I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I want to begin by telling the story of one of my constituents. I do not want to give her real name, so I am going to call her Jo. She and her partner had a pretty horrendous year last year and, in spite of the best efforts of our local citizens advice bureau in Brent, it all went from bad to worse. Jo was living in a studio flat with her partner, but there were real problems with the property. The ceiling collapsed as a result of leaking drains upstairs and, to make matters worse, there was no heating in the flat.
Being a reasonable tenant, and expecting the best of her landlord, Jo reported the problems to her landlord. Rather than trying to fix the problem, as one might hope would be the case, the landlord responded by giving Jo and her partner a basin to catch the water dripping from the collapsed ceiling. Understandably, Jo and her partner continued to press the landlord to get the problems fixed, but the next time the landlord responded, he did so by beginning eviction proceedings. Jo had become a victim of retaliatory eviction.
I dare say that many colleagues in the House will have heard similar stories to Jo’s in their advice surgeries over the years, because, sadly, this situation is not as unusual as we might like to think. I hope that there will be time today for colleagues to air some of their stories. Jo’s story is also depressingly familiar to organisations such as Citizens Advice and the charity Shelter, whose advisers are all too frequently contacted by people who are facing eviction after making requests for repairs to be carried out in their property. They are the victims of a small minority of landlords who would rather get rid of tenants than bring their properties up to scratch.
It is because of stories like those that I am bringing the Tenancies (Reform) Bill to the House today, and I ask the House to support it. No one should be evicted for asking their landlord to do basic repairs. No one should be frightened to tell their landlord about a problem for fear of losing their home. No one should be forced to put up with poor conditions because their landlord might retaliate if they make a fuss. This is about fairness and decency, and about doing the right thing. It is about upholding the existing law, and it should benefit everyone: tenants, landlords and local authorities.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that at the heart of the issue is a massive power imbalance between landlords and tenants, and that if we could get that power balance more in equity, tenants would be able to press for the things that they need in order to have a secure roof over their head.
The hon. Lady is correct to say that there is a power imbalance. I will talk more about this later, but I do not want to skew the power wholly in favour of the tenant either. This has to be about fairness; both landlord and tenant have to be treated well. The landlord needs to know that they can let their property without being exploited by the tenant, and the tenant needs to know that they can live in a decent property without being exploited by the landlord. This is about levelling things out a bit, through a relatively small change in the law.
I support the Bill, but regrettably I shall not be able to vote on it later—should there be a vote—owing to constituency business. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that not all landlords are bad landlords, and that there are many good ones providing a good service? However, there are many rogues, and I welcome the fact that she is trying to deal with that issue.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The good landlords are desperate to see the system improve, because they feel that the present situation is damaging their reputation. They do not want rogue landlords in the system; they want them to leave the playing field open to people who are decent and who uphold the law.
I, too, support the Bill. The hon. Lady will be aware that, since 2010, renting has become £1,020 a year more expensive, on average. It is now the most expensive form of tenure. In the name of fairness, should we not also be addressing that issue?
I am going to try to avoid getting into the wider issues today, partly because I am keen to ensure that we have consensus on the narrow points in my Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman has had this opportunity to make his point and it will appear in Hansard. Also, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams is in his place and he will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I shall be leaving Parliament at the next election, after 12 years as an MP in Brent, and I have put in for private Members’ Bill ballots many times over the years and not been successful. It is therefore a huge privilege for me to be selected so high in the ballot this time, particularly in my last few months in Parliament. I recognise that an awful lot of MPs wait for years for an opportunity like this as a Back Bencher, so when I found out that I had come up in the ballot, I was determined not to squander it by pursuing something very party political and divisive which had no chance of getting through. Instead, I wanted to use the opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives by introducing a proposal for improvement that could command cross-party support and had a chance of becoming law.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on this Bill, which has support from Labour Members. Has she been assured that it has Government support? What I hope we are not going to see today is ostensible support from the Government while Government Back Benchers talk out her excellent Bill.
I have been assured that the Bill has Government support. Unfortunately, each person in the House will have to follow their own conscience—[Interruption.] I shall leave their consciences pricked and hope that they do the right thing.
I have heard about many cases such as Jo’s over the years in Brent, and about many others, where fear of eviction has prevented someone from complaining to a landlord about a problem. I know that this issue needs tackling, but I want to place on the record how grateful I am to Shelter for suggesting this topic to me, for all its work in campaigning on this issue, and for supporting me with preparation and drafting of the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her important Bill. I also congratulate the many organisations that have given it their wholehearted support. I wish to reinforce a point that she made: there is a real fear of eviction. I know of people living in damp conditions who dare not put in a complaint. Removing that fear, without putting any extra burden on good landlords, is vital.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about that. The fear of eviction has a chilling impact on the sector, and it also hugely damages the reputation of good landlords and the relationship between tenants and their landlords.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this Bill, and she will know that my team and I have been working on this problem. As an MP, it is most distressing when tenants come to us with a problem, the landlord takes advantage of the fact that so many tenants are looking for properties and new tenants move into a property once the first ones have been evicted, and then the new tenants come to the MP with exactly the same problem, and this repeats and repeats itself, sometimes on a six-monthly cycle.
That can be extremely frustrating, both for MPs and for those in local councils and in citizens advice bureaux, who may see the same problem in the same property over and over again. I want to place on the record my thanks to the citizens advice bureaux in Brent, which have campaigned on this issue for a long time, and to Generation Rent, which has been very supportive. I also wish to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West for all his help and for the support of his officials in championing the Bill across government. I well remember from my time as a Minister that getting cross-government agreement on anything requires sustained focus from a Minister, and I am extremely grateful that the Government will be supporting the Bill today.
Although I support the Bill, a lot of emphasis has been put on so-called “rogue” landlords and, having been a landlord, I know that things are not always as they are portrayed Will the hon. Lady reassure the House, and reassure me, that the Bill will not allow rogue tenants to frustrate the process of eviction when they do not comply with their tenancy agreements?
