I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am very grateful for the cross-party support for this Bill. I will not seek to detain the House, as we have other business, but I will take a few minutes to explain why the Bill is important and should continue its passage through the House.
Living in a cold, damp or unsafe home is hell. It damages people’s physical and mental wellbeing, erodes the income of the poorest households and impacts on children’s education. The most vulnerable tenants are those most at risk of being trapped in substandard accommodation, and they are often the least able to withstand the damage such conditions do, or to fight their corner unaided.
The emails that flow in from constituents—and, indeed, many others, including the hundreds of people who took part in the parliamentary digital involvement exercise before the Second Reading debate—about bad housing conditions make truly heart-rending reading. I am sure that everyone in this House will have received similar representations.
In one of the recent cases that have come to me, a constituent wrote:
“My flat has metal casement windows around 50 years old that were installed when they converted the houses into flats…My kitchen window leaks when it rains. I have video evidence catching water in a bowl as it pours in…The weather is changing into autumn now and I’m worried for my health…it’s difficult to afford to heat my home. I am on benefits so have limited funds. The windows let in a lot of draught so I get very cold in winter. I recently had a level access shower fitted after having spinal fusion surgery last year but in the winter the condensation from the shower forms ice inside the window and it’s freezing in there, everything is damp.”
“I am tenant of a privately rented accommodation with my partner and two kids…It’s been a struggle to get us out of it as it is not conducive to live in especially for my son who has chronic lung disease, autism, asthma…He was also previously in a coma at St. Mary’s hospital due to a virus caused by excessive cold. The mould and damp in the house turns our clothing, toothbrushes and cups black. I cannot begin to explain how many hospital visits we have had with the ambulance coming sometimes twice a day as my son’s breathing deteriorated. His GP also wrote them explaining his medical condition and this was also ignored.”
“Hope all is well. I have been complaining about my freezing cold smelly damp mouldy flat for numerous years. The condensation brings in the cold air from outside that makes my flat extremely freezing cold.
I was told to leave my heating on low…I cannot afford to leave the heating on constantly low…in the winter months and when it is really cold I go without food to put the heating on and to try and stay warm. So that has not solved the problem…The cold aches my bones and muscles. The damp and mould affects my asthma. As a type 1 diabetic and asthmatic I am constantly ill living in this flat…I got pneumonia and blood poisoning…I guess the way they are progressing it will be done the day I am being removed from this flat in a coffin.”
Those are the kinds of cases that come to all of us.
I thank my hon. Friend for her speech and, indeed, for the entire Bill, which I genuinely believe will make a massive difference. Will she join me in congratulating Newham Council, which has been a pioneer in taking on bad landlords and making sure that our citizens have homes that are fit for habitation?
I am grateful for that intervention and I will happily congratulate Newham Council, because although it has a problem with its housing stock, it has led the charge on local enforcement. I am happy to give it credit for doing that.
Many landlords take their responsibilities seriously, but still 1 million households across the private and social sectors are forced to endure conditions that harm them or pose a serious risk of harm. According to the latest English housing survey, 15% of private tenanted properties have category 1 hazards classed as a serious risk to the occupier’s health—that is 750,000 households —at least a third of which contain children. A further 250,000 socially tenanted properties have a category 1 hazard under the housing health and safety ratings system, which works out at about 6%.
I totally agree; overcrowding is a scandalous problem in our social housing, and it is often equated with some of the very poor standards people experience, with damp and condensation linked to overcrowding. These are tragic cases and we urgently need not only an expansion of social rented housing to enable people to escape these kinds of conditions, but the provisions in this Bill and other measures that the Government have introduced.
Landlords currently have no obligation to their tenants to put or keep a property in a condition fit for habitation. A requirement does exist to ensure the structure and facilities such as the heating, gas and water in repair, but this does not cover issues such as fire safety, heating that is functioning but inadequate, or poor ventilation that can lead to the condensation and mould growth seen in the kind of cases I have outlined. A range of fitness issues seriously affect the wellbeing and safety of tenants and about which tenants can do nothing at all.
For private and housing association tenants, it is possible for the local authority to enforce fitness standards under the housing health and safety rating system, under the Housing Act 2004, but there is a huge degree of variability across councils in terms of inspection, the issuing of notices and enforcement rates. About 50% of councils have served none or only one Housing Act notice in the past year. One London council, Newham, which has an active enforcement policy, accounted for 50% of all notices served nationally and 70% of those served in London. A freedom of information inquiry by the Residential Landlords Association found an average of just 1.5 prosecutions per council, and my own freedom of information research found that enforcement action of any kind accounted for only 1% of the estimated number of category 1 hazards. That means there is a complete postcode lottery on the prospect of councils taking steps, with the real prospect being that the council will not do so.
For council tenants, the decent homes standard requires homes to be free from category 1 hazards, and considerable progress was made in improving the quality of housing stock thanks to the decent homes initiative, but the 2004 Act and housing health and safety rating standards have little impact, as local councils cannot enforce against themselves. So council tenants have no way to enforce, or seek to have enforced, fitness standards, including fire safety, if their landlord does not do anything. The Bill enables all tenants, whether private or social, to take action on the same issues and standards as local authorities can.
