I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the use of Section 21 evictions in the private rented sector.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to do so in the presence of the Minister. I know that she is responding to a debate on the private rented sector for the second time in two weeks. I apologise for that, but I think it reflects the extent of concern about some of the issues in this rapidly growing housing sector.
This debate is the culmination of a campaign that has been run on behalf of a number of organisations working with private tenants, including Generation Rent most specifically, the London Renters Union, the New Economics Foundation and ACORN, which run the End Unfair Evictions campaign and have encouraged people to speak up about their experiences. The social media presence on the issue demonstrated some quite extraordinary experiences that tenants have had with homelessness and insecurity as a result of the use of a section 21 notice.
The campaign has also received backing from Children England, Independent Age, Age UK London, Crisis, the Salvation Army, Mind, Z2K and Shelter, which gave us a very good briefing on the issue. More than 50,000 people signed a petition calling on the Government to give renters more stability and certainty in their homes by abolishing section 21, which gave us the opportunity to have the debate. The petition ran for 10 weeks and was handed to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at the end of August.
What is section 21, and why are we specifically concerned about it? Most private and some social tenants now live in assured shorthold tenancies. In order to bring those tenancies to an end, landlords have two options: section 8, which enables a landlord to regain possession before the end of a tenancy on one or more of several different grounds, or section 21, for which the landlord must give two months’ notice of the intention to seek possession. On the expiry of that notice period, the tenancy is not ended, but the landlord can bring accelerated possession proceedings based on the section 21 notice. Unless there is a defence, which can only be that the notice is not valid, the courts must then grant a possession order. If the tenant does not leave, the landlord can seek a warrant of possession and a bailiff’s appointment for eviction.
Section 21 notices cannot be served under specified circumstances, such as when a deposit has not been protected, if the landlord does not have a required licence, after the issuing of a council improvement notice or if the landlord has failed to provide a valid energy certificate, gas safety certificate or a “How to Rent” guide.
It is very much a concern. I will come on to retaliatory evictions in a minute when I talk about why we are concerned about the use of section 21 and the balancing alternatives.
Abolishing section 21, as my remarks are aimed at, would, in practice, make fixed-term tenancies irrelevant. I know that the Government are also interested in, and have consulted on, longer tenancies, in order to provide greater security in the private rented sector. Although I am sympathetic to that idea, I am increasingly of the view that, rather than adopt an arbitrary target for the length of tenancies, we should change the framework completely and ensure that the default is a longer tenancy, unless and until the landlord has a legitimate need to recover the property or if there is a fault on the part of the tenant. However, as I will remark later, that must be balanced with other changes that meet the legitimate concerns of landlords.
Why do we need to change this framework? The Conservative Government at the time introduced section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 as part of a deregulatory approach to the housing sector, at a time when the private rented sector was in a very different place from now. It had been in long-term decline over a great many decades, and the Government felt that deregulation would be one way to boost it. Indeed, the sector has been utterly transformed from the landscape we saw 30 years ago, doubling to 4.7 million households. That is by no means solely the result of deregulation; the obvious decline in the social housing sector and the crisis in the affordability of home ownership are also important factors.
The sector also now has a very different profile, compared with a few decades ago. For many of us, renting was a transitional housing tenure. When starting out in life, many of us rented privately—I certainly did for several years—but often on the way to home ownership. Very few of us, particularly those who were bringing up families, expected or wanted to be in the private rented sector for life. However, we are now seeing a change in that profile, with four in 10 private renters now families with children. The recent Rugg review demonstrated that the private rented sector is also home to a growing proportion of highly vulnerable tenants who have been discharged into the private rented sector who would previously have been accommodated through the homelessness route. We are also seeing, inevitably, an increase in the number of older tenants who expect to live out their retirement in the private rented sector, which was extremely unusual at the time of the 1988 Act.
If the sector has changed beyond recognition, policy towards it must also change, to address some of the unforeseen consequences of those developments and to make sure that the sector works well and fairly for both tenants and landlords. A healthy rental sector is important for the housing mix, and it is important to acknowledge its flexibility, often as a starter accommodation. It is also absolutely essential to recognise that most landlords are good and responsible and provide a decent quality of accommodation.
My hon. Friend is right that most landlords are responsible, but that is not really the point. The point is that the 1988 Act, and section 21 in particular, allowed housing to become a commodity. Landlords can simply treat it as an asset to be traded and sold to increase their profits or income. Housing has no structure as a home under that Act. That is the basic flaw.
That is absolutely right. It is important to address the points from landlords. Having seen some of the concerns expressed by landlords in the social media commentary in the build-up to the debate, and having spoken at the Residential Landlords Association conference and at other conferences, one hears from landlords that they feel unfairly treated and tarred with the same brush as the rogue minority, which I think is probably fair. Unfortunately, the rogue minority bring down the sector as a whole. However, addressing section 21 is not about the behaviour of the small minority; it is about recognising that there is now a structural imbalance in tenancies that unexpectedly provide long-term homes for a much wider spectrum of society than was previously the case.
Is it not true that we want to make sure that good landlords remain good landlords? This change is not against them. If they do the right thing, they should not be afraid of what we propose.
It is absolutely true that good landlords should have no reason to fear a change in policy that reflects the differences in the demography of the sector, but I know that some do. It is also fair to say that the minority of landlords, whether we are talking about housing conditions—I acknowledge the Minister’s consensual approach to the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill—or security of tenure, bring down the reputation of the sector as a whole, which needs to be addressed.
Some of the better landlords may not have among their number the person who posted on social media before the debate:
“We need to fight to protect section 21…2 months is plenty to find a new rental…although if a tenant has annoyed me I wait to pull the trigger in mid-November to screw up their Christmas”.
That is not the behaviour of the overwhelming majority of landlords, but it is certainly not helpful to their wider reputation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent speech. Does she agree that section 21 evictions can upset the whole stability of family life? My constituent was forced to move to a different area because her tenancy came to an end, upsetting her caring and family arrangements.
That point is absolutely central to the argument, and I will come to it in a minute.
On the point about the behaviour of a minority of landlords not doing a great deal for the cause of the majority, there was also on social media the letting agent who said in respect of the payment of a tenant’s renewal fees:
“As far as I can see if the tenant doesn’t pay the renewal fee, DON’T renew the tenancy. Simples…
You could always serve S21 and replace them.”
That cavalier attitude to security of tenure is completely unacceptable, but we have a legislative framework that allows a number of landlords to behave in that way. I say to people who are doing that, “Guys, you are really not helping your own cause or the cause of the business sector for private rented tenure, and I would advise you to think very carefully about the way you express yourselves.”
What has happened to the use of section 21 over time, and why do we need to consider our longer term approach? It is extremely hard to obtain accurate information from landlords about their use of section 21 notices, and the large majority of tenants who leave assured shorthold tenancies do so after the service of a notice without court proceedings. I think that in the private rented sector debate last week Bob Blackman said—I believe this to be true, and have seen anecdotal evidence that it is true—that there are landlords who issue section 21s routinely at the end of a six-month period in order to be prepared for exercising those rights at the end of 12 months. That builds in to tenants’ experience instability of exactly the kind that hon. Members have mentioned today.
The actual number of section 21 notices served is unknowable. However, we know that in 2017 there were 21,439 possession claims under both section 8 and section 21 and 6,260 actual possessions, and a further 29,601 claims and 12,953 possessions under the accelerated procedure. That is a lot of uses of section 21.
We also know from Government homelessness statistics that the ending of a private tenancy on a no-fault basis has become the single largest cause of homelessness, currently representing more than half of all homelessness applications. That is critical. An analysis by Generation Rent claims that 92% of the rise in homelessness cases caused by the end of a private tenancy in London, which of course has the largest share, regionally, of national homelessness cases, can be explained by no-fault evictions. The figure is only slightly lower—88%—outside the capital.
The major trauma, of course, is for the tenants being evicted, but there is also an impact on local authorities, because if a landlord is using the section 21 process—often the notices are served at the beginning of the tenancy as protective notices—they are simply using it as a way of regulating their business, knowing that if the tenant is in priority need, they will be picked up in some way by the local authority, which obviously puts additional costs on the taxpayer.
Of course it does. As we have been discussing in the context of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, local authorities, because of the sheer pressure of homelessness applications, are also expecting tenants to wait until the court order has been issued and to wait until the bailiffs have been instructed and a date for the bailiffs to arrive has been received before they will consider the homelessness application. Landlords hate that, and one can understand exactly why—because of the insecurity about what happens to their rental payments. But the tenants absolutely loathe it and find it wholly traumatic to have to wait, often with their children, for the bailiffs to turn up before they can be rehoused by the local authority.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year found that the number of private tenants being evicted had risen by one fifth, that the overwhelming majority of the increase in possessions was driven by section 21, and that that was highly concentrated, with four out of five such repossessions being in London and the south-east, where rents are highest. It is precisely that concentration of section 21 use in certain areas correlating with the areas where market rents have risen most rapidly that I think is a real cause for concern.
