During my time as a council leader, the Government introduced a number of measures aimed at combating rogue landlords. We have heard real horror stories of how some private landlords are behaving, so those measures were welcome and, in my view, long overdue. That minority of rogue landlords gave the whole industry cause for concern, but the changes mean that local authorities now have experience in and knowledge about dealing with them. Further changes introduced in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will also help.
That experience will be really important in relation to the clause, because the new prevention and relief duties mean that we are helping to house more people in the private rented sector, and they may be vulnerable. Local authorities will already be checking the suitability of accommodation for those deemed to be in priority need under existing legislation. However, as more people are brought into that classification, it is right to ensure that additional protections apply to people deemed vulnerable, so that we can safeguard them against rogue landlords or unsuitable accommodation.
I am pleased that the provisions are clear about, for example, the need for the property to have fire safety precautions, a gas safety certificate, compliance with electrical safety regulations and precautions against carbon monoxide poisoning. Those are all things we would want in our own homes, and it is right that we seek the same protections for vulnerable people who are going through a difficult time in their lives. I welcome the inclusion of those protections.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, for what we hope is the final day of consideration of the Bill in Committee. I, too, rise to support this important clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South picked up an aspect that I want to touch on briefly, which is carbon monoxide poisoning.
Many of us know either personally or from constituents what a deadly killer carbon monoxide can be. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and others are officers of the all-party parliamentary group on carbon monoxide, and there are a number of similar groups. This issue highlights the importance of ensuring that there are additional protections against rogue landlords.
It is right to say that the Government have already made large steps in that direction, but inserting this provision into article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 will strengthen those protections further. I welcome the other measures in the clause, but the carbon monoxide poisoning provision is particularly worth dwelling on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South, I used to be a councillor. I recall numerous cases—I am sure we all can, as Members of Parliament—of constituents coming to me about rogue landlords in the private rented sector, where there is a local housing allowance relationship. Part of the problem is that the vast majority of landlords are very good. Rogue landlords—I do not particularly like that term—are a small few, and they give most landlords, who are very good, a bad name. Nevertheless, we have to protect people from those few.
I would rather the legislation went much further. I would like to see local authorities making checks on all the properties they let out, but that would be extremely onerous on local councils and would undermine the premise that the vast majority of people are capable of making those checks themselves and determining whether a property has the necessary gas safety certificate, carbon monoxide detection equipment, smoke alarms and the other things we have come to expect, whether we are renting or own our own properties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a balancing act? As he says, there are many good landlords out there, but there are a few for whom I believe “rogue landlord” is the right expression. However, in this clause, as in others, it is a matter of getting the balance right, so that we have sufficient landlords—without them there would be no property to rent—but with sufficient safeguards and protections to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As much as we would like to extend the protections to all, we have a duty to safeguard the most vulnerable—people who are not necessarily able to make those checks or to make informed decisions because of their financial position, a disability, a mental health issue or all sorts of other reasons that mean the council has an additional duty to safeguard them.
I support the clause. As much as I would like to see it go further, I am realistic about what we can achieve. Protecting the most vulnerable is what we should aim to do, and that is exactly what the clause does.
I, too, am delighted to support the clause. It continues the Government’s work in the previous Parliament to tackle rogue landlords, such as introducing the new code of practice on the management of property in the private sector, the requirement for landlords to be a member of a redress scheme and the production of guides for tenants and local authorities.
The landlord accreditation scheme run by my local authority in Portsmouth seeks to impose both physical condition and management standards on the private rented sector, not only through the provision of encouragement, support and incentives, but by actively working with, and publicly recognising, those landlords who are willing to adhere to good property standards. The council is well supported in that by the Hampshire constabulary and fire and rescue service, Portsmouth University and, crucially, the Portsmouth & District Private Landlords’ Association.
There are some 4,000 private landlords in Portsmouth, and their association acknowledging the benefits of accreditation is of huge benefit to prospective tenants. The reassurance that a landlord has accreditation that is supported by the emergency services and two significant providers of accommodation in the city—the University and the council—is so important to tenants in my city. It is especially important when accommodating the homeless. In those situations, there is a danger that individuals and families might feel obliged to take up whatever is on offer, even if they have serious concerns about its standard of upkeep. The clause should ensure that such fears do not arise.
Responsible local authorities and landlords are already accustomed to checks to ensure quality. Does the Minister agree that the clause will complement existing work, such as that being done in Portsmouth? There is every reason to think that landlords and local authorities will welcome it.
By extending the provision to vulnerable people, and not only those in priority need, the clause goes to the heart of the Bill, which is about expanding what we do for everybody who needs the help on offer.