May I shower a huge amount of congratulations on my hon. Friend, because this Bill will make an immediate difference in my constituency? For all the case examples she has described we see exactly the same thing in my constituency. I am pleased the Government appear to be supporting the Bill. If this Bill passes, we need to make sure that tenants all know that they have this power she is proposing to give them and this ability to enforce their rights. Does she agree that it is important that if the Government are going to support this Bill, they make sure that everybody knows they will be empowered to do something beyond what the local authority can now do for them?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his congratulations. I totally agree that in addition to the legislation we pass in this House it is crucial that we use all the tools of government communications to get a message out that people have rights, that they need to be able to exercise those, and that they need to know how and where they can go in order to do so. I am sure that the Minister will support that point.
This Bill enables all tenants, whether private or social, to take action on the same issues and standards as local authorities, following recommendations made by the Law Commission and the Court of Appeal dating back some two decades. This is therefore very much a legislative updating whose time has come. The effect of the Bill will be that the tenant will be able to take action against the landlord to make them put right any problems or hazards that make their dwelling unfit, and the tenant could seek compensation when the landlord has not done so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill. Many of us will have received representations from private landlords who are screaming about the impact of this Bill on their ability to make profit. Let us be absolutely clear: if someone cannot make profit by providing a clean and safe place for people to live, they should exit the game completely.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend on that. It is also fair to say that the majority of good landlords are happy to endorse that view, because their reputation is dragged down by the behaviour of the rogue minority.
The Bill is not intended as a replacement for the work of local authorities but is complementary to it, enabling tenants to take action where the council has not done so or cannot do so. For all new tenancies after the Bill comes into force, it would make it a right to have a home that did not create a risk to the health and safety of its occupants. As the excellent House of Commons Library briefing on the Bill says:
“The Grenfell Tower fire has focused attention on housing standards in the social rented stock and also in privately owned blocks of flats.”
So I also pleased to say that the Bill was amended in Committee, with the support of the Government, to extend the fitness obligation to the building within which the dwelling forms part. So the tenant of a flat, a room or part of a shared house will be able to enforce against defects, including fire risks, that threaten their health or wellbeing in their home, even if the defect is in another part of the building.
It has been marvellous to have secured Government backing for this Bill, even to the point of strengthening it. We have had support from across the spectrum. It has come from bodies ranging from the National Landlords Association and the Residential Landlords Association, to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health—CIEH—the Association of Residential Letting Agents, Shelter, Generation Rent, the Law Society, Mind, the National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association, Citizens Advice and others.
I am delighted to say that the Government have now got behind the Bill, as that is very welcome. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would also be useful if they would give more security to private tenants, because that is necessary in order to ensure that they are not evicted as a result of reporting faults, and if they would restore early legal advice for housing matters, because without that it is going to be difficult to enforce this?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend on that. This Bill is one tool and there are many others we need to adopt in order to ensure that tenants have a full range of rights and, indeed, are protected against retaliatory eviction. That is outwith the scope of this Bill, but there is much more we will seek to do and will no doubt be pressing the Government to do, on matters ranging from security of tenure protection to the provision of legal aid and advice services
I have always believed that politics is a collective effort. For most of us, most of the time, what we do in here is part of a team effort. Although that can sometimes drift into tribalism, there is no shame in the fact that politics is not primarily about what we do as individuals. Private Members’ Bills are one of the few ways in which we, as individual Back-Bench MPs, can make a difference, but in truth this, too, has been a team effort. I am grateful to the Minister and to the officials, who have been brilliant; it has been a joy working with them on this Bill. I also thank all the MPs, from both sides of the House, who spoke on Second Reading, who served in Committee and who are here today to see us through Third Reading.
May I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this important Bill? It has been a pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee. Does she agree that this is a shining example of the huge amounts that can be achieved when Back Benchers work with the Government?
I do agree with that. In the end, what we want to do here is to make changes, and it is hard for individuals to do that without having that kind of support, including from the Government.
Information, help and lobbying came from all the organisations I have mentioned, and very much from Sam Lister at the Chartered Institute of Housing and Stephen Battersby, the former president of the CIEH. But none of this would have happened without the inspiration and commitment of Justin Bates and Giles Peaker, the housing lawyers who brought forward the concept of this Bill and have given their time and their considerable brains to it for the past three years. I can only offer my inadequate thanks to them for that effort, but I will say that if anyone can claim credit for securing this important step forward in the protection of tenants, it is them. With that, I conclude my remarks and commend this Bill to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Buck and a privilege to be here to support the Bill. I speak as an accidental landlord myself: when my second wife and I got together 10 years ago, she was shrewd enough to want to hang on to the property that she had, just in case it did not work out, and 10 years later we are still renting out that property. I believe that we are excellent landlords, and that is because it makes financial sense and moral sense: if we maintain our property to a high standard, we will retain our tenant. There are, though, parts of the country where that is not the case—where demand outstrips supply. Some 1.2 million houses have been identified as non-decent. That is clearly appalling and I am delighted that the Bill will address it.
