Extent, commencement and short title

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 20th June 2018.

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Amendment made: 15, in clause 2, page 4, line 32, leave out

“and Liability for Housing Standards”.—(Ms Buck.)

This amendment would change the short title of the Bill so as to leave out the reference to liability for housing standards (see the explanatory statement for Amendment 16).

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

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

This is a brief clause that allows the commencement of the provisions of the Bill three months after the granting of Royal Assent. As far I am concerned, the sooner the better.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I rise to add my congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend, who has not only championed the Bill but, as the MP for Westminster North, has championed the rights of private tenants over a long period.

Now that we are giving tenants rights that they should have had all along, I plead with the Government to ensure that they have the means to enforce those rights. Many organisations—the Law Society and many civil society organisations—are pressing, as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 review, for early advice and legal aid to support people who are challenging a bad landlord.

We are in a state where, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend says about improvements to some of the housing stock, there has also been some deterioration in housing stock recently, forcing tenants into the private sector. The Citizens Advice briefing today points out that the number of families in private rented accommodation has tripled over the past 10 years, and generally speaking that is where the bad conditions are.

It is of course wonderful to have these new powers, but we have to have the means to enforce them. I hope that the Government are listening to that point as well.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Co-Leader of the Green Party 9:45 am, 20th June 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Wilson. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North, and I echo what others have said about her hard work, much of it behind the scenes.

I simply want to add how extraordinary it is that landlords have no legal obligations to their tenants to put or keep the property in a condition fit for habitation. Like every member of the Committee, I have, over my eight years as the Member for Brighton, Pavilion, seen literally hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of people living in the most awful conditions. In my experience, it is the most disadvantaged people who live in the worst and most dangerous rented housing. I want to put on record my pleasure at the progress of the Bill. I look forward to seeing it reach the statute book very soon.

Finally, I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne on the next challenge, which I agree is about controls on rent. I hope that one day we will get to that as well.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North for her dogged determination in introducing the Bill.

Some 43% of people in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, live in the private rented sector. We are one of the areas in the south-west with the highest concentration of people in the private rented sector, and there are still far too many examples of really poor standards. In particular, people have been really scared about complaining. I wonder whether my hon. Friend, or perhaps the Minister, could briefly explain what education and empowerment can accompany the Bill, once it passes into law—assuming, as I hope, that it will—to help people who are living in substandard accommodation but do not complain about it for fear of being evicted.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Housing

We are debating clause 2 stand part. Clause 2(2), which I am glad to see survived the joint work with the Department, states:

“This Act comes into force at the end of the period of three months beginning with the day on which it is passed.”

The Minister and her team will be not only working on the content of the Bill, but planning and anticipating its implementation. When does she expect Royal Assent, and therefore the Act to come into force?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I echo the appreciation and thanks expressed to the hon. Member for Westminster North for introducing the Bill. She tabled an amendment to my private Member’s Bill that helped vulnerable people being offered accommodation by local authorities, to ensure that their homes were fit for habitation. That was a complementary move, and I strongly support today’s Bill.

I have a few questions for the Minister, which I will ask now rather than intervening when she rises to speak. My first question complements what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said. One concern is that tenants who complain of the poor standard of the accommodation in which they live may be subject to retaliatory evictions. Clearly the Government must take action on that, or the teeth of the Bill will be irrelevant. Will the Minister ensure that the Government consider how to prevent retaliatory evictions? Will she also look at the issue of the guidance that the Department gives local authorities on enforcement? That is another key aspect of the Bill.

Thirdly, will the Minister look at the concerns that have been raised by a number of tenants’ groups and representatives of organisations that are looking at the degree of tolerance of homes that are unfit? I raised with the hon. Member for Westminster North the concern of who defines fitness. It is clear when a place is terribly bad, but electrical dangers can be unseen and the tenant may not have the knowledge to be aware of them. How is that to be determined? It is part and parcel of what we want to do to ensure that tenants are safe and clear.

While I am on my feet, I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. We have been in the House together for 21 years and she has never failed to battle on behalf of tenants, including and people vulnerable to being exploited by ruthless landlords. I want to put on record my respect for her dogged determination over so many years. In doing so, I echo the comments of other hon. Members on enforcement and the need to ensure that what is in the Bill is followed through.

Retaliatory evictions by ruthless landlords have been mentioned. That happened to a constituent of mine, which resulted in her being deemed by the local authority to have made herself intentionally homeless. That was a double whammy for that person. The local authority does not have the resources to investigate in depth to get to the bottom of why someone has been evicted.

