Ulster Unionist Party Social Development spokesperson Roy Beggs MLA, East Antrim, has spoken during a Stormont debate on the Houses in Multiple Occupation Bill.
Mr Beggs MLA said;
“I share the comments made by other Members in welcoming, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, the general principles of the Bill. Clearly, it deals with an issue of some importance. It concerns an area that has not been regulated appropriately and where we can improve lives and remove risks that may exist in houses of multiple occupation. I declare an interest in that I have a son who is a student and may be in a house that will be covered by the Bill. Thankfully, he is in a good house, but I think back to previous student days and accommodation that I have seen. It is very clear that there is a need for legislation to cover the private sector.
I can think of one example of student accommodation that I visited where there was a basic amenity, a fridge, connected to an electrical plug via a block terminal connector that sat on top of a kitchen bench. That was not particularly safe. Such basic amenities should be connected safely to the power supply and should not endanger the lives of the occupants of shared accommodation. I also welcome the linkage of the regulations with other government functions, namely planning, building control and environmental health, because local government can play quite an important role there. It will come across difficulties in the community through a range of
Another aspect of houses in multiple occupation, whether for students or others, is that, on occasions, they are houses from not particularly good stock. They can be damp or cold and may even have very poor energy efficiency. Is the Minister thinking along the lines of putting in minimum standards? Will he require, particularly when new applications are made, that certain basic modern standards are adopted in order to ensure that those who may be more vulnerable and have limited choices are in reasonable accommodation? I accept — I think that it is widely accepted — that houses in multiple occupation can pose a higher risk. I agree with the principle of the Bill in concentrating in this area initially. It would be easy to widen it to all houses that are being let, but I welcome the fact that this is being concentrated on houses in multiple occupation because of the higher risk factor that exists there. It is right that the authorities should work with those houses and improve them and minimise the risks to tenants who may be more vulnerable.
I also see in the explanatory notes to the Bill that this is likely to become an area of increasing importance related to the ongoing welfare reform. If we are going to have more people living in such accommodation in the long term, it is important that we provide them with the necessary protections. Why is a house in multiple occupation a particular risk? The very basic question to ask is this: who is in charge of the house? Often, and certainly in the case of students, everybody thinks that it is somebody else. They may even think that it is the landlord. In that type of situation, nobody thinks that they are responsible.
It is important that someone takes responsibility and ensures that no unsafe conditions pertain. It is also important that it is possible to contact the person responsible for the house. On occasions, you hear of stories where the owner of a property cannot be contacted, so how do you solve the problem that exists, whether for the tenant or the neighbouring tenants or occupants? It is right and proper that there are appropriate management systems in place to enable contact with either the appropriate landlord or someone who has clear responsibility and can solve the difficulties that are being experienced. I agree with putting some exemptions in the Bill. The example of student accommodation has been given to us. We are being advised that there is already a high degree of scrutiny and checking of fire exits etc and that the risks do not justify a further level of bureaucracy and costs on top of the checks that already happen. What would be gained by adding to the provisions accommodation that is managed by universities etc? I agree with that exemption.
We want to minimise bureaucracy that we are creating, and we have to justify the area of scrutiny. It has been shown to us that there is a particular issue with supportive housing. Housing that is managed by housing associations and is of a good standard has, on occasions, significantly higher levels of protection than is envisaged in this legislation. If they are already operating to a high standard, why would we add another layer of bureaucracy and include them in this provision? I agree with the principle of trying to minimise both the involvement of government and costs and of being able to justify those areas that will be included.
I am supportive of the general principles of the Bill and look forward to more detailed scrutiny, which, as others have said, has already commenced.”