Private Rented Sector — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 1:30 pm, 29th November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Fourth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Private rented sector, HC 440, and the Government response, Cm 9639.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. The Select Committee chose to have the inquiry because of the increasing importance of the private rented sector, which has doubled in size over 15 years. Clearly, more families are living in the sector than ever before, and more people see it as their long-term form of accommodation, whether by choice or because it is the only form available to them.

The Committee heard that 82% of people were satisfied with their accommodation, although when people answer such surveys, I sometimes question whether expectations are as high as they might be. If we look at other figures, we see that while non-decent accommodation in the sector fell from 47% to 27% over 10 years, the actual number of non-decent properties has stayed the same—it is a lower percentage of a larger number. Citizens Advice also produced figures showing that 41% of tenants in the sector had waited longer than they thought reasonable for repairs to be carried out, and 800,000 properties had a category 1 hazard.

There are therefore problems, but while many properties might have some problems, other properties are clearly in a really bad state of repair, with some landlords doing little about it—indeed, they almost run a business in properties of that type.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his excellent speech. Does he agree that we need to give local authorities the power to tackle and crack down on rogue landlords through private sector licensing, rather than having to get permission first from central Government?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

We made a number of recommendations in our report and—my hon. Friend is right—that was one of them. We recognised that the Government had made some changes to the rules on selective licensing, in line with the recommendation on widening the criteria used to bring about selective licensing schemes in the Committee’s previous report back in 2013. They are also changing the legislation about the definition of properties included in licensing for housing in multiple occupation, which we welcome.

Nevertheless, in essence, our recommendation is that licensing ought to be a local matter, depending on local circumstances. It should be a local decision, subject to the Secretary of State’s intervention only when councils have not followed the proper procedures. As I understand it, the Government are now reviewing selective licensing. One of my questions will be about the state of that review and when it is likely to report.

In our report, we tried to focus on those landlords who are not doing the job that we would expect them to do. To divide landlords up, there are the bad ones, who are not good at getting around to doing things in a timely way—they are inefficient, or incompetent to some extent, and are sometimes accidental landlords. There are then the so-called rogue landlords, who have more systematic failings, leaving a large number of properties in an unacceptable condition. Then there are the really hardcore landlords—we ought to call them criminals, because that is what they are. The criminal landlords run a business to exploit vulnerable tenants in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. They are robbing not merely the tenants but the taxpayer, because they are getting money in and yet not providing homes that are fit to live in. We tried to concentrate on how to deal with those landlords, but our report also recognised actions the Government have taken in a number of respects. Quite reasonably, we highlighted actions that they have taken in response to our previous report on the private rented sector. We are pleased with that as a Committee.

Right at the beginning of the report, we refer to the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords, and to how that needs addressing. However, I will not go through all our recommendations. Instead, I will focus on where the Government have said they will do something—whether that is to consult, review or consider in some way—and ask the Minister where that has got to and what we can expect.

On the Deregulation Act 2015, we call for a review of the retaliatory eviction legislation and guidance on how it has worked. The Government did not seem totally enthusiastic about that at first, but they have now said that they will review the Act, looking at its effectiveness in terms of retaliatory eviction and perhaps at bringing in more formal requirements to have longer-term tenancies. The Government have gone a bit quiet on that since their announcement, so where is that review up to, and when can we expect some announcement?

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I put on record my apologies because I am unable to stay for the duration of the debate—I am hosting an event elsewhere in this place about a related matter, which is housing rent arrears arising from universal credit.

On retaliatory evictions, the Committee recommended reform of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. There is a growing body of evidence that section 21 should be not only reformed but abolished. In response to our report, the Government stated that, on the one hand, they recognised

“the concerns of the Committee around retaliatory eviction”,

but, on the other hand, that they did not accept our recommendation that section 21 needs to be reformed. They said:

“We believe the current legislation strikes the right balance between the interests of landlords and tenants and we have no plans to change the legislation in this way.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that, without meaningful action on section 21, those are simply empty words from the Government?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I hope that the Minister will come back on that, because we made a clear recommendation, and it would be helpful to have her response to it. The two things go together. Our report called not for the abolition of section 21, but merely for it to be looked at again. The same is true of retaliatory evictions. The Government are looking at one thing, so will they indicate that they might be prepared to look at the other as well, as part of a joint review?

We also called for a specialist housing court. We are pleased that the Government have now announced a call for evidence on the setting up of such a court. Will the Minister explain what will be covered and the likely terms of a housing court’s jurisdiction? Will it cover section 21 notices or retaliatory eviction? Will it cover tenancy fees, which we have recently had legislation on? Will it cover the issues arising from the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill from my hon. Friend Ms Buck? Will it go so far as to look at the whole matter of leasehold, which we are discussing in another inquiry? Will the Minister explain precisely what it will cover, or whether the Government have ruled on what it will not cover? It would be helpful to have such information.

The first of two other issues we asked to be looked at was that of five-year electrical safety checks. We are pleased that the Government have announced support for that in principle, but when will we get a clear announcement and action on it? In terms of having carbon monoxide alarms not only in every room with a coal fire but every room with a gas fire, I understand that a working group inside the Department is looking at that. Where has that got to? Every day of delay might lead people to lose their life because of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is easy to stop with a very simple measure. Will the Minister give us information about that as well?

We looked at enforcement and local authority powers. That is clearly important, and we questioned the housing health and safety rating system, as we have done before.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

On enforcement, the report makes the point that half of the prosecutions in the country happen in my borough, Newham. In the Committee’s view, what problems are there with the enforcement arrangements that seemingly make it so difficult for the vast majority of local authorities to carry out such prosecutions?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. Newham is a trailblazer—I think 50% of the prosecutions in the country happen there. We looked at two main issues in the report: the first is resources. I am sure it is not true that Newham has too much money and does not know how to spend it on other things; I am sure it has many challenges. The second is political will: is there the political will in the council to address these issues? Clearly there was, and still is, in Newham, but in more than half the councils in the country there are no prosecutions at all.

Councils will say, “We adopt a softly, softly approach and try to persuade.” Often that goes on with landlords who are in the inefficient and incompetent but reasonable category. Officers say to them, “You need to put this right,” and they do, but it does not work with the rogues and the criminals. Tougher action is needed. At the end of the day, it is about political will. Clearly, resources are under pressure; there is pressure on care services—the Committee will look at children’s services shortly—and that does mean there is less money for important things such as private sector housing enforcement.

