Committee (1st Day) (Continued)

Housing and Planning Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:32 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Relevant document: 20th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Amendment 19

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

19: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—

“Description of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)

Article 3 of the Licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation (Prescribed Descriptions) (England) Order 2006 is amended as follows—

(a) omit paragraph (2)(a); and

(b) omit paragraph (3).”

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 8:43 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, Part 2 of the Housing Act 2004 repealed Part XI of the Housing Act 1985 and introduced a new definition of a house in multiple occupation and, in April 2006, a new scheme for controlling and licensing such houses that were deemed a high risk. Houses in multiple occupation include bed-sits, shared houses and hostels but not self-contained flats. They share one or more of the basic amenities, such as the toilet and the washing or cooking facilities. Those properties which met certain conditions had to be licensed. These conditions included the building being three storeys or more high and occupied by five or more tenants, in at least two households. The regulations have worked well but more needs to be done. The private rented sector is increasing, as we have all heard, and so are houses in multiple occupation. We need to provide protections to this growing group of tenants, who are particularly at risk.

The purpose of Amendment 19 is to go further and bring more properties into scope. To be part of the mandatory licensing scheme under my amendment, the only two conditions which would need to be met are that the property has to have five or more people living in it and in at least two households. As I have said, houses in multiple occupation pose the greatest risk to the tenants living there. It has been established by research undertaken that people living in bed-sits are six times more likely to die as a result of fire than people living in an ordinary house. A number of factors can be at play here, from a vulnerable person living in the accommodation to the quality of the construction or conversion of the property. The time has come to extend these provisions and I hope that we get a favourable response. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

I do not wish to detain the Committee but I simply want to say that this is an extremely interesting proposal, which I hope the Ministers will look at very carefully. We have a lot of experience in recent years of HMOs and the legislation about having three storeys. We need to look carefully at this because the proposal as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, seems to be one meriting some further close attention.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Chair, Works of Art Committee (Lords)

My Lords, if I may briefly intervene, I remember having great discussions about this matter on previous Housing Bills a long time ago. When the Bill with this provision in it originally came forward, we flagged up that there would be problems on it. I urge the Government to look again at this. They can look back at the discussions we had in those days about how to describe an HMO and the issue about the three storeys. Some of us have been in this House and doing housing over a number of years. I do not think that there is anybody else in the Committee right this minute who would have done this when I did, but there will be Members of the House who remember it very well.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, this amendment would insert a new clause into the Bill that seeks to remove the requirement that a house in multiple occupation is required to be licensed only if the building is of three or more storeys. While mandatory licensing applies to such HMOs if they are occupied by five or more persons in two or more households, local authorities have the power to introduce additional licensing schemes to cover smaller HMOs.

It is of course appreciated that not all local authorities have made additional licensing schemes but, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, it is also well known that some of the worst management standards, living conditions, disrepair and overcrowding in the private rented sector are found in smaller HMOs. This is why the Government issued a technical discussion paper late last year, seeking views on whether mandatory licensing should be extended to smaller HMOs. Officials are currently analysing the results and the Government hope to publish a response to the discussion paper in the spring. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are determined to tackle abuses in the HMO market, as they are in any other part of the private rented sector.

Extended mandatory licensing is an option to achieve this, through secondary legislation. We are considering that option but we want to fully consider all responses received before announcing how we will proceed.

I hope that on this assurance, and because I have been able to say that the Government are looking at this and committed to stamping out abuse in HMOs, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, including the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. I knew about the consultation and I am delighted that we will get a response back in the spring. I hope that it is a favourable one, and with that I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.

Amendment 20

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

20: Insert the following new Clause

“Implied term of fitness for human habitation in residential lettings

(1) Section 8 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (implied terms as to fitness for human habitation) is amended as follows.

(2) For subsection (3) substitute—

“(3) Subject to subsection (7), this section applies to any tenancy or licence under which a dwelling house is let wholly or mainly for human habitation.”

(3) After subsection (3) insert—

“(3ZA) Subsection (1) does not apply where the condition of the dwelling-house or common parts is due to—

(a) a breach by the tenant of the duty to use the dwelling -house in a tenant-like manner, or other express term of the tenancy to the same effect; or

(b) damage by fire, flood, tempest or other natural cause or inevitable accident.

(3ZB) Subsection (1) shall not require the landlord or licensor of the dwelling house to carry out works—

(a) which would contravene any statutory obligation or restriction; or

(b) which require the consent of a superior landlord, provided that such consent has been refused and the landlord or licensor has no right of action on the basis that such refusal of consent is unreasonable.

(3ZC) Any provision of or relating to a tenancy or licence is void insofar as it purports—

(a) to exclude or limit the obligations of the landlord or licensor under this section; or

(b) to permit any forfeiture or impose on the tenant or licensee any penalty or disadvantage in the event of his seeking to enforce the obligation under subsection (1).

(3ZD) Regulations may make provision for the exclusion of certain classes of letting from subsection (1).

(3ZE) In this section “house” has the same meaning as “dwelling house” and includes—

(a) a part of a house, and

(b) any yard, garden, outhouses and appurtenances belonging to the house or usually enjoyed with it.”

(4) Omit subsections (4) to (6).

(5) In section 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (fitness for human habitation), after “waste water” insert “any other matter or thing that may amount, singly or cumulatively, to a Category 1 hazard within the meaning of section 2 of the Housing Act 2004.”

(6) Regulations may make provision for guidance as to the operation of the matters set out in section 10 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 which are relevant to the assessment of fitness for human habitation.

(7) This section shall come into force—

(a) in England at the end of the period of three months from the date on which this Act is passed and shall apply to all tenancies licences and agreements for letting made on or after that date; and

(b) in Wales on a date to be appointed by the Welsh Ministers.”

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, it was with much surprise that I heard that the Government had not agreed to an amendment in the other place which would have ensured that residential letting must be fit for human habitation. However, I am hopeful that your Lordships will be able to persuade the Government of the error of their ways as we progress through Committee and Report. Even at this early stage, I can say that we feel so strongly about this that we will divide the House at the appropriate time if the Government do not move from their present position.

The move to pass such an amendment in the other place was defeated, as I said earlier. The Communities Minister in the other place, Mr Marcus Jones MP, said that the Government believed that homes should be fit for human habitation but did not want to pass a new law that would explicitly require that. That is just nonsense. Unhealthy and unsafe housing needs to be tackled. The private rented sector is growing rapidly and tenants need protection to ensure that their home is fit to live in. Damp, mould, excessive cold, overcrowding and lack of proper space, fire hazards and other hazards regarding electrical and other safety can all have major consequences for people, even death.

Local authorities clearly have a role in protecting tenants in the private rented sector when landlords fail to maintain or provide properties that are safe and healthy to live in. However, local authorities are under considerable financial constraints, and this is never going to be enough. My amendment therefore seeks to provide tenants with the means to take action themselves, and would place a specific duty on landlords to ensure that the property they let is fit for human habitation and will remain so during the course of the tenancy. For me, that is a perfectly reasonable duty to place on landlords.