Absolutely; the Bill has been carefully drafted to make sure that spurious complaints cannot be a reason to frustrate the eviction process. In addition to the clauses relating to retaliatory eviction, the Bill contains other clauses about simplifying the process for applying for a section 21 notice to make it easier for landlords who are operating entirely legitimately to make sure that they comply with the law. At the moment, we often have situations where a landlord may serve a section 21 notice and find that they have fallen foul of a technicality when they were operating perfectly legitimately. So the Bill is not all about skewing everything in favour of the tenant; it contains some simplifying elements, too.
That is the most pernicious use of section 21 notices, but does the hon. Lady agree that the ability to have a no-fault eviction—quickly getting rid of tenants for no reason—is a problem? Will she continue to lobby for tenants’ rights, even when no longer in the House, including for longer tenancies and controls on rent increases and proscriptive letting fees? In other words, will she support a future Labour Government on that?
I am inclined to say that the hon. Gentleman has made his point and move on.
I want to stress that the Bill is not an outright attack on section 21. Members of the House will have very different and varied views on the future of section 21. Some will think that it should be touched as little as possible, and others will want to reform it significantly or even get rid of no-fault notices. The Bill is not about getting rid of section 21; it is about operating within the current legal structures and trying to protect tenants who, at the moment, find that they cannot uphold their right to live in a decent property. Although it is stated elsewhere in the law that landlords ought to comply, at the moment they do not have to, because they can simply get rid of tenants when they complain. If Members want to remove section 21 notices, they will have to bring in their own Bill, because that is not what this one does. I want to make that clear, as I have done to landlord organisations. This is a relatively moderate change that I hope will protect tenants, not an enormous ripping up of the current legislative framework.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very gracious. There is legislation that allows environmental health officers to inspect properties. Does she feel that that offers adequate protection, or is this legislation vital?
The problem for environmental health officers—I was going to make this point later—is that, as many of them told Citizens Advice for a report in 2007, they know that the consequence of intervening is often that the tenant is evicted. That prevents councils from making full use of the powers available to them. There really is no point having legislation that gives councils powers to intervene if they are too afraid to use them to drive up standards for fear of ending up with tenants being evicted. Again, this is about trying to ensure, through a small tweak, that the existing law works better.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that will level the playing field for good landlords who are really interested in helping their tenants, because they will be able to provide decent accommodation that is well looked after without being undercut by rogue landlords who are not interested in their tenants at all?
That is a perfectly fair point. Good landlords who make the necessary repairs get very frustrated when rogue landlords who treat their tenants extremely badly undercut them on rent.
Before talking about the context of the Bill, I want to thank the many colleagues on both sides of the House who have sponsored the Bill, spoken in favour of it and lobbied the Government to ask them to support it. I also thank Opposition Front Benchers for their engagement on the issue. Getting the Bill on to the statute book will require Members with radically different views to support it in the Lobby. I am very grateful for the engagement I have had from many colleagues already. I hope that they will support the Bill today in the Lobby and at all subsequent stages.
My hon. Friend is right that Members with very different views will support the Bill, but is not what unites them the fact that this is about preventing those who are strong—economically strong in this case—from bullying those who are weak? That is what Parliament is about, whichever party we belong to: protecting people against bullies.
The problem with retaliatory eviction at the moment is that the people who are most likely to fall victim to it are those who have the least agency in being able to help themselves. That relates to my next point, which is on the extent of the problem—how wide it is and who appears to be affected by it.
YouGov conducted a survey on behalf of Shelter and British Gas, surveying 4,500 private renters. It found that one in every 50 tenants had been a victim of retaliatory eviction, having been evicted or served with an eviction notice in the past year because they had complained to their landlord or local council about a problem in their home. With a very large private rented sector across the country, Shelter estimated by extrapolating those figures that 213,000 renters experienced that problem last year. That is a significant number of people, and the problem appears to be much worse for some groups living in areas where housing demand is very high. In London, for example, three in 20 renters surveyed reported being a victim of revenge eviction, and nearly one in five black and minority ethnic families renting in the capital said that they had been affected. Those numbers, particularly in London, explain why we have had support from the Mayor of London for this campaign.
We should be careful of assuming that the problem affects only London. The Citizens Advice report that I mentioned highlights the knock-on effect that the practice of revenge eviction has on renters. The report opens with the story of a woman from Merseyside who had been living alone in her private rented flat for 13 years and who suffered from Crohn’s disease. She sought advice from her local citizens advice bureau because the property was damp and the windows did not close. The landlord had recently replaced the gas fire with a two-bar electric fire that was expensive to run and did not sufficiently heat the property anyway. As the woman was receiving benefits, it was becoming increasingly hard for her to survive.
After they were approached for help, the local CAB advisers were able to secure a grant from the Warm Front scheme for gas central heating. It would not cost the landlord anything, so initially he seemed to be happy for it to be installed. However, on the day that the workmen came to survey the site, they decided they could not do the work because the gas meter was located in the flat on the ground floor, whereas the woman lived on the third floor. This could cause a massive safety hazard because if there had been a leak, she would have had to travel down two flights of stairs and try to gain access to a neighbour’s home to switch off her gas supply. The landlord was told that he would need to pay £800 to have the meter relocated, which he was obliged to do to comply with his duties under the health and safety regulations. However, he refused.
The CAB advisers told the woman that she could take action to force the landlord to deal with the issues, but they also had to tell her that if she did, the landlord would be free to use a no-fault section 21 notice in retaliation, giving the woman two months’ notice to leave her home. Despite all the difficulties that she was living with, she decided not to go ahead, as the landlord had been known previously to evict people who had asked for problems to be fixed. As a result, the woman had to continue to live in conditions that were detrimental to her health.