The London boroughs identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were all in the top 10 for the largest and fastest market rent increases from an initially low level. Although correlation must be treated cautiously, it is hard not to conclude that there is causation between increases in market rent levels and the use of section 21, whether that involves evicting tenants in rent arrears because of high rent levels, or evicting tenants in order to raise rents.
If anything, the flattening off of possession claims over the period 2015 to 2017—that has flattened from a period when it rose very steeply—has happened at a time when the private rental market has been under pressure from several other directions. It tends to reinforce the point that section 21 use reflects wider trends in relation to rents and that, crucially, we cannot stop worrying about it because there has been something of a flattening off in the last couple of years. If anything, now is the moment when we need to review the law, because if rents start picking up again, as over the longer term they almost certainly will, we will find that there will be a further acceleration in its use.
The Residential Landlords Association makes the case that its research shows that in half of all places where section 21 notices are served, that is because there is an alleged fault, such as rent arrears, but that argument is somewhat undermined by the local authority homelessness experience, because local authority acceptances of people who have been evicted from the private rented sector will happen only after there has been an inquiry into the cause of homelessness and it has been found that the homelessness is not a result of fault on the part of the tenant.
Homelessness is therefore a major factor in our wanting to reconsider the use of section 21, but it is of course only the sharp end of a much wider experience of insecurity. Unchosen ends of tenancies are disruptive, expensive and often traumatic for those involved. Having to make frequent moves, especially for families with children and for vulnerable and older tenants, is a deeply negative experience, even when it has not been imposed by a court order.
Shelter estimates that 27% of renters with children have moved three or more times in the past five years. That takes a toll on physical and mental wellbeing and on educational achievement. It also undermines communities and civic engagement. A very powerful case was made a few years ago by the Electoral Commission on the impact of high turnover and churn in the private rented sector. I know from my own casework, as I am sure all hon. Members do, just how distressing parents—it is not only parents, but it is parents in particular—find it to have to move around, changing schools and disrupting support networks. I could have chosen dozens of cases from my own case load to illustrate that point, but I have chosen the details of just one to read out— it is only a few paragraphs—with your permission, Mr Hollobone.
My constituent says:
“I have lived in this area for over 30 years. Due to overcrowding in our family home I was asked to leave in 2010, at which point I made a housing application to” the local authority. They continue:
“The Council accepted a…duty and provided us with temporary accommodation in East London. We stayed in Dagenham for a short while before being lured back to Westminster by the Private Sector Team, reassuring us that this was a better option…When we signed a private tenancy we were promptly notified that the council has discharged its duty towards us because we have accepted private rent. We only rented for a year before the Housing Benefit was reduced under the new welfare reforms. As we could no longer afford the rent, we were obliged to find alternative accommodation”.
Despite their need for three-bedroom accommodation, they moved into two-bedroom accommodation. The council said that it
“could not and would not help us. I have a local connection as I have my family here. I look after my elderly father”,
who has cancer.
“I have 3 dependent children…attending local schools. I sit on the board of governors and play an active role in the…running of the school. I am…a member of the Parent Council.”
My constituent says that they are
“employed…and have served 18 years” in their job in the local area. They say they have been served another
“Section 21 Notice by the landlords Agents requiring possession of the flat on 02nd October.”
That will be the family’s fifth move in eight years. It is a simple example. It involves no fault, no arrears, no bad behaviour on the part of the tenants, but an imposed move of a vulnerable local family, and it is only too typical.
Renting privately is overall less secure than other tenures. Some 860,000 tenants moved between private rentals in 2016, up from 465,000 20 years ago, and one in 10 movers said that their move was down to being given notice by their landlord.
My hon. Friend Alex Sobel talked about retaliatory eviction. A significant minority of tenants fear retaliatory eviction if they make a complaint and so may be deterred from pursuing their rights for fear of the consequences. That unfortunately undermines efforts to improve standards in the private rented sector, despite its having, of all tenures, the highest level of substandard accommodation.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and the examples she is giving emphasise why it is important to re-examine the balance in this area; she has made that argument powerfully. Has she made any assessment of what the potential impact could be on the pipeline of available housing? I am always mindful in this place of the law of unintended consequences. I would be interested to hear her thoughts on that.
It is a fair point. As always, a balance has to be struck. The private rented sector is important, and as much as we would like to build more social housing to accommodate some of the people in it, that would take longer than we can afford to take to accommodate the people in the pipeline. That has to be considered. It is fundamentally unknowable, because it cannot be taken out of the context of so many other aspects of housing need and supply, including the Government’s 2015 tax changes, which landlords are extremely concerned about, and the overall number of tenants seeking accommodation.
The fact is that if we get the balance right and remove no-fault from the equation, and if we concentrate on providing a means for landlords who legitimately need to recover their property for whatever reason and deal with some of their concerns about the operation of that system, there is no reason on earth why people should regard that as unacceptable.
I know that it is unusual to make an intervention from the Front Bench, but the situation that Alex Chalk describes is simply one of displacement, which would not solve the long waiting lists that people are experiencing for social housing and affordable housing, and would not give anybody security of tenure. The issue he describes is not the equivalent of bed-blocking.
To add to that interesting argument, section 21 has been abolished in Scotland, which is a different jurisdiction and a different housing market, and has been replaced by a regime in which there are mandatory and discretionary grounds for possession. As I understand it, the objections from many landlords are about the complexity and the expense of the court process as much as anything. It is quite a difficult argument to put forward—although I am sure that Alex Chalk would do it well—that it is simply too difficult for landlords and it should be unrestricted for that reason.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. Certainly the landlord associations and landlords make the argument that the court process takes too long and is too complicated and, in many cases, too expensive for them to operate. I am unconvinced by that argument, because the figures that the landlord associations have put forward for the period of waiting for a court date or until a warrant can be issued are significantly different from the figures that the Library has provided for the debate. I am not sure that the associations are not using a different definition of average to make their case.
Obviously, once a landlord has decided that they want to recover a property, they will want to do so as quickly as possibly—that is inevitable—but whether the period of time that landlords have to wait and the quality of evidence that they have to provide if they are seeking a fault-based eviction should be lowered to make it easier for them, to the point where it effectively allows them to act without due regard for the rights of tenants, is a highly moot point.
I am entirely persuaded that landlords who issue a notice in a cynical, cruel and egregious way—in an almost deliberately upsetting way—should not be in a position to do so. The difficulty is in what an appropriate pretext or legitimate reason to seek to end a tenancy is. Can the hon. Lady say more about how she would crystallise and identify what amounts to a good cause?
As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, there is the experience of Scotland. It is early days, because the Scottish changes took effect only last year, but they give us some guidance as to how it might be possible to move forward. It will be good to see how it works when we start to get some figures.
Clearly, where landlords have a legitimate wish to recover the property, because they wish to live in it or make use of it—if it is a landlord’s home and they wish to return to it—that would clearly be a ground. There has to be some guard against that being open to abuse, however, which seems to be the case from some anecdotal evidence in the Scottish experience.
There are also fault-based grounds, such as where a tenant commits antisocial behaviour or is in rent arrears. There are grounds—that work has already been done—and it is completely reasonable that they should be allowed to exist and that, when a landlord takes a claim forward, it should be reasonably expeditious for them to pursue it.
The Government are consulting on the housing court, which I have mixed views about. It is important that tenants should have their interests represented and be legally aided in doing so, but there are questions about how that might operate, so the debate is certainly worth having.
It is absolutely right that a balance has to be struck. The work is well under way to provide an alternative, and that has to be done in consultation with the landlords associations, which have made a thoughtful and responsible contribution. However, we should be concerned about the homelessness experience; the scale of the use of section 21; the insecurity that tenants are experiencing, which has a disproportionate impact on families with children and on vulnerable tenants, as was well explored by the Rugg review; and the dangerous wider perception in the public’s mind that the private rented sector is not somewhere where they can expect to enjoy long- term security, but somewhere where they are utterly disempowered in cases where that is a reality.
The picture varies in different parts of the country. It is particularly acute in places such as London, where rents have been highest, so I am also extremely pleased that the Mayor of London has undertaken some work on section 21, security and affordability, and that he will make a research-based contribution to the debate.
I urge the Government not to throw this baby out with the bath water. The Government are rightly interested in greater security of tenure, but the framework of section 21 has existed for 30 years and the landscape has been utterly transformed in that time, so we need a fundamental review of the way the system works to make sure that it acts in the interests of tenants as well as landlords. The time is ripe for a more radical approach to resolving the issue and to making sure that tenants get a fair deal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Buck on securing this important and timely debate. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for arriving a little late.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House should recognise, my hon. Friend has done some steadfast work to advocate the rights of tenants. She has my unwavering support in her campaign for all homes to be fit for human habitation. The Government’s failure to support the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill in 2015, or to back a similar amendment to the Housing and Planning Act 2016 a year later—I served on the Bill Committee as an Opposition Whip—shows the scale of the challenge we face on this side of the House.
