House of Commons
Friday 19 January 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill
[Relevant Documents: Written evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, on the private rented sector, reported to the House on 4 December, 11 December and 18 December 2017 and on 8 January and 15 January, HC 440; oral evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 8 January, on the private rented sector, HC 440.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I, too, extend my congratulations to you on your birthday, Mr Speaker? It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.
Everyone deserves to live in a safe, warm and comfortable home, yet despite the undeniable progress made over many decades, millions of people—often the most vulnerable—still do not. Currently and extraordinarily, landlords have no obligation to their tenants to put or to keep the property in a condition fit for habitation. There is an obligation on the landlord to repair the structure of the property and to keep in repair features such as heating, gas, water and electricity, but that applies only when something is broken or damaged; it does not cover issues such as fire safety, inadequate heating or poor ventilation causing condensation and mould growth. There is a whole range of fitness issues that seriously affect the wellbeing and safety of tenants and about which tenants can do nothing.
We must await the results of the inquiry into the horror of Grenfell Tower before reaching any conclusions, but we know that residents were raising fire safety concerns in respect of the cladding long before the fire. This cladding was, as far as we know, in good repair but may have been unfit and hazardous—something certainly was—yet the residents had no legal route available to them to pursue their concerns.
The Bill will modernise the housing fitness standard, and it will extend to cover almost all tenancies—private, housing association and council. It will allow tenants to take action on their own behalf in the same way and on the basis of the same standards as local authorities currently can and give them a remedy that so many of them lack.
Members of Parliament are all too familiar with bad housing. Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves responding to constituents living in the most appalling conditions that their landlords, public or private, cannot or will not act to resolve. As an inner London MP whose constituency includes areas that have been notorious for poor housing, dating back to the era of slum landlords such as Rachman and Hoogstraten, this issue has always been very dear to my heart.
When such cases come to me—I will mention them in a moment—my first port of call is often the environmental health department. While my council is of a different political complexion from me and we fight like ferrets in a sack on most issues, I can truthfully say that environmental health rises to the occasion again and again. I must have referred more than 1,000 cases to it over the years, and it has acted with vigour and professionalism, yet we know that that action is not sufficient.
I have seen a couple with small children living in two rooms of what was in effect the attic of a property in north Paddington. They lived and slept in one room; in the other, the tiny kitchen, toilet and shower were just cubicles built into the same space. I have seen a family who have had to close off two bedrooms—their only bedrooms—because of the cold and damp, and who all slept in the living room because they were unable to use the entire property. I have met a young mum who had to bring home her baby, who was born prematurely, to a flat that was so damp that even I, when I visited her, struggled to breathe. Only two weeks ago, I met a pensioner who was taken into hospital with hypothermia twice because of the cold in a flat from which the heat leaks through badly designed windows. Incidentally, she also fell and hurt her hip on steps that had been turned into a virtual river as water poured through a hole in the roof.
A good example of how fitness and disrepair are distinct and different elements of unfitness comes from an estate—a lovely and popular estate—in Bayswater in my constituency. Residents had long-standing complaints about extreme cold, damp and condensation, to the point that environmental health set up a dedicated project with the goal of protecting the health of residents. In 2011, its report found a range of deficiencies in the flats contributing to the health hazard of excess cold:
“Frequently associated with cold conditions within the flats was another hazard, that of ‘Damp & Mould Growth’ caused by condensation moisture forming on cold internal surfaces within the flats, including the window frames and the glazing. In some cases, the mould growth was chronic and severe”.
Despite environmental health’s survey of their flats, residents repeatedly requested that something be done; they had asked for the windows to be replaced as long ago as 2006. Why were those flats unfit, and how does that distinguish itself from disrepair?
