Smoke Alarms (Private Rented Sector)

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 7th May 2014.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 12:38 pm, 7th May 2014

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision for the mandatory installation of smoke alarms in privately rented accommodation;
and for connected purposes.

At the outset, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, including my role as a non-executive director of the Fire Protection Association—a not-for-profit organisation that works to improve fire safety.

Smoke alarms save lives. The latest Government statement on the subject, issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government in February, states that

“analysis suggests a person is…4 times more likely to die in a fire in the home if they do not have a working smoke alarm”.

In recent years, as our fire and rescue services have focused increasingly on fire prevention, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of homes that are protected by smoke alarms. Building regulations require smoke alarms to be installed in all new dwellings. The impact of that regulatory requirement, together with national and local promotional campaigns to get alarms fitted in existing properties, has been to ensure that almost nine out of 10 homes across the country are equipped with at least one working smoke alarm.

That still leaves about 2.5 million homes unprotected. By a margin, the largest proportion of unprotected homes are privately rented. The latest available data from the English housing survey suggest that only 82% of privately rented homes were equipped with a working smoke alarm in 2011. The purpose of the Bill is to remedy that by making the installation of a working smoke alarm mandatory in all privately rented housing. I would have no objection to extending the provision to all rented homes, including those rented from councils and housing associations. However, as those sectors have already gone significantly further, with 89% of council properties and 93% of housing association homes having working smoke alarms, it seems sensible to start with the sector where the need is greatest.

Very few people appear to disagree with the proposal. The National Landlords Association says:

“we already advise that it is best practice to install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in rental properties and are comfortable with this being made a regulatory requirement”.

The British Property Federation says that it

“supports the compulsory roll-out of smoke alarms and CO alarms across the rented sector”.

The Chief Fire Officers Association, which has provided me with very helpful information and guidance in preparing the Bill, is adamant that this proposal is one of the simplest and most effective ways to save lives.

The Government appear to agree. Section 150 of the Energy Act 2013 empowers the Secretary of State to make provision, by statutory instrument, to require residential landlords to ensure that tenanted properties are

“equipped with a required alarm”.

A required alarm is defined as covering smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

The public appear to support the proposal overwhelmingly. Research by YouGov, which was commissioned by Cheshire fire and rescue service but conducted nationwide, found that 93% of the more than 2,000 respondents agreed with the statement:

“Private landlords should be required by law to ensure that working smoke alarms are fitted in rented residential properties.”

A parallel YouGov survey of businesses found a very similar level of support, with 91% of the 690 respondents agreeing with the statement. Interestingly, when that was broken down by category of business, YouGov found 100% support among real estate respondents. That does not imply that there is opposition to the principle of regulation in the industry.

What can possibly be the objection to taking action? Why has the necessary statutory instrument not been introduced? The clue to answering that question appears in the DCLG consultation paper that was issued in February, to which I have referred. The paper, which is entitled “Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector”, sets out clearly the forceful arguments in favour of the mandatory installation of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms as a lifesaver. However, the paper continues:

“requiring the installation of smoke alarms in all privately rented homes would impose additional costs on landlords.”

It concludes:

“Regulation is always a last resort and, as part of the review, we will also explore the scope for non-regulatory alternatives to promote further take-up.”

I find that regulatory burden argument wholly unconvincing. As I have pointed out, the National Landlords Association and the British Property Federation are in favour of the proposal. When the representative bodies for the businesses concerned are not complaining about the regulatory burden, why on earth do the Government see a problem?

The Government are sceptical about regulation, but that scepticism does not prevent them from imposing new regulatory burdens on landlords when they want to. For example, the Immigration Bill, which the House will debate this afternoon, will impose penalties of up to £3,000 on landlords who let premises to people who do not have leave to remain in the UK, even if they were unaware of their tenant’s immigration status. Landlord representatives have made it clear that they oppose that new regulatory burden, but the Government have insisted on keeping the provision in the Bill.