Amendment 22, in the names of my noble friends Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and in my name, would introduce mandatory electrical safety checks into the private rented sector. Again, Members in the other place were unable to persuade the Government on this issue, but we hope again to have more success in your Lordships’ House. In fact, your Lordships’ House may be surprised that such checks, unlike those for gas safety, are not already mandatory, given the danger of electrocution as well as fires caused by faulty electrical installations. Indeed, according to the charity Electrical Safety First, which works to prevent electrical accidents, around 70 deaths per year involve electricity, compared to 18 from gas.

That is over one a week. Yet, regrettably, the opportunity afforded by the Bill has not so far been used to protect tenants from electrical hazards.

Safety standards in the private sector depend on the age of the property, its location and, importantly, the competence—or willingness—of the landlord to undertake checks and repairs on electrical installations. We welcomed the measures introduced by the Government last year on carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. However, it is hard to explain why no consideration has been given to electrical safety which, sadly, is the cause of more deaths and injuries. Gas, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors all help make rented properties safe, but as my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath said in this House on 7 September 2015, electricity must be included if we are to provide private tenants with proper protection.

The Government’s rather unsatisfactory response then was that there is a legal duty on landlords to keep tenants’ electrical installations safe. This simply will not do—it is not enough. Not only does it mean that electrics in a rented property go unchecked for many years but it only guarantees prosecutions of landlords after the event, whereas we want to prevent electrocution or fires in the first place. Regrettably, while landlords in England must ensure that electrical installations are kept in safe working order, there is no legal requirement on them to check the installations regularly. Furthermore, there is no requirement to demonstrate to tenants that the electrics are safe. This is not acceptable, and is contrary to the Government’s autumn Statement on safety in the private rented sector and to their supposed desire to see a “bigger, better and safer” sector.

Furthermore, it is against what the public want. Of those responding to the DCLG’s own consultation, 84% believed that mandatory electrical checks in the private rented sector were needed. However, there has not been any action from the Government so far. The Local Government Association supports mandatory checks to reduce the risk of electrical fires. Electrical Safety First’s call for mandatory checks is also supported by the Chief Fire Officers Association, Shelter, Crisis, the London Fire Brigade, and British Gas, to say nothing of tenants.

A third of private-sector tenants stay in their home for less than a year, with eight out of 10 being in their current home for less than five years, so not only do an increasing proportion of our citizens live in the private rented sector, but it is a sector with a high turnover and an average tenancy of only about three years. Therefore, checks by landlords for electrical safety are essential. We know that privately rented homes are at a higher risk of fire. There has been no reduction in private rented sector fires since 2010 of those investigated by the London Fire Brigade. Indeed, of these 748 had an electrical source of ignition in the past five years, while only 97 fires had a gas source of ignition.

Why are the Government not taking this more seriously if they want a safer private rented sector? It seems that there is no strategy or response. I concur with Electrical Safety First that tenants would be better protected with mandatory five-yearly checks of electrical installations and supplied appliances. We know that annual gas checks work. Now is the time to implement mandatory electrical checks to discover faults before they cause accidents or fires. Our amendment would improve standards and not be burdensome to landlords.

Electrical Safety First estimates this would cost landlords about £3 per month over a five-year period. Of course, the amendment is about saving lives and damage to tenants’ property, but it also would protect the landlords’ assets. Checks could spot problems before they pose a serious risk through electrocution or fires.

We are pleased that the department has been undertaking research into the merits of introducing these checks, but it is now time for action. I hope the Minister will undertake to bring forward proposals while we have the Bill in front of us.

The final amendment in this group is Amendment 30, which seeks to ensure that people living in properties under a guardianship contract have some rights and protections. It is fair to say that these guardianship schemes are increasing in popularity. The guardian pays a licence fee to occupy a part of a building, secure it and prevent damage. Most of the buildings are not housing, and the guardian is not a tenant, which means he has few legal rights. My amendment seeks to redress the balance, which I think is only fair and reasonable. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we are also supporting Amendment 20, and I would like to speak in support of Amendment 22 and electrical checks on behalf of my noble friend Lord Tope.

At Second Reading, the Minister said, in response to this very point:

“Local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor-quality unsafe accommodation, and we expect them to use them”.—[Hansard, 26/01/16; col. 1270.]

In the Committee stage in the Commons, the Minister of State, Brandon Lewis, said:

“Local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor-quality unsafe accommodation, and we expect them to use those powers”.—[Hansard, Commons, 10/12/15; col. 707.]

I would like to stress to the Minister and to the Government that this is slightly the wrong end of the stick of the point that this amendment is trying to make. The amendment is trying to beef up existing legislation to ensure that tenants have greater rights. It is less about local authority involvement and much more about liberating the consumer—the tenant—to take action and get repairs delivered. It is not even about the issue of compensation afterwards. It is about where they live right now and having the legal weight behind them to take action and get the repair in the place where they are a tenant. I cannot stress that enough. Therefore, I simply suggest that, if the Minister comes back and says that local authorities have enough power, that does not answer the question I am trying to raise.

This is not new legislation. It is not extra red tape. It is simply about enabling tenants, as I made clear at Second Reading. It revives an outdated law. It is about rights for consumers—something I suggest that this Government should be eager to embrace. Overstretched local authorities could encourage tenants to challenge conditions themselves and free their resources to focus on the very worst conditions. It would therefore act as a deterrent to landlords letting out properties in poor conditions.

The key point is that the clause does not impose new requirements on landlords; it is not a further regulatory burden. The standards set out are effectively the same as those in the Housing Act 2004 via the housing health and safety rating system, the HHSRS. There were 51,916 complaints about housing conditions to the relevant councils in 2013-14 but only 14,000 inspections of PRS properties. In other words, yes, the local authorities have the power, but they do not have the resources, so when complaints are made to them, very few inspections are made as a result, and there is even less enforcement. The prosecutions resulting from that in that one figure average one per council per year. With 4.4 million households in the private rented sector, surely we can provide some better basis for them to go to court and get their landlord to make repairs.

Local authorities face increasing resource restrictions, and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm among them for applying these kinds of inspections. However, the rent level restrictions have made the relevant section in the previous legislation practically useless, because they are so low. I am sure that the noble Baroness is familiar with the figures, but I will give them to her in case she is not. The section only comes into effect when the rent on property in London is less than £80 a year, or £52 elsewhere. In other words, because the rental level is so out of date, this provision has fallen into non-use, but it could come back into use if the noble Baroness will consider this

I do not want to take up much more of your Lordships’ time in the Chamber, and this is all about issues such as condensation, damp, mould, inadequate heating and bad ventilation, with which the noble Baroness is very familiar. The proposed new clause is complementary to the provisions of the Housing Act 2004 and the powers available to local authorities, but is all about powers for the tenants. It addresses a gap in the current system where tenants are unable to effectively challenge disrepair. This is partly because they have to ask the council to get involved, which uses a cumbersome and slow process and is underresourced to do it, and partly because legal aid is no longer available for these cases.