As those flats were built in the 1950s, when building construction standards were poorer than today, their insulation standards were—and remain—very poor. The end walls of the flats are made of solid reinforced concrete, as are the floors, roofs, external stairways, lift shafts, walkways, balconies and possibly some of the internal walls. The cavity walling was unfilled and uninsulated. Consequently, there is constant heat loss throughout the structure of the building and instances of cold bridging in the flats on the estate caused by cold, uninsulated elements transforming heat energy and losing it externally. That causes condensation, dampness and mould growth. Those residents have been waiting for 12 years. A major estate programme has been under way for some years and still has to run until 2022, and the residents have no legal redress to deal with their concerns.
In case references to heat loss and cold bridging are a little technical, here is one example—one of many—from a resident who wrote to me from that estate:
“I have been suffering from the cold. We are always sick with flu and cold. I have my heating on 24 hours a day, with another electric heater and I am always ill, so is my son. My heating bill for this month alone was £400. My son and I have asthma. I have asthma, arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, Kienbock’s disease in my hands, and I suffer panic attacks and anxiety. I am suicidal and had to go to St Mary’s hospital and see a psychiatrist, who said I must move to improve my health conditions. Please, please help.”
I thank my hon. Friend for promoting this private Member’s Bill. Morally, we know that we must take up this issue, but is she surprised to know that that is also the case financially? This month, I received a letter from the Department of Health and Social Care, which stated that conditions of poor-quality housing cost the NHS—and this is a conservative estimate—an estimated £1.4 billion a year.
My hon. Friend is a mind reader because I was coming to that very point. There is plenty of evidence to confirm that bad housing is a drain on the national health service and—as in so many other areas—if we were able to act more effectively to tackle the causes of bad housing, that would also benefit the NHS.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this Bill and I assure her of our support. She mentioned some disturbing cases, examples of which we will all have heard in our constituency casework. Does she accept that private sector landlords play a valuable role in the housing market and that the vast majority of them understand that, in addition to their right to receive rent, they also have obligations towards their tenants?
I absolutely do. The vast majority of landlords act responsibly towards their tenants, and they have an interest in ensuring that the rogue minority do not get away with irresponsible behaviour.
This week, I was pleased to take part in Parliament’s digital engagement process, and our project on housing standards received the best response so far in that important experiment. That is pleasing, although it further served to confirm the extent of the problem. We were told that 57,000 people viewed the Facebook page on which we presented our questions about attitudes to housing fitness, and some of the case studies that came in as a response were truly horrifying. Those studies came from all over the country and reflected the scale of the problem.
We know anecdotally, and from Members of Parliament, councillors and other caseworkers, just how serious is the problem of substandard and unfit housing. The English housing survey shows that three quarters of a million private rented properties—about one in six of that sector—are unfit and that about a quarter of a million social rented homes contain a category one hazard under the housing, health and safety rating system. That could relate to damp, infestation, excess cold and a number of other risks, and it means that 3 million people, including many children, have their health and safety compromised every day by substandard housing.
Local council-led enforcement is simply insufficient for the task. I have already mentioned my very positive relationship with my local authority, although it still has constraints, particularly in respect of its own housing stock. Taken across the board, however, local authorities are not enforcing more than a tiny proportion of measures to deal with substandard properties. My most recent freedom of information research, which was prepared into a report by Stephen Battersby, indicates that enforcement action is taken at a level equivalent to only 1% of all the properties that are unfit according to the English housing survey. Research carried out by Shelter about a year ago found that enforcement action has fallen by 40% in recent years. Importantly, this is not a criticism of local authorities, but the fact is that the capacity simply is not there. Performance varies hugely between councils. There is a reliance on informal action in some areas, and although that has its place and can help to resolve some problems, it makes it hard to assess the overall effectiveness of what local authorities are doing.
I welcome this Bill. Everyone should have the right to live in a home that is fit for habitation, and if that is not the case, tenants need the ability to challenge landlords in court. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in tandem with this Bill, we must consider reintroducing early legal advice in housing matters, so that problems can be resolved a lot quicker?
All of us, and our constituents, owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend for promoting this Bill and for her perseverance because it is not the first time she has done this. Legal aid is already severely restricted for disrepair. The Government notes to the Bill say that it contains no financial provision—that is probably why they support it—but should we not meet the remedy that the Bill provides with the funds to allow tenants to enforce it?