If the words on the Bill’s pages are to have any meaning for some of the most vulnerable of our constituents, following through and making the resources available to enforce them is essential. I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

For all those people who are cynical about MPs, the Bill stands out as a shining light. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North regards very seriously her role of doing casework and understanding the problems of her constituents in a built-up urban area where the demands for housing outstrip supply, and where landlords can behave as they choose.

We are all beginning to understand that our local authorities are either unable or unwilling to take action to resolve many of those problems. That is either because they do not have the finances to do so or because they are concerned that, if more private tenants are evicted by landlords, they have to take on the responsibility for rehousing them and are unable to do so.

This is a great Bill born out of a great place by a great campaigning MP, but our constituents and vulnerable tenants will be able to take action only if they have support. Once again, we will fall back on the great work of our local law centres and legal advice agencies, which are also experiencing great demand and difficulty. I would be grateful if the Government took on board what needs to be done to allow the words on the page to become reality and enable some of our most vulnerable constituents to take action against their landlords.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It seems appropriate to wrap up my comments here. It is great news that everybody on the Committee completely agrees with the Bill. In broader terms, everyone deserves a safe and decent place to live, regardless of tenure. The vast majority of landlords work hard to ensure that their tenants live in decent and properly maintained properties. The majority of tenants are satisfied with their home, but for a minority of tenants the picture is very different.

According to the English housing survey, the social rented sector contains about 250,000 properties out of 4 million-plus with at least one serious hazard. The situation is worse in the private rented sector, where approximately 800,000 properties contains at least one serious hazard. It is unacceptable that anyone should have to live in a property with serious hazards, and we are determined to ensure that all landlords either meet their obligations or are forced to leave the sector. Local authorities have strong and effective powers to require landlords to carry out improvement works, and we expect them to be used.

We recently introduced a range of additional powers through the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Those powers include the abilities to impose a civil penalty of up to £30,000 and to ban the most serious and prolific offenders, potentially for life. We know that many local authorities are already making good use of the powers. Torbay Council, for example, has used revenue from civil penalties to fund an extra enforcement officer for its housing team. There is more to do, however. That is why the Government strongly support the Bill, which will help drive up standards in rented homes and ensure tenants get a fair deal.

The Bill will not introduce new obligations on landlords. They can already be required by their local authority to rectify any serious hazards in their property. The Bill empowers tenants to hold their landlord to account in the courts, rather than having to rely on the local authority to take enforcement action on their behalf.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Obviously, that is what the Bill is about. Does the Minister agree that the Government also have a role to play, either by ensuring that tenants have the resources to be able to enforce their rights, as several hon. Members have said, or by looking at how local authorities and others use the private rented sector? We have seen accommodation procured that is not fit for purpose, even with the Grenfell replacement accommodation. There has been outsourcing. In the time that I have been involved with this issue, we have gone from people in bad private rented accommodation waiting to go into council flats to people who would have expected to go into council flats effectively being put into the private rented sector in substandard accommodation. I hope the Government will also look at that as part of this exercise.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Indeed. Interestingly, when a tenant might take a landlord to court because of a hazard, we know that 75% of those hazards are visible, such as uneven floor surfaces, excess cold or damp and so on. Where a tenant has concerns, they should ask the local authority to inspect and determine what level of hazard it is. Bodies such as Citizens Advice and Shelter can also give advice on such matters.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Is the Minister aware of how many London boroughs have capital funds to do works in default where such problems in the private rented sector are very high?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is exactly why we have got the fines of up to £30,000 that can be levied. As I have explained, Torbay Council has been on the front foot. It has now employed another person because of the fines it has levied and received. I think that answers the hon. Lady’s question. Councils need to step up.

It was clear on Second Reading that there is wide cross-party support for the Bill and general agreement that we need to act now to require landlords to proactively ensure that their properties are free from hazards at the outset. Not to do so would be unfair on good landlords who are in the majority and who do keep their properties properly maintained. It would also mean that those tenants living in a property with serious hazards would be unable to hold their landlord to account.