The checks we are talking about are important; things such as gas safety and electricity records are essential not only to people’s wellbeing but their lives. Vulnerable people would not necessarily be able to ensure that those checks had been done beforehand. Of course, a lot of people who rent in the private sector are aware of the necessary checks and are quite capable of getting them all the way through. A lot of vulnerable people will be able to do so too, but there are groups of people who cannot, and it is important that we look after their wellbeing and ensure that they are in safe accommodation.
Several hon. Members have spoken about rogue landlords and work that has already been done and work that still needs to be done. The clause must be seen in conjunction with tackling rogue landlords and not in isolation, because alone it is not sufficient. It is important to note that not all landlords are rogue landlords. They provide a great deal of service by providing housing, but we must look after those who are affected by housing that is not up to standard.
I note that many councils throughout the country are already doing these checks. Wiltshire Council, which covers my constituency, already provides checks for a number of vulnerable people. However, we need one standard across the country, and we need to ensure that, no matter where someone lives or is homeless, they get the same provision of care. That is very much what the Bill seeks to initiate.
I will touch on a point that was raised by an Opposition Member in the last sitting. Although the Bill extends the provision to include vulnerable people, not everybody who is in need, such as pregnant women, will fall into that category. There are a host of other anomalies that will slip through that gap; people who, if we sat back and thought about it, we would realise are very much in need of the extra checks on their private accommodation. I urge the Minister to think about expanding the clause. Thinking about pregnant women and other vulnerable people in my constituency, it would be harrowing for them if they were unable to get these additional checks, and it would be to the detriment of all of us working on the Bill. We need to ensure that it is inclusive and encompasses help for all.
It is a pleasure, Mr Chope, to take part in the debate on this crucial clause on suitability. We all have experience of constituents who have been placed in unsuitable accommodation. What we need is evidence to back up what we all know about the importance of suitable housing for vulnerable households.
I want to refer briefly to the evidence commissioned by Crisis and Shelter, both of which are well placed to tackle homelessness. They undertook a 19-month study, published in 2014, looking at 128 people who had been rehoused. The evidence is very relevant because it makes an important, though perhaps obvious, point that private rented accommodation, which is now the predominant housing option available, is not suitable for everybody, particularly those who are vulnerable.
Tenants were found in properties that were in poor condition and where there had been issues with the landlord. Accommodation was cramped, unsuitable and often affected by damp, mould and insect infestation. With a lack of suitable fixtures, fittings and furniture, many tenants struggled to pay household costs, which often resulted in debt. The relevance is that the physical condition of accommodation is compounded in vulnerable households that might have multiple and complex needs. If they are placed in accommodation without suitable fixtures, fittings and furniture, leading to debt, their complex needs are compounded. I want to ask the Minister whether particular attention will be given through better practice and guidance to those vulnerable households.
Under the existing law, local housing authorities need to consider whether the accommodation is affordable for the person, as well as its size, condition and location. Are those considerations all tailored to vulnerability? The issues of affordability, size, condition and location are different for different and complex needs. On affordability, there are extra associated costs for those with complex needs, and size and location might also be important for those with mental health needs.
An example that has come to my attention recently that illustrates the point about location concerns people with addictions and in recovery. Location is relevant for an addict in recovery, for instance if their placement is in an area where drug use is prevalent or other addicts are around. That is particularly pertinent when considering suitable accommodation. Will the Minister tell us whether that factor will be taken into account? Those vulnerable individuals need to be placed in suitable accommodation to assist their recovery. It is one thing to get them off drugs, but it is another to keep them in sustained recovery. Appropriate and suitable housing is crucial to long-term recovery. The Government are due to publish soon an updated drugs strategy, and no doubt housing will be a key part for sustainable recovery. It is important that accommodation is suitable, so location must be taken into account.
Legal obligations predominantly address physical issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester rightly mentioned carbon monoxide, an issue I have taken an interest in through the all-party parliamentary group. However, location also includes who is present, although I am not sure that will come under the purview of this provision. A placement could be in a licensed multiple occupation property. Will account be given to how appropriate it is to place a vulnerable household in accommodation where there might be peers who are not conducive to someone’s long-term recovery? Will it get into that kind of detail to ensure that suitability is also based on who is present in the accommodation, or who is nearby?