We expect that tenants whose conditions meet the criteria equivalent to disrepair would be able to seek legal aid, and I will be making separate representations about legal aid overall. My hon. Friend and I, and many other Labour Members, feel very strongly about this issue.
Will the hon. Lady pay tribute to Citizens Advice for its role in assisting 144 families with housing repairs in my constituency? Does she agree that many tenants can get legal expenses insurance through their household insurance, and it is always worth checking insurance policies for that?
I join the hon. Lady unequivocally in paying tribute to Citizens Advice. It supports the Bill and has written a good briefing about it. I do not want to stray too far from the Bill, but there is a real concern about advice services across the piece, and we must continue to discuss and make representations on that.
One concern that underpins my motivation for the Bill is that it is often the poorest and most vulnerable people—those with the highest likelihood of having disabilities and sickness—who are trapped in the worst housing, and in my experience, very few people have adequate insurance. That is a much larger problem that we must seek to resolve. A number of different remedies may be available to some people, but the minority of people who are concentrated in very bad housing often do not have access to the remedies that are available to those who are better off.
The hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. I strongly support the Bill. She made an important point about enforcement. The House is good at making regulations, but often they are not enforced properly to help the most vulnerable people, and I believe that enforcement agencies and local authorities need more support. She made a point about retaliatory evictions when local authorities take action, and in my experience local authorities that take action often do not also help the tenant to ensure that the landlord does not behave badly. I would welcome the hon. Lady’s comments on that.
There are a number of issues in respect of supporting tenants that are outwith the scope of the Bill and on which I will continue to make representations, including retaliatory eviction. The reality is that local authorities are increasingly cash-strapped. That is one of the reasons that environmental health departments are not able to enforce. In an ideal world, local authorities would be able to fund advice services and tenancy liaison officers. I have seen some very good practice by tenancy liaison workers, including in Westminster, across the parties—when work is good, I am happy to acknowledge that. I am in absolute agreement with the right hon. Gentleman, however, that it is inadequate and patchy, which is exactly why we need to make sure that individual tenants can exercise a direct remedy in law when the other services we would all like to be in place are not up to the job.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her Bill. On the role of local authorities, does she welcome, as I do, the Government’s recent decision to reauthorise Newham Council’s selective licensing scheme? She has rightly pointed out that it is a small minority of landlords who are the problem. Does she believe that local authorities more generally should have those selective licensing powers?
I do, although that issue is also outwith the scope of the Bill. The Bill proposes one important tool for tenants, but there are many others, some of which are being introduced. We will continue to lobby for others in the future. I certainly congratulate Newham Council on its active work in respect of its rogue landlord sector.
I thank the hon. Lady for making a strong case on an issue about which she is very passionate. Is it not key to the Bill that social tenants currently have no effective means of redress over poor conditions, as local authorities cannot enforce the housing health and safety rating system against themselves? The Bill will give them a tool to compel local authorities to carry out the repairs.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is one of the purposes of the Bill. Social council tenants do not have the same right as private and housing association tenants, who can go to the local authority, which may or may not enforce. Council tenants cannot do that, and the Bill will extend to them the right to seek remedy.
As we know, the law in this area is generally outdated and restrictive. I started by saying that there is currently no obligation to ensure that the property is fit, as opposed to the obligation to deal with disrepair, and that there are therefore a range of fitness issues about which tenants can do nothing at all. That used not to be the case. The fitness obligation was set in law, but that has ceased to have effect as the law has developed over many decades.
The concept of housing fitness—of homes being fit for human habitation—stems all the way back to the Victorian era and the work leading up to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1885. Lord Salisbury, the then Conservative Leader of the Opposition, made the case that the shocking condition of housing was injurious to both health and morals and was promptly attacked, even by The Guardian, for propagating state socialism.