We looked at how easy the powers were to use. I said that the rating system is complicated. Is there a case for bringing in a simpler minimum standard? By and large, the professional officers do not want to change. Landlords and tenants gave evidence that, although the rating system may be understood by most professionals working in the service, it is understood by very few landlords and virtually no tenants. Is a system that is so complicated that no one outside the professional sphere understands it fit for purpose? The Government have done some events, where they have talked to professional officers. There is a division of opinion among them—perhaps the majority still want to keep the rating system—but at least the Government have now acknowledged that there is general support for updating the system, in terms of both the evidence base and the guidance, which is very out of date. Will the Minister tell us how far we have got with that?

One of the landlords organisations that gave evidence told us that private sector housing legislation was based on 150 different pieces of legislation. Everything the Government do—however worthwhile—is built on top of this higgledy-piggledy structure, with no real coherence. Will the Government ask the Law Commission to do an overall review? We made that recommendation in our 2013-14 report. At some point, someone must do a comprehensive review, not necessarily to change the intention of the legislation, but to pull it together as a coherent whole. The Government responded that they will have discussions with the Law Commission. Will the Minister tell us where those discussions have got to?

We raised the issue of fees and penalty notices. The Government say they are at an appropriate level, but the Committee wants them to be raised because, for some of the really bad landlords, the fines levied are a business cost that they write off against the business. Courts should give back the cost to local authorities who take a case. Local authorities’ resources are under pressure; if authorities spend a lot of money prosecuting a landlord and they get the prosecution, the court does not give them back the cost involved. That can be really discouraging. Has the Minister had discussions with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on that recommendation?

We recommend the creation of a benchmark system, whereby the different approaches of local authorities could be compared, including the number of prosecutions they take out. We asked the Government to work with the Local Government Association on that. They said they would have talks with the LGA. How far have those talks gone?

The Committee supported the Government’s decision to bring in banning orders. The Guardian and ITV News have publicised the fact that the banning orders are not public. That is not to say that that will not happen, but under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 they are available only to local authorities to tackle problems in the private rented sector. They cannot be made public as the legislation stands. The Prime Minister has committed to change that, but I understand that that needs primary legislation. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend to bring in primary legislation to do that?

Although a local authority may know that someone is banned in another local authority area, knowing whether a landlord is operating in an area and the properties they have is very difficult, because of the lack of information. To make public that a landlord has been banned would cause other people to come forward and say, “That landlord is banned, but he is renting a property down our road.” It would be very helpful if that could be done.

I went to a meeting of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Leeds to talk about our report and the general support for it. Interestingly, Mark Baxter, an environmental officer in Scarborough Borough Council said, “If the Government change legislation, could they go further and insist that when a landlord is banned in court, they have to give the court, for the public record, a list of all the properties they own, manage or have an interest in?” That is an incredibly simple but effective way forward. Once publicity shines a spotlight on these bad landlords, they should be made to help by giving that information, and it should be an offence not to give all the information at that stage. That would be very helpful to get a proper grip on this issue.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

My hon. Friend is very generous to give way again. Does he agree that deposits should be capped at three weeks’ rent rather than the current six weeks proposed by the Government? That would mean an average saving of £575 for tenants across England, based on the latest English housing survey data.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

That came up in the Tenant Fees Bill, and the Committee recommended a compromise of five weeks. The Government did not accept it, but we support that recommendation, so as Chair of the Committee I cannot completely agree with my hon. Friend. If I remember correctly, the Government have held a consultation on alternatives to deposits, which is a helpful response to one of our recommendations.

We all agree that we must be as tough as we can be, and tougher still, on bad landlords. I hope the Minister will revisit our recommendation. The really bad, criminal landlords may be banned and have management orders against them, but in the end some of them will find ways around that because it is really profitable for them to do so. They have broken the law once, so they will carry on by ignoring banning orders if they can. Why do we not take the properties off them? Why have the Government resisted that recommendation? The proceeds of crime operate in other spheres. Let us get tough on the bad landlords.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

My peroration was just about finished, but I will let it be interrupted.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

I thank my hon. Friend. Allow me to add a small example to the point he makes so powerfully. My constituents were evicted from their private rented property after they complained because the bathroom ceiling collapsed over the bath 10 minutes after they had finished bathing their children. I hope the Minister agrees that, in those circumstances, it is not too much of a sanction to confiscate the property from such criminals.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I hope the Minister will reflect, even if she cannot commit to a change of policy today. These are bad people renting bad houses to vulnerable tenants. They are making proceeds from their crime, so let us take from them the asset that enables them to do that. I hope the Minister will think about that and respond to the points I have raised.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 1:49 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a great pleasure to follow the Chair of our Committee, Mr Betts. When I was a Housing Minister, I looked at the issue of crooks running beds in sheds and, often, human trafficking alongside. I entirely agree: seize the asset, take the money off them and make them pay for what they are doing.

On the broader issue, the hon. Gentleman made a very good set of recommendations about the Committee’s report. Six months on from the report’s publication and the Government’s response, this is a good time to step back and look at where the Government have got to and at the market as a whole. As the Chair of the Committee pointed out, one in five households lives in rented accommodation. There are many reasons for that—some economic, some demographic and some social. Although many people would clearly prefer to own their homes, we should not ignore the fact that, certainly in my experience, an increasing number of young people prefer to rent. Theirs is a generation that expects to have two or three careers, never mind jobs. It is a generation that rents its music rather than buying it as old fogies—I nearly said the wrong word—like me did. Their expectations are different. When we form policy, we need to think about that generation, too.

As the Chair of the Committee said, the vast majority of tenants said during the inquiry that they were satisfied. We should not overlook that. However, the gap between the majority of homes and the very worst has increased, so I have no hesitation in supporting the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, introduced by Ms Buck. That will help us to root out the worst offenders.

Put simply, reform of the sector is needed, but it should be focused. We should not be tempted into pretending that every landlord is out to exploit their tenants. That helps no one. We need a consumer-led—tenant-led, so to speak—rental market. That means we need clarity about services and charges, fair dispute and redress arrangements for when things go wrong, greater choice and a more modern housing stock. It means we should encourage the building of more homes for rent and the rectification of substandard homes. It also means—this addresses the point made by Stephen Timms—that local authority enforcement needs overhauling so it is consistent and effective. I will come to that in a moment.

One of the report’s key themes was the respective rights of landlords and tenants. One of the main benefits of the Tenant Fees Bill is that it will help to clarify the role of landlords and letting agents. Alongside reforms to money laundering, that will help the market and improve the way it works for people. Our report also sought clarification of the law concerning people’s rights and obligations, including those of tenants. I welcome the reference in the Government’s response to publishing easy-to-understand “how to” guides for tenants. That is good, but we may also need consolidation. We need the law itself, not just the words that describe it, to be made simpler.

Equally, we legislators should all recognise that laws and regulations are sometimes limited in what they can achieve. They certainly stop bad practice, but they are not good at changing the culture of a business sector or promoting best practice. For that, we need people in the sector themselves to change—we need the practitioners to raise their game. That means we need qualified letting and managing agents who are committed to high standards.