Updating the law on fitness for human habitation would make it easier for tenants to get injunctions from the courts ordering the landlord to carry out basic repairs, instead of needing a high burden of expert opinion on behalf of the local authority, which is where we currently stand at the moment. Would it impact on landlords? No, it would not impact on the landlords who already behave well and are at an appropriate level. It would have no impact on them—if anything, it would give them greater cover. It would affect those making a profit out of letting properties in poor condition.

In the Commons, the Minister’s main rebuttal was that tenants have powers to get compensation through things such as rent orders, but again this misses the point. The point is that there is legislation already in existence which needs dusting off and updating in terms of the financial levels. Tenants will then have a really good right wrapped around them.

Finally, sadly, in the Commons this went down a cul-de-sac of the sort I described when I started speaking. This issue deserves a much wider debate and I am very pleased to hear that the Opposition will also try to divide on this at a later stage. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 9:00 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, Amendment 22, spoken to by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, is on electrical safety in homes, a very important issue. Whereas on previous amendments, I have simply followed the debate and intervened during it, on this occasion I want to use more copious notes to deal with the issue. It just so happens that my son, Markus, a contracts manager for an electrical contracting company in the London area, is somewhat of an expert in this field. I asked him for a background note on the developing need for this particular reform and this is what he told me, in some detail. When he joined the industry in 2003,

“the market for electricians was polarised. Many larger contractors were signed up to self-regulation schemes like the NICEIC but often smaller contractors saw no benefit in doing so. Business customers often worked under strict procurement rules or had insurance companies insisting that NICEIC registered contractors were used. But the average landlord had little compelling them to do so. Landlords asking industry representatives what they must do to comply with the law were not given a simple answer. Contractors would explain that the Wiring Regulations were a non-statutory document, but that in the event of legal action they could be used to show that electrical works had been completed to a recognised standard. In other words you could ignore them if you could handle the risk.

There were also no rules saying when you should use a NICEIC-registered contractor. Contractors could explain that NICEIC regularly accessed the system, checked qualifications, provided technical support and advice and, importantly, helped customers who felt works were below standard. As reassuring as that should be, many customers would still choose not registered contractors. They were simply cheaper. There was little stopping a landlord employing anybody, qualified or not, registered or not, familiar with the regulations or not, cowboy or not. It was just a question of risk”.

So, in 2005, the Government introduced Part P of the building regulations—a very important development. The wiring regs, BS7671, while still a non-statutory document, are now referenced within those building regs. This means that some higher risk works within domestic properties have to be completed to this recognised legal standard. Contractors now have two options. They can notify Building Control of works to be carried out or join a government-accredited domestic installer scheme. These schemes allow contractors to self-certify their work and provide retrospective notice to Building Control.

When Part P was initially introduced, it was simple for some companies to upgrade to domestic installer status. However, many self-employed electricians and small contractors found that they could not practically carry out work within domestic properties without breaking the law. So, many of them applied to domestic installer scheme providers to become registered. Assessors visited their premises to see their work. Electricians who had not updated their qualifications in years needed to prove that they knew the regulations. Contractors who had never issued certificates for their work were now asked to produce them and justify their contents. Contractors were asked to show examples of their work, calibration certificates and to demonstrate how to use test equipment. Ofsted had arrived and it wanted to know that the kids who were in training were safe.

Consumer expectations also changed after Part P. The legal responsibility was now far clearer. A decade later, the number of registered contractors has more than doubled. Many contractors are proud of their achievements, with the introduction of higher working standards. Many completed courses, such as the City & Guilds 2394 and 2395, which teach how to test installations for electrical safety. Both exams are more technical and beyond memorising of regulations. They require a technical understanding of safe electrical installation methods that underpin the regulations. The courses are a challenging process, particularly for trainee electricians, many of whom have only just left school at the age of 16. Some companies now exclusively advertise for engineers with a deeper understanding of the regulations. As many engineers working for larger firms are lone workers, these skills are useful for management to ensure and monitor the quality of work.

That is the background. If Amendment 22 is adopted, the industry would require appropriately trained electricians to carry out fixed electrical wiring tests, and demand for electricians who have completed City & Guilds 2394 and 2395 will inevitably increase. The adoption of my noble friend’s amendment would lead to a major upskilling in the training of electricians, in the same way that happened after the introduction of Part P in 2005, when many contractors were forced to upskill in order to legally work with domestic properties. Amendment 22 takes advantage of the huge increase in Part P-registered contractors seen over the past decade by using the existing method of notification to Building Control.

Ten years ago the industry thought this notification process would be burdensome, but online submissions have proved to be quick and easier than expected. Most contractors have moved away from handwritten certificates to online and mobile device-based software, with app store support where required. A typical test on a domestic property can take between two and four hours to complete, and the electrician can leave the site with an electronic document ready for the client. The market for tests and inspections is very competitive, with companies advertising flat rates for the work. These rates vary across the country and comparisons with property values probably provide a good insight into the variance.

The statistics on deaths due to electrical faults and electrical fires speak for themselves. The Committee has an obvious opportunity tonight to tackle this, but it must not underestimate the general lifting of standards that a step such as Amendment 22 can bring. The Wiring Regulations are complicated for many and, given a chance, even experienced contractors will neglect them at times. Introducing compulsory testing will give the Wiring Regulations the further gravitas they deserve.

If anyone in the Chamber is worried about the cost of inspections, which I understand was the position the Government took when the matter was dealt with in the Commons, they should think about this frequent scenario. An electrician recently attended an emergency job. A tenanted flat had lost its power. A loose connection in the fuse-box arced and caused heat damage to the surrounding components. The unit installed was relatively new and the risks to the tenant were minimal, but had the installation been tested recently, the issue could have been identified before it occurred and the landlord could have saved a lot of money—the cost of an emergency callout and a new distribution board.

Testing is not just about finding faults; it is a method of maintaining an installation and preventing major issues from occurring, which can be very expensive to deal with. They teach 16 year-old kids this at colleges in London. In fact, if anyone in the Chamber was to ask me—a mere mortal in these matters—my advice on the electrics in their own home, the first thing I would ask is, “When was it last tested?”.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I, too, tabled Amendment 22 —the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, beat me to getting her name on it. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, this amendment is supported by a very wide range of organisations. That includes the Local Government Association, so I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA.

We have just heard a very well-informed and powerful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I am sure he is extremely grateful to his researcher—his son, as he says—who gave him that information. Indeed, he makes a powerful case. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke fully and very well on the information supplied, particularly by Electrical Safety First. I have the same information but will not repeat it.

I think the case is fairly overwhelming now. An increasing number of people are living in the private rented sector, many not by choice but because they have no choice. Quite a high proportion of private rented properties are old; indeed, many of them are pre-1919. Electrical standards were not good to start with, and are not necessarily as good as they should be now. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, cited figures that I think came from the London Fire Brigade. They bear repeating: they say that there has been no reduction in fires in the private rented sector since 2010, which is contrary to experience elsewhere. The noble Lord also said, and I shall say again, that of those investigated—and not all are investigated—748 fires in London had an electrical source.

