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Electrical Safety (Private Rented Sector)

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and it is a privilege to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), in his place. I congratulate him on his appointment to his relatively new position.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on electrical safety in the private rented sector. How we live is changing. According to Shelter, the proportion of homes rented privately in the United Kingdom has rocketed by nearly 70% since 2001, with the private rented sector now home to 3.8 million households in England alone. There is no doubt that the private sector is playing an increasingly important role in meeting housing needs, especially for families. However, this rapid expansion in the market has been marked by a few rogue landlords and some well-meaning but ill-informed landlords, who are failing to ensure that the homes they let comply with basic safety standards. Electrical safety in the private rented sector is an issue that needs addressing urgently.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. There are a number of Members from across the House who are concerned about issues of electrical safety. Every year, nearly 5,000 fires are caused by electrical appliances, and many of them can lead to loss of life or serious harm to the individuals caught up in those fires. Does he agree that where a landlord is letting a property with appliances in it, there should be routine and proper inspection processes in place to ensure that the tenant knows that the equipment that they will be taking on is safe?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and I entirely agree with him. When I used to work in various offices, everything had to be subjected to portable appliance testing to safeguard me as a worker. It seems a bit unfair that people living in properties should not be protected in the same way. His point is a very good one.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. My constituency has one of the highest proportions of private rented sector accommodation and so I take a close interest in this issue. Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), does the hon. Gentleman agree that where houses are in multiple occupation the sort of licensing regime that there is in Oxford, which requires inspection, has a very useful role to play in promoting safety?

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is one of the points that I was going to make. Houses in multiple occupation are covered, but other sorts of rented property are not. That is a very good point indeed and I thank him for making it.

When I was a student in Manchester in 1972—I know that is going back a fair way—I entered the house in Whalley Range where I had my digs and a loud hum could be heard. It was coming from the fuse-box situated near the front door. As I was curious, one day I looked inside. The reason for the noise was clear—in place of fuses, there were several three-inch nails. Until very recently, I assumed that nothing like that could happen today. As we have already heard, however, according to Government statistics the cause of more than half of all accidental fires in homes is electrical. Tragically, last year 25 people died in fires that started because of an electrical fault, and we also know that other people have been electrocuted. However, current rules mean that landlords are under no obligation to provide tenants with electrical safety certificates. They do not even have to prove when the electrics were last tested unless their properties are registered as shared houses, as the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) mentioned. That is despite the fact that a gas safety certificate is required.

The problem with electricity is that very often faults are not visible. Unlike a gas leak, someone cannot smell an electrical fault. This means that it is possible for properties to be rented with dangerous or faulty electrics that neither the landlord nor the tenant are aware of until it is too late, which can mean the loss of a loved one. “Too late” is just not good enough. Luckily, Mr Parker, my constituent, who raised this issue with me, was aware of problems in his rented property. He was seriously concerned about the electrics in his rented house in Eastleigh and came to me. He showed me alarming pictures of exposed wiring that quite frankly looked like a death-trap. Shockingly, there was loose wiring, some of it in close proximity to water. This was self-evidently not a new problem. If it had been and if his landlord had immediately taken action, as a responsible landlord would do, none of this would have come to my attention. But unbelievably Mr Parker’s landlord would rather run the real risk of injury or death to his tenant and damage to his property than repair the defects.

Of course, on hearing Mr Parker’s concerns one of my first reactions was to ask if he had any kind of electrical safety certificate for the property. Imagine my shock when I discovered that, under the current regulations, landlords do not have to certify the safety of the electrics in a rented property in any way. As a result, the judgment of what is classed as safe comes down to a personal opinion rather than scientific fact. Gas safety testing is mandatory on a yearly basis. Both gas and electricity are dangerous if there is a fault. So we apparently believe in protecting tenants and their neighbours from fire and injury caused by gas, but fire and injury caused by electricity is fine. Of course, if someone is renting a room in a house of multiple occupation, or in a hotel or bed and breakfast, electrical checks are required, meaning that if someone is staying in a hotel or renting a bedsit they are safer than they would be in their own home.

It is evident that current laws are just not up to scratch. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and the housing health and safety rating system brought in under the Housing Act 2004, have proven to be inadequate, mainly because they neither protect the landlord nor the tenant against unknown faults. The law assumes that the tenant is aware of faults. When I moved into my house in Bishopstoke in 1994, all the electrics looked perfect. However, an electrical safety check showed up several worrying faults that could have had tragic consequences. Needless to say, they were repaired. A simple five-yearly check, similar to the gas safety check that landlords must carry out on a yearly basis, would ensure that tenants and landlords are protected against such risks.