What needs to happen? First, we should require anyone working in lettings and property management to be qualified. Members of the public might be amazed that that is not the case already. Secondly, the scope of those qualifications should not be imposed by the Government but should be agreed jointly with the industry and consumer representative bodies—I think of the Consumers Association as a good example—and forged with professional bodies such as the Institute of Residential Property Management and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, of which I am a fellow.

We should also grandfather across existing qualifications and ensure that they are part of the new process. We cannot afford to create a new barrier for people who have already committed to being professional. Indeed, there is a shortage of good, qualified people in residential property management for some of the blocks our constituents live in. We do not want to create a problem there, so grandfathering across existing qualifications would be sensible.

Thirdly, qualifications need to recognise not only different roles and levels but the different demands of the private rented sector and the social housing sector. Essentially, what matters is that people are competent to perform their roles financially, technically and of course legally. I also want a culture of continuous professional development to be adopted in the sector so that people keep up to date. Together, those elements, which build on the report, would help to change not only who works in the sector but the standards they maintain. I would be grateful if the Minister specifically addressed those points.

We heard about the standard of buildings and the housing stock, which is a big challenge. It is right that we rectify and improve the bad buildings we have now, but we need to do more than that—we need to build more modern homes to rent. That is why in 2012-13, when I was Housing Minister, I actively promoted a new model—the build-to-rent market. Having attracted billions from pension funds and long-term institutions, that market has blossomed in the past five years. More than 117,000 homes—modern, purpose-built homes that are available on long-term leases and provide services to tenants—are under construction or available to let. As it matures, that market will offer an even broader range of homes and rents, and provide greater choice for tenants seeking an alternative to the old housing stock. I hope the Minister confirms that the Government are committed to continuing to support the build-to-rent sector.

The Committee’s report also highlighted the need for effective enforcement by local authorities, which was touched on earlier. We received evidence—it was some of the most concerning we received—that there is not only a low level of enforcement but huge variability between councils in similar areas. For example, the Residential Landlords Association told us that in 2016-17, although more than 105,000 complaints were made by tenants, councils prosecuted just 467 people. That is less than one tenth of 1%. I appreciate, as Members said, that prosecution is not the sole enforcement action, but it is a pretty good indicator. At less than one tenth of 1%, something is not working.

Enforcement is hugely variable, too. There are 32 London boroughs. One of them—Newham—is responsible for 60% of prosecutions. The Committee heard that six out of 10 councils did not prosecute a single landlord in 2016. David Cox from ARLA Propertymark told us—this is in the report—that laws are passed but they are just not enforced. Part of the problem is a lack of money. That is why we asked the Government to ensure that councils have the money to enforce both current and future regulations.

However, as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East highlighted, this is not just about money; clearly, it is also about local political priorities and political leadership. That is why I strongly support the Committee’s suggestion that there should be a benchmarking scheme. That should be introduced, funded and run by the Government and managed through the Local Government Association. Councils should publish data about the number of complaints they receive, how they are resolved and prosecutions so all of us—our constituents included—can compare the enforcement levels of councils in similar areas. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made with the LGA on that issue?

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

My constituency is in two boroughs with very different approaches. In 2016-17, one had to spend £5 million on temporary accommodation. For that borough, trying to end any sort of tenancy—no matter how bad the landlord—is counterintuitive, because it would then have to house the tenants but it does not have any housing stock. This issue is to do with political will and resources, and doing something about the private rented sector, but it is also about finding safe premises for people to live in—it is about supply, too. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is very complicated?

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think it is complex, which is why benchmarking solely on prosecutions is too narrow. She is right to say that it is a constant challenge for councils to judge the resources available, but the different levels of enforcement—even between neighbouring councils in similar areas—suggests to me that the system is not working.

My last point is about whether the report and the Government’s response are in danger of being overtaken by technology—something that both the Committee and the Government will want to come back to, I think. For example, online services such as Airbnb are creating completely new ways for people to find somewhere to stay, ostensibly and originally when travelling on holiday. Equally, the web is now enabling the emergence of a grey market in informal serviced lettings.

I have seen examples of both in my constituency. No one is quite clear about how to define such activity, let alone whether it can be regulated. At what point does an Airbnb letting, which was initially for one week but then becomes two weeks or four weeks, become something more formal? Should those platforms, which enable the transaction, be defined as letting agencies in law?

Some would reasonably say, “Do not interfere, do not meddle”—it would my natural instinct to say that—but as we tighten up the regulation of the private rented sector, the danger is that the crooks will shift into these emerging markets, creating the potential for the next property scandal. All of us in this place, but the Minister in particular, will need to decide how to ensure that any changes we make are future-proofed.

Does the technological nature of the transaction matter or do we just focus on making sure that we have modern, up-to-date consumer rights? How do we shape the regulations so we do not stifle genuine enterprise? Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to think about that? She is always looking at the picture in the round, as any good Minister does, but can she tell us whether the Government would be prepared to look at the issue and whether we as a Committee should consider it in the future?

There are a number of crucial areas where the reform of the sector could make a positive difference not only for tenants, but for landlords. The report sets out a clear way forward, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:02 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and the owner of a small property portfolio.

I rise to do three things: first, to talk about the situation in my own borough of Harrow; secondly, to look at the detailed report that we, as a Committee, produced; and thirdly, to add a few things that I think are needed. It is pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr Prisk, with his measured approach and his experience of having been the Housing Minister. Equally, it is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, Mr Betts, who I have worked with on this Committee over many years—probably more than we would care to mention.

On the Committee, and certainly since I have served on it, we make sure we proceed by consensus. Individuals may hold views that are not contained in the report, but it comes from the entirety of the Committee and is produced on a cross-party basis. I warmly welcome the Minister to her place and I hope she will tell us why the Government are not taking forward some of the measures that we have recommended—again, on that all-party basis.

In my borough, the private rented sector is growing dramatically. It used to be a tradition, in outer London in particular, that as people became more prosperous and more likely to commute for longer distances, they would sell their homes and move on, then commute into central London for a job. Nowadays, they tend not to sell their homes. They move on and acquire a new home, but they keep their existing home and rent it out. One challenge that has arisen in Harrow is that large numbers of properties—typical suburban, three-bedroom semis—are now rented out to 10, 12 or in some cases 20 people, who are living in them. This brings the consequences of antisocial behaviour and overcrowding, and quite frankly the people living there are being exploited.

Most people in that position come from eastern Europe. I now have 10,000 eastern Europeans living in my constituency. They are warmly welcomed—they are here to work and want to contribute to the economy—but they are being exploited. Rents of a typical three-bedroom property are in the order of £2,000 per month. If you have 20 people sharing that £2,000, then the rent is not too bad. However, the living conditions are absolutely disgraceful. That is, I think, one of the key challenges.