A large and increasing number of people are living in private rented accommodation, much of which is quite old, and not necessarily in good condition. According to the London Fire Brigade—and we have no reason to think that things are significantly different elsewhere—very many fires are caused by electrical faults. One wonders, therefore, why the Government have rightly acted on gas safety and carbon monoxide but not on electrical safety. That is puzzling. As someone said to me recently, it leads one to believe that electricity just does not make a big enough bang. That is a slightly sick joke, but I wonder whether it is the real reason why the Government are so reluctant to act.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred not only to the quality and nature of electrical safety checks, but to their cost. The amendment calls for such checks to be done once every five years, and I am told that an electrical safety check costs in the region of £150. That amount every five years is hardly a high cost or a great burden for landlords.

In view of the time I shall not continue to press the case, which has been well made, but will now turn to our Second Reading debate. I opened my speech on this subject, and received the following reply from the Minister in her summing up:

“The Government are committed to protecting tenants and have agreed to carry out the necessary research to understand what, if any, legislative changes regarding electrical safety checks should be introduced”.—[Hansard, 26/1/16; col. 1270.]

May we ask the Minister, when she replies in a few minutes, to tell us a little more about the nature of this research, and how it is being carried out? Will the findings be published? Perhaps most importantly of all, when will it lead to the Government deciding whether further legislative changes are needed? As other noble Lords have said, the obvious legislative vehicle for introducing any such changes is this Bill, which is currently before Parliament. Will those decisions—I am sure the Minister will not pre-empt them—be made in time to be included in the Bill if the Government feel that they are necessary?

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said that the Opposition would provide an opportunity if the Government do not provide their own. So will the Liberal Democrats. We believe that this is a critically important subject. It has not exactly been neglected, because it has had some attention, but for far too long it has not been acted upon.

I end by expressing the concern that we have had, and will continue to have, throughout the Bill: what about the tenants? Many tenants moving into a property now often stay for only a year—the average tenancy in the private rented sector, I am told, is about three years—so, given that they will be moving in and out, frequently changing houses and often living in older properties, what reassurance do they have that their landlord has carried out an accredited electrical safety check?

It is clearly time to act. The Bill gives us an opportunity to act and I hope the Minister will tell us that the Government are moving firmly forward with the intention of acting.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat 9:15 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, I support Amendments 20 and 22 and do so with a slightly sinking feeling because it should not be necessary.

We have in the recent past discussed issues around landlords not keeping their properties in a decent state of repair. I was pleased to speak to the retaliatory evictions amendments during the passage of the Deregulation Bill. These make it an offence for tenants to be served with a notice of eviction if they bring a fault with their home to the attention of the landlord. They quite rightly expect him or her to rectify the problem. It would appear that either tenants are unaware of their rights under this legislation or that the legislation is being flouted by landlords. At all events, many tenants are still paying rent and living in properties that are far from what you and I would call fit for human habitation.

We have heard a great deal of rhetoric today and, because I consider this such a serious issue, I am afraid that I will repeat some of it now. This morning I received a useful brief from a partner at Anthony Gold Solicitors who specialises in landlord and tenant law. Outside of the retaliatory evictions, the law on tenants’ complaints is currently enforced by local authorities, as other Members have said. Karen Buck MP from the other place commissioned a report, published last December, on the challenge of tackling unsafe and unhealthy housing. Local authorities were contacted across the country and asked a number of questions about complaints from private tenants.

The number of complaints received in 2011-12 was 52,820; in 2012-13 it had gone up to 62,818; and in 2013-14 it had gone down but only to 51,916. The numbers of inspections carried out by local authorities over the same three-year period were 25,867, 31,634 and 29,768 respectively. Only about half of the properties about which tenants had made complaints were inspected.

As my noble friend Lady Grender has said, the categories of hazards and faults identified were damp and mould, excess cold, crowding and space, falling hazards and fire. The number of improvement notices served in 2011-12 were 1,519; in 2012-13, 1,645; and in 2013-14, 1,958. If local authorities had the resources to inspect the properties of all the complaints then no doubt the number of improvement notices could have been doubled. However, the number of prosecutions undertaken was less than 100 in each of the three years.

Some people are living in really dreadful conditions, as my noble friend Lady Grender has said. Under the current out-of-date legislation, tenants can take action themselves only if their rent is less than £80 a year in London and £52 a year elsewhere. I would be very hard pressed to find a property with a rent of £52 a week in my area, never mind a year. Perhaps I might get a bedroom in an HMO with a kitchen and bathroom shared, but that would be about it.

We know from other sources that 11 million people live in private rented accommodation in England. Of these, one in four are in families. Local authority budgets are overstretched. They are doing the best they can with shrinking resources but it is time that more is done to raise awareness about tenants’ rights and the law strengthened to give them the power to do this for themselves. If we remove the rent limit, we free up people to take responsibility for themselves.

I turn to Amendment 22, which we have heard about so eloquently from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. The 11 million people in the private rented sector are spending 47% of their income on rent—they have the highest rents—compared with 23% of the income of people with a mortgage and 32% of the income for those in the social rented sector. However, 30% of private rented properties in England would fail the Government’s decent homes standard compared with 15% in the social rented sector.

Landlords are required to carry out annual checks on gas installations, as we have heard, and mercifully there are very few incidents involving gas, whereas 350,000 people are injured through electrical incidents. In 2013-14, 49 people were killed as a result of electrical fires in the home. The amendment is asking not for annual inspections, as is the case with gas, but for an electrical safety inspection every five years. This would not be overly onerous. Surely the Minister will agree that saving lives is important.

I live in a rented property in London that has both gas and electricity supplied by the same company. Before Christmas I received a postcard saying that an engineer had cause to inspect the gas and electricity meters, and asking me to make an appointment for that to be done. I contacted the supplying company and fixed a date for when the House returned in January. I waited in and an engineer duly called and inspected both meters, making a couple of comments. He was required to do this quite separately from those who came to read the meters. He was satisfied with the state of the meters and showed me how to switch the gas off should I need to do so, which I was quite pleased about because I did not know how to do it before. However, he did not inspect the electrical cabling, nor did I expect him to. I am satisfied that the meters are safe and working properly, and that I am not paying more than I should for the energy I consume. What I do not know is the state of the wiring once it leaves the meter and goes into the rest of the flat.

Many people have fears about certain aspects of everyday life. For some it will be the fear of water and drowning, for others it will be being trapped in a dark and confined space, and for some it will be being caught in a fire. Whatever their fears, they are valid, and wherever possible we must do all that we can to ensure that such fears do not become reality. This is a simple and straightforward amendment that could save people’s lives and bring reassurance to thousands. I fully support both amendments.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I warmly endorse the first two amendments in this group. I find it inconceivable that the Government should stick to their position of declining to accept these basic amendments about the obvious need for properties to be fit for human habitation and electrically safe. It is not asking too much of landlords to ensure this; as we have just heard from the noble Baroness, a five-yearly inspection would hardly be costly, and in any event would no doubt be reflected in the rents charged over that period. At £150 or something like that, that would be only £30 a year. It is ridiculous to suggest that that would be too much of a burden for landlords to accept. And how anyone could resist a requirement for properties to be fit for human habitation escapes me.

