Substandard Housing

– in the House of Commons at 8:39 pm on 13 May 2024.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale 8:49, 13 May 2024

I have spoken in many Adjournment debates over the last 37 years, but seldom with an audience in such high drama—[Interruption.]

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. They seem to be leaving. Perhaps we should wait until things have settled down a little before continuing.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale

I hope it is clear that they are leaving not because I am rising to speak, but because of the dramatic events we have just witnessed. I hope it is duly noted that I was the one-vote majority.

I dedicate this debate to a two-year-old boy. His name was Awaab Ishak, and he was the boy who died of damp. Awaab died because he lived in a house so affected by dampness and the mould that ineluctably followed. Innumerable complaints were made, unattended to, of dampness in the house owned by his landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, one of the worst housing associations in England—pity Awaab—in a town with an incompetent, inefficient and, indeed, corrupt Labour council. The housing association has been in special measures because of its extreme incompetence and social exclusion. It is officially accused of othering many of its own tenants. Little Awaab would now be getting ready for school, but he is dead. And he died of damp.

Of course, this problem is not unique to Rochdale. Millions of homes in our country are unfit for purpose and unfit for human habitation. Government policy over many years has exacerbated that which has been inherited from previous generations.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this forward. He is absolutely right that millions of homes in this great United Kingdom have the same problem.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although rents have substantially increased—in my constituency, there is a £126 increase in the new annual contract, an increase of 18% in one year—the standard of housing has not improved, and no improvements have been made? Does he agree that, while rents have increased, standards are slipping, and that councils need greater enforcement powers to ensure a basic standard of living can be legally secured? Everyone should have a good house to live in, in which they feel safe and secure.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale

Britain is a rich country that can gaily increase its defence budget, that can boast of its wealth on international league tables, yet millions of its citizens are living in inadequate housing and, in Awaab’s case, dying in inadequate accommodation. It is a national disgrace, and I am grateful to the Members who have stayed for this debate, which affects everyone’s constituency, or almost everyone’s constituency.

Rochdale has a special place. We are at the top of every league that people would not want to top, and at the bottom of every league that people would want to top. I will give some vital statistics: 11.7% of our houses are officially deemed to be in housing deprivation, compared with the national average of 7.8%. That is in a town that was once something in England. It was a notable place, 20 minutes from the gleaming spires of Manchester city centre, where people rightly enjoy a high standard of living and prosperity. The national average is 7.8%; in Rochdale, it is 11.7%.

We have 35.8% of our people officially living in fuel poverty, compared with 27.8% nationally. We have 20.5% of our people suffering poor health—one in five of the people in Rochdale suffers poor health—compared with a national average of 17%. Even in the asthma stakes, we are at the bottom of the league: 7.4 % of our people have asthma, compared with 6% nationally.

This scandal is down to the matrix I discussed earlier, of a Tory Government in power and an utterly incompetent—bewilderingly so—Labour local authority. Now a Labour super-Mayor is presiding over those gleaming spires in central Manchester, enjoying popularity, as undoubtedly he, at least in part, deserves, for helping prosperity in the metropolis. But in the towns around Manchester, in particular in Rochdale, we have been left to sink, and nobody is doing anything about it.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I have done so privately, but may I formally congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his by-election success? In my opinion, he is the finest orator in the House of Commons and it is all the better for having him here, even though I do not always agree with him. As he was my former parliamentary neighbour, he will know that this problem extends to places like Bradford as well. Does he agree that housing associations should not be allowed to extend their property empire while they have existing property that is clearly not fit for purpose?

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale

As I omitted to mention in response to the previous intervention by Jim Shannon, we have a situation where rents go up and services go down. That is true in Labour authorities all over the country. I call them “so-called housing associations”; I was always opposed to them and I never supported the arm’s length management organisation. Please, I prefer council housing, where the tenants get to elect their landlord and can unelect them if they are doing a poor job. The whole wheeze was to push the ownership of the houses to so-called associations that are, in effect, only private companies. The privatisation of council houses that the taxpayer paid for and the people collectively owned is at the root of the problem.

In Rochdale, we have a particular problem that killed little Awaab. We have a borough-wide housing association, Rochdale Boroughwide, that is not fit for purpose. It is there at the grace and favour of a Labour council, whose relationship with it is intricate and intimate. Even though I am under parliamentary privilege, I will not go much further than that—intimate and intricate. Until recently, nobody could challenge them. It was a one-party state—a Labour one-party state—with a revolving door between the Labour party, the council and the housing association.

But this is not only in Rochdale. As Sir Philip Davies, who I am proud to personally call a friend—not politically, of course, but we were good neighbours for quite some time—has pointed out, damp houses are a problem for all of us. They are dangerous—these houses can kill. We all know the old saw that a stitch in time saves nine. How much more obvious does this need to be? If we fix those 3.5 million inadequate homes—households in which families are living—what would we save in health service costs, in social care costs? How many fewer ambulances would be called out if there were not hazards in houses that could be, and should be, easily fixed by the landlord? How many hospital beds are taken up by people with bronchial and associated problems, because they are living in a damp house?