However, when landlord representatives are not opposed to a new regulation that would save lives, the Government appear less committed. That is, frankly, perverse. The cost would be tiny both in absolute terms and as a proportion of landlords’ income. A sealed smoke detector with a 10-year battery costs about £15, which is only £1.50 a year spread over the life of the battery. Even if three or four alarms needed to be installed, it would still be no more than £6 a year, compared with an average rental income from a private letting of more than £10,000 a year. The regulatory burden argument is wholly unpersuasive, and we simply cannot allow such a flimsy pretext to delay any further the necessary action to save lives.

Nor is it the case that, as the DCLG consultation paper implies, voluntary arrangements without a regulatory obligation will be an adequate alternative. We have certainly seen real progress in voluntary arrangements to date, with the number of existing homes protected by smoke alarms increasing dramatically over the past decades. However, a law of diminishing returns is at work. Landlords keen to do the right thing will almost all have installed alarms by now. Those who are negligent or indifferent to tenant safety may well not have done so. Without a legal obligation, it is unlikely that they will respond positively to further encouragement. That is one reason why landlord representatives are not opposed to making the installation of smoke alarms a regulatory obligation. It would ensure that there was a level playing field and help raise safety standards across the whole sector.

The failure of irresponsible or negligent landlords should no longer be allowed to damage the reputation of the whole private rented sector. The case for the mandatory installation of smoke alarms in all privately rented housing is overwhelmingly strong, which is why I am presenting the Bill as a call to action. I am delighted that it is supported by Members from throughout the House, and I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have agreed to add their names as sponsors. It is a simple, common-sense measure that would save lives, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 12:47 pm, 7th May 2014

I rise to oppose the Bill. First, like Mr Raynsford, I should draw the House’s attention to an interest declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As I have made clear before, I am a landlord, although an accidental one, and a tenant as well, so perhaps I am in an unusual position in being able to see both sides of the argument from personal experience. I want to place on record my thanks to the Residential Landlords Association for its help on the issue. Although it does not oppose the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal outright, as I do, it has highlighted to me a number of potential problems with it.

Perhaps I should start with something that the right hon. Gentleman failed to mention: his former ministerial role. He was the Minister in charge of this area of policy, and he had the opportunity to introduce the law that he suggests, but he did absolutely nothing about it. We should start compiling a list of things that Opposition Members ask for that they failed to do in their 13 years in office. The right hon. Gentleman has gone one step further, because he was the Minister responsible and did absolutely nothing. In fact, when he was questioned about what measures he would take to require more smoke alarms in properties, he used to give answers that mentioned everything apart from a mandatory requirement for private landlords to install them. He asks how on earth anyone could oppose the Bill, but the question for him should be why on earth he did not introduce it when he was the Minister responsible if it is such a fantastic idea. I might add that at the time he failed to introduce it, there were far fewer private landlords with smoke alarms and far more fires. If there was ever a time to do it, it would have been when he was a Minister, rather than now.

There is no doubt that the desire exists to reduce and eliminate the number of incidents and fatalities that horrifically result from fire accidents, but I wish to record my concerns about the Bill because I do not believe that it provides the necessary solution. Surely, it is obviously in everyone’s interests to have a fire prevention device installed in their property. In a rented property, the tenant would want one to protect themselves and their family, and the landlord would be keen to protect their property from any chance of fire damage—the figures bear that out.

In answer to a parliamentary question on 27 March, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins, stated that 82% of privately rented properties already have a smoke alarm. As I find myself saying all the time, some people want to regulate everything in the name of a worthy cause. However, potentially criminalising law-abiding, decent landlords—the vast majority of whom, by anyone’s standards, have properties with smoke alarms already fitted—and adding to the burdens that could put them off renting their properties will have undoubted unintended consequences on the market and the very people this proposal seeks to protect.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the cost of this measure as though that were the only factor, but it is not. The risk of prosecution is a factor for landlords when making these decisions. The practicalities of implementing and enforcing a mandatory programme to install smoke alarms in private rented accommodation could make it incredibly inefficient and almost impossible to police. Although landlords would be legally obliged to install such devices in their properties, they would not be able to check the status of the alarm regularly. Shifting that responsibility to the landlord, who has irregular and unguaranteed access to the property, might result in testing becoming a less regular affair than would otherwise be the case.