We have a flawed system that completely lacks balance, as my hon. Friend said. The housing security enjoyed by the post-war generation has been systematically eroded through the right to buy, the failure to build truly affordable low-rent social housing, and the boom in the buy-to-let sector. Those factors have moved many tenants from housing security to housing insecurity in the private sector. The right to buy, coupled with the failure to build, has created generation rent, as my hon. Friend said, and our children are paying the price. They are financially excluded, and for many home ownership is a distant dream. Their reality is insecurity and relatively high-cost private rents with few enforceable rights.
We must address the issue of tenants’ rights. The private rented sector has substantially increased, even in my time in the House. The private rented sector comprised just 9% of households in 1988. It has more than doubled since then and today accommodates one in five households.
Clearly, section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 and “no fault” evictions create—in fact, add to—a one-sided power imbalance, with landlords having practical rights while tenants have what are, in effect, unenforceable paper rights. This power imbalance encourages poor management practice, with tenants worried about challenging rent rises and often afraid to ask for essential repairs because they fear eviction.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North for circulating a briefing in advance of this debate, which notes that there were 12,711 evictions by bailiffs under section 21, which was recorded by the Ministry of Justice under the “accelerated” procedure. However, that figure is a baseline; it is really the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority of tenants actually moving out without going through the daunting court process.
I will now mention some of the issues in my constituency; they are different from those in the inner-city areas of London, but they are very real, and in some respects probably more acute. In my constituency, I have seen constituents move from one bad landlord to another and from one dilapidated house to another. It is a never-ending cycle of debt and disruption, which traps families in poverty. And no matter how hard they try to escape, it seems that they are caught in a vicious circle.
I hope that the Minister is aware of Horden in my constituency. I have raised the problems of the private rented sector there on a number of occasions. Indeed, I invited the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Jake Berry, who is the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse, to visit Horden. He promised that he would do so, but has not so far. In addition, I have written to the Minister for Housing, Kit Malthouse, inviting him to visit and discuss some of the particular problems that we have and how they might be addressed.
Without going into too much detail, I will just mention that some of the problems arise from the withdrawal of Accent Housing and the subsequent fire sale auction of houses in Horden, which led to an influx of absentee landlords with little interest in their tenants. We talked a little earlier about the tale of landlords who are not acting in a socially responsible manner, and that is certainly evident in some of the former mining communities that I represent in east Durham. Many people now find themselves living among derelict houses. Dilapidated housing, smashed windows, arson and fly-tipping are the epitaph of a failed private rented sector market in Horden, in my constituency.
Frankly, the situation in Horden is nothing short of a national housing scandal and I hope that the Government will engage with this issue, because we cannot sit by passively and see the situation continue. I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will prove me wrong.
My own local authority, Durham County Council, is nearing the publication of a Horden master-plan to address some of the issues with the private rented sector. It will set out a range of options and I hope that if we can work with the council, it will help to deliver some housing regeneration. However, there is still a need for Ministers to engage and support the proposal with appropriate funding, because we have an influx of absentee landlords, housing conditions are poor and tenants are being exploited. I am glad that my local authority is now seeking to challenge that situation.
I am told that it is not a formality to get an authority-wide landlord licensing scheme. I had thought it was a formality, but I understand that the Government have some reservations about such schemes.
The Minister is shaking her head. However, where we have had a landlord licensing scheme in a small defined area, that has proven to be effective. However, that has simply pushed the problem into another area.
The consensus is around a scheme that I believe has worked very effectively both in Liverpool and in Newham in London. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Dan Carden, who has hosted visits from local elected representatives.
We had very fruitful discussions with a Minister about the need for a private sector blanket ban in Newham. The only bit that the ban does not cover currently is the new build in the Olympic village. That has meant that there has not been anywhere else in Newham for people effectively to fly to, in order to escape even worse conditions. We had a very effective conversation with the Government. I urge my hon. Friend to keep pushing at this issue, because that ban has made a real difference to tenants in my constituency.
I am grateful for that intervention; it is really helpful. I think that such a policy will make a difference and we will keep pushing for it. It is not our intention to introduce a blanket ban on private landlords; we simply want to have a scheme whereby the absentee private landlords will behave in a reasonable fashion, including towards their tenants.
In conclusion, I support the abolition of section 21. Abolition would strengthen tenants’ rights. However, until we address the wider housing crisis, for example by building a new generation of social housing properties in the numbers that we did in the 1960s and 1970s, the national housing crisis will worsen. I saw some figures recently that showed that up to 40% of the council houses that were originally built are now in the hands of private landlords and on average the rents are double what they were when they were in the social sector.
Our children will be burdened with high rents or unmanageable mortgage debt, and they will live in insecurity, worried about reporting repairs or poor housing conditions for fear of eviction. Our communities will also be burdened—particularly those in villages such as Horden in my constituency—as properties are mismanaged by absentee private landlords, whose interests seem to lie in making quick profits rather than in engaging with others to make a sustainable community. So I hope that the Minister will listen to the concerns of my constituents and those of Members from all parties in the House, and that she will take the time to examine this issue and consider how she could help to transform and regenerate not only housing but the life opportunities of many people, including those in the communities of Horden and east Durham, who I represent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate Ms Buck on securing this very important debate. I still consider myself to be a new MP, but the number of people who have contacted me in my constituency of Bath about this issue has been shocking. It is really difficult to hear these heartbreaking stories and not feel that we need to do something about this issue very urgently.
The housing crisis and severe shortages of social housing mean that more and more vulnerable people are reliant on the private rented sector. There are now 4.3 million households in privately rented homes. According to the English housing survey, more than half of renters are aged over 35 and the private rented sector is home to one in four families with children, with 20% of the families in private rented homes having a baby or an infant under the age of five.
The hon. Member has already related to us the severe impact that these insecure tenancies have on family life. I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, and that type of situation is exactly one of these adverse childhood experiences, which invariably lead to children struggling at school, and from there on finding it difficult to get qualifications. Such situations early in life lead almost directly to later adversities, so we need to do something urgently for families in these very insecure housing situations.
As a result of the lack of social homes, more and more people have no other choice but to rely upon privately rented accommodation. Section 21 evictions lock these individuals into situations where the landlord has total control, creating a culture of uncertainty whereby tenants are afraid to exercise their rights.
Section 21 evictions are known as “no fault” evictions and they are highly damaging, because they mean that a landlord can evict a tenant at two months’ notice without offering an explanation and without the tenant having breached the terms of their contract. That forces the evicted tenant into unwanted and undeserved financial strain. On average, an unwanted house move costs around £2,306. Understandably, many families find this cost impossible to pay, so they end up in in debt and struggle to afford alternative accommodation. We have heard that the biggest reason for homelessness is now the end of a private sector tenancy. That is a serious problem in my constituency, where the prices of rented accommodation have shot up in recent years. I would like to share the story of one of my constituents, who wrote to me about her eviction; I hope it illustrates the very real consequences of the uncertainty in the private rented sector.
My constituent lived alone with her daughter in a property they had rented for four years. Despite making promises when they moved in, the landlord never made repairs, and rubbish that was left by a previous tenant was never removed from the property. My constituent, who suffered from both anxiety and depression, was incredibly distressed about the landlord’s refusal to pay for or complete repair work. She repeatedly tried to get the landlord to listen, with no progress. Eventually, worn down by the stonewalling, she withheld rent for a very short time. Within a matter of days she was issued with an eviction notice, requiring her and her daughter to leave the property within eight weeks. She had not breached her tenancy agreement. She described her situation this way:
“I have nowhere else to go, I haven’t breached my tenancy agreement and therefore feel it appalling that I have been requested to leave within 8 weeks. My daughter and I are going to be homeless in the winter. I have registered my application for general needs accommodation but as the housing crisis is so very real I worry I could be on the list for years before I am offered a property. I cannot afford to rent anywhere else privately in Bath. My daughter goes to school in Bath and I don’t own a car therefore it is completely impractical for me to look to rent elsewhere. I am at my wits end. I don’t know what else I am supposed to do.”
These are real stories. These are the people who talk to us directly, and we Members need to listen.
Section 21 evictions permanently tilt the balance of power towards landlords and cement a culture of fear, in which tenants are afraid to stand up for themselves. Given the threat of losing a cherished family home, unwanted financial pressure and the risk of homelessness, that cannot be surprising. Section 21 evictions and short-term tenancies have a direct impact on the ever-expanding problem of homelessness across this country. We must review the policies that govern the private rented sector, to ensure that tenants have freedom and security. Of course, at the bottom of this problem lies the severe shortage of social housing, and we Liberal Democrats committed at our autumn conference to build 100,000 new homes for social rent every year in order to address the housing crisis, which is so very severe. Ultimately, only the social rented sector will secure the long-term and affordable tenancies that we need. However, in the meantime we must reform the private rented sector, making it fit for purpose.