It is important that tenants clearly understand their rights and know what to do if something goes wrong. Subject to the Bill successfully receiving Royal Assent—we hope it will be in spring 2019, to answer the question of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne—we will produce a short guidance document for tenants that will explain their rights under the legislation and how to represent themselves in court, should that prove necessary. The guidance will complement the “how to” series of guides produced by my Department, which have recently been revised and expanded. The revised versions will be published shortly. Tenants are already protected from retaliatory evictions where the local authority has confirmed that there is a legitimate complaint regarding a hazard.

The Bill sits very well with the range of initiatives that the Government have taken to improve conditions in the private rented sector. We have introduced fines of up to £30,000 for a range of housing offences. We also introduced legislation allowing tenants and local authorities to reclaim up to 12 months’ rent for offences such as failing to comply with an improvement notice or a prohibition order. We have also introduced banning orders, potentially for life, preventing the worst landlords from renting out property. We are not resting on our laurels, however; we know there is still much more to do to drive up standards. That is why we are legislating to ban letting agent fees for tenants, thereby reducing costs and improving affordability.

We will require all landlords to belong to a mandatory redress scheme, which will help make sure that tenants are treated fairly. In addition, we have announced plans to make client money protection mandatory for letting agents, and to introduce requirements for training and accreditation to ensure that tenants are protected. On top of all that, we will be extending mandatory licensing to more houses in multiple occupation from October to help protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We have recently consulted on the five-yearly mandatory electrical checks and will announce the next steps in due course.

To conclude, the Government strongly support the Bill. It will make a significant difference to tenants and help drive up standards in both the social and rented sectors. I know that it has attracted wide support across the House, and I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Westminster North as we take the Bill forward. To finish, Mr Wilson, I cannot leave the debate without saying, “the Buck does not stop here.” [Interruption.] It had to be done.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am not going to even acknowledge that.

I am grateful to the Minister for her positive comments, and I thank all Members who have made a contribution this morning. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith, for Eltham and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and the hon. Members for Harrow East and for Brighton, Pavilion.

I agree with everything that Opposition Members have said regarding the need for further support. I am concerned, even with the provisions in the Bill, that local authority finances are such that enforcement capacity is stretched. I have seen that myself through the work I have done on environmental health staffing. I do not think that the Bill in any way replaces the need for well-funded local authorities, or for the work that they do on enforcement and supporting tenants. It is a genuine problem. I also agree that there is a need for further investment in legal aid regarding housing, and for early advice. I am grateful to the Minister, who on Second Reading confirmed that legal aid would be available in cases of serious hazard under the Bill, as it is in cases of serious disrepair. However, that is clearly not enough; we know that more needs to be done.

In his short contribution, the hon. Member for Harrow East made a further reference to the issue of fitness. When I responded to him earlier, it was in the context of the definition of fitness, but ultimately—and this is the whole point of the Bill—it will be for the courts to decide on the issue of fitness, on the basis of the evidence that is brought forward. That is the purpose of the Bill, and although there is far more to be done and no one piece of legislation provides an answer to all problems, I believe that it will give tenants an important new power and right. As I have said on many occasions, the measure of success is not how often the new legal power is used, but whether landlords respond to its introduction and recognise that they cannot get away with appalling standards.

Opposition Members have referred to the vulnerability of tenants, particularly homeless tenants in temporary accommodation—one of the passions of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, who has done so much work on that issue, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith. In addition to giving tenants the rights and powers that the Bill provides and, indeed, the other measures that the Minister and the Government are bringing forward, we must recognise that ultimately, if tenants have no choice but to accept their current accommodation because they face restrictions—particularly restrictions on their capacity to afford to find somewhere else to live—they are more vulnerable, regardless of what the retaliatory eviction powers are and how they can draw upon those. Many people will put up with appalling conditions because they simply do not think that they are going to find another property that is suitable for them—for example, if they are working or if their children are in school. That wider context is way outside of the scope of the Bill, but it is a reality.

We have ranged slightly widely on clause 2, Mr Wilson—I am grateful for your tolerance—but we are drawing to a close. I very much thank the Bill team, and I thank Giles Peaker and Justin Bates, without whom none of this would have been possible. I commend clause 2 to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Title

Amendment made: 16, in title, line 3, leave out from “habitation;” to “and” in line 5.—(Ms Buck.)

This amendment would remove the second of the objects mentioned in the long title in relation to amendments of the Building Act 1984 making provision about liability for works not complying with the Building Regulations. There are no such amendments in the Bill so this part of the long title is unnecessary. As a consequence it is proposed that the short title of the Bill changes so as to leave out the reference to liability for housing standards (see Amendment 15).

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.