The royal commission established prior to the passage of the 1885 Act proposed that there should be a simple power by civil procedure for the recovery of damages against owners or holders of property by those who have suffered injury or loss by their neglect or default in sanitary matters. That is exactly what happened. The remedy was granted to tenants, subject to what was then a relatively generous rent limit, but as time passed and laws changed, overlapped and melded together, the rent limits ceased to be updated and the ability of tenants to seek a remedy when their homes were unfit lapsed.
Eventually, the impact of that led to a 1996 report by the Law Commission, “Landlord and Tenant: Responsibility for State and Condition of Property”. The commission criticised the fact that the right of civil remedy for tenants against their landlords in cases of unfitness had been allowed to “wither on the vine”, as the rent limits had remained unchanged for 40 years. It concluded that removing the rent limits would be the preferred way to give tenants a civil remedy. Two Court of Appeal judgments supported the same conclusion.
More broadly, “Closing the Gaps”, a joint report commissioned by Shelter from the Universities of Bristol and Kent last year, concluded:
“The law relating to health and safety in people’s homes is piecemeal, out-dated, complex, dependent upon tenure, and patchily enforced. It makes obscure distinctions, which have little relationship with everyday experiences of poor conditions.”
Apart from that, I am sure it is fine.
My experience of temporary accommodation is that it includes some of the worst conditions that I have ever seen. Tenants who are often increasingly placed away from their own local authority have a lot of difficulty in seeking remedy, which I strongly believe that they should be able to do.
What will the Bill actually do? The old obligations on landlords to ensure that a property is fit and not just in a state of repair have become obsolete. The Bill will therefore have the effect of reviving the fitness requirements and updating them by reference to a definition of hazards, the presence of which will determine whether a property is unfit. That list of 29 categories of hazard is set out in the housing health and safety rating system introduced in the Housing Act 2004. It will have the effect of ensuring that unfitness is covered as well as disrepair, so structural and design faults are included where they risk causing serious harm. That includes cases where poor ventilation causes severe damp or infestation, fire safety, dangerously steep stairs without protection from falls and so on. The tenant could take action against the landlord to make them put right any problems or hazards that make the property unfit and seek compensation when the landlord has not done so. The Bill makes it clear that the landlord would not be liable for any issues arising from the behaviour of the tenant or issues that would bring them into conflict with other legal duties.
I welcome this important Bill and the hon. Lady’s tenacious work on the issue. When I was a private renter, I was offered houses with wires hanging out of the walls, electric cookers hanging off the walls and even, in one case, dog mess on the carpet. This is a superb Bill. May I welcome her comments on the excellent balance it achieves between new rights for tenants, which my constituents will welcome, and sensible safeguards for landlords?
How do I answer that? I thank the hon. Gentleman for his and the Government’s support.
May I acknowledge those people who have got us to this stage and who support the Bill? There has been broad support for the proposals, for which I am very grateful. Shelter has campaigned strongly, as has Generation Rent. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has lent considerable expertise. The National Housing Federation has given its backing, and excellent briefings have come from Citizens Advice, Mind, the Law Society and, of course, the Library, among others.
Very importantly, the Bill is backed by the Residential Landlords Association, the National Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Letting Agents. Alan Ward, the chair of the Residential Landlords Association, possibly summed up the situation for all three organisations when he recently wrote that
“the Bill seeks to achieve what all good landlords want; better enforcement against the crooks that bring the sector into disrepute.”
Sam Lister from the Chartered Institute of Housing researched the history of attempts to improve housing fitness, dating back to Lord Salisbury, and he should get the research published because it is fascinating. Stephen Battersby, the former president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, has diligently prepared reports on enforcement and housing fitness over several years, and has provided invaluable advice. I also thank colleagues who have given up a precious Friday to be here.
I am genuinely thrilled to have Government support for the Bill this time around, and I hope that we can, continuing in the positive spirit of recent weeks, make good progress in passing it into law. I give thanks to the officials who have been exceptionally helpful during the preparation stage.
I want to place on the record my appreciation for Giles Peaker and Justin Bates, the housing lawyers who took the Law Commission recommendations and not only drafted the Bill but supported me through every twist and turn of it over the past two years. They are great lawyers, obviously, but they are also driven by a passion to champion people in housing need, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.