In the rapidly changing context of our housing crisis, there has been an ongoing failure to protect tenants’ interests, which cannot be allowed to continue. The charity Shelter has asked for all leases in the private sector to be no shorter than three years, as proposed in a recent Government consultation, and I hope the Government are seriously looking at that proposal. The growing housing shortage, especially of affordable housing, has made it imperative that we in this place look at how we can reform the private rented sector to avoid throwing hundreds of thousands of people into destitution and homelessness.
It is a pleasure to say a few words with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank Ms Buck for her excellent speech. I had not intended to speak in this debate, but I wanted to say that I find it very powerful, and I personally am persuaded that this is something we need to look at again. I should declare an interest: my brother, my sister and I are joint landlords of a cottage just outside my constituency. I wanted to give a few words of perspective.
First, it is worth emphasising that a house is not like any other commodity: it is not like anything else that one might consume. It is a matter of supreme, central importance to the security of individuals, their sense of wellbeing and their mental health. In those circumstances, it is critically important that we have a framework in place that ensures that on the one hand, there is a sufficient pipeline of that essential resource, and on the other, the pipeline is regulated in a way that is fair to all parties, particularly those who dwell in those houses.
It would be unfair to suggest that we have not come an awfully long way, and this Government can take some credit for the extent to which they have properly rebalanced the tenant-landlord relationship. I am thinking, of course, about the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill: it is axiomatic that homes should be fit for human habitation, and I am glad that that Bill will be in statute. I am also glad that there is a more rigorous system of penalties for rogue landlords who act in a capricious and vicious way, or do not take proper account of the wellbeing of their tenants. I am thinking, of course, about legislation regarding carbon monoxide detectors and so on. The penalties are now far more severe—financial penalties and potentially even criminal penalties. That is as it should be.
I feel it would be appropriate to look again at the issue of no-fault evictions. Although it is right to say that in the overwhelming majority of cases, landlords behave appropriately and with a proper sense of their responsibility to their fellow citizens, it does cause me some unease that there remains scope in the legislation for landlords to act in a capricious way. The hon. Member for Westminster North has identified some chilling examples, and the quote that she read, while wholly unrepresentative of the broad mass of landlords, revealed that a landlord could seek to leave someone homeless over the Christmas period for vindictive reasons. That would be an act of appalling cruelty.
However, I wanted to make some other points, very gently. As the hon. Lady was right to mention and acknowledge, this is a balance, and it is important that as part of any examination of this matter, the Government should consider what the implications are for the pipeline of homes. I say that because there is a potential risk—probably a tolerable risk, but none the less a risk—that further measures could seek to interfere with that pipeline. For the reasons that the hon. Lady indicated, I suspect that risk is tolerable, and if the conditions were crafted appropriately to ensure that there was a genuinely good reason to issue a notice, that risk ought not to eventuate. It would be important to allow landlords to issue a notice if, for example, their financial circumstances had changed or they were selling up to move abroad.
Any measures would have to be drawn up with appropriate flexibility. However, as long as that can take place, as long as any examination proceeds with care, and as long as projections can satisfy us that those measures would not lead to an intolerable diminution in the pipeline of available homes, then the hon. Lady has a point—a point that the Government would in conscience do well to consider. We should keep this matter under constant review, and I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for drawing this important issue to the attention of the House.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. I failed to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, and I do so now. I apologise that I failed to do so.
Settle down, everyone. I do not need to speak for very long, because my hon. Friend Ms Buck has done the heavy lifting for us by clearly setting out why section 21 should be banished. She has even persuaded Members from the Government Benches; let us hope that she has persuaded the Minister. I am sure that we will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say on this issue, having heard those arguments.
I also thank my hon. Friend Grahame Morris for his speech, because the property market in his constituency is very different from that which we experience in London. Quite rightly, a lot of attention is focused on London because it is a hothouse of a market. Exploitation of tenants for financial reasons has certainly been very much on the increase with house price rises, but he correctly points out that that is a problem across the country. In some ways, we are lucky in London, in that properties tend to be valued and perhaps kept in a better state of repair. What one does not tend to see now, because the properties are such valuable commodities, is whole areas that have fallen into disuse.
Perhaps the best way I can illustrate that change is from what I found by googling “protected tenancies”. Most tenancies before the 1988 Act would have been some form of regulated tenancy. That was the case for decades before, but many would have been protected tenancies under the Rent Act 1977. The first thing that came up when I googled “protected tenancies” was the Landlord Law Blog. I read from it not to be sarcastic—perish the thought—but because it gives insight into how landlords view assured shorthold tenancies. The post is titled, “Three ways to recognise a protected tenancy under the Rent Act 1977 (And avoid buying a property with a tenant you can’t evict)”. It states:
“If you work in property, particularly if you are an investor, it is important that you are able to recognise a protected tenancy when you see one.
Why? Because protected tenants have long term security of tenure.
This means that you will not normally be able to evict them if you want vacant possession. Not unless you are able to provide another property for them to live in. And even then, only if it is considered ‘suitable’…The main effects of this are…The tenant can register a ‘fair rent’
which is then the only rent the landlord is allowed to charge…The tenant can normally only be evicted if he is in arrears of rent (sometimes) or if the landlord is able to provide ‘suitable alternative accommodation’, and”— shock horror!—
“If the tenant has a spouse or family member living with them at the time of their death, they will inherit either another protected tenancy (if they are a spouse) or an assured tenancy (which also has long term security of tenure!)
The effect of all this is that you are stuck with a tenant who you cannot evict and who is usually entitled to pay a rent which is considerably lower than the market rent you could have charged had the property been an AST.
So how can you recognise when a property is being sold with a protected tenant?
Here are three tips for recognising protected tenancies.
1. The property is being sold for a low price…2. No tenancy agreement is available…3. Check the Valuation Office rent register” to see whether a fair rent has been registered.
What could be worse than for a landlord to end up with a tenant who has protected rights? That was the norm, however, prior to the 1988 Act. Most tenants would have rights of that kind: rights of succession, rights to a fair rent and rights to be shown cause before eviction took place. In many ways, a private sector tenancy had more in common with a social tenancy than it would with an assured shorthold tenancy now. The irony is that the rights of social tenants have been substantially weakened under Conservative Governments, both in terms of so-called affordable rents, which generally are not affordable, and in terms of the end of lifetime tenancies or fixed-term tenancies. Actually, social tenancies have gravitated towards that lack of security and affordability at the same time as they have declined as part of the housing sector.
I make those observations not to suggest that we simply repeal the 1988 Act and go back to the pre-Act regime, but to point out that it is within living memory —it is within my memory of my time as an elected representative—that that was the norm. Indeed, I am sure that other Members will still have protected tenants coming to them. It is very few now, obviously, because we are 30 years on, but it is usually about landlords trying to get rid of them to maximise the value of the property for sale or rent. The majority of our casework will be for social tenants or private sector tenants who are living in poor conditions or are subject to eviction because they have no security, but it is always interesting to look at the cases of protected tenants.
It puzzles me why we did not notice the fundamental change that the 1988 Act made to the way the housing market operated. One reason, which my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North alluded to, is that the private rented market was very different 30 years ago. I suspect that the Government knew what they were doing in legislating to shift the balance of power wholly in favour of landlords. The balance had always been that way to some extent, but then it became massively so. One reason that was not noticed was that the private sector had got itself a bad name, partly for the conditions, but partly because it was no longer seen as desirable as compared with owner-occupation or a social tenancy with a council or a housing association. In 1988, 9% of homes were in the private rented sector in England. That has more than doubled to 20%. That is mainly accounted for by a decline in social tenancies across England. If one looks at London specifically, it is even more dramatic. The best figures I have are census figures. In 1991, 14% of homes were privately rented, and it is now 30%. Again, it has more than doubled. Interestingly, there has been a decline in owner-occupation from 57% to 48% and in social rent from 29% to 22% over that period.
For my borough of Hammersmith, the situation is different again. Again, the most recent figures I can get are census figures from 2011, but I am not sure things have changed much since then. A third of properties are private rented, a third are owner-occupied and a third are social tenancies. There has been a significant decline in owner-occupation and a significant increase in private rented from 23% to 32% over that 20-year period. That is a massive change in how the housing market operates. I suspect therefore that the sort of people who become private tenants now are different, too. I am not saying that having no security of tenure is good for anyone, but when predominantly those in private tenancies were those who would have chosen short-term rents—perhaps students or people waiting to buy properties—it is clearly less traumatic to be asked by a landlord to leave in a set period of time than it is for a family who want to stay and live in that area. Increasingly, it is families who are occupying private rented accommodation.