The fear of revenge eviction is just as real as the incidence of it, and it has a chilling effect on the sector, on the powers that environmental health officers feel they can use, and on the relationship between landlords and tenants. It stops people being able to enjoy their right to live in a decent property. It is also a real problem for local authorities, which are not just frightened of the impact on the tenant if they take action, but well aware that if they do take action and the tenant is evicted, they are likely to end up with an extra homeless person on their books, placing additional burdens on councils to rehouse them. It is no wonder that many councils appear reluctant to use all the enforcement powers available to them.
Because of those issues, the Bill has received widespread support. I mentioned Shelter, Citizens Advice and Generation Rent. Further supporters are the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the Association of Tenancy Relations Officers, the Electrical Safety Council, the National Union of Students, PricedOut, the Tenants Voice, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Mayor of London, the Local Government Association and the Local Government Information Unit. Supporters also include many organisations that one would not expect to be on the side of tenants. Nationwide, for example, which is one of the largest providers of mortgages, supports the Bill because it believes that it will have a good effect on those who are providing rented accommodation.
As I said, most landlords want to treat their tenants with respect and with decency. They take pride in doing repairs promptly, and they want to keep good tenants in their property paying rent. In drafting these protections, I have been very mindful of making sure that we can intervene to prevent unfair evictions but do nothing to dissuade law-abiding landlords from operating or to place undue burdens on those who are behaving well.
During the drafting of the Bill, I was extremely grateful to the many landlords’ associations and individual landlords who contacted me and to those who engaged with consultations held by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Comments made during that process fed into the version of the Bill that is now before us. In drafting it, great care was taken to make sure that it impacts only on landlords who are not fulfilling their legal obligations. It should not impact at all on the work of the vast majority who want to provide good-quality, safe homes for their tenants.
In short, the Bill seeks to provide tenants with protection from retaliatory eviction by limiting landlords’ ability to issue a section 21 notice. Clause 1 would prevent a landlord from issuing section 21 notices on a tenant within six months of the serving of a notice by a local authority in response to a serious problem in the property. The types of notice that would trigger this restriction include improvement notices, hazard awareness notices, and notices of emergency remedial action under the Housing Act 2004.
The clause would make a section 21 notice invalid if, before the notice was served, the tenant had made a complaint in writing to the landlord, the landlord’s agent or the local authority about the property, and after the section 21 notice had been issued the local authority had inspected the property, found the problem indeed to be serious, and served a notice on the property. I want to stress that the complaint must have been made prior to the section 21 notice being issued. This is not a charter for people to make spurious complaints and frustrate the process right at the end of eviction. They will need to have made the complaint already. This is about tackling retaliatory eviction.
Is not the six-month sanction in line with six-month sanctions that already exist in legislation where a landlord withholds a deposit from a tenant or fails to license the property properly, and the Bill does not go beyond that in protecting tenants from certain forms of harassment by landlords?
There are certainly restrictions on the use of section 21 notices if landlords are not compliant with the tenancy deposit scheme. This is about extending the law by making a similar provision so that a landlord cannot leave their property in a terrible state of disrepair and then, when their tenant tries to get some joy out of them in getting them to repair it, they retaliate by evicting the tenant.
Under clause 1, tenants would be able to defend against a landlord’s claim for possession under section 21 by establishing that prior to the service of the notice they had made a written complaint to the landlord or local authority but the local authority had yet to complete the inspection process. To ensure protection for the landlord, clause 2 allows courts to ignore this defence if they decide that the tenant’s complaint is completely without merit.
That would involve having to go to court, with all the time taken, expense and uncertainty of litigation. Does not the hon. Lady think that it would be much better to have a similar provision that did not require going to court?
In most cases, if an enforcement notice is in place, the accelerated process of eviction would be quashed prior to going to court. However, there will be cases where it is right and proper that the landlord is able to defend themselves. This is about fairness. There is a balance to be struck in how we structure this. I do not want to skew everything in favour of the tenant so that the landlord is unable also to exercise his rights. Clause 2 also contains other important safeguards for the landlord. For example, it contains a requirement for the issue in question not to have been caused by the tenant. Clause 2 also allows for section 21 notices to be issued when the local authority had served a notice on the property if the landlord is genuinely seeking to sell the property.
I do not wish to go on for significantly longer. If there is a lot more time available later, I would like, with the leave of the House, to make some comments in response to what other Members say. What I will say is that a number of the Bill’s other provisions are about clarifying things for landlords and making some things easier for them if they are operating entirely legitimately. Clause 3 in particular clarifies the law following the decision in Spencer v. Taylor, a Court of Appeal case pertaining to technical details of how a section 21 notice is served. There are also provisions enabling the Government to produce a prescribed form on section 21 notices, which should clarify things both for tenants and for landlords.
In short, this is a very moderate Bill that would introduce relatively small changes to the law. It is very much in keeping with what many other countries do, including some that one would imagine would have an extremely right wing and libertarian attitude towards housing supply in the private rented sector. Most have protections to stop tenants being victims of revenge evictions, because that is not good for tenants, landlords or society. The Bill proposes a moderate change and I urge colleagues to support it.
I congratulate Sarah Teather on promoting this Bill.
I support the Bill because, in all contracts and business arrangements we enter into, we expect goods that are fit for purpose. We expect the product to do what it says and to get what we pay for. How come, therefore, that when a landlord enters into a contractual arrangement with a tenant and says, “I promise you a dwelling that’s fit for purpose and you’ll pay me to use it,” the law does not afford tenants those basic rights? How is it that if a landlord enters into a contract with a tenant and provides a substandard, unsafe property and the tenant challenges that product’s fitness, they can be thrown out on to the street in an act of revenge?
This is an ever-growing problem. The number of people renting properties in the private sector is growing. I am a London MP and over the past 10 years in London alone, the proportion of families renting has increased from one in 10 to one in four. If we take into account population growth, we will see that that is a 119% increase in the number of families in rented accommodation.