In October 2015, legislation was introduced putting an obligation on landlords to provide a smoke detector on each storey of a property and to provide a carbon monoxide detector if the property has solid-fuel-burning appliances, such as a wood-burning stove. I introduced a private Member’s Bill that would have made it an obligation for landlords to provide a carbon monoxide detector in all properties, socially and privately rented, in which any fuel is burned and carbon monoxide produced. That is an absolute necessity to ensure that all homes are fit for human habitation and do not present a danger to the occupants.
My hon. Friend is making some interesting points based on his experience in the social rented sector. Does he agree that no landlord should have any problems with the Bill, and that we should be clear that it will create an additional power to help tenants, not replace the powers that councils have?
When we consider how many properties are rented out, for both social and private purposes, it is important that they are all as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, when I became a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government I had to step down from my position as chair of the board of Walsall Housing Group, a housing association with 20,000 properties in Walsall. I had been leaning very heavily on the association to get it to provide carbon monoxide detectors in its properties, and I believe it now does that for all its new build properties. I shall continue to try to influence the association to do that in its existing social rented properties.
I completely support and endorse all elements of the Bill and look forward to its becoming law.
The board is now sadly deprived of the hon. Gentleman’s expertise and commitment, but at least we have been able to enjoy his eloquence today.
I am pleased to be here to support this vital Bill. I commend the hard work of my hon. Friend Ms Buck, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for her tireless work on this issue, without which we would not be considering the Bill today.
The Bill will make huge leaps in the strengthening of tenants’ rights by ensuring that they have the power to hold their landlords to account if appropriate standards are not being met. That is especially important in the age of generation rent, when the proportion of individuals and families living in the private-rental sector has doubled in the past decade and figures for individuals and families occupying properties in the social-rented sector continue to number in the millions.
Since I became an MP last year, I have been dismayed by the number of constituents who have contacted me with housing issues. Some of my constituents have been left without central heating for up to six months, and others have faced serious fly and rat infestations. By any reasonable account, these situations have made my constituents’ homes inhabitable, yet often they have been powerless to act. I am pleased that these issues are finally getting the attention they deserve, but it is utterly dreadful that it has taken a tragedy as serious as the Grenfell Tower fire to throw into sharp focus the issue of unsafe rented accommodation in this country. Grenfell serves as a harrowing reminder of the difficulties that tenants face in getting their voices heard, and it is right that we act to ensure that a tragedy like that never happens again.
It is simply wrong that in 2018 some 2.5 million to 3 million people are renting homes in which there is a
“serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety”,
as defined by the housing health and safety rating system. I am hopeful that with cross-party support the Bill will give a long overdue voice to those individuals and families.
For many years now, the Government have placed the duty of ensuring that a rented property is fit for habitation on local councils, while simultaneously slashing their budgets by unprecedented amounts and thereby preventing them from taking any meaningful action to fulfil their responsibilities in this policy area—and many others. This is simply not good enough on an issue as pivotal as the habitation of homes. I am hopeful that if the Bill is given its Third Reading today, tenants will be empowered, burdens will be lifted from over-stretched local authorities, and the small number of rogue landlords who refuse to resolve issues that make their homes unfit for habitation will be forced to clean up their act.
I wish to make a brief contribution, mainly to congratulate Ms Buck on an excellent piece of incredibly important legislation, which I am glad to support.
Those of us have been following the #ventyourrent campaign initiated by Generation Rent on Twitter have seen incredible squalor in some parts of the private rented sector. Even this week, we have seen on the front page of The Guardian two days in a row incredible examples of problems with repeat offending slum landlords. There is clearly a big problem and I know that Ministers are thinking about it. The Bill, which I hope will be given its Third Reading today, is an important contribution to the empowering of tenants to help to clean up some of these problems. It will clearly not be the end of the story, and we need to think about enforcement and how we can enable it to pay for itself by fining and taking the property of repeat offending slum landlords, but it is a pleasure to support this important legislation today.
I rise to speak in favour of the Bill and to urge the Government to go further. I wish to point out just how serious the issue of poor quality private rented accommodation is in my constituency and to show why urgent action is so sorely needed.
Just last week, I met a constituent who was desperate for help. She is a single mother who lives in damp terraced accommodation, with mould growing on the walls. She was desperate. Her son and daughter both have problems with their breathing. One of them has asthma and was seeing the doctor about it. She had asked the landlord for help but he was unwilling or unable to make changes to the property and solve the damp problem. She is applying for a council house but, because of the severe shortage in places such as Reading and Woodley, she is unable to progress quickly up the list of those seeking homes. The woman’s plight explains the seriousness of the issue and why urgent action is needed.
In Reading, nearly a third of houses are in the private rented sector. There are many good landlords, but there are also many who do not provide a good service. Problems with damp, difficulties with landlords and high fees all make for deep-seated problems that affect thousands of local people. At the same time, as was mentioned earlier, councils have few powers to tackle rogue landlords and there are simply not enough good quality private rented properties or council houses available in many parts of the country. I urge Ministers to take steps to address this serious problem by considering Labour amendments to the Bill and other related measures on the issues that affect the wider housing sector.