What has also changed is where someone then goes. One of the worst things that the coalition Government did—I apologise to my Lib Dem friend over there, Wera Hobhouse, but we have to remember the Liberal Democrats’ complicity in all these matters at all times—was to introduce a duty to permanently discharge into the private sector those in housing need. That means that many families now have no expectation of ever getting a social tenancy. They are therefore at the mercy of a private landlord who may evict them. If they are still in priority need, they will go back to the local authority and ask to be rehoused. Due to benefit cuts and caps, it may be impossible in that area, and they may be moved a long way away. In any case, the process of recycling tenancies and moving on will occur on a regular basis.
My hon. Friend is right. It is almost tormenting people, and these are the people in a preferential situation—in temporary accommodation rather than permanently discharged to the private rented sector. They may have been waiting 10 years, and just as they are getting ready to receive their one offer of accommodation—
Yes, take it or leave it. At that point, one of the children turns 18 and is not in full-time education. Suddenly the family is either told, “You can have a two-bedroom flat rather than the three of four-bedroom property that you need,” or, “Sorry—you’re not in priority need at all any more.” It is extraordinary that whole generations have had to grow up in wholly inadequate housing and temporary accommodation.
My hon. Friend has tempted me to digress, so I will give just one example. Many boroughs and housing associations use the locator scheme, which is the bidding scheme. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not, but something extraordinary happened in my borough. When the Conservatives took control of the council—I am pleased to say only temporarily—they simply abolished the waiting list. Having decided that they did not want to build any more affordable homes—indeed, they started selling off and demolishing the ones that we had—there was obviously a difficulty in rehousing people, so the waiting list and the locator scheme were abolished.
Suddenly, 10,000 people were no longer in line to be accommodated at all. Once the borough came to its senses and returned to Labour control, the list was opened again, but what happened created a hiatus of several years in people’s lives that they will never recover. In addition to the long waiting periods that people face in any event, they were not on a waiting list of any kind during perhaps the prime years when their children were growing up and going to secondary school. Again, many of them are languishing in over- crowded accommodation or unsuitable private rented accommodation.
I do not want to paint a rosy picture of the world in the 1980s. I remember some dreadful, terrible private-sector accommodation then, but at least there was sometimes redress. When local authorities were better resourced, there were housing action areas, so we could go mob-handed, if I can put it that way, into a particular ward with environmental health officers and housing advisers. Also, legal aid was still available—actually, they were quite good days now I come to think about it.
If private landlords took the mickey in terms of the conditions their tenants were in or the way in which they treated their tenants, enforcement action could be taken. How different the situation is now, as evidenced by the fact that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend
Does that not remind us that, although the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill is a positive move, another essential part of protecting tenants and ensuring that they live in good conditions is giving them the right not to face retaliatory convictions and the right to raise their concerns without being evicted under section 21? It is therefore essential that section 21 is removed.
My hon. Friend is right. We tend, rightly, to focus on bad landlords. I think we all agree that they are a minority, but there is some shocking practice out there. That is nothing new—some of us can still remember the age of Hoogstraten and Rachman. However, I do not think that that is what the debate is primarily about. As I said in my intervention, it is about changing the climate in the private rented sector for good and bad landlords. It is about changing the way in which the private rented sector operates, which is long overdue.
I am often asked to act both for landlords and for tenants in relation to assured shorthold tenancies. A whole industry grew up, partly fuelled by the excellent housing columns in the magazine Legal Action by their honours Nic Madge, who recently retired, and Jan Luba, who is still a sitting judge. Systematically, over many years, they indicated all the areas of housing law where practice was changing and precedents were being set in the higher and lower courts.
A whole industry developed around section 21 notices, which are actually quite difficult to get right. Landlords who think that they can do it themselves often get them wrong. Although they cannot be challenged on the basis that it is a no-fault eviction—the tenant has been a model tenant, and all the other things that we have heard—they can be challenged if they have got it wrong procedurally. Often they have, but it does not get found out.
It should be spotted, frankly, by the judge, even if they are looking at the case on paper—the accelerated procedure for section 21 notices means that often such matters are not heard in court at all. Without the benefit of legal aid and legal advice, it is difficult to expect the tenant to know the process, but often the landlord does not either and it is, in fact, defective. However, it is an indictment of the way in which the housing market runs if we are reliant on catching landlords out on such procedural matters to give people security.
Is it not also the case that, because tenants do not necessarily know their rights or have access to advice, many people leave their properties, and a much larger number of people feel that they have to, upon the issuing of a section 21 notice, before it goes to court, or at the point of receiving a warrant? They then find themselves judged by the local authority to be intentionally homeless because they did not stay until they were required to leave.
I know that my hon. Friend is, like me, a great rooter around inside plastic carrier bags when they are brought into her surgery. Often one can find, among many other papers, half a dozen possession notices. Social landlords are better at this—or worse, depending on how one looks at the matter—because they often rather lazily issue notices seeking possession with no intention of pursuing them, the only purpose perhaps being to terrify the tenant. However, private landlords do it as well. They will issue section 21 notices like confetti, either as protective notices, or to try to scare the tenant off or something of that kind.
Although my hon. Friend is right that the advice should always be to stay put, to try to get what legal advice is available and to talk to the local authority housing adviser, one thing that the landlord will say is, “If you don’t go now, there will be costs when, at the end of the two-month period, I issue proceedings, or after that when I issue the bailiff notice, and you’ll have to pay them. It will be several hundred pounds at least, and if you challenge, or attempt to challenge, the action it could be more than that.”
I hate to extend my hon. Friend’s peroration because I am desperate to get in myself, but he reminds me of a constituency case in which a woman who had learning difficulties, whose son was magnificently supported by a local school, was being terrified by the landlord about her eviction. She left on the date that he told her. The council then had the issue of intentionality, and she has ended up, because she just could not cope with the stress, in a small village outside Bradford, and her little boy is simply not getting support. Had I known that we were going to have a long debate today, I would have brought every single one of those cases to lay before the Minister. Some of the stories that we hear, and know to be true, are just appalling.
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely true: tenants are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they leave too early, they can be criticised by the local authority; if they leave too late, apart from the cost risk, they may find that time has literally run out. Increasingly, tenants are coming to me and saying that they have been evicted and lost their belongings, which were in the property after the bailiffs arrived, and that they and their children are sleeping on somebody’s floor, sofa-surfing or in wholly inadequate hostel accommodation and being moved on night by night. My council acts as responsibly as it can to try to keep families together and ensure that people are rehoused in the borough or as close to it as possible, but as we all know, schooling, employment, support networks and caring responsibilities are all disrupted by the process—that is a very common thing to happen now.
I hope that nobody here has experienced eviction at first hand, but I am sure we have all met many constituents who have. It is one of the most traumatic things that someone can go through. The humiliation, the cost, the uncertainty, the rejection—the whole process is just appalling, and it is now accelerating as a consequence of simple greed or commercial practice. Unfortunately, with the growth of buy-to-let and temptation in the private rented market, rents are escalating at a huge rate.
Only the other day, we were talking about the difficulty of building affordable homes. I am proud to say that my local authority is now building 1,500 new affordable homes, rather than knocking them down as it did when it was Conservative. However, the rent for a new social rented home is about 20% of the market rate, which means that building it requires a huge subsidy, which is very difficult to obtain. [Interruption.] I can hear Alex Chalk tutting, but he knows that that will just encourage me.
In 2010, all the support for subsidy for social rented homes was removed, so it is no wonder that there has been a huge decline in availability and more reliance on the private rented sector. There is a fourfold or fivefold discrepancy in rent levels and landlords are being tempted to increase their income substantially simply by evicting tenants and replacing them with others. Alternatively, they may be thinking, “I don’t want to make more of a profit than I make already, but with benefit caps and restrictions on the rent that the tenant can pay”—given London rents, tenants will inevitably be partially reliant on housing benefit, even if they are working full-time—“I cannot afford to rent to them any more, so I’m evicting them.”
The hon. Gentleman knows how fond I am of him and his remarks, but his slightly party political point tempts me to intervene. This debate is about whether it is right to update the 1988 legislation. Does he accept that his party was in power between 1997 and 2010 but declined to do so? Does he agree that we ought to consider the matter in a more cross-party, consensual and reasonable way, rather than drawing party political points? [Interruption.] Melanie Onn is shaking her head, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that this need not be too partisan an issue?
In a moment.
I should not look a gift horse in the mouth, because the hon. Member for Cheltenham has come here to be conciliatory and supportive, so I will move on. Although I regard Labour Governments as scrupulously honest, fair and absolutely on the ball in many respects, I agree that there are one or two aspects of housing that past Labour Governments have not got 100% right. Shall we leave it at that?