The other issue I want to pick up on relates to a matter that has been raised previously, but it is particularly relevant to suitability: the challenge of ensuring that accommodation is affordable, together with the issue of location. We read again about Westminster City Council feeling obliged to place vulnerable households in accommodation in outer London and far beyond, because of affordability issues. Its representatives may well say—it has been said in the Communities and Local Government Committee, and Kensington and Chelsea representatives have said it as well—that because of affordability and supply issues they must plainly look outside the borough when placing households. They are looking to Enfield and further afield.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that Westminster has explicitly stated that it is doing that because of Government policy on cuts to the support for temporary accommodation, the benefit cap, cuts in local housing allowance and a range of other measures? It is not an accidental development; it is the result of deliberate Government policy.
I hear the hon. Lady’s point, and that is what the local authorities pray in aid as the reason they are obliged to do as they are doing. Nevertheless, they have duties and legal responsibilities. That is why I am interested in how far the Bill and the measures on vulnerable households will bite and oblige local authorities to look at the matter more seriously, rather than, under the banner of “We are pressurised and do not have affordable accommodation”, taking the easier option of putting households in Enfield, for example, which has associated costs.
I have been talking to the Minister and to the relevant director of finance about both the local government finance settlement and this particular issue. I have also talked to the deputy Mayor of London, who I understand has been trying to bring about a more collaborative approach with directors of housing so that they cannot simply come up with the easy excuse of, “It’s just the Government’s fault.” They have legal responsibilities and should not just shunt their problems on to outer London boroughs.
We have had a debate about appropriate location and ensuring that households—particularly vulnerable households—are not moved away from supportive networks in relation to education, as well as other family and care support. How far will clause 12 ensure that Westminster housing officers deciding about vulnerable households will not place them in areas such as Enfield so easily? Yes, with suitability there is an issue of affordability, but there is also an issue of location. When there is a competing interest, which is the one that will really kick in? Can the Minister advise us on the discussions that he is having about ensuring that decisions are appropriate?
The Select Committee recommended that placing vulnerable households away from the area and their supportive networks should be not a first option but a last resort. I do not hear that it is being thought of as a last resort.
My hon. Friend talks about location. Article 3 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 is relevant. He also mentioned houses in multiple occupation. Does he see, when he talks about location—and thinking about neighbours as well—that there would be a difficulty in an extension beyond HMOs, and the licensing regime within that structure? I understand his point about the suitability of the people nearby, but does he recognise that it would be difficult under article 3 to draw provisions as widely as he suggests?
My hon. Friend is right, but we shall probably hear later about the extent of inspections, and it may well be that when an inspection is done to make normal physical checks, an eye can be given to wider concerns that might affect vulnerable households. The multiple occupation provisions are an issue of licensing—it is a question of checking unlicensed multiple occupation premises. It is important to check that, because it is not surprising that there are extra risks in unlicensed multiple occupation premises, not least for those in recovery or with other needs. It is those unlicensed premises that need attention. The inspection regime will ensure that the current law is extended to vulnerable households and that accommodation in unlicensed houses in multiple occupation will be deemed unsuitable. That will help to ensure that vulnerable households will not be exposed to other risks.
As I understood the point my hon. Friend was making a few moments ago, he was seeking to draw the regime wider than HMOs, whether licensed or unlicensed. Does he not see that, as drafted, article 3 does not catch accommodation that is wider than that, and that there would be difficulty in drawing it more widely? Certainly HMOs, whether licensed or unlicensed, can be looked at, but if we go wider than that it will be very difficult to assess the suitability of accommodation under article 3 by dint of looking at the suitability of the neighbours, unless it is specifically in relation to HMOs.
I concede that point. I am trying to encourage us to look at the wider duties in the Bill and its wider application to prevention duties that might assist. I accept my hon. Friend’s point.
This is an important clause and we want to hear from the Minister that we are making the best of what we can do here. I appreciate that we will come to implementation and costs, which must be proportionate. We want to ensure that they are not open-ended. I want to hear from the Minister that he is open to seeing how we can extend the checks to ensure that we do the best for vulnerable households and ensure that they receive suitable accommodation.
The Government welcome the introduction of greater protection for vulnerable persons placed in the private sector under the new homelessness prevention and relief duties. Existing legislation already requires local housing authorities to be satisfied that accommodation is suitable when exercising their part 7 functions on homelessness and the prevention of homelessness in relation to factors such as size of accommodation, affordability and accessibility. I hear what my hon. Friend said and I will certainly go into more depth on his important points. I feel under a little pressure from Conservative Members and get the impression that they have reflected on the comments of the hon. Member for Westminster North, who talked much the same language at our previous sitting.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said, when making an offer in the private rented sector for those in priority need under the main homelessness duty, existing legislation also requires local housing authorities to make additional checks to ensure the property is in a reasonable physical condition, and is safe and well managed. The points to be considered are set out in the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012. Local authorities are therefore already used to making those checks and reputable landlords should be readily able to provide the requisite documentation.
