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Private Rented Sector

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 4:00 pm, 17th March 2020

I agree with my hon. Friend and will come to that topic later in my speech.

We are hearing stories of some landlords trying to increase rents since coronavirus hit and refusing to negotiate with tenants over rent holidays in response to the pandemic. That not only highlights the need for the compulsory rent deferrals that Labour is calling for—I hope the Minister will address that point—but for a universal register of landlords, to crack down on rogue landlords and to give renters the information they need to make informed choices when they are thinking of renting a house. As one good landlord who lives locally wrote to me, a register is in the interest of good landlords.

I am pleased to see that Labour is leading the way around the country. The Welsh Labour Government have introduced a compulsory licensing scheme, called Rent Smart Wales. Sadiq Khan, who I have already mentioned, has used the limited powers he has to introduce a rogue landlord checker. Brent is one of the councils that has successively used selective licensing to improve conditions in thousands of homes and to prosecute rogue landlords. It was disappointing that Brent’s application to expand the licensing scheme was rejected by Ministers last month. The Government should be encouraging landlord licensing, rather than trying to shut it down at every opportunity. I hope that the Government will look seriously at introducing an England-wide landlord register.

The most important thing that renters need is enforceable rights to get their accommodation improved, if it is not to standard. They have some options. The first is to contact the local authority, which has the power to inspect properties and take enforcement action against landlords. However, local government funding has been cut so much—by 43% since 2010—that councils’ ability to enforce standards has been decimated. The amount available to spend on housing enforcement has fallen by 25% in that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned that our constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, to whom I pay tribute, pushed the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 through Parliament. That means that renters can take their landlord to court. However, to do that people need the financial means, and the Tories have taken an axe to the legal aid system. I hope that they will look again at that, because few people can now apply for legal aid for housing matters. There is a need to restore funding to both local government and legal aid.

There is a lot more I want to say but, because of the time, I will ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he can answer. First, what measures do the Government plan to bring in to support private renters who are affected by coronavirus? That is the obvious question. In particular, will he support low-income and insecure workers, including those on housing benefit, so that they can self-isolate safely and not worry about eviction? Secondly, with rents in London remaining so stubbornly high, for what possible reason are the Government refusing to devolve powers to introduce sensible rent controls? Why are they blocking attempts by regional and local governments to bring in landlord licensing? Thirdly, when will the renters reform Bill be introduced, and how long will it take for no-fault evictions to be scrapped? Will the Minister consider bringing in emergency legislation to ban evictions for rent arrears caused by loss of a job or income as a result of the virus? What measures does he plan to tackle DSS discrimination in the private rented sector, so that people have a fair shot at getting accommodation and councils can easily rehouse homeless people? Finally, I have focused on older renters, and, given the risk to them from the virus, what urgent steps will the Government take to improve conditions in the private rented sector, so that people can be safe in their homes?

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the urgency of the situation. This is a time when the country needs to come together and help the most vulnerable. We need to be bold and bring in emergency legislation to make sure that low-income private renters are not hit hardest by the virus that is taking over the country.