In my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead, almost a fifth of all families live in private rented accommodation. That is a lot of people and a lot of landlords. A lot of the landlords in my constituency are good, reputable landlords who provide secure premises for families to bring up their children, but I have to say that a lot of other landlords are not like that at all. I met a constituent yesterday who is living in a house of multiple occupancy where no one can use the cooker because they get an electric shock every time they touch it, and no one will report the landlord because they are in a house of multiple occupancy—it is temporary accommodation—and they are afraid. It is my job to speak up for those people and that is what I am doing today.
Of course, that is entirely proper and it is exactly what I did yesterday. However, both of the local authorities that my constituency covers have had massive cuts to their budgets and the team of officers who usually carry out inspections is now very small. The number of complaints outweighs the facility available to deal with them. That is an issue for another discussion on another day.
I am very concerned about the private rented sector. I held a Westminster Hall debate on housing in London, in which I explained why it is a crucial issue for London and my constituency. As I have said, there are many good landlords who offer their properties in a safe and satisfactory condition, understand their responsibilities and have good relations with their tenants. It is almost because we need to protect the reputation of landlords in general that we need the proposed laws to be introduced.
I have seen at first hand how unscrupulous landlords charge extortionate rates for substandard properties, and families have to uproot more regularly, with no long-term security, which is not good for anybody. I have met families with children under 10 who are in their third primary school because they have had to move consistently. I have spoken to teachers who say that the constant churn in primary schools is making it very difficult for children and classes to achieve their potential. It is not surprising. As Shelter has said, renters are 11 times more likely to move than somebody in a secure property with a mortgage. Frequent moves can have a negative impact on children’s education. Government researchers found that frequent movers are significantly less likely to obtain five A* to C GCSE grades, or be registered with a GP. Children from the poorest backgrounds are being failed.
Secure homes make for secure communities and better citizens. In the end we all pay for the consequences. We all pay for the consequences of those whose education is impaired by their overcrowded and chaotic living conditions. We all pay for the health care costs of treating illness from damp and cold properties. We all pay for the consequences of families living in uncertainty and substandard housing.
I have today written to the Chancellor and HMRC to ask for current figures on another way that we all pay for this problem. The most recent figures I could find are from 2012, and they show that HMRC estimates that £550 million of tax on rental income is not declared or paid. That is an enormous tax gap and, for the reputable landlords who do their accounts and pay their tax, it is totally unfair that such people are bringing the whole market down.
The hon. Lady discussed the operation of section 21. The Bill will not restrict the rights of landlords to evict tenants who are in rent arrears. Citizens Advice data point to a consistent correlation between inquiries from private tenants not in arrears about possession action or threatened homelessness and inquiries about repairs and maintenance. We should not be swayed by arguments that tenants who seek repairs or better standards are troublesome tenants. These people are just trying to protect their own health and safety and that of their family. They are not the stereotypical tenant who does not pay their rent.
In the past year, Citizens Advice has seen a 38% increase in inquiries about eviction problems in cases where people were up to date on their rent—it was the property that was the source of the problem. Tenants can be helpless if served with a section 21 notice. When tenants seek advice from Citizens Advice about a landlord’s failure to address maintenance problems in a property, their advisers inform the tenant that if the landlord responds by serving a possession notice they will be within their rights to do so. Many tenants at this stage choose not to pursue their complaint and continue to live in a place that is not fit for purpose. Many of these people are in work—although some are not—and claiming housing benefit, which is our money. That means that taxpayers’ money is being paid to disreputable landlords to house people in conditions that affect their health and the education of their children. We then hear from HMRC that the landlords are not paying tax on their rental income. Many landlords in my constituency insist on the rent being paid in cash. That cannot be right, and it is that behaviour that the Bill seeks to tackle.
The Bill contains protection for landlords. It cannot be used as a last-minute delay to eviction. If challenging an eviction notice, the tenant will have to prove that they made a complaint about conditions before the notice was issued. They will lose their ability to challenge the eviction notice if they do not do so within a two-month period. The Bill specifically prohibits renters from raising issues that are their own responsibility. Environmental health officers are well trained in assessing whether a defect is longstanding and genuine, or exaggerated and manufactured. The Bill does not add a discretionary element to section 21 possession cases. Renters will not be able to use spurious complaints to slow down court proceedings. If an improvement or hazard awareness notice is served, the eviction notice is invalidated. If it is not, then the landlord is free to proceed.
It is unacceptable that private renters are being forced to pay huge rents for properties that are in poor or dangerous conditions. It is worse still that they are reluctant to raise their concerns with their landlords because of the fear of eviction. We have a situation in which many people feel they have to choose between living in unsafe or uncomfortable conditions and losing their home. That cannot continue. The word “home” should mean more than just the roof over our head: it should mean security, a place of safety and a sense of belonging. But for a large percentage of people now living in insecure and unsafe private rented accommodation, their home provides none of those things. The Bill would go some way to redress the imbalance.
There is so much more to be done. We should legislate for longer term three-year stable tenancies; predictable rent increases through the life of the stable tenancies; a ban on letting agents’ fees; and local authority reporting of landlords in receipt of housing benefit to ensure that HMRC can close the tax gap. I support the Bill as a step in that direction.
It is a pleasure to join so many colleagues from so many different parts of the country in this very important debate. I hope to be among so many colleagues from all parts of the House who seek to right a wrong and address injustice. All of us have constituencies to serve, often in far flung parts of the country—were it not for this debate, I would be attending the opening of the refurbished Treverbyn town hall, and I wish my constituents well in that—proving the point made by Teresa Pearce that this problem affects not only London and metropolitan areas, but constituencies such as mine and more rural parts of our country.