There is a great deal more to be done to turn the tide on insecurity, affordability, homelessness and housing need, and none of us will stop pressing the Minister to make progress on other fronts. But today we have the chance to progress a Bill that will give tenants new powers to hold the worst landlords to account. I hope that we will take that opportunity, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I too would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on introducing this important Bill and on securing Government support for it, which is an excellent example of cross-party working. Like all Members, I want to see this Bill deliver on its objectives to ensure that everyone can live in a decent home.
I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on new towns. Many new towns, including my own constituency of Telford, have a private rental sector with homes that are substandard and have long been neglected. Both the design and the materials of estates that were built at the same time—in a hurry, 50 years ago—have not stood the test of time and they are now past their useful life. Those estates are decaying simultaneously, which makes renewal and renovation challenging.
Housing estates in many new towns were often constructed to the Radburn design, which was innovative and experimental in its day. Cars were separated from housing, and the front was accessible only by a footpath, with back yards facing each other on to vehicle access alleyways. Over time, however, that has “designed in” crime and antisocial behaviour, and confusing layouts have rendered estates inaccessible. Wooden construction materials are rotting, and flat roofs are prone to leaking. There are houses in multiple occupation and empty properties, and now we have the worst of the rogue landlords. Over the years, the dream of a new start in a new town on a new estate has become a nightmare for some.
Although some of those ex-local authority homes are owner-occupied, most are privately rented and owned by multiple landlords who are very hard to trace. As has already been pointed out today, there are many good landlords who take good care of their properties, and there are long-term owner-occupiers who take pride in their areas, but the simple fact remains that some tenants—my constituents—are living in conditions that are totally unacceptable today. Those privately rented properties are a catalyst for a spiral of decline on their estates, and they cause untold misery not just to the tenants but to the owner-occupiers living alongside them.
Tenants are in those substandard properties because they have been unable to secure housing association properties. Our housing association properties in Telford are very well maintained by our innovative and aspirational housing association, the Wrekin Housing Trust, but they are hard to come by. Nor are those tenants able to secure any other rental property of an adequate standard, because they have complex vulnerabilities. They may have a history of evictions and debt, addiction, or mental health problems. They are at the mercy of rogue landlords, because other landlords are not willing to give them a tenancy. The rogue landlords charge the full amount of housing benefit, and provide nothing but a run-down, neglected property in return, just because they can.
Much as I welcome this Bill, I must sound a note of caution. Tenants who are affected by the worst conditions in the private rental sector are unlikely to be able to complain effectively, let alone take enforcement action against their landlords. Local authorities have an important role to play in that regard. It is not good enough for them to say, “This is an arm’s-length commercial relationship between tenant and landlord, and it has nothing to do with us.” These tenants are our most vulnerable residents, and they are being exploited. We have an obligation to help them to enforce the powers that the Bill will give them, as well as ensuring that local authorities use the powers that they already have.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does she agree that if these excellent new measures are not to be a dead letter, we must ensure that some of our most vulnerable constituents—including some of mine in Cheltenham—have the tools that they need, through the legal process and through early advice and assistance, to prosecute the rights that the Bill will give them?
May I ask the hon. Lady a question that I asked the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)? Does she agree that we need to ensure that local authorities are enforcing these and other rules in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens, and that the Government should monitor and compare authorities to establish which of them are going after the rogue landlords, and should name and shame those that are not?
Is it not important for the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and his Department to approve compulsory licensing schemes in a timely manner? A number of Labour councils in London, and my local council in Brighton and Hove, have put in requests for the Secretary of State to approve, which will give them those enforcement powers.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will explain why shortly.
Local authorities have been given funds with which to identify and prosecute rogue landlords. They need to step up to the mark and use their powers to prosecute when properties are unsafe or substandard. There is evidence that they do not make enough use of the powers that they already have.