As hon. Members are surely aware, the Communities and Local Government Committee agrees that a change in the law is needed. In its latest report on the private rented sector, which was published in July, the Committee recommended that the Government develop an electrical safety certificate and legislate to ensure that landlords carry out full wiring checks every five years. This recommendation is backed by the Electrical Safety Council, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the National Private Tenants Organisation, the Residential Landlords Association and the National Association of Professional Inspectors and Testers, an electrical certification body. However, the Government have rejected this proposal, arguing that it would increase red tape. Their response reads:

“The ESC recommends that safety checks are carried out every five years and we think that strikes the right balance between having safeguards in place to protect the tenant and avoiding regulating the sector”.

There is red tape and then there are regulations that save lives; a £200 five-yearly safety check is definitely the latter.

Any administrative aspect of electrical certification could be minimised by including such documentation alongside existing gas installation work. Most qualified gas engineers are also qualified electrical engineers. It is also important to remember that the introduction of the type of measures proposed in the Select Committee’s report would protect not only tenants but landlords. Accidental landlords, such as those people who inherit a property, are very often unaware of their obligations. Indeed, a study by the ESC showed that almost half of all landlords and tenants admitted that they had no idea who was responsible for electrical safety. Therefore, landlords are exposing themselves to significant financial risks, from fines and invalidated insurance, by not meeting their electrical safety obligations. That is not to mention their conscience if a tenant is injured or killed by an electrical fault in their property, which could result in a lifetime’s burden of guilt.

One of the last points that I want to make is a wider point about tenants having the confidence to complain about such important issues as electrical safety. Both the ESC and Shelter have significant concerns about the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. I welcome the recent announcement from the Department for Communities and Local Government that it will be looking into the possibility of restricting the use of section 21 eviction orders that apply to assured shorthold tenants following the receipt of such a complaint. I have been made aware of instances where a tenant has been issued with a section 21 eviction notice simply for identifying a hazard. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is completely unacceptable.

For the sake of the 1.3 million renters that the ESC estimates are currently waiting for electrical issues to be resolved, I ask the Government to review the current legislation before another entirely preventable tragedy wrecks another life.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) on securing this important debate. He is raising the issue on behalf of his constituent, Mr Parker, although he is drawing on his own life experiences, as we heard, albeit from a few decades ago while a student. Many hon. Members will have lived in private sector accommodation, whether as a student or later on, early in adult life—that experience is common in my constituency—and will have had such experiences and have views on this subject.

The private rented sector is an important part of the housing mix in England. It is growing and the Government wish to encourage that. Nine million people in England live in the sector. In my constituency, a significant proportion of people rent in the private sector; indeed, it is the second largest cohort in the country, after Kensington and Chelsea. The issues raised by my hon. Friend are of interest to me, as a constituency Member and as the Minister with responsibility for this area.

The quality of private rented housing has improved rapidly during the past decade. The English housing survey shows that 83% of tenants are happy with the service from their landlord. Obviously, that should not give rise to complacency, because it means that 17% are unhappy. Many of those experiences of unhappiness may fall within the issues that my hon. Friend is raising.

There is a general statutory duty on landlords to ensure that their property is in good repair while being let, and that is deemed to include electrical installations, to ensure that any appliances supplied with the property are safe. Where the property is licensed—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) mentioned this in his intervention—for instance, in houses in multiple occupancy, the local authority can require that electrical installations in the property are periodically checked and that an electrical safety certificate is produced on demand. But it is up to each local authority to decide what that periodic interval is.

The Minister knows, from a meeting I had with his predecessor and through written parliamentary questions, that I have been trying to establish the outcome of a survey that the Department commissioned into the extent to which voluntary arrangements for licensing conditions are being taken forward. I wonder whether he has any further information about that and whether that has led him to conclude that there needs, at least, to be much clearer best practice guidance for local authorities, to ensure that the minority of landlords who let their tenants down by not adequately checking their appliances do not do so and are properly licensed in future.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I shall mention various actions that the Department is taking in this area, which I hope will satisfy him.

Apart from circumstances in which properties are within an existing licensed scheme, landlords are not required to have electrical installations regularly checked. Although it is not a requirement, the Electrical Safety Council recommends that such installations should be checked every five years, as matter of good practice, and this recommendation is endorsed by the Department. A brochure has been produced for landlords and, as it is Christmas, I have a copy for my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh. I am sure that he will find it useful in giving advice to his constituents.