Several amendments to the Bill were proposed, and I am grateful to the Government for taking some of them on board. I hope that they will look again at one in particular. Earlier this year, I spoke about the potential loophole that allows landlords to charge for items such as lost keys. That could provide less scrupulous landlords with a loophole through which they could bypass the Bill’s intent. I urge the Government to look into the matter again.
Other changes that are needed include a much larger programme of council house building and wider measures to improve the planning and development sector.
I urge the Government to support Reading Borough Council’s bid for about 140 new council houses and ask them to go much further in considering the funds that are available for council house building. In my area, we could easily find families to fit into another 1,400 council properties, let alone the 140 that have been bid for.
I welcome the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he agree that his local council may well benefit from the removal of the cap on borrowing to fund housing, and therefore might be able to fund more of the council houses he is talking about?
I do welcome that. My council colleagues tell me that they are waiting for further details from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I look forward to Ministers being more amenable to local authorities on this matter.
To sum up, as time is pressing, poor quality rented housing is a serious issue for many residents and urgent action is needed to address both the problem of rogue landlords and the problems in the wider housing market.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to give my support to what is a welcome and timely Bill. It is welcome that I am able to speak on this matter. While I was in the Department for Communities and Local Government I would have been unable to do so, but now that I have the joy of being in the Cabinet Office I can, although I have to be careful not to go into some of the issues around Grenfell, given the ongoing inquiry for which the Cabinet Office is responsible.
It is welcome that the Bill has cross-party support today. In summing up, I know that the Minister will want to reflect on how the Government will take it forward and how they will publicise these rights, as was touched on earlier. A key point to make is that the Bill is about additional powers; it is not about replacing the role of local authorities. That clear message will have to be given through local authorities. I accept that the vast majority of them will act on that basis.
A tenant who makes a housing standards complaint should not just be told that there is now an opportunity to pursue it via a civil route; the Bill is about providing an opportunity to pursue complaints via a civil route in addition to the housing standards enforcement work of local authorities. It would be helpful if, in summing up, the Minister reflected on what promotion and engagement work might be done with local authorities to ensure that that is clear in their approach.
A landlord in my constituency came to see me after my speech on Second Reading, when I said that the Bill was absolutely needed because of the actions of a small number of people. They were concerned about the Bill. I said quite bluntly that if they were concerned about a standard that meant they had to maintain their property as fit for human habitation, they really were in the wrong place entirely. Being fit for human habitation is about the lowest standard one can imagine for a property. It covers basics, such as making sure that the heating is on, that there is not undue damp, that it is safe and that the windows are fixed. It really is not the highest of standards. It is therefore right that there is another way for tenants to enforce it.
As my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes said, most reasonable landlords will not fear the Bill at all; they have no reason to fear it. If people are maintaining a reasonable property, the Bill is utterly irrelevant to them. It will never have any impact on them, it will not change how they run their business and it will not cost them any money. The only people who need worry are those who constantly ignore reasonable requests for repairs, those who have just about avoided prosecution on a couple of occasions because their actions did not quite come up to the criminal standard that is used for local authority offences, and those who skimp at every opportunity. Those are the landlords who need to worry.
Landlords who are part of a quality assured system and who work closely with groups such as the Devon Landlords’ Association have absolutely nothing to worry about and will see absolutely no change to their business. As I said on Second Reading, the vast majority of landlords provide reasonable properties at a reasonable rent. Those who do not are the ones who will have to think about the implications of the Bill.
As the Bill covers civil matters, when they go to court they will be dealt with on the balance of probabilities, rather than against the criminal standard. Being able to enforce something as a civil matter gives a court slightly more leeway. When things are done to the criminal standard—beyond reasonable doubt—different evidential standards apply.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He will realise that I have to face the House and am not deliberately turning my back on him as I reply. He is absolutely right that if someone makes a legitimate complaint to their local authority or pursues a case under the Bill, there must be clear actions to be taken if so-called revenge evictions take place.
I am conscious that that danger may vary between areas. In some parts of the country, a large amount of housing may be available at reasonable prices, although I accept that affordability is an issue across the country. However, in other places, particularly the area represented by the promoter of the Bill, the cost and availability of housing are huge issues. The threat of having to move out is much more significant in such places than somewhere where you could just move down the road. There is a need to tackle revenge evictions, because if revenge evictions are the result of the Bill, it will not be a success.
Again, the vast majority of landlords respond to complaints fairly and reasonably, and will work with their tenant in their mutual interests. If the landlord has a long-standing tenant, they do not have to pay agency fees to relet their property. Likewise, the tenant is able to make more of a life for themselves and does not have the disruption to their family life and their children’s schooling that comes with regular moves.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North, as always, brings his vision and knowledge to this debate, and rightly highlights that we must not only ensure that the powers are used, but that revenge evictions do not take place.
What would my hon. Friend say to those who say—I disagree with them—that any legislation that impacts on landlords will have an unwarranted impact on the availability of housing, because people will be more unwilling to rent out their properties in areas where there is already a pressing demand for housing?
