accommodation from the discretionary HMO licence conditions by which local authorities can require more generous standards than the minimum. It exempts such accommodation from all HMO licensing requirements under part 2 of the Housing Act 2004, including the mandatory licensing of properties that provides for the national standards that apply to everyone. The intent is perfectly clear: it is not about ensuring that HMO asylum accommodation does not go beyond minimum standards; it is about ensuring that no minimum standards whatsoever apply to it.

In the explanatory memorandum, licensing requirements under part 2 of the 2004 Act, which in the case of additional licensing schemes are obviously locally determined as well as enforced, are described as “barriers” to acquiring

“more sustainable and cost-effective accommodation”

for asylum seekers. The Minister repeated that language in her speech. Let us be clear: that is legalese for “cheaper”. Of course it will be cheaper to house asylum seekers in accommodation without gas safety certificates, without safe electrical appliances and furniture, without working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and without shared amenity facilities that meet minimum standards.

It is obvious why asylum accommodation providers such as Serco, Mears and Clearsprings Ready Homes have raised concerns about the cost implications of HMO licensing regulation on their operations and why they will no doubt warmly welcome being exempted from having to comply with such regulation. What is not clear is why Ministers now think it is acceptable to leave local communities without the powers they rely on under part 2 of the 2004 Act to deal with the consequences of unlicensed HMO accommodation. Will the Minister explain precisely why the Government believe that trampling on local authority discretion when it comes to the minimum standards provided for by part 2 licensing requirements is the only means of boosting the supply of HMO asylum accommodation in the way the Government require as a result of having broken the asylum system?

Does my hon. Friend agree that those who wish to trumpet how poorly we treat refugees in this country to show that we do not take their claims seriously will rue the day when we removed the capacity for local authorities and local people to have control over where people are sited?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I were a local authority leader looking at this statutory instrument, I would be very concerned about the implications for my ability to manage the quality of privately rented accommodation in my area.

When it comes to the quality of HMO asylum accommodation, the Home Office argued, in response to concerns about the draft regulations raised by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, that there was no need to worry because asylum accommodation and support contracts—AASCs—already contain rigorous standards and mirror the national standards that underpin licensing in relation to various conditions, and that all accommodation providers must in any case meet statutory and regulatory requirements. The Minister has repeated that defence today.

It may well be that the contracts contain prescribed standards, but in practical terms it is utterly meaningless to compare the effect of those standards with the HMO licensing requirements that can be enforced by local authorities under part 2 of the 2004 Act. After all, AASCs are contracts between the Home Office and the provider in question. With the occupier unable to enforce the terms of the contracts, the only party that can do anything when standards fall short under an AASC is the Home Office, and it will have no incentive to do so in the case of HMO asylum accommodation, given that boosting the supply of such accommodation by means of circumventing national standards is the entire point of the regulations.

The central premise of the instrument is that providing a temporary exemption from all part 2 licensing requirements will quickly boost the supply of HMO asylum accommodation. Presumably, the Government have robust evidence for that premise, but if they do, Members have not seen it. How many new unlicenced HMO properties does the Minister’s Department estimate will be used for asylum accommodation in the period during which the temporary exemptions provided for by the draft regulations will apply? If she cannot or will not provide that estimate, will she at least tell us what evidence the Government have drawn on to attest to the likely efficacy of the instrument in boosting HMO asylum accommodation supply?

My hon. Friend will be aware that many local authorities have introduced article 4 directions to control the expansion of HMOs in areas where that creates difficulties for the local community. I am unclear: will the change in the regulations affect that in any way?

My reading of the statutory instrument is that that will be unaffected, but I would welcome clarification from the Minister.

Just as whether the SI will actually boost the supply of the type of accommodation the Government seek is important, it is equally important that the Minister explains how the Government believe that the promised new unlicensed HMO asylum accommodation will come forward. Does the Department expect that the bulk of new supply made possible by the instrument will consist of properties converted into HMOs—for example, former care homes, former office blocks, or former residential and student accommodation? Or does it expect the bulk to consist of repurposed existing HMOs, where tenants have been evicted to enable landlords to relet newly unlicensed and therefore cheaper properties to the Home Office via AASCs?