Let me now deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). In my area, selective licensing has been proposed as a solution to these problems, but it penalises all landlords on an estate, including good, responsible landlords. It hits them with an extra levy to prove that they are fit and proper people. It fails to distinguish between good landlords and those who make their money letting substandard properties to the most vulnerable people, to whom not one else will let.
I am pleased by the Government’s strong record of action on improving the experience of tenants and by the action already taken on substandard private rentals. Local authorities now have the power to impose civil penalties amounting to up to £30,000, and rent repayment orders have been introduced.
I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making about local authorities’ powers. However, as is so often the case, the powers may exist, but the first cuts that are made in local authority budgets are those that prevent them from enforcing their existing powers.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) said that authorities needed more resources with which to enforce legislation. Torbay Council has used the powers that the Government have given it to levy fines of up to £30,000 in order to increase its housing enforcement team using money from those who abuse their tenants.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. May I gently say to her that Newham Council has a licensing scheme because it provides money with which it can use its enforcement powers? All landlords would benefit from such a scheme, because it would ensure that they all adhered to proper standards, which could only be good for the whole sector.
No. The hon. Lady has already had her intervention.
More powers will come into effect in April 2018, with the introduction of banning orders and a database of rogue landlords to help local authorities to tackle this problem. Authorities have powers to remove the worst offenders, and I urge them to do so. Much as I welcome the Bill’s empowerment of tenants, I fear that tenants in the most substandard properties, who do not currently complain for many different reasons, will not be able to take legal action. The needs and concerns of tenants are the responsibility of local authorities, and they must not wash their hands of tenants living in these conditions in their properties.
Let me again congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North on highlighting this important problem, and thank her for drawing attention to the conditions in which many people are living in my constituency, in other new towns and, indeed, throughout the country. She has spoken up for people who cannot speak for themselves, and on that she is to be congratulated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). I know that she has long been interested in housing policy and legislation, but what has been clear today—and has been clear for many years to those who have known her that long—is her passionate commitment to housing as it relates to individual tenants and their struggle to secure decent housing conditions. She was driven to introduce the Bill by her experience in her own constituency—which she has spelled out this morning—of the awful circumstances in which people have to live, and her wish to do something to help them.
There are three reasons why I have a particular interest in this issue, and want the Bill to be passed. First, most members of the public, if they were asked, “Should landlords be able to let properties that are unfit for tenants to live in?”, would say, “Of course they should not, but the law prevents that, doesn’t it?” Most people would assume that the law already does what this Bill is attempting to do; they would assume that Parliament has already taken steps to ensure that any house that is let is fit for the tenant to live in. The fact that that is not the case is a condemnation of all of us for having allowed that situation to exist for far too long. I think most of the public would therefore say that of course we should put that basic problem right, and everyone in this House this morning should be here to support this very basic measure.
It is important that the House understands that our predecessors have tried to act on this: this Bill rightly links back to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and I served on the Housing Bill Committee of 2003-04 with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) when we reformed some of these laws and introduced the housing health and safety rating system, which has proved rather complicated. The experience of that attempt to regulate rogue landlords is the reason we have gone back to some of the laws of the past which the hon. Lady is rightly bringing to the attention of the House today. There is a history here, and we need to understand that.
Yes, there is a history; the history is that we have not got it right, and that is what we are trying to do this morning. I take the point about the housing health and safety rating system. There have been various efforts in that regard, but in the end the position is still that housing that is unfit can be let to tenants, and that is what this Bill is putting right. In some ways it is going back to the 1985 legislation, which unfortunately has been overtaken by inflation as the rental figures in it are now so far out of date that in effect the legislation cannot be used at all. The Bill is turning the clock back to a previous situation and doing so in a very appropriate way.
In terms of the 1985 legislation, the Bill is updating the fitness standards, because it is taking the standards from that legislation but adding to them the fitness standards from the 2004 legislation and making a more comprehensive definition of what fitness should be. It is bringing the two together in a more comprehensive way: it is turning the clock back to 1985 and then modernising and updating the legislation, incorporating the 2004 standards as well, making a more comprehensive definition of fitness to ensure that the homes that are let truly are fit for people to live in.