The local authority has responded by setting up a selective licensing scheme in one ward, which was vigorously opposed by the private landlords concerned for the obvious reason that they thought they would not be able to continue to exploit their tenants. The challenge for the Government when legislative changes take place is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned, that although the vast majority of tenants are satisfied with their position, what do we do about the bad, criminal landlords who exploit vulnerable people and make their lives a misery.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

We have been on the Committee together for more than eight years, and I think we have all had examples of landlords behaving quite badly, not merely in letting properties but in objecting to licensing schemes. It is not just about the regulatory framework, but about the fact that their names will be known, as well as which properties they own and rent out, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs gets rather interested at that point. The cost of that could actually dwarf anything else they have to do, such as paying fees for the licence.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for that intervention. That is particularly true in the Edgware ward of the London Borough of Harrow, where I asked the council a series of questions about how many registered houses in multiple occupation they had on their books. I was astonished when they told me they had 89 for the borough. I can take Members to roads in Edgware where there are 89 in the road. One problem is the local authority’s resources to deal with these issues, but, more importantly, people just ignore their responsibilities. That has to be dealt with.

I come now to the report itself. I will not deal with the recommendations that the Government have taken on board, because they are fine and we all agree with them. I am delighted that they have been taken on. I worry about some aspects that the Government are not addressing so far. When the Minister replies, will she update us? The Government response was some five months ago and I hope that things have moved on. I will go through the report, looking at the questions that I would like the Minister to answer.

In the Government’s response, the housing health and safety rating system is is partly accepted, but the view is that the Government will review the position in due course. Can the Minister update us on where that review is? The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the reality of carbon monoxide poisoning and other safety measures in homes. Helen Hayes, who is no longer in her place, raised a desperate situation in her constituency. The issue is ensuring that tenants’ safety is paramount. Over the time I have served on the Select Committee, we have considered various different aspects of safety, and my concern is that building regulations and safety regulations do not seem to be being updated as they should, both to protect tenants and to point out to landlords their responsibilities. I would like to understand the Government’s position in that area.

Equally, where the Government and Law Commission are reviewing what legislation could be enacted, the Government say they are having discussions with the Law Commission. That is always helpful, but could we be updated with the results? As I have said, if we introduce legislation we must be careful that we do not put off good landlords from renting out their properties and maintaining good order at the same time as squeezing out the criminal behaviours that are clearly unacceptable.

I turn now to section 21 notices; we will have a debate on that subject next Thursday, I think, and I do not want to rehearse the discussions we will have there, because no doubt the Minister will be answering that debate too if it proceeds as expected.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

That is welcome.

Let me take up the issue, because we made recommendations on this and the Government have not accepted them, but they agree to keep the issue under review. We have a delicate balance to strike, because the sad reality is that if landlords are in a position where they cannot evict bad tenants, there is a serious problem and they will say that it is not worth being a landlord and letting out the properties.

As the author, promoter and sponsor of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 on section 21 notices, I know them in infinite detail. They are deemed to be no-fault evictions, and clearly we need to preserve the position whereby a landlord can get their property back, but at the same time, some landlords seem routinely to issue section 21 notices on six-month tenancies as protection for getting the property back at the end. One solution is to have longer tenancies, with protection for the tenant and for the landlord, with the potential for break clauses on both sides. That seems to have gone very quiet in Government thinking, and I hope my hon. Friend the Minister can update us on where we are going with longer tenancies and protection of tenancies.

There seems to be a suggestion from the Government that retaliatory eviction is a relatively rare occurrence. For those people who gave evidence to us having suffered it, it might have been a rare occurrence but it was a life-changing experience and we must condemn it. Landlords have a duty to keep their homes up to a reasonable and safe standard, and if tenants complain that the property is not kept up to that standard, it is quite right that the landlord should then put it right. If the result is that the landlord evicts the person or the tenants, that is an outrage and we need to ensure that action is taken. At the moment there is not enough protection for the tenants. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the specialist housing court, which would be warmly welcomed by both landlords and tenants. If we could have an update on the status of the Government review, that would be terribly helpful and informative to the Committee.

I will say two last things before I sit down. First, we made a recommendation on the local housing allowance, particularly regarding studio accommodation. In London, this is becoming a big issue. Properties are subdivided into small units and put out to rent and the tenants are therefore being exploited. There is a case, which we have made in the report, for taking action in this area, and I would welcome the Minister’s taking some action. I accept that this situation is not necessarily true across the country, but in London it is a serious issue that must be addressed.

Secondly, on penalties for bad landlords and the protection of tenants, although I do not normally read The Guardian it has provided a very helpful brief in its coverage on rogue landlords and what has happened. The sad reality is that if landlords fail the fit and proper person test and are banned, all their tenants should know about it. That just makes sense. To have a position where a landlord can be banned in one borough but carry on renting in others just does not make sense at all. One thing we need to see is urgent action to introduce a position where landlords are banned and action is taken.

I agree that in the most serious cases, a fine just becomes part of doing business, so having the ability to confiscate the property and protect the tenants from the behaviours of rogue or criminal landlords must be the final resort. On that point I will sit down, but I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working with colleagues to improve the position for both tenants and the good landlords in this country.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:16 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to join my former colleagues on the Communities and Local Government Committee to debate their excellent report. I can genuinely say that I miss the Committee; if the Committee members know that I have been moved on to the Procedure Committee instead, they will understand quite how much I miss them. The reports we did together on the Committee were very useful and thought-provoking, and the contributions by hon. Members today are indicative of the attitude they take to their work on the Committee.

The report is an excellent piece of work that highlights many issues within the private rented sector in England. I suppose I must be missed from the Committee too: when I was on it, I would try to make comparisons with Scotland, where we have done a huge amount of work in the private rented sector in recent years. I notice that there are some good points of comparison that, if I were still on the Committee, I might have added to the report. I hope to highlight some of those issues here; I know the Minister has come to visit Glasgow before and spoken to some of the professionals in Scotland, so she will understand that there are things we have done in Scotland that may be of use in England also.

I start by mentioning the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016, which came into force on 1 December 2017 and is coming up to its first birthday. The Act made a number of changes within Scotland: it moved tenancies to being open-ended, so that rents were more predictable and there was protection against excessive rent rises, and it included an ability for local government to introduce local rent caps for rent pressure areas, which is important when we see rents spiralling out of control in some places.