However, I want to address the third amendment in this group, which is about property guardianship, and particularly about the condition of the properties that are dealt with in that fashion. I have to confess that I was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of property guardianship, or indeed the existence of property guardians, until I read an article in a newspaper—appropriately, the Guardian—in December. It seems that empty buildings, often large ones, are let out at low rents, but the renters have no security, with some companies—it tends to be companies which operate these properties—offering just two-week notice periods. Normal standards of safety and the condition of the property do not appear to apply or to be achieved.

The concept appears to have emerged some years ago, with large, empty buildings being let on licences which offered the owners of those buildings some protection of the properties, which might otherwise have been vulnerable to vandalism or other damage. There are now apparently 4,000 people living as property guardians, with what the

Guardian report describes as high prices and increasingly unsuitable living conditions. In the report, one guardian was complaining of seeing rooms “like chicken coops” in Kennington offered at £500 a month. The premises have rows of plyboard walls and no natural light or ventilation.

The matter was researched by an academic at Durham University, one Gloria Dawson, who found one space formerly occupied by three people now occupied by up to 15. There is often only one kitchen or one bathroom in these multiply occupied large spaces. In one case, six guardians had to use a temporary shower in a dirty, windowless room in a place where the toilet light could not be made to work.

The report cited the case of a property in Hackney which had been used for five years by interns working for the letting company. They were paying £130 a month for a property where they, as employees of the company, were claiming that at times, rubbish was not collected, the electrics were faulty and there was no hot water. It has now changed hands to a different company, and the cost of a room is £700 a month.

Bad as all that is for guardians, it is also bad for councils, because the owners of these premises, which are usually commercial premises, cease to pay business rates. One company specifically advertised its ability to reduce empty property rates, claiming to have reduced rates for an office block, a gym and some industrial units by converting to this guardianship scheme from £694,000 to £33,000, from £150,000 in another case to £2,650 and, in a third case, from £110,000 to £15,000. Not only are people being exposed to very unsatisfactory living conditions, with no recourse to having them improved, but the local authorities are deprived of significant income, which could and should be used for services which are very much under pressure. There is nothing to stop that change of use from business to residential purposes as, thanks to the coalition Government, planning permission is no longer required for such conversions.

The amendment will not deal with the conversion of business properties to housing, something which we may well be discussing later in the Bill. An amendment to that effect may emerge from the Government Benches; I hope the Government will take that seriously. However, the amendment is intended to ensure that residents acting in the role as property guardians enjoy at least the same protection in relation to their living conditions as other tenants, and that the landlords act, if not as guardian angels, at least as responsible owners who pay due regard to the need to ensure that residents in their properties enjoy the same protection in relation to living conditions as other tenants.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 9:30 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to the amendments, which have one aim: to support and protect those living in the private rented sector.

Amendment 20 would place a duty on landlords to ensure that their properties are fit for human habitation when let and that they remain fit during the tenancy.

The amendment would also give legal rights to tenants to take action directly against their landlord through the courts when properties are in an unfit condition.

Clearly, all homes should be of a reasonable standard, and all tenants should have a safe place to live, regardless of tenure, particularly when they are vulnerable and living in unacceptable conditions. As noble Lords have already stated, an existing framework allows local authorities strong powers to require landlords to make necessary improvements to a property. Indeed, the last Labour Administration introduced the framework in 2004 as a replacement for the old fitness standard. The housing health and safety rating system assesses the health and safety risk in all residential properties, and under the Housing Act 2004, following a HHSRS inspection local authorities can issue an improvement notice or a hazard awareness notice. In extreme circumstances, the local authority may decide to make the repairs itself, or to prohibit that property from being rented out.

Local authorities have strong and effective powers to deal with poor-quality, unsafe accommodation, and we expect them to use these powers. However, this Government have gone further, to enable local authorities to take targeted action. Where rented housing in a particular area is characterised by poor property conditions, the local authority can now introduce a selective licensing scheme which enables it to target enforcement action. Last month we also announced a further £5 million funding for 48 local authorities to tackle rogue landlords, on top of the £6.7 million made available in the last Parliament. We have also consulted on extending mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation, again focusing regulation where it is needed. Finally, we are strengthening measures that local authorities already have by taking forward proposals through this Bill to enable local authorities to take further enforcement against rogue landlords, including through the database that we have talked about, the civil penalty notices and the extended rent repayment orders.

I support the aim of this amendment—raising standards for tenants—but it would lead to additional costs for good landlords, who are the ones that will pay for inspections and certificates to prove the condition of their property. I also have concerns that the amendment would give legal rights to tenants to take action themselves through the courts for the following reasons. We have issued guidance to make tenants aware of their rights, and to make landlords responsible, through the How to Rent and Renting a Safe Home guides, both of which are available on the gov.uk website. I have already mentioned that there is a system whereby tenants can raise concerns with their local authority and it will carry out an inspection, with strong powers and a duty to act if it finds a serious hazard. Civil penalties of up to £30,000 and rent repayment orders will give local authorities significantly more resources to ramp up inspection and enforcement. Noble Lords may consider that local authorities have limited resources to carry out inspections, but through the civil penalties measures outlined in the Bill they would be able to keep those penalties for housing-related activities.

I question whether a vulnerable tenant would prefer to go through a lengthy court process rather than to be in a position to get their landlord to carry out repairs or to seek redress. My concern is that such a measure would lead only to rogues avoiding their responsibilities and the sanctions that could lead to them being banned. In addition, the amendment provides, among other things, for the court to have regard to whether there is a category 1 hazard in the property. In order to establish whether there is a category 1 hazard, the local authority would need to have carried out an inspection using the HHSRS methodology. In such cases, therefore, the tenant would need to involve the local authority in the proceedings.

As has been made clear in the other place, there is an appetite to ensure that landlords have a legal duty to carry out electrical safety checks on behalf of their tenants. Amendment 22, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and spoken to very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, seeks to introduce this requirement for landlords to organise regular electrical safety tests in their rental properties. I understand the concerns that noble Lords have raised and the issue of safeguarding tenants. I hope to come back to the House in due course with further details on our next step but, as noble Lords have mentioned, research is being carried out with my officials to try to strike the balance between protecting tenants, and not overregulating and causing unnecessary burdens for landlords.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Does the Minister not acknowledge that it is more important to protect tenants’ safety than to protect against the modest financial implications that landlords might incur, which in any event would probably be translated into rent?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I hope I have made it clear that tenants’ safety is of the utmost importance. In fact, amendments tabled in the other place led to that agreement by the Government to carry out research into whether legislative changes were needed regarding electrical safety. I will ensure that noble Lords are updated on the progress of this because I totally recognise that tenants’ safety is of the utmost importance.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

On that point, if the Minister will forgive me, will we have that information by the time we reach Report? If it is after the Bill goes through, there will not be much point to it.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am not getting any indications from the Box. However, I do not feel very switched-on at this hour of the night. Perhaps I could let the noble Lord know, because it would obviously be ideal if we could have it for Report. If we had it further in the future, perhaps secondary legislation could be introduced in due course.