Giving the powers to the tenant as part of their contract with the landlord means that tenants in local authority housing have the same rights and powers as those in the private sector or a housing association property. It means that any tenant in any rented property has these rights to take enforcement action against their landlord to ensure that their home is brought up to a certain fitness level. The Bill therefore does three things: it ensures that any home has to be fit for the tenant to live in; it updates the fitness standards; and it applies the legislation to local authority housing as well as other forms of rented housing. For those three reasons, the Bill should be supported.
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) referred to the housing health and safety rating system. When the Select Committee looked at issues to do with the private rented sector in 2013, we called for a review and an update. The guidance on that system has not been changed since 2006 and is now out of date.
There are also questions as to whether the risk-based system is understood by many people. It is complicated and difficult to understand. Most of the professionals might understand it, but the fact that there is not an absolute definition of what is fit and what is not is a problem. Many landlords do not understand it, and if landlords do not understand it, the chance of tenants understanding it are very small indeed. Another look should be taken at whether there should be some basic standards as opposed to simply a risk-based system.
There is something strange about a system under which a house let to one tenant can be deemed unfit with that tenant in it, but if the tenant changes and a new tenant moves in, the house can then become fit, despite no work having been done to it, because the second tenant might be deemed to be less of a risk than the first tenant—under a risk-based system, the level of fitness changes with the change of tenant. That is difficult for most people to understand and we will have to revisit it.
There are also questions about local authorities’ ability to take enforcement action in a range of areas. The Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the powers and resources that local authorities have to carry out enforcement in the private sector.
I recently submitted a freedom of information request to local authorities in London to see how many people had pots of capital to do works if landlords did not do so. The stunning answer was just two, so our laws cannot be enforced at the moment.
This is a problem: we are certainly getting a lot of evidence to that effect, and we are having our second evidence session next Monday.
The Government are bringing in more powers for local authorities to act, and they are welcome. They include, for example, the banning orders that will come into effect in April, which will affect the worst landlords—whose names ought to be up there in lights so everyone can see what they are up to. The Government’s decision to extend the HMO—houses in multiple occupation—definition of properties that need licences to properties with two storeys is right as well. I argued under the Labour Government for that definition, but unfortunately at the time we could not persuade Ministers to include properties of two storeys, so I am pleased this Government are doing that. It will mean more work for local authorities, however, as well as more powers. I hope the Government bring in the requirement that all private rented homes should have their electrical systems checked every five years, too. This consultation has been a long time coming, but I hope that that comes in as well. Again, however, it will mean more work for local authorities.
The Bill essentially gives tenants powers to act, but in reality tenants are going to need support and assistance. They might contact the excellent Shelter telephone helpline, which is based in Sheffield, or Citizens Advice or other advice agencies, or they might go to their MP or local councillors, but very often they will go to their council to seek help and assistance. Although the primary requirement of this Bill is to give powers to tenants, in the end they might well go to the local authority, so with all the other—very good—measures that the Government are introducing, the extra powers for local authorities to take enforcement action and this Bill might put extra demand on local authority officers. The issue of resources is still fundamental to getting this problem sorted out. That will be raised as part of our Select Committee inquiry, and Ministers ought to be listening: without the resources, local authorities will not be able to offer tenants the assistance they need which would make this legislation effective.
I join others in wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday and in thanking you for sitting in the Chair on your birthday when you could be off enjoying yourself in another way. [Interruption.] I am sure you are going to enjoy our debate.
First, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and have a small property portfolio.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on bringing this much-needed Bill to the House to ensure that all tenants, whether in social or private rented housing, will have the right to make sure that they are living in a decent home. I think it is a fundamental right of everyone in this country to be able to live in a decent home. This measure has been needed for a long time.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the distinguished Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. I am not sure whether we have got around to changing the name yet—the name of the Ministry has changed. He has a long history of service in local government and in this House in holding the Government to account through our work on the Select Committee. I have had the pleasure of serving on the Committee for the last seven and a half years. During that time, we have looked at all aspects of the private rented sector and the socially rented sector. This measure is welcome and needed.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who was the Minister responsible for negotiating with the hon. Member for Westminster North to get the Bill into a form that the Government could support. I hope that Members will unanimously support Second Reading later today. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), to her place. I have one or two questions that I hope she will answer when she speaks later. I want to thank the myriad organisations that have sent us briefing notes, all of which praise and support the Bill, I am delighted to say. That means that it is likely to receive a smooth passage through the House.