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I think there is now a realisation that things have shifted too far in one direction. There is a willingness to look at the issue again and to effect change, whether through rent-to-buy schemes, which are a big part of the Mayor of London’s platform, through longer-term tenancies or through wholesale reform, as has happened in other jurisdictions within the United Kingdom—Scotland is the example that we have used. Labour party policy has moved on beneficially, not least since I was sacked as shadow Minister last year and somebody far more radical and impressive has taken over.
We will hear from the new shadow Minister in a moment, but I hope she will not take it amiss if I say that I am particularly looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and finding out how far policy has moved on within the Government—not just on the rabble-rousing Conservative Back Benches where the hon. Member for Cheltenham sits with the radical, provisional wing of the Conservative party.
Can the Minister give us some indication that the issues of balance and no-fault eviction are understood? May we look forward to some beneficial changes that give security to families, particularly in high rent areas, but also—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Easington—across the country? Those changes are long overdue. Whatever the merits or demerits of the 1988 Act, it is time we took another comprehensive look at housing legislation and redressed some of the obvious unfairness in the private rented sector.
I am always delighted to follow my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter, who always makes pertinent and important remarks. To carry on from where he left off, let me say that I hope the Minister hears the plea from my hon. Friend Grahame Morris and ensures that when his council asks for powers to improve housing stock and stop tenants being exploited, it will receive the same powers that have been extended to my council. That would be a jolly good thing for the Minister to offer this afternoon. I realise that the civil servants behind her might suggest that she should not act so radically and precipitately, but I genuinely believe that it would be very welcome. It would show that she had listened to the debate, understood it and taken positive action.
I thank my hon. Friend Ms Buck for securing the debate. She has already accomplished a huge amount in the fight to secure safe and affordable homes for all, and the debate is an important continuation of that campaign. I think that I can say without fear of contradiction that the housing crisis is more severe in Newham than almost anywhere in the country. We have an enormous shortage of affordable homes, with almost 26,000 households on the council’s waiting list. The average time for a family to wait for a three-bedroom home in Newham at the moment is 13 years, and it has been higher.
I want to deviate slightly from what I was going to say to talk about my family, which was cleared from a slum in West Silvertown in 1963. I was born a little earlier. We moved into a beautiful two-bedroom flat overlooking the dying docks. It was that flat—that secure accommodation —that everything else stemmed from. My mum and dad had stability. They both worked locally, to provide for us. That home, however small and inadequate it was, gave me the ability to study, to build community support and to continue with my education in just two schools. So many children in my constituency do not have those privileges now. They have to move from school to school, or face journeys of more than an hour a day, which their families can ill afford, in order to continue having the same friends and teachers and some stability in their lives.
Instability is creating enormous difficulties for such families, and that will go on for years. Often it means that they are not registered with doctors. Often it means that the children are not fulfilling their potential in education. Often the implications of what has happened to them go on into the future. I could try a Conservative argument: there will be a cost effect for the families and for the state in years to come. Children who do not fulfil their potential at school will not fulfil their potential in a functioning economy. The children and parents who are not getting the primary healthcare they need often go on to cost the NHS more in years to come. It is a false economy not to invest in our families, and if that investment had not been made for me, I would not be here today and my little sister would not be a solicitor. It would not have happened and we would not have been able to accomplish what we have. I want the same for my constituents as was given to me.
In Newham, like many other places, the social housing stock has declined massively because of right to buy. The council did not see the return from that—the Treasury did—and it has not been able to borrow as cheaply in order to replace the stock. Half of the local homes bought under right to buy are owner-occupied, but the other half—5,000 in Newham—have made their way into the private rented sector, where rents have shot up. Rents in Newham increased by 47% in just five years between 2011 and 2016.
The lack of social housing is at the root of this huge problem. We should not play a blame game here, because the problem has increased under successive Governments. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it is now for all of us to work together to massively rebuild our social housing stock? Otherwise, we will not solve the crisis.
I am absolutely fully committed to building social housing and ensuring that the people I represent have proper access to it and to stability, because a single mum in my constituency, working full time on low pay with two children, living over a chicken shop, will spend 73% or more of her income on the private sector rent on even a cheap flat like that—73% or more of income, before paying for food, heating, travel or clothes.
Evictions from the private sector are now by far the biggest cause of homelessness in Newham, and homelessness is increasing rapidly. Some 14,611 people are now homeless in Newham, which is one in every 24 residents—the highest rate in the country. I genuinely believe that section 21 is one of the reasons behind the rising rents that have led to such a horrifying level of homelessness in my constituency.
I want to mention one story—I should have taken up the offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and nipped back to the office to get a few more. I want to tell hon. Members about Martin, who lives with his wife and two children in a rental property in Newham. The property had not been properly maintained and is not fit for a family to live in. The bathroom had tiles falling off the walls when they used the shower, and the ceiling was at risk of falling in under the weight of water that was sitting in the plaster. In his son’s bedroom, water streamed down the walls and through the ceiling, damaging the laptop that he needed to do his schoolwork. The landlord promised to act because Martin had repeatedly gone back to him in desperation, but the repairs were never done. Instead, Martin and his family were served with a section 21 eviction notice in August this year. He was given absolutely no reason why the family needed to move.
Martin is still in the property, resisting the eviction, with support from the London Renters Union. I pay tribute to the work that that organisation does in supporting many of my constituents who find themselves in similar situations. The family have been faced with illegal tactics from the landlord. He regularly sends his family members and agents to the house to try to make them leave—they try to bully them into leaving. Frankly, if it had been other constituents of mine who I am in regular contact with, that tactic would have worked by now and I would be arguing with my council over intentionality.
Martin believes, as I do, that this is a revenge eviction. By demanding their right to live in a home fit for human habitation, Martin and his family have simply made themselves more trouble than they were worth. The landlord knows that he can rent the property to someone else, probably for a higher figure, and can just sit it out and wait until they start to complain about the conditions, and then he will go through the same cycle again.
It is so distressing for a working family who are on a low income. They have had to fill out a homelessness application to the council. Given their financial circumstances, they may not be able to access any other private accommodation in Newham, because letting agent fees, deposits and rents are quite simply extortionate. Vulnerable and poor families are paying the price for a housing system that unfairly empowers landlords to carry out no-fault evictions. Our councils and our council tax payers are paying the price too. We desperately need to bring homelessness down and improve housing conditions in the private rented sector. For that to happen, section 21 just has to go.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I start by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Mrs Wheeler, back to her place. This is the first time that we have had the opportunity to face each other in recent months, and I am very pleased to see her back in her place.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ms Buck for securing this debate, and for her truly exceptional work to help those who struggle to get a long-term decent home in the private rented sector. She has been absolutely tireless in ensuring that the quality of people’s accommodation is sufficient and suitable for people to live in in the 21st century, and she is so persuasive that the Government supported her private Member’s Bill earlier in the year. I congratulate her on that.
For many of the 4.7 million private rental households in England, the risk of being evicted by a section 21 notice casts a looming shadow of insecurity over their time in the private rental market. In as little as two months after being served a notice, a tenant’s life can be turned around. For the one in four families with kids who live in rented accommodation, that can mean moving their children out of the settled environment of their school, where they have friends and connections. As my hon. Friend Lyn Brown eloquently said, that reduces their potential, limits their life chances and impacts on their healthcare and education. She helpfully set out some of the financial ramifications of failing in housing in the first instance, making those families move into new and strange environments. For many, their ability to raise the money for new accommodation, including deposits that can now stretch into thousands of pounds, is simply a pipe dream.
It is no coincidence that the rise of the loss of a private rental tenancy as a reason for statutory homelessness since 2010 has come in parallel with a rise in the use of section 21 eviction processes, and Generation Rent research suggests that more than 200 households a week are being made homeless through section 21 evictions. The use of section 21 has severe impacts on those who face it, yet there is no oversight of its use to ensure that it is justified, fair or proportional.
Nothing sums up better how deeply unjust the application of section 21 can be than the experience of a number of my constituents who were moved on to universal credit this time last year. During the transition to universal credit in my area as part of the pilot roll-out, a property company that housed the vast majority of universal credit tenants—generally at the lower end of the market and in cheaper properties that are not always in the best condition—sent blanket section 21 notices to people in its properties. While the landlord said that it had absolutely no intention to evict tenants who did not fall into arrears, the form 6A that was handed to tenants clearly stated that they were required to leave their property on
My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter mentioned how those possession orders and the letters can literally terrify tenants, which is something that I experienced on a large scale only a year ago. He also commented on tenants being issued with a possession notice and being terrified. If they are deemed to have left the property too early, the local authority considers them to be intentionally homeless. How does that now work with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the local authority’s duty to prevent homelessness? The two seem to be in conflict, and I shall be grateful if the Minister will touch on that in her closing remarks. I am sure that she will absolutely agree that causing families that much stress over Christmas and putting people at risk of homelessness due to Government system changes rather than to individual fault, and when they have no previous rent arrears or a track record of being a bad tenant, is not how we want the eviction process to work in this country in the 21st century, but that is completely legal under section 21.