What I would say to them is, as an Opposition Member said earlier, “If you are renting out a property that is unfit for human habitation, you really should not be in the business of being a landlord. If that is the standard of what you are renting out then, bluntly, we do not want you to carry on.”
Will there be an impact on availability? Possibly, but—and it is a very big but—if someone cannot afford to do a property up to the standard where it is fit for habitation, they have an obvious option, which is to sell the property to someone who can. Another option is to discuss with the local authority whether planning permission needs to be granted to allow for a proper redevelopment.
I recently went to see a superb development in Paignton. It used to be poor quality, guild house-style accommodation. In theory it was sheltered accommodation, but it was more like guild house-style accommodation, with shared bathrooms and facilities that were not particularly good. It was on the site of a former brewery. It was really not that great and the local housing association took the view that it did not meet the standard. It has been done up properly and there are now 22 new homes. The new apartments are modern properties that meet modern standards of disability access; the facilities reflect this era, rather than the 1950s; and young families have moved back in.
Let us be clear about what happens when we take action on housing standards. I know my hon. Friend Andrew Bowie will agree with this point; indeed, he probably made his intervention so that I would put it on the record. There is always the theory that when we introduce legislation and take action on housing standards, we might reduce the supply and make it more difficult or more expensive—because if we contract the housing supply, the price clearly goes up—for the tenant to find housing. However, in my experience when enforcement action is taken by local authorities, which will still happen, in many cases it results in the same amount of housing, or even slightly more of it, but this time of the right standard.
If a landlord feels that one of their properties is not up to standard—again, I refer to the landlord with a property in Paignton—they should start engaging with the local authority. Most councils will be reasonable and sensible if a landlord is trying to do the right thing. That could mean looking at how the property is used, perhaps converting the property or getting planning permission to allow the proper redevelopment of the site, as happened in Paignton. I am happy to take another intervention but I think that my hon. Friend can be reassured that, although there is always an argument about how much we do in terms of pushing measures so far that we reduce supply, this Bill will not do that. In fact, it could reduce the supply of completely unsuitable accommodation and increase the supply of the type of rental properties that we want to see.
Let me turn to the matter of implying terms into a lease—a sensible and proportionate measure. For those wondering what that means, this is about how the legislation creates the civil enforcement. Any tenancy will now contain this provision in the lease. As has been said, this is not about bringing back a piece of Victorian legislation, where the maximum rental price is now woefully out of date—probably as historical as the piece of legislation itself. Rather, this is about having a modern piece of legislation that does not come with the idea that every so often we need to decide the maximum rent to which it would apply. That makes this a more secure piece of tenancy legislation.
Following amendment in Committee, it would be interesting to understand how the Bill will affect those who rent out a property in a block where the leaseholders are the freeholders. A concerning issue came out following the fire safety work in Torbay after the Grenfell Tower fire. To be clear, there is not a large local authority owner of tower blocks in Torbay, as some hon. Members might have in their constituencies. We have a lot of apartment blocks and blocks of flats, particularly for those entering retirement, where the leaseholder is the freeholder—that is, the leaseholder owns a share in the freehold—and some of these flats may be rented out. In these cases, the freeholder, who is supposed to be dealing with certain issues and maintaining certain safety standards, has absolutely no incentive to enforce against its own shareholders. In fact, the shareholders are not very keen at all for the freeholder to take enforcement action.
There was an example in my constituency whereby a block had been built in the late 1960s—not a dissimilar era from that of Grenfell Tower. There were two apartments on a floor, which had two fire doors, then the corridor and then the door to the stairwell. About 20 years ago, the owner of one flat bought the other flat on the floor and turned it into one property along the whole floor, so instead of having two doors and the fire door to the stairwell, there was now just a fire door to the stairwell. This had not been picked up, partly because the freeholder had no great incentive to take action against the leaseholder, because the leaseholder was the freeholder. In the Minister’s contribution, she might wish to reflect on whether a tenant of a leaseholder would be able to enforce against the freeholder in such a situation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a related issue—cuts to fire services—to which he is almost referring in his very thoughtful contribution? I have had representations from Royal Berkshire fire and rescue service about the dire need for more fire safety officers, who take a long time to train. Many properties in multiple occupation actually have multiple fire safety issues, including small adjustments made by landlords and tenants, as the hon. Gentleman has described, and because of the nature of the buildings, which are often old and in some cases dilapidated. I have heard some very concerning stories about this in my county. Will he refer to that aspect?
My uncle, Station Officer John Griffin, was for many years a fire safety officer in Plymouth fire service and then Devon fire service, which Plymouth service became. I do not want to get into the grounds that will be covered by the inquiry, as that is not right, but there is an argument about whether the change made just over a decade ago by a previous Government—removing the fire service from being proactively involved in fire safety inspections and very much reducing the role of fire safety officers from the fire service—was the right move.
