Clause 63 - Government policy on supported and temporary accommodation

Part of Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 28 November 2023.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:00, 28 November 2023

It is a pleasure to continue our deliberations with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

Clause 63 is a short and straightforward clause that would require the Secretary of State to prepare a report that sets out the Government’s policy on safety and quality standards in relation to supported housing and temporary accommodation and to publish it within one year of the day on which the measure comes into force. The group of Government amendments we are considering with the clause, which are intended to replace it entirely, will extend part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, which relates to housing conditions, to cover temporary accommodation, and provide for regulations to specify new requirements that will form part of a decent homes standard that applies to temporary accommodation, supported exempt accommodation and rented property more generally. We welcome both the intent and the design of the amendments.

The private rented sector is manifestly failing to provide safe and secure homes for all those who live in it. We fully accept that the absolute number and proportion of poor-quality private rented homes continues to fall—albeit steadily rather than drastically—as part of a half-century, if not longer, of improvement in housing standards. However, it remains the case that some of the worst standards in housing are to be found in the private rented sector. It should be a source of real shame for the Government that after they have been in office for 13 years, an estimated one in four homes in the private rented sector—the Minister made it clear that that equates to around a million properties—do not meet the decent homes standard, and one in 10 has a category 1 hazard that poses a risk of serious harm.

For the considerable number of private tenants who are forced to live in substandard properties—those who wake up every day to mould, vermin or dangerous hazards—what should be a place of refuge and comfort is instead a source of, at best, daily unease and, at worst, torment and misery. More must be done to bear down decisively on this problem. Measures designed to drive up standards in the sector should be enacted as a matter of urgency.

As I made clear during the debate on clause 52, the Government deserve appropriate credit for seeking to introduce a decent homes standard that covers the private rented sector through this Bill rather than through separate future legislation. We believe that Government new clause 20, new schedule 1 and the related amendments are well drafted and that they have the potential to tackle the blight of poor-quality homes in local communities and ensure that renters have safer and better homes to live in; however, I would like to take this opportunity to put to the Minister several questions about those provisions.

My first question concerns enforcement. A decent homes standard that covers the social rented sector has been in place since 2001, yet we know that far too many social tenants still live in damp, cold and mouldy properties that harm their health and their life chances. Indeed, that was one of the chief reasons why the Government felt it necessary to enact the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023. That demonstrates that over the 22 years of the decent homes standard’s existence, although it has led to some improvements it has not been enforceable in the social rented sector. That experience suggests that introducing a decent homes standard covering the private rented sector will not achieve its objectives unless it is properly enforced.

Given that the Government intend, by means of new schedule 1, which amends part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, for enforcement of the new standard in the PRS to be undertaken using the same powers as the regime for the housing health and safety rating system, it should be a relatively straightforward matter for local authorities. However, local authorities’ ability to do so successfully depends in practice on their capacity and capabilities. As we debated just prior to the break, in relation to clauses 58 to 61, a great many authorities are struggling when it comes to resources and skills. Will the Minister provide more detail on what steps, if any, the Government intend to take, in addition to the various proposals in the Bill, to ensure that local authorities can appropriately enforce the application of the decent homes standard to the private rented sector where it is not already being met?

My second issue concerns the nature of the standard itself. The Government consulted on the introduction and enforcement of a decent homes standard in the private rented sector in England late last year, and the responses to that consultation obviously fed into the Government amendments we are considering. However, the Government have also committed themselves to a more fundamental review of the standard at some unspecified point in the future. Will the Minister confirm whether that commitment remains in place? If so, will he give us some idea of when that more fundamental review, presumably across both the social rented and private rented sectors, might begin?

The third issue relates to the current enforcement regime for the housing health and safety rating system. The regime is primary means by which local authorities can tackle poor property conditions and compel prompt action from landlords who do not fulfil their responsibilities to provide homes free from dangerously hazardous conditions. We take it from the Government amendments that while the new decent homes standard for the private rented sector will be located in part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, it will not necessarily be the same thing as the HHSRS, which is also in part 1 of that Act. We will presumably need to wait for secondary legislation to work out how, if at all, the decent homes standard and the HHSRS differ, but their workings will need to complement each other.