The 2016 Act also introduced comprehensive and robust grounds for repossession for landlords, which could only happen in 18 specified circumstances rather than because the landlord felt they wanted to take the property back; they had to meet those tests as well, so that gave protection to both tenants and the landlord. Disputes between tenants and landlords can now be heard in a new specialist tribunal that we brought in to handle them, which is a useful thing for everybody all round.

We also ensured that letting agents have to register and adhere to a code of practice, which goes some way towards what Mr Prisk said about professional qualifications and skills; if there is a code of practice in place at least, then that gives some professionalism to those companies.

I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said about qualifications. An awful lot of people who end up being landlords in the private rented sector did not start out that way. They may have bought a flat as a younger adult and then moved on but kept it and tried to use it to earn rental income, and they may not quite understand their obligations and responsibilities. For a while, buying flats and renting them out became a quick way of making money. A bit more needs to be done to make sure that landlords understand all their obligations.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I agree with the hon. Lady about codes of practice, and I am keen to support them. However, I have come to the conclusion that we need to be clear that someone cannot operate in this market unless they have the qualifications. It is rare for me to say something like that. Does she accept that mandating qualifications is actually a stronger move than introducing a code of practice?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Yes, and I am interested to see how that proposal develops. I certainly think it would be useful: it would reassure tenants to know that their landlord had some kind of qualification to put a roof over their head. It might get rid of some of the more criminal elements in the sector as well.

All landlords have to be registered in Scotland—there is not the hotch-potch of local registration mentioned in the report—which means that, if they step out of line, they can be banned. We have had problems in my constituency, slightly like those mentioned by Bob Blackman, of tenants being exploited and lots of people being crammed into one flat. Govanhill in my constituency has a very large private rental sector and lots of rogue criminals. Mr Betts suggested that “rogue” sounds a bit more casual; I certainly feel that “criminal” is the better word.

In May 2018, five landlords were struck off the landlord register for renting substandard properties, and a further nine were struck off and banned in September 2017. That is all publicised and goes in the press, so there is no doubt about who those landlords are, what they have been up to and the conditions that their tenants have been living in. The Govanhill enhanced enforcement area gives council officials the right of entry into properties if there is any suspicion that they are not up to standard. On their first inspection, only 21 properties met the Scottish repairing standard. When they came back for a subsequent inspection, 175 properties met the standard, so there had been a clear improvement through that process.

Giving local authorities the power to enter flats and do those assessments is quite important in making sure that standards are met. It also gets around the issue of some local authorities not having the political will to do things. If everybody has to be registered across the board, that is at least a first step from which prosecutions can follow, if required. However, I do not think it has been in force for long enough in Scotland for us to be able to tell whether there are postcode lotteries, because housing varies quite substantially in my constituency and in other parts of Scotland as well.

I draw the House’s attention to the Nationwide Foundation’s report on vulnerability among low-income households in the private rented sector in England, because it makes for very interesting reading. It mentions that the proportion of privately rented properties failing to meet the decent homes standard has been falling, but that the number of such properties has actually increased. Numbers and proportion are quite different here. It also highlights, as other hon. Members have mentioned, that most properties that failed had a category 1 hazard—a severe or immediate risk. It should frighten us all if people are in such terrible conditions that their lives could be at risk. I urge the Government to do a bit more to make sure that properties meet those standards.

I also urge the Government to do more on revenge evictions, which our legislation in Scotland has militated against. It is something that we have managed to act on. Generation Rent also produced a very interesting briefing on this. It mentioned that, in 2017, 12,711 evictions by bailiffs happened under the accelerated process under section 21 of the Housing Act 1998, but that that is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. An awful lot of those people will not go through the court process, so we do not necessarily know how many people have actually been evicted. It also points out that two thirds of private renters have no savings. If someone with no savings has just been evicted, the last thing they will want is to go through a court process. They will just not have the means to do so, so they will try to find somewhere else as quickly as they can and move on. We need a better understanding of how many people face evictions through this process.

Moving towards a national database with better data gathering on this issue would be useful in informing what happens next, and the Government ought to think again about that. I am interested in hearing what the Minister says about the things that the Government did not accept from the review. The Committee will continue to push those suggestions, because they are good and solid. We particularly need to protect people from revenge evictions.

Private renting is a growing sector, with more and more people who are more and more vulnerable, including families. It is not only young people renting a flat for a while. There are people who live their whole lives in the private rented sector now because there is a severe shortage of housing in some parts of England. We need to look at how we can better protect those people. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East and others made clear that the cumulative effect of introducing legislation on legislation is that the protections are not where they should be. People need those protections so that they can have some certainty in their lives. Not having that certainty has a huge impact on people’s health, wellbeing and prospects, and particularly on children if they have to move quite a lot. We need to make sure as best we can that people are protected.

Lastly, I very much agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford about lettings from companies such as Airbnb. The Minister would do well to consider that further, because there could be an emerging gap in the market and we need to somehow make sure that there is protection within regulations.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 2:26 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. This is an important debate, and we have heard some really helpful contributions. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Betts for securing it and for his leadership of the Select Committee, and I thank the other Committee members who are here. All have raised important points.

I should be clear at the outset that, as hon. Members might expect, the Opposition agree with the Committee’s assessment that the majority of landlords are good. I do not think anybody questions that. They play an important role in the housing system and in our society. However, as the Committee’s report illustrates, the situation faced by a growing number of private renters is intolerable. Most of us here today will see in our constituency surgeries—I certainly do—the horrible things that too many people have to endure. That includes the 800,000 privately rented homes with at least one category 1 hazard, landlords cutting off electricity to vulnerable tenants, and letting agents demanding hundreds of pounds to do things such as view a property.

We need to keep in mind all the time what private renters want, and that needs to be the test for policy makers. I think there are two things: first, people want to rent a property fit to be called a home; and, secondly, they want the same rights and redresses enjoyed by consumers in lots of other areas of society. For many, the private rented sector undoubtedly fails those two tests. Standards at the bottom end of the market are poor. As Opposition Members have said many times, people have more rights when buying a fridge-freezer than when renting a property.

The report identifies some important failings in Government policy that have led us to this point. I will look at two broad areas: the lack of intervention and enforcement, and the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords. On the first, as the report demonstrates, outdated legislation and a lack of enforcement mean that the current system of setting and enforcing standards does not work. We agree that the current legislation is overly complicated. It has built up over many years and has become somewhat hard to navigate and dated. Penalties are not strong enough to deter bad practice, and fines are too small to incentivise legal action in the first place.

We have already heard about the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Ms Buck. However, the Government could have helped its provisions to become law years ago by accepting Labour amendments to the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The fact that so little enforcement action is taken is all the proof we should need that the system is broken. As we have heard, Advice4Renters estimates that just 0.1% of landlords letting non-decent homes are prosecuted each year.

