New Clause 21

Housing and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 24th January 2008.

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Implied term as to fitness for human habitation

‘In section 8 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, for subsections (3) and (4), substitute the following—

‘(3) This section applies to a contract for the letting of a house for a term of less than seven years.

(4) In determining whether the letting is one to which this section applies, the provisions of section 13(2) shall apply.’.—[Lembit Öpik.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I beg to move, That the clause be a read a Second time.

Good morning, Mr. Gale. I take on board your request for focus and brevity. The new clause, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, seeks to define the applicability of sections 8(3) and (4) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. Referring to section 8, the amendment says:

“This section applies to a contract for the letting of a house for a term of less than seven years”.

The next part of the amendment is self-explanatory. Obviously, we are trying to ensure that the legislation applies to the right people in the right circumstances and in a fair way, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Given what you have just said, Mr. Gale, there is no great benefit in my giving a lengthy exposition, because it is the Government’s perspective that is important, not mine.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Thank you, Mr. Gale, and good morning to you. I take on board your ruling on moving forward swiftly while seeking to ensure that the important measures in the Bill are adequately scrutinised and debated.

The new clause would extend the obligation to ensure that a property is fit for human habitation, as defined under section 10 of the 1985 Act, to all rented accommodation that is let on short leases of less than seven years. I fully understand why the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for St. Ives tabled it, but it is not necessary, because we now have more up-to-date and effective provisions in place to ensure that rented property is let and maintained in a satisfactory and safe condition.

The fitness standard referred to in section 10 of the 1985 Act has been replaced by the housing health and safety rating system, which was introduced in the Housing Act 2004. The old fitness standard was based on criteria that were originally introduced 80 years ago and it was in great need of modernisation.

The new rating system is a risk-assessment process, which looks at the likelihood that an incident will arise as a result of the condition of the property and that there will be a harmful outcome. That approach allows the assessment to be geared to the individual circumstances of each case, based on the risks to those occupants who are most vulnerable to the hazards.

The rating standard assesses 29 categories of housing hazard, such as electrical hazards, cold, falls, fire and so on and is therefore a more suitable tool than the old standard for improving housing conditions in the private rented sector. The old standard did not cover all the major health and safety problems found in a home and gave no indication of how serious problems were.

If a property is found to contain serious, so-called category 1 hazards, the local authority has a duty to take the most appropriate action in relation to those hazards. That could include serving a notice for the landlord to carry out improvements and it may even extend to issuing a prohibition order, the effect of which would be to close all, or part of, a property.

The Housing Act 2004 enables local authority environmental health officers to undertake a rating system assessment of the risks and hazards in a property. If risks are found, the authority can instruct the landlord or person responsible for management to undertake any works necessary to ensure that the property is safe and decent—for example, the installation of central heating. It can instruct the landlord to undertake such works within a set time scale. Failure by the landlord or manager to do so can result in a fine of up to £5,000.

In addition, landlords have obligations to carry out repairs to keep their properties in good condition. Under section 11 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, they are legally responsible for repairs to the structure and exterior of their properties and for keeping the plumbing and heating installations in proper working order. Local authorities have powers to force landlords to carry out necessary repairs. The rating system that I mentioned can be used by tenants whose landlords fail to carry out the repairs for which they are responsible under the landlord and tenant Acts.

Local authorities have a range of powers to force property owners to deal with statutory nuisance problems relating to the condition of a property. For example, under the Building Act 1984, they can require steps to be taken to address a property that adversely affects the amenity of an area due to disrepair.

Given the range of powers in place from a variety of legislation, I believe that adequate provisions are already in place to address the condition of rented accommodation. Indeed, the new housing health and safety rating system has many advantages over the old fitness standard. As the new rating standard can give full consideration to problems caused—for example, by damp and a lack of central heating—in the way that a fixed set of minimum standards cannot, it provides more protection for tenants.

I hope that I have set out the position clearly and reassured the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and that he will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Minister (Housing), Department for Communities and Local Government

I applaud the Minister’s faith in existing legislation. He is right to highlight the housing health and safety rating system and to point out that, in theory at least, a tenant can evoke it to secure improvements in the standard of accommodation that they rent. However, in any practical sense, often that is not the case. We are dealing with individuals who frequently feel disfranchised and quite often feel intimidated by their landlord. As such, although theoretically an individual who rents a property can use existing legislation to improve the conditions in which they live, in practice that is often unlikely. To list 29 categories of hazard in legislation is fine, but I would be willing to bet that 99.9 per cent. of the public have no idea what those 29 categories are. The new clause would make it a little easier for tenants to see their rights protected.

I hear what the Minister says, and to save time and to consult Shelter and other organisations I will not press the new clause to a vote now, but I may bring it back on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.