Private Rented Sector — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:41 pm on 29th November 2018.

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

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.