Finally, Amendment 30 would require that the requirements concerning fitness for human habitation and repairing obligations set out in Sections 8 to 17 of the Landlord and Tenant Act are applied to contracts for guardianship schemes. I must at this point declare an interest because my son is a property guardian. I may ring him when I get out of here to make sure that he is still alive, given all the things that I have heard.

These schemes are private arrangements between a building owner and one or more individuals. The Government do not support the schemes, as the guardians can be asked to live in conditions which do not meet the standards expected in residential properties. We do not therefore believe that it would be appropriate to require that Sections 8 to 17 of the Landlord and Tenant Act should apply to guardianship agreements. I hope that my responses provide reassurances—

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

The Minister is saying that she has every sympathy but that the Government are not going to do anything about conditions which, as she acknowledges, can be very unsatisfactory. I do not understand why the Government are reluctant to intervene here.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, if the noble Lord is talking about the property guardianship schemes, it is because they are arrangements between a building owner and one or more individuals, and the arrangement is temporary. They are not intended to provide stable alternative accommodation.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

That may be the case but surely, as the Minister’s remarks implied, they need to be fit for people to stay there. There must be some basic standards to protect people from being exploited in these conditions. It is not a formal tenancy but if nothing is done, people will be exposed to risks to their health and possibly their safety. The Government must surely acknowledge that this matter is at least worth considering before we get to Report, rather than rejecting it.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, because of the nature of the arrangement—as the noble Lord said, there is no tenancy agreement in place—it is not a formal tenancy in that sense and we do not think that the Landlord and Tenant Act actually applies to it.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

But provisions could be applied if the Government legislated to protect people in this position. Are the Government saying that they cannot find a way to protect people from the kind of circumstances which I have described, and which the Guardian report so clearly brought to light? It may not be a question of amending the Landlord and Tenant Act but surely it is possible to bring forward proposals which could be incorporated into this Bill.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 9:45 pm, 9th February 2016

I see the point, and as I say, my son is living in such accommodation, but the reason owners do it is to protect against squatting as opposed to provide for permanent accommodation. There is no tenancy agreement in place. However, I will go back and think further about this. It is a slightly anomalous situation in the general housing market, given that many of the properties are not housing. With those words, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate: the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, my noble friends Lord Beecham and Lord Campbell-Savours, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, who said that, yes, local authorities have powers, but it is a cumbersome process, and a lack of budgets at present means they will not be effective. With this amendment we would empower only the tenants to seek redress themselves, which is a good thing, although I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, does not necessarily agree with me on that.

The electrical safety amendment should not cause the Government any problems whatsoever. I am pleased that the Government are looking at this area of additional safety. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made a powerful contribution to the reason why the Government should agree to these electrical safety tests in the private rented sector. We believe that these two amendments raise issues of paramount importance, and we will divide the House on both issues if we do not get the necessary movement from the Government on Report —we are very upfront about that straightaway.

I end with the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, will hold discussions with noble Lords before we get to Report so that that will not be necessary and an agreement can be reached on both issues. We are very much willing to have those discussions. However, we think these are serious matters, which need looking at. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.

Amendments 21 and 22 not moved.

Amendment 23

Moved by Baroness Meacher

23: Insert the following new Clause

“Rent arrears

The Secretary of State shall lay a report before Parliament annually about the impact of rent arrears on the health and wellbeing of men, women and children.”

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, requiring the Secretary of State to lay annually a report before Parliament about the impact of rent arrears on the health and wellbeing of men, women and children sounds like a rather academic point. However, every parent who finds themselves unable to pay their rent will feel an extraordinary sense of insecurity due to being unsure about keeping a roof over their children’s heads—along with the threat of eviction, homelessness, and so forth. Therefore, this is a serious matter for each and every family affected.

Why is this happening? On the one hand, the housing shortage is causing rents to rise to levels never seen before. Council house tenants have seen their rents rise four times faster than average wages in the past five years, outstripping even the private sector. These rents are putting huge pressure on the welfare bill and on tenants themselves. The Government have redefined the word “affordable”, extraordinarily. For a council tenant, it used to mean half the open market rent. Now, the term “affordable” means 80% of market rents. In fact, such rents are of course utterly unaffordable in London, so they need to change the word.

The LGA estimates that 60,000 households will be forced into rent arrears in the next few years, and I imagine that that number will soar thereafter as all the welfare benefit cuts increase over time. The Bill will price social housing tenants out of their home areas. For families relying on grandparents to care for children, or relatives to look after disabled or elderly family members, moving from the local area has serious social consequences and may simply be completely impractical. Similarly, for some children, changing schools can have a devastating impact on their education. The RSA envisages that the numbers of children affected will grow. Instead of moving, many families will run the risk of moving into rent arrears.

Into this mix comes the Government’s decision to cut housing benefit while simultaneously freezing the annual increases in already very low benefit incomes, which are then subject to council tax payments. Paul Nicolson has made this point very strongly in the media. The consequences of these decisions are the development of rent arrears, the draconian enforcement of debt, and the malnutrition of parents and maybe children.

The point of this amendment is that the impact on public health is simply not yet known and we need to have it measured. When the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, moved a similar amendment to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, responded with references to the Government’s commitment to reduce health inequalities and to ensure that ill health does not hold our children back from fulfilling their potential. Does the Minister accept that, if parents have insufficient money to pay for food for their children, to heat the house and to keep a roof over their heads, this will surely, over time, impact seriously on their children’s health and well-being?

The noble Lord, Lord Freud, talked about tackling the root causes of poverty—worklessness and educational underattainment. The majority of those in poverty today are in work. A root cause of poverty in this country is not worklessness, but the ever-diminishing level of in-work and out-of-work benefits, combined with low pay. The Government are making things worse and risking an unnecessary hike in rent arrears because, under universal credit, the plan is to eliminate any possibility that housing benefit could be paid directly to landlords. Conscientious parents who want to secure the roof over their family’s head will no longer be able to ask for their housing benefit to be paid directly to landlords. There is no doubt in my mind—none at all—that rent arrears will be very much higher under this new regime than under the old.

In conclusion, this amendment only requires the Government to report to Parliament annually about the impact of rent arrears on the health and well-being of those affected. Only if the Government and Parliament have this information can we hope that remedial action will be taken to mitigate the consequences of government policy. I ask the Minister to give serious thought to this amendment, rather than simply dismissing the idea. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, although my name is not shown on this amendment, I should like to support it because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, it is very important.