The Guardian revealed today that nine out of 10 local authorities failed to issue a single civil penalty notice against a landlord or letting agent last year. It is impossible to deny that the billions of pounds of cuts faced by local authorities have affected their ability to enforce through environmental health and trading standards. I accept the argument that we also need leadership in local authorities, but the extent of the cuts has been very significant and must inhibit what local authorities can do. The fines being so low means that there is neither a deterrent for bad landlords nor an incentive for councils to take action. We share the disappointment expressed by the Local Government Association and others that the Government ignored the Select Committee’s recommendations to improve enforcement through increased fines and powers.

The report was right to express concerns about the situation with landlord licensing schemes. I have seen the positive impact of such schemes in my own borough, where Croydon Council has issued more than 30,000 licences. It is wrong for the Secretary of State to hold a veto over councils wanting to tackle rogue landlords. The Secretary of State has blocked councils such as Redbridge from introducing borough-wide licensing. There is a clear contradiction: Ministers talk about standing up for renters, but their actions prove otherwise.

Let me turn to the imbalance in the private rented sector. The report is clear about the things that need to be done to make the rules fit for purpose and to ensure that they are enforced more, but there are deeper structural issues in the private rented sector. The Committee rightly points out that we cannot draw a clear line and say that there is a small minority of rogue landlords and everyone else is perfect. That would oversimplify the issue and ignore the structural problems that mean that a landlord does not have to be rogue or even breaking the law in any way to make tenants’ lives difficult. There is an imbalance that no court or enforcement authority can solve, because it is part of a system that is fundamentally skewed against private renters.

The system is stacked most heavily against those at the very bottom—that is clear. Permitted development and abuse of the local housing allowance in lockdown properties make a mockery of planning and welfare rules. That is a symptom of a broken housing market. We are failing so badly to build the homes that the country needs that the Government are essentially saying, “Anything will do.” Tenants, left with little or no choice, pay the price, but yet again the Government ignore the Committee’s valid recommendations on this topic.

We could talk more about what needs to be done about landlords refusing to rent to people on benefits. That issue comes up repeatedly in my constituency. I know that Shelter is trying to take some legal cases through the courts to affect that. I will not talk more about that now, but it really is heart-wrenching in constituency surgeries.

Retaliatory evictions are a real concern. They have been talked about today and were rightly raised by the Committee. When 44% of renters say that they will not negotiate over disrepair for fear of eviction, and when charities are having to warn people that raising a complaint might get them evicted, that is a structural failure in the system. We agree that the current protections are nowhere near robust enough to avoid retaliatory evictions or punitive rent rises. I have seen this happen to my own constituents, as we all have. Labour would go further than the Committee’s suggestion of extending the time limit for protecting tenants from section 21, which the Government seem not to be observing anyway. If we say that section 21 is unfair for those who have made a complaint, why do we accept it for those who have not complained? No-fault evictions are at the heart of the imbalance between tenants and landlords and should be scrapped entirely.

The Government have admitted that they need to do more. They say that they want to rebalance the relationship in the rented sector and give tenants access to redress. But given the record of the Government in relation to renters, people would be right to be sceptical. Consultations, calls for evidence or plans to introduce measures such as a housing court, ombudsman schemes or letting agent regulation are worth very little if they do not result in action. The Department has a bad record in terms of turning consultations into legislation: 185 housing consultations have been launched by the Department since 2010. Too often, consultation fails to translate into anything substantial.

The Government recently announced plans to look at introducing three-year minimum tenancies, which then appeared to be quietly dropped. There is little point in a housing court or ombudsman if tenants do not have rights to protect in the first place. The Department’s record on private renting so far has been to talk tough but under-deliver. The Government have blocked Labour’s proposals to amend the Tenant Fees Bill so that deposits could be capped at three weeks’ rent. As we have discussed, that would mean an average saving of £575 for tenants across England and £928 in London. The current six-week cap has the potential to cost tenants more: we know that the majority—more than 50%—of landlords charge four weeks’ rent as standard, so it would end up increasing people’s deposits and not saving them money.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

The hon. Lady is setting out her party’s views on various issues. A number of people who are good landlords are very anxious about future rents. Would it be Labour party policy in government to cap them or index them?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

As I was about to say, we would introduce three-year tenancies, and it would not be possible to increase rents above inflation over that period. It is a matter not of setting what the rent would be, but of people having more security in a tenancy and more ability to understand the level at which the increase would happen over that longer period.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I take it from that that there could be no tenancy shorter than three years.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should say that, because we are looking at developing our policies in this area and have also said that we want to scrap section 21. We need to look at how that would work and what the conditions would be. It is really important to stress, though, that we are not saying that people should have the right to remain in their home indefinitely if, for example, they are not paying their rent or are, in other ways, causing disruption or antisocial behaviour. That is absolutely not the point of what we want to do. There will always be a need for a landlord to be able to evict tenants who are not paying their rent or who, for whatever reason, should not be in the property.

We need to find the middle ground. At the moment, there is a problem, particularly in London, and I have seen it in Croydon. When we talk to renters organisations such as Generation Rent, they talk of a cycle whereby people are being evicted for no obvious reason. For example, a landlord might not be an expert landlord, as we have talked about. Someone may have inherited a property or have moved out of London. They might have a property and not really know what they are doing. They might decide to move back in or they might decide to do something else with the property. Then we have a group of people who are constantly having to move because they are being moved on through section 21 evictions, or we have people who cannot afford the rent increases, so they are also having to leave through section 21. An imbalance of power is our starting point when we are looking at policy development. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Is my hon. Friend basically saying that the proposal will be very similar to one that I think Shelter put before the Select Committee in 2013-14, which was to introduce three-year tenancies, with the rent in that period linked to some inflation measure so that there was a clear understanding by both landlord and tenant of how it would progress in the course of the tenancy? The other issue that we raised, which brings us back to the housing court idea, is that if that tenancy proposal happens, landlords do need a way reasonably quickly to get out a tenant who is not paying their rent. Having a housing court might be one way to enable that process to happen and to make landlords more comfortable with longer-term tenancies.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I thank my hon. Friend: I did not see Shelter’s evidence in 2013, but, yes, that sounds a reasonable way forward. The absolute starting point, as I said at the start of my contribution, is that we know that most landlords are good landlords. We are not trying to create a system in which they cannot function and cannot evict people when they need to; we are trying to create a system that is fair. The Labour Front-Bench team were fortunate to go to Berlin recently to see, as many people have, the system of renting that people have there and to look at some of the other models. There are lots of lessons to be learned from other countries.