The explanatory memorandum would suggest that the answer is the latter, or at least that repurposed existing HMOs are likely to form a significant proportion of new unlicensed HMO asylum accommodation supply, because the Government acknowledge that the regulations will impact on local authorities not only through lost licensing fees but through increased demand for other local services, presumably including housing and homelessness services. Will the Minister tell the Committee precisely how the Department expects local authority services to be impacted by the instrument? Will she clarify that the funding stream that she set out in her opening remarks is the full extent of what those local authorities will receive?

Finally, the explanatory memorandum suggests that monitoring will take the form of regular meetings held by the Home Office with the Department and local authorities. Given how inadequate Home Office engagement with local authorities has been in relation to hotels and hostels that are used for contingency asylum accommodation, we believe that falls far short of what is required. We are also concerned by the vague reference in the explanatory memorandum to ensuring

“alternative regulation of housing quality standards”.

Will the Minister provide the Committee with further reassurances that the impact of the instrument on local authorities will be closely monitored by her Department, not the Home Office? Will she provide further detail on how housing quality standards in unlicensed HMO asylum accommodation will be maintained once the part 2 exemptions come into force?

To conclude, we accept that the regulations do not preclude all forms of regulation under the 2004 Act and secondary legislation made pursuant to it, but by exempting newly procured asylum accommodation from HMO status for the purpose of part 2 of the Act, the regulations will deny local communities an important means of appropriately regulating the safety, management and quality of privately rented accommodation in their areas. That is an important means; if it were not, and the minimum regulatory standards cited by the Minister are adequate, why do we have part 2 of the 2004 Act?

If enacted, the regulations will not only force significant numbers of asylum seekers into substandard HMO accommodation but leave communities across England struggling to cope with the consequences, whether that be the proliferation of unsafe buildings, instances of anti-social behaviour or public health challenges. The worthy objectives that underpin HMO licensing requirements under part 2 of the 2004 Act are being casually sacrificed to try to manage what increasingly looks set to be a permanent and steadily growing asylum backlog that is, as I have said, the direct consequence of the Government’s incompetent management of the asylum system.

The rationale for the instrument is disingenuous, the reassurances offered are weak and the impact on asylum seekers and communities alike will almost certainly be harmful. For those reasons, the Opposition oppose the regulations and we will press the matter to a Division at the appropriate time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. When the Government brought in the houses in multiple occupation legislation, they described the reason why such housing should be licensed as

“to combat rogues from being able to operate substandard accommodation”.

The question before us is: who is the rogue? It is the Home Office. That is the challenge that this legislation sets.

I want to put on the record my and other Members’ experience of dealing with Home Office service providers at local levels, and in particular our frustrations about making sure that when refugees are sited in our communities they are given appropriate support. I also wish to highlight the need for collaboration and appeal to Government Members who, as I said earlier, might think this is a good, strong measure to show that we will show neither fairness nor favour to refugees. They will rue the day when they removed the ability of local communities to have a say, which is, if our experience to date of private contractors is anything to go by, what this legislation will do. How short-sighted it is to make more complicated the regulation of houses in multiple occupancy.

I have a number of questions for the Minister, as little of this makes any sense. Why two years? What do we think will happen in two years, apart from further confusion for the regulation of houses in multiple occupancy? What stops a landlord from claiming that they are setting up substandard accommodation for the use of refugees but renting it to other people—to people such as those very constituents we all wish to protect from not having a smoke alarm or want to ensure have a working boiler to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning? Those are basic regulations. They are not an onerous set of rules but a set of rules for a decent society in which we say that we do not want people to live in places where they could simply die from being in the building.

What safety measures could a local authority introduce, then? My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South mentioned Grenfell, which plays on all our minds. This instrument would essentially set up somewhere like Grenfell to be a reasonable place to house refugees. [Interruption.] The Minister is shaking her head and wants to say that there are other regulations; why are we making it harder to enforce basic standards? Why are we making it harder for local communities to be part of the process? I wager that it is because Ministers in the Home Office are fed up to the back teeth of their colleagues coming to them to complain about hotels and the behaviour of private contractors. The answer is not to take out that local accountability but to get to grips with the private contractors and the way in which we deal with the support of refugees.