I put on my hat as a former member of the Local Government Association’s national fire services management committee and as a former member of the west midlands fire and rescue authority, and I do think we should look at rebuilding a more proactive role for the fire service in fire safety. To be fair, I will not criticise everything the previous Government did with the fire service. Some of the measures regarding home fire safety checks and moves to more proactive areas made sense. However, we may well reflect that the changes to the fire regulations and moving the fire safety inspections away from the fire service were perhaps not right. Perhaps we will move forward and review that, although there will need to be a balance in outcomes.
I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman, to whose contribution in mellifluous tones I am listening with close attention, that he has now spoken for a little longer than the Member in charge of the Bill. I know that he is not the sort of Member who would respond to any exhortation from any quarter to speak at length for any reason, because he just would not do that, but there is a lot of business to get through and I therefore express cautious optimism that he is now approaching his peroration.
My hon. Friend is enjoying this because it is such a rare chance to hear me in the Chamber.
This Bill is very worthwhile, and it is appropriate and proportionate. It has been strengthened in a welcome way in Committee with regard to the provisions on communal areas. I am pleased to support its Third Reading, and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the points raised during the debate.
Eighteen years ago in my Notting Hill Housing flat, after prolonged complaints had been ignored, my ceiling collapsed, narrowly missing my young daughter’s head. The five-year battle with my social landlord and the help that I received from my local councillors at the time propelled me into active politics, so I am devastated that social landlords have stepped even further away from their responsibilities over the years. I know from my casework that a collapsed ceiling narrowly missed a young child’s head just recently.
Some residents who attend my surgery have brought photos of the massive cracks across their ceilings—they fear a ceiling collapse—as well as of large gaps in stucco facades, which they fear could fall into the street. However, they have been told by their social landlord that they will not be helped unless they stop talking to me, so little or nothing has changed. That is shameful. I do not need to tell anyone in this House that disrepair followed—if you are lucky—by botched refurbishment can put people in mortal danger. Grenfell Tower residents who complained about their botched refurb were sent cease and desist letters, and had no legal recourse.
Since I became an MP last June, my office has dealt with nearly 1,500 cases of all kinds. Around half are housing cases, most involving disrepair. The majority of cases relate to social housing. Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation was among the worst performers, as it has been during my nearly 13 years on the council, but has now improved slightly, leaving Notting Hill Housing—Notting Hill Genesis, as it is now—as our worst performer.
One of my constituents lives in a flat suffering from subsidence, which their landlord has been ignoring. From time to time, due to that subsidence, her front door becomes stuck and she is trapped in her flat for hours. Shame on Notting Hill Genesis. I have told her to call the fire brigade the next time that happens. Another group of constituents who were fleeing domestic abuse with young children were found a place in a hostel where they felt safe, until the ceiling collapsed. They moved downstairs to be safe, but then two more ceilings collapsed. That happened just last year—Notting Hill Genesis again.
Another case involved an elderly and confused woman. Her heating and hot water broke down about a year ago and was not fixed for three months. Her doctor told her that she was close to hypothermia and she then told her neighbour, who luckily reported it to us. Her landlord ignored our pleas, so I put the details on Twitter and there was a response within hours—shame on London and Quadrant. Another constituent’s damp was so bad that he had severe respiratory problems. When I visited, the poor gentleman had to move his nebuliser out of the way to show me the toxic black mould—that was KCTMO.
In yet another case, a constituent who fled from Grenfell with his young child was placed in temporary accommodation in a council flat that was so damp that the toddler’s clothes were literally rotting. Another constituent had a manhole cover in their downstairs kitchen and sitting room that regularly overflowed with raw sewage, by up to a foot. That was Peabody housing. In the last case I shall report on, there were concerns about fire safety that had been reported to a landlord, but were completely ignored. The landlord was told that if they did not fix the problem that they were being emailed about, there could be another Grenfell. A month later, a massive explosion ripped through the flat. There was a huge fire and a constituent died instantly—that was Catalyst housing.
It is such a difficult and long-winded process to get an environmental health officer to visit a home and manage damp that I have my own damp meter. If we have another very cold wet winter, I will be using it extensively and reporting on social media if landlords do not respond, which they often do not, even to an MP. We ask every family that comes to us with problems of damp whether anyone in the family has asthma. So far, every single family reporting damp has at least one such family member. Poor housing is damaging health and sometimes killing my constituents, and until now they have had no legal redress. My office is working on a casework report that will include photos, anonymised examples and timelines of responses from landlords. We will expose the truth. The state of social housing in my constituency is, in many cases, Dickensian.
Many of the social landlords mentioned in my hon. Friend’s speech are also active in my constituency, where I have some similar examples to hers. Does she share my concern that many of them started as charities and, by behaving in the way that they are and not delivering quality housing, they are breaching their charitable objectives?