There are two reasons why it should be reasonably straightforward for the Government to fulfil the proposal in this amendment. The first is that local authorities have health and well-being boards that are charged with a duty to assess the general health and well-being of their area, so a structure exists. The second is that a wealth of research has been undertaken connecting well-being with poverty. The amendment talks about the impact of rent arrears, for perfectly good reasons. Of course, the issue is more generally debt and rent levels, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has drawn attention; this is clearly an important contributory factor. However, it is not just a financial issue. Too often, Governments look at the question of well-being and think it relates to rents and to the financial issues surrounding the payment of rents. There is a huge wealth of evidence that suggests that it is a well-being issue. Governments have to address the matter from that perspective. Citizens Advice has produced statistics on payday loans and the rise in the work of loan sharks, which it says has gone up 10 times since 2008. This matters. Politicians and Governments have a duty to ensure that the population is not exposed to higher levels of mental and physical ill health, driven by poor diet because money does not exist in the household, to ensure that its health and well-being is being protected.

This is a perfectly reasonable amendment. Delivering it is the kind of thing Governments exist for. If Governments do not do it, I am not entirely sure who should. In my view, Parliament has a duty to examine this on an annual basis and to assess whether health and well-being is being impacted upon negatively by the fact that debt levels and rent arrears are rising.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, I warmly support Amendment 23, to which I have added my name. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for making this point but when I think of my formative political years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when we had such clear aspirations for our society, I find it almost inconceivable that here we are, still one of the wealthiest nations in the world, having to discuss whether or not, as a result of policy, we are facing a deteriorating situation in the nutrition, health and mental health of people in this country. I find it appalling. I can hardly believe that this is happening and that this is the reality, when we had all those aspirations—which broadly went across political lines in those years. I think it is disgraceful and I hope the Government take seriously that, at the day of reckoning, they will have a lot to answer for.

I had an inner-city constituency when I was a Member of Parliament and I saw then the clear connection between poverty, educational attainment, health and mental stability. I also saw the impact as families—which we keep saying are so important in our priorities—with totally inadequate means tried to cope with mental breakdown and mental illness in their midst.

In policy-making we need to proceed on sound evidence. The anecdotal evidence, the evidence of practical experience, is overwhelming. I keep being disturbed by the reports I read about teachers seeing children coming to school hungry and undernourished—how can we possibly hope for advancement in educational achievement in this situation? Teachers are now out of pocket themselves on occasion, financing breakfast for the children concerned. We need all the hard evidence we can find. As a society, we are increasingly concerned about mental illness, which seems to be increasing by disturbing dimensions. Of course, mental illness is related to the basic issue of the security of a decent home.

I have mentioned my experience as the MP for an inner-city area but I saw this issue arising in another context, when for nine years I had the privilege of being the president of the YMCA in England. The YMCA has a very big housing programme, and I could see that it was just ridiculous to regard administering a housing programme as just managing it. There were always huge social dimensions attached to that housing programme. Why were people there, needing our support? Why were people in the state they were in? These questions were constantly before us.

We need the maximum amount of real evidence of what is happening on the front line, and it is altogether sensible and encouraging that the noble Baroness—not for the first time, I might say—is challenging us to do something practical to see from the front-line evidence what the situation is.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 10:00 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and my noble friend Lord Judd have set out in graphic detail the nature of the problem. I want to say a few words on one of the tangential benefits of this annual report being produced. I suspect that the Minister will say at the Dispatch Box, “No way; you’re not going to have your annual report”. I presume that the Minister’s notes will contain the instruction “resist the amendment and say no”. But there is another benefit of all this that Ministers might wish to take into account. With all this talk about buy to let, people throughout the country are being led into a world where they believe that quick profits are to be made out of rental income. However, a lot of people are deluding themselves. As I said before, a lot of these buy-to-let tenancies have been let as a result of pressure from television programmes, friends at dinner parties or whatever. A lot of buy-to-let tenants are in arrears and are suffering.

I am sure many noble Lords will know of people who are in arrears. I know of two properties where people moved in only recently and received notice letters directed to the previous tenants. In both cases, the tenants were being referred to the courts for being in debt. There is a huge booming problem out there of rising debt arising out of rent arrears. This measure is one way of indicating to the world that there really is a problem. So this is not just about health in the way set out in the amendment; it is about providing a way of indicating that in the real world there are problems to do with arrears that people who are led mistakenly into this market have to recognise before they take foolish decisions which they can ill afford.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, I also support this amendment. Earlier today we finished Third Reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has talked to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, about the interlocking of this amendment with one of the issues that we were discussing on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I rather suspect that it may not have happened because of one of the two defeats of the Government on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, as opposed to very welcome movements they made towards a common consensual ground around this House, which we very much appreciated, as, indeed, we did on kinship care, guardians, carers and so on. However, one of the two issues on which the Government were defeated fairly early on in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was child poverty indicators. As the Minister may or may not know, the previous Labour Government had four poverty indicators: absolute poverty, relative poverty, persistent poverty and material deprivation. The Government proposed to replace this with indicators of life chances from the DWP. It is perfectly proper to track those life chances but we argued that that must include poverty as well.

I remind the Minister that the Government’s agenda on poverty was debated on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The Government wanted to assess life-chance risks, which would include a parent being unable to work, addiction and mental health problems, being unqualified, being without work and being unemployed. The other one was unmanageable personal debt, which was classified as being behind on rent, or needing alternative payment arrangements in universal credit. We know that both these things are happening. We know therefore that the Government recognise, or believe—I think, possibly, falsely—that this is a driver of poverty and not just a consequence of it. If the Government believe that it is a driver of poverty, they need to know what is happening if they are to know as a Government at what point they intervene and what levers to press to address it. Therefore, we need this information. The problem for all Governments, including my own, is that we tend to do the things that are easy. We do things we can count, not the things we need to assess. For example, you know, if you are doing key performance indicators in any measurement, that if you put in, “The telephone has to be answered in fewer than eight rings”, people will do that because it is easy. You count it and you can put the numbers in and you will get your 90% performance target. If you suggest something such as assessing what is happening to health and well-being, they will not touch it, because it is qualitative and therefore regarded as less real, being less quantifiable than telephone rings.

The DWP, in a parallel development, is seeking to address the issue of unmanageable personal debt as a driver of poverty. If there are implications for mental health and well-being, as this amendment suggests, it will be crucial for DCLG to investigate what is happening in this area, which is not about housing benefit but about housing policy, including rent arrears and all the other issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has raised tonight. I hope the Minister takes this very seriously, because if she does not, the two government departments will be pulling in diametrically opposed directions. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, would not wish that to happen.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I understand where the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, is coming from in moving her amendment. It seems to me that the issue is not so much one of rent arrears as one of rent levels, which of course very often lead to rent arrears. It may well be the case that families go short, but they do so partly because they are fearful of eviction and will pay the rent first and look after other family needs second. It might have been better to think again—perhaps we will when we get to Report—about the terminology here. It is not just rent arrears that will cause problems but a combination of the income in the house and what other expenditure there may be, including for example, the impact of the bedroom tax on households. The noble Baroness is absolutely right, however, that whatever components one looks at, it is necessary to have regard to the impact on the health and well-being of people, particularly those in rented property, given the huge increase in rents in recent years.

I can give an example from my own family’s indirect experience. My son had a raised ground-floor flat in Islington comprising 286 square feet, which would fit relatively comfortably in the third of the ground-floor reception rooms in my house in Newcastle. The purchaser of the flat put it on the market at a rent, as far as I recall, of over £1,000 a month—roughly £4 a square foot. It is a tiny flat and only really suitable for one person, which I suspect is not untypical of housing in many parts of London these days. I would guess that is a huge proportion of the income of many people—certainly those who are not in well-paid jobs.