I heard the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester and for Chippenham. They are quite right to say that most landlords are extremely responsible and do the right thing by tenants, but we know that 3% of landlords are rogues and do not do the right thing by their tenants. Frankly, the Government want to drive them out of renting property, particularly to vulnerable people. We have taken significant steps to drive out those rogue landlords through the Housing and Planning Act 2016. I will not go into the detail of that Act.
Before the Minister moves on to what the Government are already doing, if I understood and heard him correctly, he said that they deem only 3% of landlords to be rogue landlords. Perhaps he could clarify where that evidence comes from, but if he is right, does he not agree that it is a matter of balance—of making sure that we are not punishing those landlords who are doing a perfectly good job already, and potentially deterring and putting off other people from becoming landlords and providing much-needed accommodation?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. A number of studies have been done around this issue, and that is where the figure of 3% comes from. As Members of this House—I am not, personally, a residential landlord but I know other Members who are—it is easy for us not to understand the challenges of being a residential landlord. The last thing we want to do is drive residential landlords out of the market so that we have less rental property for the people who we are trying to help to access as good accommodation.
I am concerned by the number of references Government Members have made to how small the number of rogue landlords is. The 3% refers to the definition of rogue landlords from the data that the Government have. My experience is that there are very many more landlords who, although they might not fall into that category—nevertheless, 3% is a lot of landlords—of the most unscrupulous, are not as responsible and rigorous as they might be and do not provide tenants with the right level of service. This requirement is about local authorities being able to check that repairs that should have been done, have been done and that the property is in a fit state to move in to. Consistently this morning, the comments from Government Members have undermined the nature of the problem and the extent of the challenge that my constituents face.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but my understanding of what I have heard this morning is that Government Members, including myself, are extremely concerned to make sure that people who are vulnerable have the right accommodation and are supported in accessing it. The hon. Lady was on the Housing and Planning Bill Committee in late 2015, before the Bill became an Act in 2016, so she will know that local authorities now have a real incentive to tackle rogue landlords. If that legislation leads to our identifying more rogue landlords because they are genuinely rogue, so be it. That is a good thing as far as I am concerned.
I do not disagree with what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said, save for this: 3% is a relatively small number. To my mind, one rogue landlord is one rogue landlord too many—I am very happy to put that on record. Perhaps the Minister has other evidence of a second tier of bad landlords that do not reach rogue status and therefore are not in that top 3% but may be below it. Either way, the point from this side—certainly, I speak for myself—is that one rogue landlord is one rogue landlord too many, but 3% is relatively small and there should be a balance in relation to this clause and the whole Bill.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The legislation in relation to rogue landlords means that civil penalties of up to £30,000 can be levied against them. Those civil penalties can be retained by the local authority to put towards the enforcement that they make in this regard. There are strong powers there, which is a good thing if there is a second division of rogue landlords that we need to uncover. However, my hon. Friend is right: we need to get a balance.
For clarification, the 3%—an upper tier that is not wholly relevant to the wider issue of the suitability of property and of landlords—deals with the number of rogue landlords, but does not account for the number of properties held by those landlords. If rogue landlords are particularly known for having large numbers of properties, the figure does not properly reflect the huge number of unsuitable properties under their control.
That was why the civil penalty was raised to £30,000—to reflect that it needed to be a penalty that had teeth for the type of people that my hon. Friend is talking about. On the point about banning orders, that also relates to companies where a rogue landlord might be a director. There are many ways in which the legislation will help in that sense.
I must move on. As I said, local authorities already make some checks so they have significant experience. However, we should recognise that there is a cost to the providing and checking of relevant information that local authorities need to do. That is why the approach to the Bill is to extend that additional protection to where it is needed most, to protect those who are most vulnerable, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East in his opening speech, which seems quite a long time ago.
This is a proportionate approach, which hon. Members have stressed is important. To require similar checks for all tenants would place additional burdens on local authorities and generally be unnecessary. Tenants who secure accommodation in the private rented sector already do so without the local authority’s carrying out additional checks on their behalf. Those who are themselves able to ensure suitability of property should do so.
However, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Westminster North, who expressed concern that the group of people protected because they are defined as vulnerable is narrower than the group in priority need. She gave the example of pregnant women or those with children. I do not dismiss her comments and I hope I can reassure her that I share her concern that people do not live in homes that are unsafe or badly managed. I believe that all homes should be of reasonable standard and all tenants should have a safe place to live regardless of tenure.