Those of us who have had refugees appear in our area overnight who do not have access to schooling, clothing, food or doctor’s services know that it is better to co-ordinate at a local level if we want to ensure that the impact on a local community is managed. The regulations explicitly remove local communities from that process. What legal advice have the Government received should the regulations mean that, when the licensing requirements are gone, someone is placed in an unsafe property, and we are waiting for that awful call when somebody says that people were seriously harmed—or even worse, that due to a faulty boiler there was a stampede in a building because of its size and the risks of overcrowding that come with that? The Minister talks about single refugees, but the regulations do not specify that, so we are talking about families and children living in buildings without smoke alarms under this legislation.

Again, the Minister is shaking her head. Then why bother doing this? Why bother making it harder to make sure that we have basic minimum standards so that a child who has come here is not at risk? People may be critical of those who seek sanctuary in other countries when they flee persecution, but are we really going to subject their children to lower standards as a result of penalising them? That is exactly what this legislation does.

How will the legislation be enforced? This is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. There is no incentive for private providers and the Home Office to ensure minimum standards if it means their bottom line has to increase. We have seen time and again cost-cutting measures when it comes to the treatment of refugees.

Local authorities play an important role in arranging housing standards and representing local communities in upholding those standards. The Minister wants to claim that standards are not being watered down; if that is the case, what is the point of this legislation, apart from to explicitly exclude local communities from being part of the process and having their say? Whatever people think of asylum seekers, surely it is better for there to be more eyes on what is happening on the ground, making sure that we put them in safe places where they are not at risk and do not pose the risk that people believe they pose, than not.

The asylum support contract for the south of England does not set criteria for safe, habitable and fit-for-purpose accommodation. This is very clearly a watering down. We have seen it already with the concept of safeguarding: there is no safeguarding regulation in Home Office contracts, so children have been put at direct risk of harm and, indeed, have experienced harm. There is nothing to indicate that this will be any different. Vague terms mean there is no ability for enforcement, even if the Home Office wishes to avoid the next Grenfell. There is nothing in the regulations to suggest that has been thought about. Where there is to be no enforcement or monitoring process in place, particularly in cases in which the ASC has subcontracted accommodation to a third party, there will be no direct relationship with the Home Office to even oversee the process.

Many Committee members have experience of local government. They have experience of the messy reality of getting regulation right at a local level. Removing the tools to do that rather than simplifying or strengthening them is not in anyone’s interest. I urge the Minister desperately to rethink this legislation before any further harm is done.

It is important that we make things clear. All asylum accommodation will continue to be subject to wider private rented sector regulations, which cover issues such as overcrowding, fire safety and appliances being safe and in working condition. Local authorities will retain their powers to enforce part 1 of the Housing Act 2004. The Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation (England) Regulations 2006 will continue to apply to all HMOs.

Let me finish my point. Let us not try to confuse the issue. Those regulations will continue to exist and local authorities will continue to have a role.

I want to clarify that existing planning regulations require properties being converted to HMOs that will house more than six people to have planning permission. That will continue to be the case. In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Nottingham South about article 4 directions, if a local authority has such a direction in place and there is a desire to convert the property into an HMO, it will require planning permission. Let us get the facts straight.

The Minister is almost arguing that the part 2 licence requirements are unnecessary because other regulatory standards are adequate. If that is the case, why do the Government not propose abolishing part 2 from the 2004 Act entirely? Surely the Minister accepts that local authorities require and use the powers extensively, and therefore that there is a good reason they do so?

HMO licensing allows local authorities to require, in certain cases, higher standards than national standards. I am saying that that ability to require higher standards will go for a period of two years, but the national standards continue to exist, as I have explained.

I ask Members for their support for the regulations, which are a necessary step to accelerate the moving of asylum seekers out of hotel accommodation and into more suitable accommodation. The regulations are an important part of the Government’s asylum dispersal plan.

Question put.


That the Committee has considered the draft Houses in Multiple Occupation (Asylum-Seeker Accommodation) (England) Regulations 2023.

Committee rose.