That may well exemplify the kind of problem that is all too often faced in the light of these absurdly high rent levels. It has to be recognised that they have gone up very markedly in the last few years, particularly, but not exclusively, in the capital. The amendment moved by the noble Baroness is very apposite to developing conditions, which may well have an impact on people’s health and well-being, as she suggests, and which therefore should be taken into account, with a view to doing something about these rent levels. That is the problem. I concede it is most acute where that leads to eviction, but it is there before you get to that point, very often for long periods.

My Amendment 32 calls, in perhaps not the most elegant drafting, for an examination of the different types of house tenure to see how this has affected the market and the levels of rent, and indeed the condition of properties. It is designed particularly to draw attention to the situation that can arise in the context of short-term lettings, such as those through Airbnb, which for other reasons has often been raised in your Lordships’ House, most notably by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who is not now in her place. There must be concern about how these properties are managed and their impact in other ways upon the local community. Particularly on an individual basis, there is no apparent way at the moment in which these short-term lettings can be monitored in terms of the condition of the property, its safety and the like.

I hope the Minister will not repeat what she said before about the other types of property that we were discussing. Logically, I suppose, she might be driven to that extreme, but I hope she will recognise that perhaps we need to look at whether it might be timely to consider applying some criteria by which the condition of properties let—maybe for a night or two, or maybe for a slightly longer period—can be monitored. Such criteria would need to be of a standard that ensured that basic conditions were maintained.

One reads of dreadful things going on in some places. There was a court case recently—in London, I think—involving a flat that had been let for what turned out to be a wild party and was significantly damaged. That would not necessarily be covered by legislation but it may be that, beginning with looking at a requirement for such lettings to be in properties that are at least fit for human habitation and safe in terms of their electrics and the rest of it, one might ultimately revisit the issue of whether planning permission might not be needed. I know that now it is not required in London anyway but that is a separate issue—or a further issue—from the condition of these places and what individuals going there for short periods might be exposed to. It is not just a question of Airbnb for one or two nights; there is also the issue of holiday lets up and down the country, which at the moment, as I understand it, are not really governed by any requirements as to the fitness of the accommodation. If we are looking at housing across the piece, it would be desirable, to put it mildly, to look at the condition of those properties as well as at the basic stock that is on the rental market.

I hope that, with our commitment this evening, the Minister will agree to look at this before Report with a view to possibly extending some of the protections that exist for regular tenancies to these short-term lets of either kind. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Does the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, wish to mention waterways before I respond?

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The amendment on waterways came about because at a meeting of tenants from around London I met a group of people who live on the waterways. I mentioned the Second Reading of the Bill and they said they felt aggrieved as they had been totally ignored by most of their local authorities. They live on waterways such as the Thames, in the dock areas, and they feel that when it comes to services they are not involved or consulted. I know that this is not a major issue in the Bill, but I would be grateful if someone could meet some of these people before we get to the next stage. Perhaps there could be some regulations or guidance to point them in the right direction. They had a valid point and such a meeting might be helpful to them.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 10:15 pm, 9th February 2016

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I shall begin by addressing Amendment 23. The Government, too, support a better and more sustainable rented sector which offers all tenants quality and choice. Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill demonstrate our commitment to this. I have listened carefully to the arguments this evening, but I remind noble Lords that the Government already produce the English housing survey and the Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK index annually. We believe these can achieve what noble Lords are suggesting.

The English housing survey includes narrative chapters and data on the financial circumstances, satisfaction and well-being of householders. This covers private and social renters, and owner-occupiers. Currently our analysts do not look directly at the link between rent arrears and well-being, but we will publish a housing and well-being report in the summer. The analysis for this is about to start. Our intention is to include the impact of rent arrears and housing insecurity more generally in this analysis. I trust this will help inform the House about the impact of arrears on well-being.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

Will the Minister ensure that a letter is sent to all those who have taken part in the discussion tonight, outlining the terms of reference of that working party and saying when it is due to report, what it will look at and when we can expect to see its findings?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Yes, I am happy to commit to do that. I can also reassure the noble Baroness that the DCLG and the DWP will communicate on the cross-departmental issues that she raised.

The other document I mentioned, Measuring National Well-being: Life in the UK, 2015, reports on well-being in relation to where people live and how they cope financially. As well as those two reports, the European Commission produces Quality of Life in Europe: Subjective Well-being. In that report, housing security is measured by the question,

“How likely or unlikely do you think it is that you will need to leave your accommodation within the next 6 months because you can no longer afford it?”

As a result of our debate today, we have asked the department whether it might be possible to pose a similar question in the English housing survey.

With regard to Amendment 32, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, I agree it should be easier for local authorities to identify the type of housing in their area, in order to exercise their housing functions better. However, we believe local authorities already have appropriate powers in existing and proposed legislation to seek information on housing tenure, and they can analyse that data to inform their local requirements. We believe that requiring the Government to commission and follow up a central collection and collation of this data would impose an unreasonable cost, in both time and resource, on taxpayers. We are taking the more effective approach of making tenancy deposit data available to local authorities through this Bill, for them to make use of as they see fit.

It also not clear what would be gained by collecting this information at national level. Local authorities, by definition, have localised issues, and housing statistics will only be relevant and meaningful in local areas. Schedule 2 to the Local Government Finance Act 1992 contains provisions for the Secretary of State to make legislation relating to the collection and administration of council tax, and regulations are already in place that give authorities the power to collect information which may include data on tenure in their area. The department has contacted local authorities to remind them of their existing powers. I would also add that the 2011 census provides a full tenure split at local authority level, and some local authorities have updated this record.

In connection with Amendment 33, my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford and I would be happy to meet the organisations concerned. Perhaps we could have a further conversation following this debate, just to ensure that we invite the right people. With all that in mind, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Before the noble Baroness sits down, I draw her attention to the precise wording of Amendment 32. Subsection (3)(b) of the proposed new clause goes beyond the general information to which she referred and talks specifically about,

“an assessment of the number of properties being let as short-term holiday lettings and the extent to which legislation relating to the condition of rented properties applies to short-term holiday lettings”.

That is not a local matter but a national matter with local implications. I invite the two noble Baronesses at least to say today that they will look at that issue and consider it before we get to Report. It is a discrete issue in a way.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I will take it back. I would reiterate that it is a private matter, but we will have further conversations.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Judd, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Beecham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for their considered, well-informed and powerful contributions to this short debate. I am not at all convinced that the Government’s housing survey will provide the necessary focus on the soaring levels of rent and rent arrears and their impact on families and children and on the Government’s emphasis on health, well-being, educational attainment and so on.

The Government and Parliament really need to understand what is happening now and what will happen over the next few years in these regards. However, it is a late hour. We will have to come back to this issue, and I will no doubt have a conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, about precisely what the wording of the amendment should be. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.22 pm.