This matter is not just an urban phenomenon. It is often a lazy assumption that private renting is just a city-based phenomenon, but there are more than 18,000 private renters in my constituency. That is the same number of people who live in St Austell, one of the largest towns in my constituency. As hon. Members know, conditions in the private rented sector can be poor. I have had constituents in my surgery in tears because of problems with damp, boilers and hazard notices being served on their property, and, as the hon. Lady said, a lack of legal clout to redress the power balance between tenant and landlord. I am keen to congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Teather on introducing the Bill, because it provides us with the opportunity to debate and address the power imbalance at the heart of the relationship between tenant and landlord.
The private rented sector has expanded dramatically in the past 30 years. There are now 9 million private renters in England, but, as hon. Members have said, legislation has not moved with the times. Demand far outstrips supply, reducing the power of consumers, the renters, and leaving them vulnerable to the malpractice that exists in the industry. Hon. Members have been clear that it is the malpractice of a minority of landlords, but to ensure good standards for everybody we need to address malpractice where we find it. We must also congratulate landlords who respond well to the needs of their tenants, and treat them in a fair and equitable way.
We have ourselves partly to blame: we have been slow to react to the increase in the private rented sector and the problems that have come with it. As my hon. Friend said, more than 200,000 people have been either evicted or served with eviction notices in the past year alone. That is a considerable number. I am sure we have all had tenants with legitimate complaints about their homes coming to see us in our surgeries over many years. The Bill is timely.
As I said to my hon. Friend in an intervention, the Bill is also proportionate. If we consider how tenants are protected in other areas, we see similar levels of protection to those proposed in the Bill. If a landlord withholds a deposit, tenants cannot be issued with a section 21 notice for six months. That is logical and fair. If a landlord has failed to license a property properly, tenants cannot be issued with a section 21 notice for six months. That, too, is logical and fair. The same should be true when tenants make legitimate complaints regarding the failure of landlords to carry out repairs they are legally expected to carry out. Tenants should not receive a section 21 notice for six months—logical, fair, proportionate and exactly what the Bill proposes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Tessa Munt, who is not in her place at the moment, on securing a motion on this issue at the Liberal Democrat party conference in October. More importantly, I congratulate those from all sides of the House on their support, across parties, for the Bill. Occasions when the House unites to address an injustice show Parliament at its best. I think we should see more of that and less of the partisanship we are sometimes prone to in this place.
Well, we can look forward it. [Laughter.]
Rogue landlords should not be able to deprive tenants of the fundamental right to enjoy their property in the way we all hope to enjoy the place we live in. However, we should also remember that section 21 notices are not the only possession rights that landlords have; they will retain their section 8 rights as well, meaning that tenants who break their agreement with the landlord—through antisocial behaviour, for example—could still be legitimately evicted. This would instil balance and fairness in the relationship. Good tenants and good landlords would be protected, and landlords who have problems with rogue tenants would still have legal redress.
Landlords would also benefit from the local authority’s ability to be an independent judge of legitimate complaints. Colleagues will be perhaps too familiar with improvement and hazard notices. I have come across them many times in my casework, so I am sure others have as well. These notices would act as a fail-safe in respect of perhaps the biggest concern landlords have: whether people can make spurious claims to stay in a property. By ensuring that complaints are verified by the local authority, good landlords will be protected.
I support the Bill and the comments people have made, but does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that environmental health officers, who are the unsung heroes of action against the significant minority of landlords who keep tenants in bad conditions, are under enormous pressure, as local authorities face up to a 50% reduction in their funding; that there is a massive variation in the ability of EHOs to issue hazard notices and take enforcement action; and that none of this is properly recorded either? If we are to make these measures work, it has to be on the back of consistent and properly funded environmental health organisations.
I do not disagree with the hon. Lady’s fundamental point: many EHOs and local authority departments are facing significant pressures. However, there is a plus side to the Bill. At the moment, we cannot track improvements to housing stock, because we are not clear where the poor housing stock is. As renters come forward, challenging their landlords under the provisions in the Bill, and as their complaints are verified by environmental health departments, we will be able to track improvements across the country and see the general uplifting of standards. I absolutely share her view that we need to resource local authorities properly so that they can perform their statutory duties, and of course EHOs are no exception, but the Bill gives us the opportunity to ensure continued improvement in the housing stock and to ensure that poor conditions cannot endure.
To conclude, it is hard-working people living in poor conditions and too afraid to speak out for fear of eviction who would most benefit from this Bill—we all see them in our surgeries. It would introduce a proportionate and timely system of legal redress to tenants who otherwise would live in fear of unfair eviction by those few rogue landlords across the country. That is why I will be joining my colleagues today in supporting the Bill.
I hope that the Bill makes good progress today, and I compliment Sarah Teather for introducing it and for being very brief. I hope that all other Members will be suitably brief, as it is perfectly possible for someone to say why they support the Bill in 10 minutes, and it is also perfectly possible for those with doubts about it to express those succinctly in less than 10 minutes, so we should be able to conclude these proceedings today. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading so that we can make some progress on behalf of the many people in this country who are frightened of their living conditions. We should bear that fact in mind today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central on securing her position in the ballot and compliment her on her work on many other issues, especially her chairing of the all-party group on refugees. We should all thank her for being an exemplary chair of that effective group.
I think that my constituency has more private renters than almost anywhere else in the country, as more than 30%—27,000 tenants—of the community lives in the private rented sector. As my hon. Friend Teresa Pearce said, there is a wider debate about the need for significantly more legislation to improve the conditions of those in the private rented sector, including over lengths of tenancies and rent levels. I recognise, however, that the Bill is strictly limited to one aspect of the security of tenure of people living in the private rented sector.
At the moment, someone taking a flat in the private rented sector will normally get it for six months. They have no control over the rent, and in my community, as indeed in many across London, rents are going up far faster than anything else—far faster than the rate of inflation and certainly far faster than wages, and way above the benefit cap level. That means that there is social cleansing in all of central London, and now even in the London suburbs, as people are forced to move away because they can no longer afford to stay in their flat.