It is not just the eviction process where section 21 has a devastating effect on tenants in England. Giving landlords the power to play fast and loose with security of tenure creates a power imbalance, which unscrupulous landlords use to intimidate or exploit tenants and to get away with improper and often illegal practices. Some of the most extreme cases of this were made clear in Westminster Hall last week during the debate on sex for rent, which was secured by my hon. Friend Peter Kyle. Shelter estimates that this issue affects 100,000 women each year.
When landlords can evict tenants indiscriminately, they can hang the threat of eviction over tenants at any time they see fit. Tenants, who are often unaware of the help that is available to them, and often unaware of their rights and where they can get advice, feel that they have very little right, even if they could afford—particularly in terms of legal support—to challenge whether they have been correctly served with a notice.
My hon. Friend spoke about tenants not knowing where to go to receive advice. One of the biggest problems we have in Newham is that there is no longer anywhere for our tenants to go for advice—we do not really have that kind of advice and services. We no longer have legal aid to look after our tenants, and we certainly do not have fully functioning and properly funded citizens advice bureaux or housing rights services, which exacerbates everything and makes it so much worse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have a personal understanding of that situation, particularly in Newham, because my mum used to work for Community Links, which suffered huge cuts in 2012, resulting in her redundancy. That was precisely the organisation that provided that kind of detailed advice, support and casework to individuals in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
When landlords can evict tenants indiscriminately, tenants do not feel empowered or that they have sufficient knowledge or support. When they think that they have a very slim chance of winning a legal case where a threat is made with no written evidence, they just think, “What on earth is the point?” and look for somewhere else to live, which can often be far out of the area, particularly in London. If a landlord is seeking to move somebody on because they want to receive a higher rent—we know that is the case due to the demand in the city—it can be impossible for people to find similar accommodation in their locality and local community. Landlords can use the threat of section 21 eviction to pressure tenants into sex, and too often they can carry out the threat of eviction, as there are no clear checks that would allow a tenant to challenge an unfair and punitive eviction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North was absolutely right to talk about the private rented sector as the only housing option available to people, now that the ability to buy is so far out of so many people’s reach. She was also right to talk about how different the private rented sector is from the way that it used to be perceived. We are approaching 5 million people in the private rented sector who will be there for the long term—who will be in that sector, even if not temporary accommodation, for many years. Surely it is right that when circumstances change, we should acknowledge and accept that and say, “Yes, let’s change the policy accordingly—it has to reflect modern times.”
We need a new system of evictions in England, with proper checks and balances to prevent abuse. We know that there are numerous valid reasons why a landlord needs to evict a tenant. None of us wants to do away with a landlord’s right to evict bad tenants, sell their property or move back in, if need be, but it surely cannot be beyond our capabilities to draw up a new system that reflects that while protecting tenants. It is a case only of whether there is the will to do it. Some landlords use section 21 to carry out evictions because the current section 8 process is too slow and complex to evict bad tenants, but we do not need a no-fault eviction process to allow landlords to reclaim their properties legitimately. It is easy to prove that a tenant is in rent arrears or has caused significant damage to a property, easy to prove that you are in the process of selling a rented property, and easy to prove that you have genuinely reclaimed a property for self-use and not to rent commercially to another tenant. So simplifying section 8 and putting in a proper system that means landlords must give a valid reason for eviction—I say again—should not be beyond the means of the Government. If we create a system that provides better checks and balances, there seems to be no reason at all to keep a no-fault eviction clause that causes so much hurt for thousands of tenants around the country.
Before I finish, I want to say that my hon. Friend Grahame Morris deserves a visit from the Government. I hope the Minister will rapidly flick through her diary to find an available date to go and look at how integral security of housing, quality of housing, availability and affordability are to people’s wellbeing and strength in his local community. A visit would be greatly appreciated.
If the Minister recognises that we have to root out bad and exploitative landlords; that we need to try to professionalise the private rented sector; that we want to tackle discrimination of renters and improve communities by ensuring that people feel invested in their properties as homes and not somebody else’s investment; and that the private rented sector is a valued and necessary part of the housing mix in this country while we wait for councils to be able to start building more social homes, hopefully she will agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North has proposed today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate Ms Buck on securing the debate and thank all those who have made wonderful contributions today for their interesting stories from across the country, which tug at the heartstrings.
This is an important issue and I am glad to be able to respond to some of the concerns raised. We are committed to rebalancing the relationship between tenants and landlords, to deliver a fairer, better-quality and more affordable private rented sector. The sector plays a pivotal 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.
On the specific points made by the hon. Members for Westminster North and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on section 21, the legal framework underpinning the private rented sector works to build a fair and robust private rented sector that protects tenants, supports landlords and empowers local authorities to deliver a healthy rental sector. The Government provide support to landlords and tenants to navigate the legislative landscape and have recently updated the “How to Rent” guides that offer comprehensive guidance and signposting to relevant resources. The Government are committed to providing practical guidance to relevant agencies and local authorities when new legislation is created.
Interestingly, according to the most recent English housing survey, 84% of private renters were satisfied with their current accommodation, and two thirds were either very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their current tenure. However, we also recognise that many tenants feel insecure and that their house is not their home because they are on short initial fixed-term tenancies of six to 12 months. We are committed to improving security for tenants.
Section 21 provisions provide an important guarantee to landlords that they will always be able to get their property back at the end of the tenancy. The flexibility for landlords and mortgage providers to recover their asset if they need to is crucial to retaining investment and supply in the sector, including the availability of buy-to-let mortgages. I want to make this point specifically in reply to my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, who has had to leave us. There are clear legal protections for tenants and a clear process that landlords must follow when carrying out a section 21 eviction.
Outside the fixed-term tenancy period, a landlord can evict a tenant using a section 21 notice, but only when they have complied with certain legal obligations. Those include protecting their tenants’ deposit in a tenancy deposit scheme, providing a gas safety certificate, and also providing a copy of the Government’s “How to Rent” guide. If, in response to a complaint about property condition by a tenant, the local authority has served either an improvement notice or a notice of emergency remedial action, a landlord cannot evict a tenant using a section 21 notice for six months. Furthermore, under the Tenant Fees Bill, we propose that if a landlord charges a prohibited fee, they will not be able to serve a section 21 notice until those payments have been reimbursed.
The Government want to protect the rights of tenants and give them more security, but we must do so in a way that does not impact on the supply of good-quality rented accommodation.
The Minister highlights important and hard-won preconditions for taking eviction proceedings, but that does not alter the fact that, in the generality of cases, we are talking about no-fault evictions. Opposition Members are anxious to hear what the Government will do about no-fault evictions. Do they still maintain that that is the right general approach or do they think that its day has come to be removed?
Fortunately, as we have so much time, I have an extremely long speech and the hon. Gentleman might be stunned to hear what I have to say. Or he may not.
Growing numbers of tenants are families or older people and the Government are firmly committed to helping them. The measures announced in the housing White Paper mean that most tenants in the build-to-rent sector are now being offered tenancies of a minimum of three years. We recently consulted on overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector. We sought views on a three-year longer tenancy model with a six-month break clause and asked for views on its viability and how it can be implemented. The consultation closed at the end of August and we are now analysing responses.
A three-year tenancy is one option. However, we have not made any policy decisions regarding tenancy length, whether to change the legislation on section 21 evictions or how our proposed model could be implemented. We are considering the consultation responses fully before making any policy decisions and will set out next steps shortly. In the meantime, for tenants who want a longer tenancy, we have published a model tenancy agreement that landlords and tenants can choose to use as the basis for longer, family-friendly tenancies. We have also published “How to Rent” and “How to Let” guides for tenants and landlords to support them in understanding their rights and responsibilities.
To answer some of the points made by the hon. Members for Westminster North and for Easington (Grahame Morris), the Government recognise the important role that private landlords play in supporting the UK economy and in providing homes to millions of people across the country. We recognise that in order to continue to offer housing, landlords need the flexibility to be able to get their property back quickly when circumstances change. Without those assurances, landlords would be less willing to enter and stay in the market, which does not help tenants.
We recognise that some landlords have concerns about the section 8 eviction process and instead use the section 21 accelerated procedure. We are keen to understand those concerns, and last month, on
There have been calls from hon. Members here today to abolish section 21 evictions. As I have said, we have not yet made any firm policy decisions on whether to legislate to alter the provisions set out in section 21. We first want to consider carefully the responses to the call for evidence on user experience of the courts.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; she knows that I have a soft spot for her. What will I say to Martin about what she has offered this afternoon? Can I say that she is considering getting rid of section 21, or that his rights will be enhanced by the Government’s future actions? What advice would she like me to give to Martin?
I am sure that the hon. Lady has espoused the brilliance of the licensing scheme in Newham and the brilliance of her council. Perhaps her council should have gone round to the flat to deal with the dreadful situation that she has enlightened us with today.