I agree. Many of them have become developers with social purpose, as they are called, and have lost their charitable status—and they have left it well behind. Many are focusing on building new and often poorly constructed, developments, while letting their old stock decline, and they are then selling into the private market. This is deliberate. Tenants are ignored, derided and, on occasion, bullied, with their pleas ignored. They need this legal recourse, so I am delighted to support the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend Ms Buck, a dedicated and hard-working heroine, and I ask the House to pass it.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ms Buck, whose hard work and dedication to improving the lives of tenants has got this Bill to where it is today. We need no more stark reminder of the dangers of housing hazards and unfit properties than the Grenfell Tower disaster, as my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid mentioned when he spoke up so determinedly for his constituents about the difficult situation in which many of them are forced to live. No tenant should be allowed to live in housing with such fire safety hazards, and no tenant should ever be ignored when they make a complaint about the severe risks that they see in their property. This disaster cannot be allowed to happen again.
The Bill can be the foundation of ensuring that we never see tenants housed in such unfit accommodation ever again. It gives tenants direct rights to compel social and private landlords—my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad just highlighted the importance of including social landlords in the measure, and her comments also brought to the fore the importance and imperative nature of the Bill, which comes not a moment too soon—to carry out repairs if their accommodation is not fit for habitation, and presents a serious and immediate risk to their health and safety. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda rightly highlighted that, given the number of private rented sector properties in his constituency. He also talked about the growing issues that will come as the sector looks only to expand.
The Bill is undoubtedly a positive step for tenant safety, but the Government must do more to empower tenants to challenge unfair conditions if the Bill is to reach its full potential. The Government must ensure that tenants do not fear retaliatory action when they complain about unfair conditions, as Eddie Hughes rightly pointed out in his intervention. Unfortunately, a study by Citizens Advice showed that the current measures against retaliatory evictions are simply not working, with local authorities not reporting a downturn in evictions as a result of the Deregulation Act 2015. Protection against retaliatory eviction is vital to the Bill’s success, so will the Government listen to groups such as Citizens Advice and Shelter, and introduce a Bill on the back of their consultation to make three-year tenancies the norm and to give tenants the security they need, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter?
We saw news this week about the fact that despite the introduction of the Government’s rogue landlords register, some landlords who have been deemed in law to be unfit to let properties continue to be rewarded with rental income, including from the public purse as a result of housing benefit. The landlord register is not being properly used as it might be, and it is also not public. Is this not an opportunity to give that mechanism real meaning, to use it properly and to give consumers their full rights by enabling them to see where rogue landlords are in operation? Such measures would have made the Bill even stronger, but we are very pleased to see it finally reach Third Reading. We hope that it will put an end to the scourge of unfit housing once and for all.
Thank you—[Interruption.] Get on with it, absolutely—God almighty! I just think that this is an important Bill and it needs all the time and love that it can have.
Before I start my speech, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests. I thank Ms Buck for everything she has said and congratulate her for tenaciously taking this Bill through Committee and bringing it to the House today. Her Bill is an important part of our work to raise awareness of this vital issue of standards in rented properties. I want to talk about rented houses and flats, both social and private, and the sort of unacceptable conditions that some tenants have to put up with. Many Members have already mentioned the minority of landlords who do not think that they need to comply with the law, and how their tenants suffer as a result. I would also like to describe some of the new requirements we have brought in to help improve the lives of tenants and make sure rogue landlords are either driven out of the sector or forced to sort out their properties and their attitude. The hon. Lady’s Bill is an extremely valuable part of this work.
We had, I felt, a very productive, interesting and worthwhile debate in Committee. I am going to set out the other work we are doing to help tenants, which includes some new requirements but also makes sure we sharpen the tools we already have. In England privately rented houses and flats provide housing for 4.7 million households—20% of all households. The social rented sector provides a further 17%, another 3.9 million house- holds. The majority of these are safe, secure, warm and dry.
People are tenants for all sorts of reasons—maybe the flexibility is convenient for them, maybe it makes more financial sense or perhaps it means they can live in the area they want to. Some 84% of tenants in the private rented sector and 81% of social housing tenants have said they are satisfied with their accommodation. These tenants have already seen an improvement in the quality of the houses and flats they live in. In 2008, serious category 1 health and safety hazards would have been found in around 30% of properties in the private rented sector and 15% in the social sector. By 2016, that number had fallen to 15% of private rented and 6% of social properties.
However, it is still not acceptable that there is a hard-core, stubborn minority of landlords who rent out places that are not fit for their tenants to live in. Not all tenants have the luxury of choosing where to live, and some of the most vulnerable in society live in these unfit properties. It is precisely this minority of houses and flats which still have serious hazards that the Bill will help to tackle.
We have been working hard to improve housing conditions and tackle rogue landlords. For example, since 2015 landlords must install a smoke detector on every floor of their properties, and they must have carbon monoxide detectors where the heating comes from solid fuels. I congratulate my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes on all the work he has done on that issue.
We also used the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to give local authorities tough new powers to tackle rogue landlords and poor property conditions in their areas. If landlords do not comply with legal notices served on them because their properties are not safe to live in, local authorities can now impose civil penalties of up to £30,000. Bristol City Council, for example, has imposed 12 civil penalties, with the lowest at £628 and the highest at £25,800. Local authorities do not even have to take rogue landlords to court to give them that short, very sharp shock, and they can use the revenue to further fund their enforcement activities. That is hugely important for council finances.