One reason why I was unfortunately slightly late in arriving this morning—I had hoped to hear Sarah Teather introducing what I believe is an important Bill—was that I was dealing with the eviction of a nurse working for the
Imperial hospital trust whose landlord has just put up the rent on her property, which also had disrepair problems. The local authority has offered her a property that would involve her making a two-hour commute, so she will almost certainly no longer be able to continue working for the hospital. Not only will she have to move yet again, but the hospital is likely to lose a qualified nurse.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Sadly, it is a familiar story that when families or individuals are evicted and forced to move a long way away, they cannot continue their job. If they are desperate to keep their children in their existing primary school, those children may be forced to undertake journeys that are totally inappropriate for someone of their age. When I get on the train—a very busy one—in the morning at Finsbury Park station to come here, it is depressing to see the number of primary school children coming to the station. They do so because they have been forced to move a long distance away and are making the journey to try to retain their place in the local school and their part in the local community.
We need stability in our London communities, and that will be best achieved through the proper regulation of the private rented sector. The Bill would give tenants protection in respect of the poor conditions in which they are too often forced to live. I have experience of tenants complaining about the conditions in their flat, such as dangerous electrical conditions, inadequate heating, poor-quality windows, badly fitting doors, leaking roofs and excessive damp. Some of the places are so disgusting that they would do credit to Rachman, quite honestly.
I agree with what my hon. Friend Ms Buck said about environmental health officers. They are the unsung heroes of the time through the work that they try to do. However, if people complain to the environmental health service, their landlord may then end the tenancy, meaning that those people are evicted and then have great difficulty finding anywhere else to live. In some cases, they could be declared as voluntary homeless, rather than involuntary homeless.
Some tenants believe that by withholding rent, they can force their landlord to carry out repairs. That might work sometimes, if the landlord decides that the repairs should be done so that they can get the rent in the normal way, but that is not a good system because the tenant does not have the protection they think they do for retaining their tenancy. The issue must be the protection of the tenant where there are bad conditions, and a local authority’s ability, through the environmental health service, to enforce decent, safe and sustainable conditions for the tenants, and that is what the Bill is designed to achieve.
This is no small matter. According to Shelter, there were 200,000 evictions over the past year because of complaints about environmental conditions, so I think it is time that we—the House of Commons; Parliament—did something about that and provided protection. A YouGov survey commissioned by Shelter found that one in eight tenants had not asked for repairs to be carried out in their home or challenged a rent increase because of fear of eviction. If one thinks of the size of the private rented sector in Britain, that means that a very large number of people are so frightened about the security aspect of having somewhere to live that they have not dared to exercise their legitimate rights to complain. One in 50 tenants has been evicted or served notice in the past year because they complained to their local council or landlord about problems in their homes. Certain groups are more likely to suffer retaliatory eviction: 10% of black and ethnic-minority households and 5% of households in receipt of housing benefit have experienced the problem. It is particularly prevalent in London, which is a very high-demand area, but it is not exclusively a London problem.
We need to pass the Bill today and then bring it into law as a sign that Parliament has taken account of the fundamental changes that are taking place in the housing market. The number of people living in owner-occupied accommodation is falling nationally—in my constituency, it amounts to fewer than 30% of households—and unless we offer decent security and good-quality conditions to people in the private rented sector, we pay the price. We pay the price in terms of under-achievement in schools and the disruption of children’s lives throughout their educational careers, and because if families are forced endlessly to move, they often, as we heard, lose jobs and opportunities as a result.
Although limited and specific in its requirements, the Bill would mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people. It would give them the security that they need. It would say to bad landlords—not all landlords are bad but, sadly, a considerable number are—“We have noticed what you are doing, we are on your case, and if you are going to make money out of letting a property, you will have to maintain it to a good standard rather than blaming your tenants for your inadequacy in looking after it.” I hope that the House passes the Bill today and we get it through before the end of this Parliament, so that we can say that we have done something for those people. Tenants in the private rented sector, of whom there are 27,000 in my constituency, deserve the same security as those in council and owner-occupied properties. They deserve to be able to live in decent, safe, clean, dry and secure accommodation, and I hope that we can achieve that today.
Let me begin by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It may seem strange to some of my colleagues that I, as a free-marketeer, should wish to interfere in a market—the private sector housing market is clearly a market—but I support the Bill, and for several reasons. Although its focus is narrow and it does not address the wider implications and concerns that have been raised by Members on both sides of the House, that narrow drafting is deliberate, as is intended to secure support throughout the House. That is one of my reasons for being strongly in favour of it.
There are three sorts of private sector landlords. There are the big landlords who have big organisations behind them and many properties—it is their business. There are also the accidental landlords, who have inherited properties—they often have only one or two—and try to let them, as well as other groups of people with relatively small numbers of properties. Then there are the bad, rogue landlords, who are the ones whom we should seek to target. There are not many of them, but they often cause misery to their tenants.
To my way of thinking, when a contract is entered into for the supply of a service, be it the occupation of a property in the private rented sector or any other service, there are obligations on both sides. There are obligations on the tenant to pay the rent, to keep the property in reasonable order, not to behave in an antisocial manner, and to allow the landlord access to the property. There are also obligations on the landlord: they should maintain the property in good repair, ensure that people have a decent place in which to live and charge a reasonable rent. That is not unfair or unreasonable, but it is clear that a small set of landlords are causing immense problems.
