Private Rented Sector

Part of Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 25th June 2014.

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Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 1:33 pm, 25th June 2014

There is a case for registers in individual local authorities but, as the Select Committee agreed, a national register applied on a rigid basis is not the answer.

On standards in the sector as a whole, there is a case for a more professional rented sector. As several hon. Members have said, a minority of landlords and letting agents provide what is, at best, a shoddy service; in some cases, they flout the law and in others they have a wanton disregard for tenants’ safety. More can be done, and I encourage the Minister to focus on houses in multiple occupation. That subsector is the source of some of the worst practices, as hon. Members may know from their constituents, and often people on the lowest incomes and students are caught in it. We have legal powers in place to deal with this, but perhaps a little elbow grease from Ministers, a little Whitehall direction, and a little support and encouragement from local councils could make a real difference. Let me highlight one aspect of this issue. We need to look not just at the urban, larger HMOs in places such as Headingley in Leeds, but at some of the smaller HMOs—the two-storey houses. I am talking about the ones where, as I have discovered in the fens, HMOs are serving seasonal workers and are very often the source of dreadful practices and wider criminality.

On the letting agents issue, which the Opposition have flagged up in their motion, I am proud that it is this Government who are giving tenants proper powers of redress. The ombudsman scheme, backed by a clear code of practice, is long overdue and it will enable us to start to drive up standards of service. Let me remind the House that when in government the Labour party spoke against and voted against those redress measures for tenants. This House needs to remind not only itself but tenants whom we serve that that is where the Labour party stood for 13 years—it refused to support additional redress for tenants—and the party should be ashamed of that record.

Labour’s proposals on banning fees are well intentioned, because we have seen some dreadful practices, but the measures do not deal with the root cause of the practice among letting agents; what they would do is help to tackle one symptom. As questioning from my hon. Friend Nick de Bois highlighted, Labour’s proposals contain nothing to prevent agents from then charging the landlords instead, which will lead to higher rents. So, by the back door, a well-intentioned piece of legislation would lead to an unintended consequence that costs tenants more. It is a very familiar story with the Labour party. What we need is a sector-wide agreement, one that sets higher standards for the quality of the homes provided, the type of leases offered and the level of customer service that tenants can expect. That is the way forward. We want a comprehensive approach and not a quick fix.

We have a great opportunity to put in place permanently a genuine and stable private rented market. For too long, this House has tended to divide blue and red on the issue of tenure. It is, “Home ownership is perfect” or “Social housing is perfect.” We need to move on and recognise that we need more homes to rent, more subsidised homes to rent and more homes to own. Unless we focus on supply and play the game in terms of ensuring that the whole market works, we will fail. A modern economy needs a dynamic, open and competitive private rented sector, and it needs tenants who can rely on what is a professional standard. It should be a market in which the customer, and not the provider, leads.

We are, as a Government, making good progress. The policy direction is right, but I say to Members on both Front Benches that there is more that can be done.