Turning to points made by my right hon. Friend—I hope that this will satisfy him—the Government are reviewing the service that tenants can expect from landlords. In October, the Department launched a consultation on a tenants’ charter that will consider various issues, including electrical safety. The first stage of this will be the publication of a discussion document on the issues early next year. I hope that it will be available by the end of January. This comprehensive review of property conditions in the sector will also include actions that we may be able to take to stop the practice of retaliatory eviction, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh mentioned, where a tenant has made a reasonable request of their landlord for improvements or repairs to installations in their property.

The review will also consider whether there should be any changes to existing health and safety rating systems and whether smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be required in rented homes. At the moment, such alarms are required only in certain circumstances, where particular sources of heating, such as solid fuel, are installed, but we are reviewing whether that duty should be extended. We are looking at existing licensing and voluntary accreditation of landlords, building on the discretionary licensing scheme that exists in several urban areas at the moment. Bristol city council has just started a discretionary licensing scheme to improve the standard of private rented stock in the eastern area of my constituency.

We are also considering what redress might be available for tenants; for instance, whether landlords should be required to repay rent where a property has been found to contain serious hazards. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is shocking that retaliatory evictions might occur where a tenant has made a reasonable request of their landlord for an improvement to be made to their property. They should not face the threat of deprivation by losing their home. The Department does not, at the moment, have any comprehensive evidence that retaliatory eviction is a widespread problem. My hon. Friend mentioned evidence from Shelter. Perhaps he would be kind enough to share that with me after this debate, so that I can raise the matter with Department officials.

On the health and safety rating system, local authorities have strong powers to inspect properties and make sure they are safe, healthy and free from harm. The process involves looking at 29 possible risks to health, including electrical hazards. Powers are available to local authorities where serious hazards are found in properties, including prohibiting use of the dwelling; undertaking the works directly themselves; and prosecuting the landlords, if necessary. The system provides an important safety net, ensuring that homes are safe and decent.

I mentioned that we are looking at the related issue of whether to require the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. This was the subject of an amendment and a debate in the other place, during the passage of the Energy Bill, when the Department announced that it is undertaking that review. Smoke alarm ownership is quite high, with 86% of all domestic buildings having at least one smoke alarm. Ownership of carbon monoxide alarms is much lower, estimated at about 15%. We are reviewing that.

Licensing gives local authorities some degree of control over the condition of privately rented housing in their area. Large HMOs are subject to a mandatory licensing scheme. As part of that, a smoke alarm must be installed in the building. A local authority can also require that an electrical safety certificate is produced on demand, but that is in the narrower circumstances of HMOs—narrower than those my hon. Friend is talking about—which are already subject to a local authority licensing scheme.

Local authorities can decide to license other rented housing. I mentioned the discretionary licensing scheme. At the moment, this can be applied where general antisocial behaviour is found in an area of high private sector rented accommodation or low housing demand. Our review will look at whether those conditions should be widened. Where that licensing is in place, an authority can impose conditions requiring regular checks of electrical installations of the sort that my hon. Friend requires.

In the review into property conditions, we will also consider whether a landlord could be required to pay rent if they let out a property that contains serious hazards. Landlords are already liable for fines if they are found to be breaching certain conditions, but we are considering how tenants may receive redress and compensation, and the repayment of rent seems to be a good way of doing that. That is subject to the review, and I urge all hon. Members present to contribute their views to that review.

As part of the review, we are also considering the letting agents market. As I am sure many of us know from the experiences brought to us by our constituents, and possibly from our own personal experience, many private rental properties are secured through a letting agent. The majority of agents provide a good service, but some do not and charge tenants excessive fees for a poor service, which might include not giving information about electrical installations or white goods in the property. From 2014, all letting agents will have to belong to a redress scheme, which will ensure that tenants have access to an independent adjudicator, who will be able to investigate complaints about a letting agent and order compensation to be paid, if appropriate.

Before concluding, I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. The Department recognises that, if we want to grow the private rental sector, as the Government certainly want to do, it is vital that we ensure that tenants have confidence that the homes they are renting are safe and decent.

Our review will conclude next summer, and I again urge all hon. Members to contribute to that review. Perhaps next year my hon. Friend will again be successful in securing a debate, and I hope that he will find that many of the issues he has raised today have been addressed by the review.