In the private sector, tenancies are now normally for six months. They may be rolling tenancies and they may be renewed. During that time, landlords can, at their convenience, say, “I want the property back,” and serve a section 21 notice, and the tenants then have to leave. Like many Members on both sides of the House, I regularly have families coming to my surgeries or to meetings to say, “We are being evicted by our landlord. We have done nothing wrong. We have had problems. We have complained about mould, damp and the conditions of the property, yet the landlord refused to take proper action and, shortly afterwards, an eviction notice followed.” That cannot be right or reasonable. The law should contain a clear protection so that tenants know that they can ask for reasonable repairs to be carried out without the threat of retaliatory action and eviction. That is a reasonable position to adopt, which is why I am strongly in favour of the Bill.
The Bill would not protect unruly tenants who cause trouble, damage properties or fail to pay their rent. The contract has to be two-sided, so the protection should be on both sides. I have been approached by a number of landlords. Across my constituency, there has been a dramatic change in the type of tenure. Harrow East has traditionally been an owner-occupier-type constituency, but many owner-occupiers have moved out and rented their properties. Often those properties are not maintained in a decent, working condition for the tenants, which causes misery not only to the tenants, but to the people who live in adjacent properties. A responsibility flows across the piece. I recognise that the problem is not confined to London—it affects cities and towns throughout the country—but it is affecting London dramatically, and it is clear that action needs to be taken.
As I have said, the Bill is narrowly focused. I ask my hon. Friend Sarah Teather to address one point when she sums up because I have a slight dilemma with the Bill. When a notice of disrepair is served on a property, major repairs are often required and the tenants may have to move out to allow the repairs to be effected. Some landlords say, “I’ll honour that by evicting the existing tenants, doing the property up and re-letting it to other tenants,” but I do not think that the Bill deals with that situation. I agree with the principles of the Bill, but that issue will have to be looked at in some detail in Committee so that we can ensure that the Bill does not have unintended consequences.
The Bill is much needed and there is a strong case for it. The clear issue is to ensure that tenants have rights and that landlords also have protections. My strong view is that bad tenants will not be protected by this legislative change and that good landlords have nothing to fear from it—those two things come together. The Bill would tweak the market, rather than fundamentally reform it, which is why I strongly support it. I trust that today we can support it in principle so that it receives its Second Reading and we can get it to Committee, where detailed changes may need to be made to strengthen it and to ensure that it does not have unintended consequences.
The Bill sends the fundamental message to good landlords who do a good job of maintaining their properties, providing a decent facility for people to live in and charging a reasonable rent that they will be protected. It sends the message to bad tenants that if they make spurious, stupid or irrelevant complaints, they will not be protected. However, if tenants have a fundamental complaint about a health and safety matter or about the condition of the property, and the local authority agrees that that should be fixed, they will be protected. The Bill strikes the right balance between landlord and tenant. For that reason, I am strongly in favour of it, and I trust that the House will support it today and ensure that it is on the statute book before the general election.
I, too, congratulate Sarah Teather on helping to put and keep this important issue on the agenda. I am delighted to hear how much support the Bill has from hon. Members on both sides of the House. No matter what background we approach this from, we all agree that the Bill is an important and proportionate response to a real problem.
I represent a constituency that, by 2021, will have more home renters than home owners, so I welcome the chance to set out my constituents’ concerns and to back the Bill. In fact, a number of my constituents feel so strongly about the matter that they have come here to watch the debate. We cannot overestimate the misery and distress that is caused to tenants by the fear of eviction, meaning that they end up living and bringing up their kids in incredibly poor conditions.
Like many colleagues, I have been lobbied extensively about the issue. I echo the concerns of residents in Brighton, Pavilion that far too many people who rent in the private sector are not secure in their homes because of the threat of revenge evictions, and that too many have nowhere else to go, which is one of the things that makes the prospect of a revenge eviction so frightening. With the Government’s cruel bedroom tax, attacks on housing benefit and other so-called welfare reforms, for many of my constituents, the risk of homelessness is higher than ever.
In those circumstances, landlords hold all the cards. They wield unreasonable power, and the vast majority of landlords who are reasonable and fair lose out because of an immoral, irresponsible and greedy minority who give all of them a bad name. It is that imbalance of power that I hope we can end today.
I would like to read from an e-mail from one of my constituents, who works for the highly respected Brighton Housing Trust. This is what she says from her experience of working on the issue, day in, day out:
“Each year, I see hundreds of tenants served with a Section 21 notice seeking possession because they have dared to complain to their landlord about disrepair in their accommodation.
This has ranged from low-level complaints about dirty carpets and broken doors, to the more serious bed bug and rat infestations. One memorable case involved a pregnant woman with a young toddler, prevented from accessing her flat via her front door and reliant upon climbing up unsecured scaffolding with her pram simply to access her property.
Largely, these tenants are deprived and vulnerable, reliant upon housing benefit to pay their rent and terrified of being asked to vacate where so many properties remain completely beyond of the LHA rate, and without the funds necessary to pay deposits, administration fees, and rent in advance. Many weigh up the risks and decide that ultimately, living with even the most serious disrepair is better than facing street homelessness. This is not a choice that should have to be made.”
I completely agree that that is not a choice that anyone should have to make.
Many other cases have been brought to my attention, including by Home Sweet Home in Brighton and Hove, which was in Parliament today to lobby me. I pay tribute to its work and that of local organisations such as the citizens advice bureau and the Brighton Housing Trust, which support tenants when they make a complaint about the standard of their housing and, when that backfires, face the prospect of a revenge eviction.
I want to focus on tenants who are particularly concerned about damp and cold in their homes and the ill health that that causes for their kids. They simply want their landlords to undertake related repairs or to provide basic insulation. I have written to the Chancellor ahead of next week’s autumn statement asking why not one penny of Treasury infrastructure funding is devoted to energy efficiency. That failure is at the heart of why, at the start of the year, more than 2 million children in England were living in fuel poverty. A survey by Netmums found that one in four families have had to choose between heating and eating.
Allocating just 2% of the Government’s annual £45 billion infrastructure budget to retrofitting homes, cutting energy bills and tackling fuel poverty would allow 500,00 low-income homes to be made highly energy-efficient every year. Only that level of investment approaches the scale that is needed to tackle the scandal of fuel poverty.