I should make progress. The Guardian and ITV investigation into the private rented sector, which has been talked about and has forced a U-turn from the Prime Minister, is worrying. Despite the Government estimating that there are 10,000 rogue landlords, not a single name, at the time of that investigation, had been added to the database; that was in October, which was more than six months after its launch. One wonders what the point of a rogue landlord database is if the rogue landlords have not been identified. The Mayor of London’s database has more than 1,000 entries. I hope that the Government, through the Minister, can update us on where the rogue landlord database has got to today.

The Government announced that they would give £2 million to local authorities to take action against bad landlords, but that amounts to £6,000 per council. Meanwhile, the trading standards teams expected to enforce new legislation such as the Tenants Fees Bill have seen enforcement officer numbers go down by 56% since 2009. These teams have faced funding cuts of almost £100 million since 2010. Local authorities overall have had billions of pounds taken away from their budgets. In that context, £6,000 does not feel like enough.

The Opposition recognise that the scale of the challenge means we need a more radical response—a consumer rights revolution. We have a commitment to end unfair evictions. I am proud that my local authority, Croydon Council, was the first to pass a motion calling on the Government to scrap section 21. We have committed to give renters greater security, as we have just discussed, with a three-year cap on rent rises. We want to name and shame rogue landlords and introduce tougher fines for those who fail to meet minimum standards, with those fines funding local authority enforcement work. We would properly support landlord licensing. We also want to see greater powers for Mayors across the country to control rents, if appropriate, in high-cost areas such as London.

Inspired by the system in Germany, we have committed to spend millions to kick-start renters’ unions. I spent time at the Labour party conference talking about that with London Renters Union, which has helped many renters out of situations in which they would have struggled on their own. We want root and branch reform of the private rented sector. It is too dysfunctional for us to tinker around the edges. The end result of insecure tenancies, unsafe homes or extortionate rents is staring us all in the face. The end of a private tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness today. There are 1.6 million people in chronic debt, and 120,000 children will wake up tomorrow without a home. That is not to mention the extra 1 million people under the age of 35 who are unable to buy their own home and are forced to rent in the private rented sector. For all of their sakes we should reform the private rented sector.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:41 pm, 29th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank hon. Members from across the House for their considered speeches. I congratulate my friend, Mr Betts, on securing this debate. I thank him and all the members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for their inquiry into the private rented sector and for working with the Government to improve the lives of those living in it.

The private rented sector plays a vital role in providing homes across the country and is an integral element of the Government’s approach to making the housing market work for everyone. As we outlined in our response to the Committee’s inquiry, the sector has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not only has it grown to become the second largest tenure, but it also houses an increasingly diverse range of tenants. It is of great credit to those who deliver and support the private rented sector that it has managed to react to such change, and continues to drive forward improvements in quality, standards and safety.

I want to use this speech to reflect on the Committee’s report and outline some of the work the Government are delivering to ensure that everyone living in the private rented sector is able to build the life they desire. We agree with the vast majority of the Committee’s recommendations; where differences arise, they are of degree, not kind. Although I cannot cover everything in such a short time, I hope that hon. Members will see how the Government are pursuing a package of measures that will work together to improve the private rented sector. As the Committee cautioned in its report, the Government recognise that they cannot take a piecemeal approach to the sector—they must take a holistic approach to reform.

Successive Governments have shared the opinion that the rights and responsibilities that govern the private rented sector must be placed on a statutory footing. In its report, the Committee raised concerns that the volume of legislation covering the private rented sector could be creating a complex and challenging landscape to navigate, as we have heard again today.

Although the Government share the Committee’s desire for greater understanding, we do not feel that the legislation is in need of the type of root-and-branch reform that the Committee—or, indeed, the Labour party—suggests. Instead, we believe that the challenge for the Government is to help everyone understand the legislative foundations of the sector, to ensure that people can make the best use of these important protections. That is why we are structuring our work to address the key challenges that flow from our overarching objective, which is to rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants, to deliver a high-quality, fairer and more affordable private rented sector.

To achieve that aim, we need to address a number of interconnected challenges, which the Committee also highlighted in its report: affordability, property standards, enforcement, and the rights and responsibilities of landlords, agents and tenants. I want to use this debate to set out some of the work underway to drive improvements in the sector, how this work links together and the progress made since we responded to the Committee’s inquiry.

A lack of affordable rental property can mean that tenants are forced to accept substandard or unsafe accommodation. That is not a choice that we want anyone to face, so we are working hard to improve the private rented sector to ensure that no tenant faces that choice in the future. We believe that the key to improving choice and affordability for tenants is to build more homes for rent.

To answer the question raised by my hon. Friend Mr Prisk, we want to build more homes. We want build to rent to continue to grow and make a significant contribution to housing supply. That is why the Government introduced the £1 billion build-to-rent fund and the £3.5 billion private rented sector guarantee scheme, to support thousands of extra homes built specifically for private rent. However, we also recognise that house building takes time. That is why we are working to improve affordability and conditions for tenants now.

We introduced the Tenant Fees Bill to protect tenants by capping tenancy deposits and banning unfair fees at the outset, renewal and termination of a tenancy. As well as helping tenants, the Bill will strengthen the hand of good landlords and agents across the UK by levelling the playing field, driving out rogue operators and ensuring that reputable landlords and are no longer undercut by those who overcharge.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Christopher Mullins-Silverstein, who works in our Whips Office, brought it to my attention that there are quite often disputes around leaving a tenancy. For example, he had to pay for cleaners before he was allowed to leave. The landlord then disputed the fact that the cleaners had been in and done a good job, and is withholding the deposit. He has to pay for additional cleaners plus the deposit, plus an exit fee. Those fees mount up and make it more and more difficult for people to move on to other tenancies, given all the debt that they accumulate.

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

Indeed, such stories are legion. That is why we brought in the Bill. Finishing a tenancy is very important and should be done incredibly carefully on both sides, so that that matter does not arise.

It is testament to the work of hon. Members from across the House that the Bill has been so well received and supported throughout its parliamentary journey. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East and the other members of Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for their detailed prelegislative scrutiny, which served to strengthen the Bill. Although our commitment to improving affordability runs throughout our work, I know the Committee shares our commitment to improving property standards and safety.

I thank Ms Buck for all her work in developing and progressing the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill. It is an excellent example of cross-party work, which will lead to meaningful progress and strengthen the private rented sector in the future. Under the provisions of the Bill, landlords will have to ensure that any dwelling they rent out is free of hazards, from which a risk of harm may arise to the health or safety of the tenant or another occupier of the property. Where a landlord fails to meet that requirement, their tenant will have the right to take action in the courts. The Bill will give the courts the power to order non-compliant landlords to take action to reduce or remove a hazard, and tenants will be able to seek compensation when landlords refuse to do so.

I will move on, because time is running out and there were so many questions from hon. Members for me to answer. I will do my very best, but if I do not manage to answer them today, I am sure I will be able to write to hon. Members later.