As well as that, if tenants have had to live with a serious health and safety hazard in their house or flat and the local authority has served a legal notice on their landlord, they may be able to reclaim up to 12 months’ rent. If the rent was paid through benefits, the local authority can get that back too. Really serious offenders can have their name added to the new database of rogue landlords and property agents and could be banned from being a landlord, possibly for life.
In addition to those powers, we have extended the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. These properties are occupied by tenants who are not related but who share facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. They are often good value and form a useful part of the housing market for many tenants. However, they are higher risk. Landlords of larger HMOs—those on three or more floors with five or more tenants—require a licence issued by the local authority for each property. On
I am pleased to say that this is the third private Member’s Bill introduced by a Labour Member that this Government have supported, following the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, which was promoted by Chris Bryant and received Royal Assent in September, and the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, which was promoted by Mr Reed and is now in the other place.
The Bill before us builds on the work that has been done and adds a new dimension to the fight against rogue landlords. It empowers tenants by allowing them to seek redress from their landlords if their rented house or flat is in an unacceptably dangerous condition. Landlords will have to keep their properties free from hazards from the outset and for the entirety of the tenancy. Tenants will be able to seek redress without having to rely on their local authority, if they prefer to, and local authorities will still have the same strong enforcement powers to serve legal notices where they find serious health and safety hazards.
No further obligations are put on landlords who rent out safe, secure, warm and dry properties. If a landlord is quick to carry out repairs when they are reported, manages their property well and takes their responsibilities seriously, the effect the Bill will have on them will be to level the playing field. Rogue landlords will have to improve their properties or leave the business. Landlords who do not maintain safe properties prevent an effective and competitive rental market where all landlords operate on an equal footing.
It is those two aspects of the Bill—giving more power to tenants but putting no new obligations on good landlords—that allow it to sit so well with the range of initiatives we have already introduced. The Bill gives power to tenants, which will complement the existing powers and further enforcement options we have provided to local authorities. Good landlords have nothing to worry about because there are no new obligations or costs for them under the Bill.
It was reassuring to hear such support and general agreement from Members across the House on Second Reading. That is a testament to how seriously all parties take this issue. In Committee in June, I once again heard cross-party support for the Bill and agreement that we need to act now. Members drew attention to issues in the private and social rented sectors that concerned them, and no one argued against the Bill.
Amendments were made in Committee that have further tightened the provisions of the Bill and made it more effective. For example, the common areas of rented properties will now be included. That is important because properties with common areas such as shared stairwells can be at a higher risk from hazards such as fire, as we have heard. Tenants need to be confident that they can hold their landlord to account when it comes to health and safety hazards in those common areas. That amendment will further help tenants in properties such as houses in multiple occupation.
The Bill extends tenants’ rights and, for the first time, allows them to seek redress if their landlord rents them a property that is not fit for human habitation. It is vital that tenants understand their rights and know how to use them, as Members have said. Subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent, we will produce guidance for tenants that will explain their rights and how to represent themselves in court should that prove necessary. We will also signpost where and how they can get any support they might need. That guidance will complement the “How to” series of guides produced by my Department, which have recently been revised and expanded. The guides include checklists for new and existing tenants, landlords and letting agents. Whatever the circumstance, we want to ensure that tenants are armed with information, so that they know their rights and responsibilities and can challenge poor behaviour.
There is still more to do. Our support for the hon. Lady’s Bill is an important part of our programme of work to drive up standards in rented houses and flats, and that support does not sit in isolation. We recognise the important role that landlords play in providing homes to millions of people around the country. We want to bring fairness to the market and promote good practice. It is key to the Bill that landlords ensure their properties are fit for human habitation.
Whether a house or flat is fit is determined by the presence of serious hazards. Those are set out in the housing health and safety rating system—or the HHSRS, as it is nattily known. The HHSRS focuses on the hazards that are most likely to be present in housing. Tackling those hazards makes homes healthier and safer to live in. As part of our ongoing work to improve standards, we will commission a review to ensure that the HHSRS continues to work well, and that will take place next year.
Tenants are, of course, at the heart of the Bill. The intention behind it is to empower tenants, which is our intention as a Government. We have introduced legislation banning letting agents from making unfair and hidden charges, making it easier for tenants to find a property at a price they are willing to pay and saving renters an estimated £240 million in the first year alone. In addition, we have announced plans to make client money protection mandatory for letting agents and will introduce requirements on training and accreditation to ensure that tenants are protected. We will further empower tenants by requiring all landlords to belong to a mandatory redress scheme. The work the Government have already done to improve conditions for tenants, as well as the work we are now doing and the hon. Lady’s Bill, will mean a real improvement for tenants and a serious driving up of standards in both the social and rented sectors.
I want to thank Stephen Timms, the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), and my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for Walsall North, for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) for all their contributions today and in Committee. I am grateful for all the hard work on the Bill across the House.
I could go on, if my hon. Friend would like me to.
It is clear that there is support for the Bill across the House. The Bill will empower tenants and help to further improve standards in rented houses and flats. It has been a pleasure working with the hon. Member for Westminster North, and I am sure her Bill will get the continued support it deserves as it progresses.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.