Giving better protection to private rented sector tenants who ask their landlords to make their homes warm will make an enormous difference, too. A simple clarification of when a section 21 notice cannot be served could help to transform millions of lives and help to ensure that more people live securely in homes that are of a decent standard. The Bill is needed to protect all tenants who currently have to risk eviction or homelessness every time they ask for basic repairs to their home. I am backing it on behalf of the growing number of private rented sector tenants in Brighton, Pavilion.
I could say a lot more, but other Members wish to speak and I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to vote today, because it is clear that the Bill is supported by Members on both sides of the House. Let me end by telling one final story, which was brought to me by a tenant just a few weeks ago. His boiler broke down on
When the tenant complained to the agent that he had paid full rent for a flat he could not stay in, he was told that it was nothing to do with the agent and he should take the matter up with the landlord. The landlord said that he could not be bothered with all the hassle and told the tenant to go back to the agent. We can all imagine what happened when my constituent did go back to the agent. The agent said that the landlord had made a response, which was in the post, and it does not take a great deal of imagination to realise that what was in the post was a section 21 notice. The tenant was evicted. It took him months to recover financially, and now he would think twice before raising such concerns again.
That kind of practice is simply unacceptable, and we have the opportunity today to do something about it. The Bill is a proportionate response that has huge backing in the House. I hope that Members will not speak for hours and that we can instead proceed with ensuring that the Bill swiftly gets into Committee.
As many hon. Members will be aware, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on electrical safety in private rented properties about a year ago, It was only at that point that I discovered, to my shock and horror, not only that was there no protection for people, as there were no proper certificates for electrical safety, but that if anyone complained, for instance to the council, as was their right, there was, as Caroline Lucas said, a very good chance that a revenge eviction notice—a section 21—would come in the post the next day to evict a tenant who was just doing what was legally and properly their duty: protecting their family from danger in their own house.
One of my constituents, Mr Malcolm Parker, came to me with serious concerns about the electrics in his rented house in Eastleigh. He showed me pictures of what looked like a death trap. There was loose and exposed wiring, all in close proximity to water. The problem was evidently not new. If it had been, and if his landlord had immediately taken action to repair it, as a responsible landlord would do—and, I hope, as most landlords regularly do—the situation would not have come to my attention. However, unbelievably, my constituent’s landlord would rather take the risk of his tenants suffering real injury or death and of damage to his property than repair the defects.
My constituent finally complained to the council. The BBC was also involved, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, listened very carefully to my arguments in Westminster Hall about this case. My tenant was then threatened with eviction by his landlord, which is the very practice that my hon. Friend Sarah Teather is trying to prevent. I appreciate the support that the Bill is getting from Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that many others will come to support it.
One of my close friends is a landlord. Before he rented his property out—to a very charming Polish couple, by the way, who work extremely hard, do not claim benefits and contribute to the economy—he spent a lot of time ensuring that it was in perfect condition. In fact, I am very jealous of that couple for living in such a wonderful property. If all landlords were like that, we would not be discussing these awful cases of people being evicted just for exercising their legal right to live in a safe, decent and warm property. I am shocked that, until a year ago, I did not know that such a thing was happening. That shows how ignorant I was. I apologise for arriving in this House in such a state of ignorance, but I suppose that we all have to learn sometimes.
I do have sympathy for landlords as things are not always easy for them. It is sometimes hard to deal with difficult tenants. I worked in the sector for quite a while, so I know that there were tenants who took advantage by not paying or leaving their properties in a terrible state. However, the Bill will not change landlords’ ability to deal with that. It will still allow them to take decent action against tenants who abuse their tenancies, who do not behave properly, or who refuse to pay their rent. If rent is not paid, the landlord’s house could be repossessed by the mortgage company through which the property could be bought in the first place, thus resulting in less accommodation for tenants who need it. Of course, one solution that would help to keep rents down, as Teresa Pearce mentioned, would be more social housing and more help for housing associations, but that is an argument for another day.
Rogue landlords are as much a danger to good, decent, competent landlords as they are to their tenants, because if the problem keeps happening and some landlords do not behave responsibly, the House will be forced to introduce even more legislation to provide protection for tenants, which would make things even more difficult for decent landlords. I suggest that the House needs to send a message today by voting for the Bill.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on what he is saying. Does he agree not only that there is a big increase in the number of private sector tenants across the whole country, and with that an increase in concerns, but that important groups such as Generation Rent are helping to put forward a good, sensible case for giving real security and protection, especially as it is likely that, in the very near future, almost a quarter of the UK population will be living in the private rented sector?
That should be examined more carefully. It is vital that we continue to consider the private rented sector because otherwise we may have to look seriously in a few years at not having one at all. It is vital that we make things viable and fair, and make living in a private rented property a decent proposition.
What is the situation in my hon. Friend’s constituency? I was struck by the words of the environmental health officers quoted in the 2007 Citizens Advice report and by how aware they were that almost every case in which they intervened resulted in the tenant being evicted. That makes my council quite nervous about using the full force of its powers.
When I brought up the case to which I referred, Eastleigh borough council’s housing department explained to me that the situation was difficult. As its main aim is to keep people in accommodation, it was very worried, and it said that it did not want to intervene too often. When I have been asked to get involved in cases, tenants sometimes do not want me to report anything because they are worried about eviction, and I think that that is probably true across the whole country. My hon. Friend makes a good point.
As a Government and as ordinary decent people, we have a duty to tenants. This is about common decency. We should be able to listen to tenants. If, as MPs, we are unable to listen to tenants and act on their behalf because we are worried that we will make their situation even worse, we are put in an incredibly difficult position. I think that most MPs are determined to help their tenants, and that is what they want to do—
Proceedings interrupted (