I was born in a slum—in an attic. There was just one room, with a sloping roof. I was horrifying my children this very morning, telling them how I had to sleep in a drawer. They thought that my mother pushed in the drawer at night. If that were the case, I would not be here now. I know how things were in the bad, bad old days. Everything is relative, I accept that. Now I live a good life, and I assume that the Minister does, too. But empathy requires us to take a walk in the other person’s shoes, particularly when we represent them; particularly when their votes are the reason that we are here. We are supposed to be their voice. I invite the Minister to take a walk with me metaphorically this evening, but literally sometime soon in my constituency, and to see the way that thousands of people are living in poverty—fuel poverty, housing poverty and hazardous houses. I did not even know the concept of a hazardous house—there was not much room for hazards in our one-room attic. But I now go into houses in Rochdale and see things that could kill somebody—but for the grace of God—any day of the week.

It is a national scandal that, over the past 14 years, billions have been withdrawn in funding for house improvements and repairs. Hundreds of thousands of houses that could have been brought up to standard have not been—cannot be—because the Government funding is not there. The Government might say that they need the money for more wars, for more weapons, for more armies, navies, air forces or whatever else they choose to do with our national treasure. I am not trying to touch the Minister’s heart; I am trying to touch his mind. These improvements that are vitally needed will save the state money. Our people will be healthier, our people will be happier and the politicians who represent them might be able to feel a bit more proud about the job that we have done. Save Rochdale, Minister. Save little Awaab Ishak’s neighbours from possibly meeting that dreadful, damp, mouldy death that that little boy suffered.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing) 9:03, 13 May 2024

This is a very important issue and one on which the House should rightly spend time. Poor quality homes are a blight on the lives of those who live in them, with the potential to significantly damage people’s health. That in turn means that people cannot live as fulfilling a life as they would wish and, from an economic perspective, that they might not be able to be as productive as they would want. It even extends to social mobility. It is a long-standing mission of all parties to try to make homes warm, safe and decent.

Tonight, we are discussing both substandard housing in general and, due to the hon. Member raising it, Rochdale in particular. As has been outlined, Rochdale was the scene of a great tragedy in 2020, with the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak—the death of someone who had his whole life ahead of him. It was one of the worst tragedies in a modern civilised world—the death of a child.

The law already requires landlords to ensure that the accommodation they provide is free from serious hazards, including damp and mould, and that homes are fit for habitation, but as was seen in Rochdale four Decembers ago, some are failing to meet that basic standard. Following that tragedy, the Secretary of State was clear that it was unacceptable. He summoned the landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, to explain why such a catastrophic failure had been allowed to happen.

The Secretary of State followed up by barring that housing association from access to funds to build new houses, and by stepping up enforcement measures more generally. More broadly, the Government introduced Awaab’s law in 2023, requiring landlords to investigate and then fix reported health hazards within specific timeframes; to issue written summaries of their investigations to ensure that residents are kept informed; and, where necessary, to offer suitable alternative temporary accommodation to tenants where the property cannot be made safe.

The next step in making that legislation real occurred at the start of this year, with a consultation that opened in mid-January. It closed a few weeks ago, and we plan to respond to it shortly and introduce the necessary secondary legislation as soon as possible. In addition, the Government provided £15 million of taxpayer subsidy to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2023 to tackle the worst cases of damp and mould, which includes works to many properties in Rochdale.

On a broader level, it is very important that enforcement bodies use the powers available to them where it is proportionate and necessary to do so—something that can already happen today. That is against the backdrop of progress that has been made. I do not seek in any way to take away from the importance of the subject that has been highlighted, or from the terrible tragedy that has been rightly brought to this House both now and before, but it is hugely important that we also acknowledge where we are. There has been progress on this very important matter of policy in recent years across all tenures.

There are two big measures within the English housing survey, one about category 1 hazards and one about the decency of the homes that people live in. Both have seen progress. First, the number of owner-occupied properties in England in 2010 where category 1 hazards were present was over 18%. By 2022, that had been halved. For the private rented sector, the issue had been halved over the same timeline from 24% to 12%. In the social rented sector, it was 10% in 2010; by 2022, it had reduced to 4%.

On decent homes specifically, in 2010 the percentage of non-decent homes in the owner-occupied sector was more than a quarter—25.6%. By 2022, that had almost halved to 13.7%. For the private rented sector, it was nearly 40%; it has now reduced to just over 20%. In the social rented sector, it was almost 20%; now, it is just over 10%. That is progress, improvement and movement, but there is obviously more to do.

The Government have previously announced their intention to update the decent homes standard, and we are working on doing so. We continue to work closely with local authorities and housing providers to try to make progress in this important area, and the ombudsman continues to show leadership in its work on this vital agenda.

There has been movement forward in the last decade, but the focus needs to be continued, not least to ensure that we learn from the tragedy of Awaab Ishak and what others may be suffering from now. This issue is bigger than any one Government. That is why there was progress under the last Government, which the hon. Member served in, why there has been progress in all the Parliaments that he has sat in, and why there is a continued commitment to that. Progress has been made, but there is still further to go. We shall continue to work with resolve and determination to ensure that improvements are made.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.