I commend Jon Cruddas, and I thank him for securing this debate on the important research that Shelter has published and for allowing me to say a few words. Cornwall is experiencing an acute housing crisis, and the private rented sector continues to play an important role in addressing that crisis for my constituents. However, Shelter's research should be a cause of concern to hon. Members from all parties. We all know that the majority of landlords act responsibly and treat their tenants reasonably. Nevertheless, a minority of landlords are inflicting great suffering on vulnerable people.
Across the United Kingdom, 3 million households live within the private rented sector-that is 14.2% for statistics junkies. That number has grown massively over recent years, and in my constituency, latest statistics show that in Newquay, one in five homes-20%-is in the private rented sector. That is well above the England average. We must ensure that private landlords look after people in their care. That is an important issue across the country.
During the three or four months in which I have been a Member of Parliament, my constituency postbag has shown examples of the kind of rogue landlord activity that Shelter mentions in its report. That includes illegal evictions, sometimes including violence, or cutting off water and electricity to force people to leave their homes.
Last summer, a family of four were evicted without warning, under the threat of violence and the use of knives. They were left with only a car to sleep in while one of the family's daughters was doing her GCSEs. Another couple in my constituency, who have a small baby, were living in rotting, damp, leaky conditions. They were threatened by their landlord for reporting the situation to the environmental health officers that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham referred to. The situation culminated in their utilities being cut off during a cold spell last winter.
Cases such as those and the many others across the country are unacceptable. We are hugely indebted to Shelter for its research and for bringing the problem to light at a national level. However, the issue is not just about violence and evictions. Tenants can suffer if landlords refuse to carry out essential maintenance and basic repairs, thereby wilfully neglecting their responsibilities and putting the health of their tenants at risk.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government is clearly experienced and knowledgeable about housing, and he is committed to ensuring that everyone has somewhere decent to live. He has already said that he expects councils to use
"the full range of powers at their disposal to make sure tenants are properly protected."
I believe that local authorities must take a zero-tolerance approach to rogue landlords and that they must use all levers at their disposal to root them out. Enforcement powers are available to local authorities, but all too often such powers are not used. We do not necessarily need a raft of new legislation, but priority must be given to the enforcement of current legislation against rogue landlords. Councils must be proactive in protecting tenants by ensuring that they know where the problems are locally and prosecuting when necessary, and by considering the use of existing powers to introduce selective licensing.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham on securing the debate. This is a vital issue that affects millions of people across the country and I will be interested to see what plans the coalition Government have to tackle the problem.