Suitability of private rented sector accommodation

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 11th January 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Under the clause local authorities, under their part 7 functions relating to homelessness and prevention of homelessness, have a duty that requires the housing authority to be satisfied that accommodation provided by them is suitable for the applicant and his or her household, or that private rented accommodation that they secure or assist with securing is suitable. In considering suitability, authorities must by law consider whether the accommodation is affordable for the applicant, as well as whether its size, condition, accessibility and location are suitable. In addition to those factors, when securing accommodation in the private rented sector for those in priority need under the main homelessness duty, suitability requires that local authorities check a number of other things relating to the safety, physical condition and management of the property.

The measure extends the requirement and means that local housing authorities will be required to carry out those additional checks when they secure accommodation for vulnerable persons in the private rented sector under the prevention and relief duties in the Bill. That means that a number of vulnerable people will be assisted in a way that they are not at the moment. By “vulnerable” we mean as a result of old age, mental illness, handicap or other special reason, or someone with whom such a person resides or might reasonably be expected to reside.

The measure broadens the scope quite considerably and the additional checks and requirements are set out in article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012, which we have referred to in previous meetings of this Committee. Many of those are already legal requirements. They include, for example, whether there is a valid energy performance certificate; whether adequate precautions have been taken to guard against carbon monoxide poisoning; and whether the landlord is a fit and proper person to act in the capacity of landlord. The landlord will need to provide the local housing authority with a written tenancy agreement that the local housing authority considers to be adequate.

A key objective of the Bill is to increase the effectiveness of local authority prevention and relief efforts. The private rented sector will inevitably play a key part in delivering that and enabling local authorities to fulfil their duties. The Bill will ensure that where property is for vulnerable people, it is in good condition and managed properly.

Clearly, there is an issue with checks being made of all households. That would require a significant additional burden on local authorities. Many tenants are capable of carrying out those inquiries themselves. We do not want to be in a position where individuals find a property, have it allocated to them and then find it is not suitable. One issue that has to be resolved in guidance is how that process works. As the hon. Member for Westminster North pointed out, many people already find private rented accommodation for themselves without local authorities carrying out any checks on their behalf. That is a concern in many parts of London in particular.

A range of protections exist for those in the private rented sector. For example, local authorities have strong powers to deal with health and safety hazards through the housing health and safety rating system. Requirements for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms have been introduced relatively recently. The Government are taking action against rogue landlords, including through a range of measures included in the Housing and Planning Act 2016. That strong framework already provides protection for all tenants in the private rented sector, and not only those allocated by a local authority.

The approach in the clause is therefore a proportionate one that provides additional protection where it is most needed for those who are vulnerable, and imposes new duties on local authorities to ensure not only that they provide help and assistance and an offer of accommodation, but that the accommodation for vulnerable people is both suitable and safe.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Obviously, any steps towards ensuring that properties in which particularly vulnerable people reside are fit and proper are to be welcomed. The clause amends article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012, on circumstances in which accommodation is not to be regarded as suitable for a person. When a local housing authority is securing accommodation under the Bill’s new duties whether for a homeless household or to prevent homelessness, the accommodation must meet the same requirements for suitability as private rented sector offers made under a discharge of duty under the Housing Act 1996.

We know very well that, as the private sector has extended significantly, a minority, but a catastrophic minority, of private sector provision is deeply substandard. Indeed, that is one reason why the Government have introduced measures to tackle rogue landlords. Such provision is partly because of the rogue behaviour of landlords who are not fit and proper persons, and partly because of accidental landlords who are not able to manage their property as well as we would like. As a consequence, many people are living in accommodation that is well below what we require to be decent.

One reason that I introduced my private Member’s Bill last year—I was not as fortunate as the hon. Member for Harrow East—was to ensure that individuals can seek legal redress if a property is not regarded as fit for human habitation. As he said, local authorities can intervene using the powers available to them under the housing health and safety rating system, but practice is highly varied between local authorities, which in a way mirrors the discussions we have had about homelessness legislation. That is partly driven by the lack of resources for local authorities, but in some cases it is cultural change.

As an underpinning for the legislation, it would be very helpful if the Government collected information on what local authorities are doing under the housing health and safety rating system, so that we have a better and clearer idea of where substandard accommodation is being investigated and what action local authorities are taking. At the moment, that information does not exist and the only way in which we can collect it is through a freedom of information request, such as I have done.

Those are all relevant issues, but the central issue as far as the clause is concerned is that its scope—it applies to vulnerable individuals set out under the priority needs group—means that the same standards do not apply to either pregnant women or women with children. It therefore simply does not cover everyone who has falls within the category of priority needs. The effect is that pregnant women and children could be offered private rented accommodation under the prevention and relief duties without checks necessarily having to be made as to whether the landlord has convictions for violent or sexual offences, or whether the accommodation is safe from serious hazards and is being let in a professional manner.

I am sure that will be done in many cases, and certainly when a local authority is acting properly and investigating the accommodation for which it is making provision, but it does not have to be done. I am afraid that, again, given the extreme pressure on local authority resources, in some cases it simply will not be done.

The Opposition are concerned that that could place pregnant women and children at a serious risk of harm. We know that 28% of private rentals fail the decent homes standard and that one in seven contains a category one hazard under the housing health and safety rating system. I am sure all members of the Committee will have experienced cases in which individuals have found themselves accommodation that is seriously substandard. We need to ensure that there is a proper legislative framework to ensure that that does not happen. In the past few weeks alone, I have had to take a case in which a nine-month pregnant woman was left sharing a hotel bedroom with two young siblings, and another in which a mother of premature triplets with lung disorders was moved to a second property by a local authority that was plagued by damp and mould. We know that that is a real and current problem.

The pressure on accommodation, whether for discharge of duty, temporary accommodation or prevention, is so acute in high-stress areas such as London, the seaside towns and others, and the capacity to inspect and maintain such housing is so variable and so under-resourced that, without this robust legal protection, we are worried that children and pregnant women will be left at risk. The key question for the Minister to answer is: why have those two categories been left out of provision in the Bill? Will he undertake to introduce an amendment on Report to ensure that they are not excluded?

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.— (Mr Burrowes.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 18 January at half-past Nine o’clock.