When it comes to the housing health and safety rating scheme—I can never say the acronym HHSRS, which I hate—the Government are explicit that one person in an unsafe home is one too many. We understand the scale of the challenge. We are taking steps to ensure that central Government set out the appropriate standards and that local authorities have the tools they need to enforce these standards. The housing health and safety rating scheme has been around since 2004, and everybody has said that it is very complicated, so we recommend a review. It is the right time to look at it, so we need to put that into practice to see how it needs to be updated. That fits nicely with the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, which I hope will finish its progress and become an Act shortly.

We are also acting to improve safety. In line with the Committee’s recommendations, we have announced the introduction of mandatory five-yearly checks on electrical installations in the private rented sector. We will introduce legislation for those mandatory checks as soon as parliamentary time allows. We will also give the Government response to the consultation before Christmas. We expect the outcomes of the scoping review for the HHSRS next spring—[Interruption.] I know, I got it that time. The second stage, which will also be set out in the scoping review, will follow. We expect the outcome of the review on carbon monoxide shortly, then we expect to consult on the proposed changes. An announcement on the next steps will also be made shortly.

On lockdown properties, it is absolutely unacceptable that a minority of rogue landlords exploit the housing system by converting their properties into tiny, unsuitable self-contained units so they can get a higher rate of housing benefit or rent and try to avoid the HMO licensing requirements. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions are analysing evidence of the relationship between housing benefit, housing tenure and quality. We are committed to working together to understand how we can make best use of our financial levers and existing powers to support tenants and improve the quality of housing, while ensuring value for money.

Many hon. Members have talked about the housing court, which we are very interested in taking forward. Both landlords and tenants have raised concerns about it. Effective and efficient access to the courts is vital for landlords and tenants who wish to challenge bad practice. When all the other options have been exhausted, landlords should be able to recover their properties when they have reason to do so and tenants should live in the knowledge that the court system should protect and support them where needed and not leave them lost in a sea of legal confusion.

We hope the Committee welcomes our recently launched call for evidence, which will gather views on user experience of the courts and how it could be improved. Building on the Committee’s recommendations, our proposals explore whether a specialist housing court would make it easier for all users to resolve disputes, reduce delays and secure justice for landlords and tenants in housing cases. That work not only speaks to the court experience, but cuts across the Committee’s concerns about retaliatory eviction and is a key consideration in our work on longer tenancies.

To be specific, the call for evidence on the housing court was launched on 13 November and closes on 22 January, so it is a work in progress. It is designed to understand the correct use and experience of the courts, so I am looking forward to seeing the evidence put before us when it closes.

On retaliatory eviction and section 21, our position is clear. No tenant with a genuine complaint about the condition of their property should be fearful of retaliatory eviction, which is why we have already taken steps on the matter by legislating to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction through the Deregulation Act 2015. We are also aware that the vast majority of landlords provide well-maintained properties and that, thankfully, only a small number of tenants encounter the threat of retaliatory eviction.

As set out in our recent letter to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, despite the rarity of the practice, our commitment to protecting tenants against retaliatory eviction is undimmed—what a great word; well done to my officials for writing that. We share the Committee’s position that the Government must ensure that tenants are properly protected from that, which is why we have included the consideration of retaliatory eviction in our consultation on the barriers to longer tenancies, to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information to inform our thinking.

The consultation on longer tenancies closed at the end of August—not that long ago—and stakeholder events were held in September. We are analysing the responses and we will respond shortly. We had a large number of responses—more than 8,000—and it is important to consider them fully, and align them with the workload of our experience in the courts. Considering the volume of responses is no small feat. We are working to provide the Government response to the consultation in due course.

I will move on—I appreciate that I have to leave two minutes for my good friend, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, to close the debate. Local authority capacity and enforcement has been a key point of the debate. From my experience in local government, I know the vital role that local authorities play in the private rented sector, particularly in enforcement. The Committee called on the Government to support local authorities to make best use of the powers available to them, and to go further, and that is what we are going to do. We have designed our enforcement tools to allow local authorities to retain the financial penalties they raise and drive them back into their teams to fund future enforcement activity, exactly as Torbay has done. Torbay has been extremely successful in enforcement work and receiving fines—indeed, it has employed another officer on the back of the fines that it has already received.

Committee members will clearly also be pleased to hear that we have launched a £2 million fund to support local authorities with their enforcement work. That upfront boost will allow local authorities to grow and refine their approach. The funding came as a direct response to my Department’s engagement with local authorities across the country at our roadshow events throughout the summer. In response, we are creating a compendium of enforcement guidance that will bring all the relevant guidance into one place, along with templates. That will form part of our national training offer to local authorities. Equipped with effective powers and armed with guidance and support, local authorities will become ever more effective in targeting their work to remove bad landlords and protect tenants.

I am running out of time, so I thank all hon. Members for an excellent debate. The way parliamentary time works means that, in effect, it has been six months since the work, and it is great that other stuff has been able to come to fruition in that time. I hope my remarks demonstrate the Government’s commitment to building a private rented sector that works for everyone, that supports good landlords to deliver the homes the nation needs and that provides safe, secure and affordable homes for tenants.

We do not shy away from the challenges facing us and we are aware that we need to support the entire private rented sector if we are going to achieve these goals—taking on Airbnb, if necessary. It is in that spirit that I thank hon. Members for their speeches and questions. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Sheffield South East and the other members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in the weeks and months to come.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 2:58 pm, 29th November 2018

Everyone would agree that it has been an excellent debate on the report, and that the report has generally been welcomed. I should have referred to the fact that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which should be on the formal record. As well as thanking hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, I thank members of the Select Committee. As Bob Blackman said, as usual we produced our report with a unanimous recommendation, having considered the evidence before us. That is how we try to work.

It is true that the majority of landlords do a good job and offer good premises to tenants, who are satisfied with their homes. Our report focused on the bad landlords who really need tougher action to be taken against them. We welcome many of the steps that the Government have taken, but we want to push them further.

We recognise that there is an issue of resources for local authorities—I think the Committee will look again at local government funding in the new year—and, of course, of available properties. Mr Prisk pushed the idea to the Minister of build to rent, which is absolutely right. We also need more social housing. There is also an issue of political will for enforcement at local authority level, which we referred to. We are looking forward to the LGA’s response to the Government about benchmarking.

It is a pleasure to have the Minister back in her place; we all welcome her. She answered many of the points we raised, but I have noted that we did not get an absolute response to some in the time available. We will write to her next week about them. I thank the Government. We will continue to monitor their progress on our important recommendations and their actual actions on them—not just the words, but the action we want to see in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Fourth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Private rented sector, HC 440, and the Government response, Cm 9639.