We will indeed; I would be delighted to have that conversation.
As I stressed at the start of my speech, property is a valuable asset and landlords may need to gain possession quickly for various reasons, perhaps because they wish to sell the property, or to enable them or a family member to move in. As I said, there is a clear legal protection for tenants, and a clear process that landlords must follow when carrying out a section 21 eviction.
I appreciated hearing what the hon. Member for Easington had to say about selective licensing and borough-wide licensing, and about enforcement of property standards. Selective licensing is meant to be a targeted tool that can deliver improved standards and safety in the private rented sector for areas suffering serious problems. It can be used at local authorities’ discretion, but where it covers more than 20% of the private rented stock, confirmation by the Secretary of State is required. That is to ensure that local authorities focus their activity on the worst areas and avoid an adverse impact on good landlords. Local authorities have an array of powers at their disposal for enforcing property standards. We expect them to use them to maximum effect and have set up a £2 million fund to help them kick-start enforcement and share best practice. Having said all that, the offer that I would like to make to the hon. Gentleman is that my officials will contact his local authority to talk about an application for licensing.
The 2016-17 English Housing Survey found that only a tenth of private tenants, when asked about their most recent move, said that they were asked to leave or were given notice by their landlord. There were 1.1 million moves into and within the private rented sector in 2016-17, with private renters making up a larger proportion of movers compared with other tenures. However, there has been an overall decrease in the number of private landlord possession cases since 2014. In England and Wales there were 20,590 private landlord possession cases in 2016-17. That shows that only a small percentage of moves in the sector end in the courts. Of course, where that does happen it can have a devastating impact on the tenants involved. The Government acknowledge that the end of an assured tenancy in the private rented sector can cause homelessness.
I want to make it clear that we have one of the strongest safety nets in the world to prevent homelessness, and we recently strengthened it through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. The Act came into force in April and brought in a new prevention duty, extending the period for which an applicant is “threatened with homelessness” from 28 days to 56 days. That will ensure that those served with a valid section 21 notice that is due to expire will be classed as threatened with homelessness and supported until their situation is resolved—to answer a question that was put during the debate—with no gap between prevention and relief duties, if they have nowhere else to go. If the landlord intends to seek possession and there would be no defence to the application, the local housing authority must take reasonable steps to prevent a person’s homelessness. Local authorities must work with applicants to develop personalised housing plans, tailored to the needs and circumstances of the household.
I thank the Minister for her further explanation of the point about the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Can she confirm that, were someone to leave their property early, having received the possession notice, and were they to attend the local authority, they would be deemed homeless, and not intentionally homeless, and given the same support as someone who was homeless as a result of another set of circumstances?
The hon. Member for West Ham says from a sedentary position that I cannot. The absolute truth is that the person must go to the local authority as soon as they get the section 21 notice, and the local authority then has a duty to help them.
They will not go? Okay, we will find out.
Wera Hobhouse mentioned affordability. That issue is exactly the reason why the Government introduced the £1 billion Build to Rent fund, and the £3.5 billion private rented sector guarantee scheme, to help support the building of thousands of extra homes specifically for private rent. We want Build to Rent to continue to grow and make a significant contribution to housing supply.
I fear that the Minister may have misunderstood what I meant. We need to build social homes for rent, because the private sector will just not build the affordable homes we need. Giving the private sector money to build homes for the private sector will not solve the crisis.
Fortunately, as I go on with my speech, the hon. Lady will hear even more good news.
We are going further, delivering the homes that the country requires. The Government are committed to building more affordable homes, supporting the different needs of a wide range of people. The Government are committed to increasing the supply of social affordable housing and have made £9 billion available through the affordable homes programme to March 2022, to deliver 250,000 new affordable homes on a wide range of tenures, including homes for social rent. Furthermore, we abolished the housing revenue account borrowing cap on
The Minister is being incredibly generous in giving way. On the lifting of the HRA cap, which has been well received on the whole, what is the Government’s plan for those local authorities that do not have an HRA account because they disposed of their stock wholesale, at the time when housing associations became involved, about 10 years ago?
From memory, if a local council wants to go back into the market, as long as it builds a minimum of 100, it can. Obviously, I shall write to the hon. Lady to confirm that later.
The change will diversify the house building market, as councils are better able to take on projects and sites that private developers might consider too small. To help further, we are providing a longer-term rent deal for five years from 2020 that provides housing associations and local authorities with a stable investment environment to deliver new homes. That will help to deliver the new generation of council house building that the Prime Minister announced recently.
Our position on retaliatory eviction is clear. To answer the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), no tenant with a genuine complaint about the condition of their property should be fearful of retaliatory eviction. That is why we have already taken steps on the matter, legislating to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction through the Deregulation Act 2015. As we are all aware, the vast majority of landlords provide well-maintained properties, and thankfully only a small number of tenants encounter the threat of retaliatory eviction. We share the ambition of ensuring that tenants are properly protected from retaliatory eviction—I shall begin to call it RE, as I cannot get my teeth around it.
We want to take a strategic approach, empowering tenants to raise issues with their landlords through greater security of tenure. Our recent consultation on overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector included a question seeking views on the effectiveness of RE provisions. That ensures that we have the most up-to-date information to inform our thinking. We are currently analysing responses. We are supporting the private Member’s Bill promoted by
I hope that my remarks today demonstrate the Government’s commitment to building a private rented sector that works for everyone—one that supports good landlords to deliver the homes the nation needs and provides safe, affordable and secure homes for tenants. We do not shy away from the challenges facing us and are aware that we need the support of the entire private rented sector if we are to achieve those goals. It is in that spirit that I thank all hon. Members for their speeches and questions. I hope the hon. Member for Easington survives his cold—he has just toddled off. It would be a pleasure to talk to him about organising a visit to his area. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Westminster North and other hon. Members in the coming weeks and months on this very important issue.
I will not detain hon. Members long. I am very grateful to the hon. Members who came along this afternoon. A number of others indicated that they wanted to come, but are unfortunately queuing in the Brexit debate. There is genuine strength of feeling in Parliament about the need for change. We heard powerful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and Wera Hobhouse. I was particularly touched by the contribution of Alex Chalk, because in all my years in Parliament, the number of times that anybody has said that they have changed their mind during a debate can be counted on the fingers of one hand, so that is something I will cherish.
I am grateful to the Minister for her usual courtesy, but I was disappointed by her response. I appreciate that Governments always say no until they say yes, but I hope that, beneath the surface, there is more thinking going on about this issue. Although she is absolutely right that the issuing of no-fault evictions is subject to a number of conditions, I do not think it is reasonable to say that they in any way undermine the application of section 21 to the private rental sector. It is a structural source of insecurity in a growing sector, which is increasingly home to families and others who are looking for security.
The Minister quoted the English Housing Survey, which said that just 10% of tenants said that their landlords had required them to move, but the sector is now home to 4.7 million people, and there is a danger that we look at a low percentage and confuse it with a low number of people who are affected. Actually, a huge number of people are living under the shadow of insecurity. Homelessness is expensive, traumatic and a huge challenge for local authorities, but it is only the tip of the insecurity iceberg. It has been very well documented by the National Audit Office and many others, and there is a solid body of evidence supporting the need to tackle no-fault evictions in order to help us tackle homelessness, particularly in areas of high housing pressure such as London—but that is not the only reason to do so. There is a much wider problem of insecurity. We have heard the case studies. We know from what Generation Rent and other housing charities are telling us, and from other supporting evidence about the impact of high population churn and mobility, which is overwhelmingly concentrated in the private rented sector, that this is a real and growing problem.
The Minister mentioned the cases that come to court. We know that the cases involving section 21 notices that come to court are only a small proportion of the total. People are living under that shadow and they do not like it, particularly when they are trying to achieve stability in their employment, community and family.
I hope that the discouraging tone that we have heard this afternoon about section 21 is not the end of the story. We are 30 years on from the introduction of a legislative framework that is simply no longer fit for purpose. There is no reason to fear, and no reason for landlords to fear, a change in the law, provided it is set in the proper context of meeting their reasonable needs to secure their property in the case of bad tenant behaviour or return to their home if they wish. Those things are entirely possible within the legislative framework. We will have to see how it works in Scotland. Other countries in continental Europe, such as Germany, have this model and do not have a problem. We do not have to live in a deregulatory housing environment.
This issue is not going to go away. I was encouraged to hear my hon. Friend Melanie Onn reaffirm that the Labour party would take action to end section 21, but I think that should be consensual if possible. We should be able to build a consensus for change. I hope the Minister will go back to the Department and seek to bring about a change. It is time for a fair deal for Britain’s private renters. That is not the only thing we need to do. We need to tackle the issue of welfare reforms and build social housing, but this is a critical tool in the arsenal of attempting to build a fairer and more decent society for the private rented sector. This is an issue to which I know we will return.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the use of Section 21 evictions in the private rented sector.