The proportion of tenants in the private rented sector living in non-decent housing fell from 47% in 2006 to 28% in 2014 and 80% of private renters are satisfied with their accommodation and stay in their homes for an average of four years. I know that people will say that that is an average and may not be the case in London. That is why we have had to look in the Bill at the situation around 12-month tenancies and settle on a minimum of a six-month tenancy because of the challenges that certainly exist in London.
While I discuss the challenge raised by the hon. Lady about people who fall between the groups defined as vulnerable and in priority need, it is important to pick up points from other hon. Members. Several of my hon. Friends have thrown down the gauntlet on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned carbon monoxide. We all know that is a silent killer and it is extremely important that landlords keep their gas safety checks up to speed, to ensure that gas appliances such as a boiler, cooker or gas fire are not a threat to people who are in a commercial transaction with the landlord. They are paying a good rent and deserve a good and safe service.
My hon. Friend has had significant experience as a councillor and at one point was a council leader, so he is well placed to speak on this matter. He is absolutely right. We have had a number of discussions on the same theme and part of the Government’s work is to bring forward from our Department a team of advisers. Local authorities do not often go out of their way to get something wrong or deliberately not follow guidance, but there are occasions when it is helpful to have someone working alongside to go through the guidance and to help develop local policy. That is certainly what we intend to do with our advisers. It is about assisting local authorities to get this right and I am sure all local authorities want that.
There is an existing framework that offers local authorities strong powers to make landlords improve a property. The health and safety rating system is used to assess health and safety risk in residential properties. Local authorities can issue an improvement notice or a hazard awareness notice if they find a defect in a property. In extreme circumstances, a local authority may even decide to make repairs themselves or to prohibit the property from being rented out. In the worst case scenario of an unsafe gas appliance, no member of the Committee would want that property to be rented out.
The Government are determined to crack down on rogue and criminal landlords. I mentioned the Government’s significant progress. I will not go into more detail, but in addition to the civil penalties I was talking about, we have provided £12 million to a number of local authorities. A significant amount has gone to London authorities to help tackle acute and complex problems with rogue landlords. More than 70,000 properties have been inspected and more than 5,000 landlords are facing further enforcement action or prosecution. We have also introduced protection for tenants against retaliatory eviction when they have a legitimate complaint. All members of the Committee will agree with that.
I want to pick up a couple of other points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. He mentioned vulnerability and complex needs, and I think his concern was about this group of people who are not necessarily caught by the definition of “vulnerable” or “priority need”. I am not unsympathetic to what he was saying and will consider it and the comments by the hon. Member for Westminster North. I also noted the challenge from my hon. Friends.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate made a good point about temporary accommodation. We are absolutely clear that wherever practicable, local authorities should place people in their own area. Obviously, there are situations where that is not practicable and we are clear that factors such as where people work, where their children go to school and so on are taken on board. Local authorities should—we fully expect this—take those factors on board in meeting their statutory responsibility.
As the Minister knows, Westminster is now reversing its practice of maintaining most temporary accommodation in-borough and announced last week that most homeless households will, in future, be discharged into the private rental sector outside the borough. Will he define “practicable” for this purpose and will he clarify whether that means “affordable”, given that Westminster is praying in aid Government policy and cuts to housing support as an explanation for that policy?
We are being very clear: when we say that local authorities have got to take steps to house people in their borough unless it is not practicable, we mean that they must use every means and method at their disposal to ensure that they house people in their local area. If they do not, they have to take people’s circumstances into account. It is very difficult to see how any local authority could take an approach where, for example, a family with two children, both doing their GCSEs at a school in a particular borough, are sent to another part of the country at such a vital time, without it breaking the law. It would clearly not be taking that family’s situation into account.
I heard the earlier point made by the hon. Member for Westminster North. We are absolutely committed to replacing the temporary accommodation management fee with a flexible grant from this April. Funding of £616 million is available in that sense, and for the next three years. The grant will give local housing authorities far more flexibility on how they manage homelessness pressures. My officials are working with London authorities on temporary accommodation procurement. I am well aware that, in certain circumstances, London local authorities compete against one another for temporary accommodation. We need to look at all that can be done to try to avoid that situation.
As I mentioned, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 included measures to crack down on rogue landlords and we plan to implement those in 2017. That also includes the rogue landlords database for property agents, and banning orders for the most serious and prolific offenders.
In summary, we expect prevention and relief activity to increase following the implementation of the Bill. The provision seeks to ensure that those who are vulnerable are afforded the necessary protection. I believe it strikes the right balance, although I have listened carefully and heard what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said. I will take the concerns that they have raised about the way in which clause 12 will work back to the Department and will look at it further.