We should also consider tenant responsibility. Given that time and again it appears that tenants interfere with fire protection devices in their property, how can the landlord be held responsible if those sensitive alarms are disconnected or tampered with? You do not have to take my word for it, Mr Speaker, because when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, he stated in a parliamentary answer that

“in approximately 9 per cent. of households containing fitted smoke alarms at least one alarm has either been disconnected or has had the battery removed.”—[Hansard, 13 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 392W.]

How can a landlord be held responsible for that?

If a tenant were to remove the batteries, cover the sensor or disconnect the device completely without notifying the landlord, would it still be the landlord’s responsibility to ensure that those protection devices were engaged, and if so, how? [Interruption.] Opposition Members are chuntering, but they just like having noble ideas. They have absolutely no idea about the practicalities because they never think anything through. It is totally impractical, impossible and unrealistic to expect a landlord to check on the status of all smoke alarms in his or her properties on a daily basis to ensure that all devices are connected and operational. How on earth are they expected to do that? If smoke alarms are not working, they are pointless.

How many smoke alarms would be satisfactory? Guidelines seem to suggest that an alarm should be present on every floor of a property, but given the nature of private letting, where rooms are often let on an individual basis, will the landlord need to provide a separate alarm in all rooms of the property? Would one alarm in an eight-bedroom property be sufficient? Not only would excessive alarm installation amount to an increased financial burden on the landlord, but it would no doubt have a knock-on effect on tenants, who will pay extra to rent those properties.

A mandatory smoke alarm policy could reduce the use or consideration of alternative safety alarms and measures. I believe that heat alarms have been acknowledged as a suitable and in some cases more appropriate alternative to smoke alarms. They reduce the risk of accidentally triggering an alarm, which in turn lessens the chances of tenants actively disengaging them. The Residential Landlords Association recently pointed out that it is clear from relevant British standards and Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services guidance, that in certain situations the fitting of a heat alarm is more appropriate. Smoke detectors are not appropriate in kitchens because of the higher risk of accidentally setting off the alarm. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like listening to this because they have not thought it through. Any mandatory policy on smoke alarms could create a climate where landlords might remove a more effective heat alarm system and replace it with a less effective smoke alarm system that would be less suitable for the type of property and tenant, just because of the right hon. Gentleman’s diktat.

I understand that private rented accommodation is already covered by an extensive amount of safety regulations, including on fire safety, which makes this proposed extra burden seem completely unnecessary. Local authorities already have powers to require the provision of smoke alarms where necessary through the housing, health and safety rating system. A British standard underpins various provisions for the installation of fire detection, along with LACORS guidance, as agreed by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Chief Fire Officers Association, and that is the basis for fire protection in existing dwellings. A clear downward trend in fire deaths and injuries has been evident for many years in fire statistics. Although those statistics are encouraging, they bring into question the need to adopt compulsion for fitting smoke alarms when steps are already being taken in the right direction and with excellent results.

Finally, I have great concerns about discriminatory treatment in relation to private landlords. If the intention is to promote fire safety, surely the right hon. Gentleman’s motion should apply to the mandatory installation of smoke alarms in all types of accommodation and not single out private landlords. Given everything that I have said, I do not believe there should be any move towards the mandatory provision of smoke alarms in private rented accommodation. As mentioned, the Bill applies only to private landlords, not to social housing or owner-occupied homes, despite the threat of fire not respecting such boundaries.

The Labour party thinks that, whatever something is, it must be regulated, that there must be a law for it and that we must have more burdens and unnecessary regulations, but I think that this provision is completely unnecessary. The right hon. Gentleman needs to explain why he did absolutely nothing to introduce this measure when he was a Minister and in a position to do so. I oppose this Bill. I will allow the right hon. Gentleman his moment in the sunlight and his moment of glory, and I will not seek to divide the House. However, I hope that the Minister will register my points and not introduce this ridiculously unnecessary nanny-state proposal.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 245, Noes 8.

Division number 265 Prime Minister — Smoke Alarms (Private Rented Sector)

Aye: 245 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Nick Raynsford, Jim Fitzpatrick, Alistair Burt, Mr Andrew Love, Mr Adrian Sanders, Mrs Mary Glindon, Peter Aldous, Mr Barry Sheerman, Mr David Amess, John Healey and Bob Blackman present the Bill.

Mr Nick Raynsford accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Thursday 15 May, and to be printed (Bill 207).