In answer to a written question that I tabled on 2 May, the then Housing Minister confirmed that a review of the HHSRS, including the statutory operating and enforcement guidance, was under way. Given the obvious implications of that answer for the functioning of the new decent homes standard introduced by this group of Government amendments, will the Minister tell us whether that review has concluded, as the decent homes consultation suggested? If it has, when did it conclude, when will the results be published, and does it remain the Government’s view that any changes will require further legislation? The status and outcome of the review of the HHSRS and its associated statutory, operating and enforcement guidance are important because that guidance is applied when local authorities consider using their statutory powers to remedy defective housing conditions, including and especially damp and mould.

That brings me to our new clause 60. When the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 was on Report, the Government tabled and passed, with our support, amendments designed to force social landlords to investigate and fix damp and mould-related health hazards within specified timeframes, with the threat of legal challenge if they do not, owing to the insertion of an implied covenant into tenancy agreements. The provisions were termed Awaab’s law because they were a direct response to the untimely death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from respiratory arrest, as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in the rented Rochdale Boroughwide Housing property in which he and his family lived. Although enactment of the new requirements is dependent on secondary legislation, with the consultation having closed last week we are hopeful that the necessary statutory instrument will soon be forthcoming. We look forward to its enactment so that social landlords who continue to drag their feet over dangerous damp and mould will face the full force of the law.

New clause 60 would simply extend Awaab’s law to the private rented sector by amending the relevant section of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and the reasoning behind that is straightforward. The Government were right to introduce Awaab’s law in the social housing sector, but the problem of debilitating damp and mould, and landlords who fail to investigate such hazards and make necessary repairs, is not confined to social rented homes.

A Citizens Advice report published in February made it clear that the private rented sector has widespread problems with damp, mould and cold, driven by the poor energy efficiency of privately rented homes—an issue that we are minded to raise later in the Bill’s proceedings. The report went on to evidence the fact that 1.6 million children in England currently live in cold, damp or mouldy privately rented homes. In the face of such a pervasive problem, we can think of no justification whatsoever for restricting Awaab’s law purely to the social housing sector. We hope that the Government will agree and accept new clause 60, because we can think of no reason whatsoever why they would resist doing so.

Before I conclude, I want to touch briefly on a final issue in relation to this group of amendments. We welcome the inclusion of supported exempt accommodation in a decent homes standard and part 1 of the Housing Act 2004. We believe that will resolve an issue of concern that we flagged in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill Committee—namely, the loophole that exists, and is being exploited by unscrupulous providers, as a result of non-profit-making providers of supported exempt accommodation being able to let properties at market rents that are eligible for housing benefit support, on the basis that “more than minimal” care, support or supervision is being provided, without those properties coming within the scope of consumer regulation.

The inclusion of temporary accommodation is also welcome, but it is slightly more problematic, because local authorities are responsible both for enforcing part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 and for procuring sufficient temporary accommodation to meet their duty to prevent and relieve homelessness. As such, while there may not be a legal conflict of interest, there is certainly a potential practical conflict of interest, as local authorities will be forced to weigh the case for any potential enforcement action, outside the scope of the contract in question, against the need to retain private landlords as an ongoing source of desperately needed temporary accommodation. It is for precisely that reason that we tried to convince the Government, in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill Committee, to have temporary accommodation regulated by a third party, such as the Regulator of Social Housing.

The Government amendments will undoubtedly help to improve the quality of some temporary accommodation, and the inclusion of temporary accommodation in a decent homes standard and part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 is to be welcomed for that reason. However, we encourage the Government to consider whether they might go further. For example—here, I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North for her Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018—could the Government extend section 9A of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to also cover properties occupied under licences as homelessness temporary accommodation? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that, and I look forward to his response to new clause 60 and all the other issues that I have raised regarding this group of amendments.