There are many different types of landlord in the private and social rented sectors. There are accidental landlords who inherit a property and rent it out. Most of those individuals want to do the right thing, but they are often ignorant of their responsibilities under the law. The Government have a duty to ensure that those landlords are educated about their responsibilities to their tenants. There are also small investors who have chosen to use property as a means of creating a pot of money for their retirement or for other purposes, and there are commercial landlords. Most commercial landlords in the private sector are really good landlords, but some are rogues. This Bill and many others aim to spot those rogue landlords and put them out of business. It is right that we should ramp up our activities to ensure that those individuals do not exploit vulnerable tenants.
I want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the evidence that the Select Committee heard last Monday from Shelter, which said that, although the focus on rogue landlords was important, it was misleading to focus on them alone because the tenants experiencing poor-quality accommodation in the private rented sector were not limited to the relatively small number whose landlords could be described as rogues. Some landlords are inexperienced, lazy or negligent in carrying out their responsibilities but fall short of being rogues. These practices are nevertheless unacceptable.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. When we look at the percentages of properties that are non-decent, it becomes clear that these practices are not limited to the small number of rogue landlords. I will say more about that later.
I note that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is in his place today. He and I share the challenge of trying to deal with the many individuals who bought a property many years ago and who, when their lifestyle changed, moved out and chose not to sell their property but to rent it out. Unfortunately, some of those individuals are now exploiting vulnerable people, and they need to be called to account.
In north-west London, we also have a huge number of what are termed “beds in sheds”. These are small developments in back gardens and alongside properties where unscrupulous landlords force people to sleep in absolutely unacceptable conditions. The local authorities attempt to enforce the rules but their resources are limited. As a constituency Member, I routinely draw local authorities’ attention to these landlords, but resources are limited. As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East said, local authorities need resources if they are to enforce the existing laws. I am concerned that, without those resources, the good intentions behind the Bill to give tenants rights and to ensure decent homes may not come to fruition.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point about where the onus of responsibility lies. Does he agree that one of the attractive features of the Bill is that it puts a proactive responsibility on landlords to address issues and concerns, as opposed to the historical norm of their reacting with varying degrees of enthusiasm to issues when they are raised by tenants?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. One of the concerns has to be that, when we empower tenants, we have to ensure that they understand their rights and also draw to landlords’ attention their duty to keep their homes safe.
When the Select Committee conducted inquiries into these issues, we looked into the duties relating to electrical safety. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East will remember some of the reviews that took place. He will also remember our astonishment at the duties on homeowners, let alone landlords, to ensure that their places are safe for electrical purposes. Electrical problems are often invisible to tenants and to landlords, which can create hazards and risks for many tenants.
In one ward of my constituency alone, more than 20% of the properties are rented out in the private sector. Most are rented out to people from the European Union, mainly Romania and Poland, many of whom are being exploited. They are being herded into cramped accommodation in houses in multiple occupation that are not licensed. The local authority is taking action to try to combat that, but it is a real problem that individuals who are coming to this country to work hard, earn a living and contribute to this country are being ruthlessly exploited by a small number of landlords. I condemn those landlords for that.
We see the accommodation that the hon. Gentleman describes in back gardens alongside the train lines coming out of London, but does he accept that that exploitation affects not only migrant labour? With student accommodation, there is a high level of churn within that community, with students staying in a property for a year or less. They are hugely exploited, just as migrant workers are.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He reminds me of when I was at university in Liverpool. We all suffered appalling conditions in the private rented sector at that time. There are now many more students, all of whom need private rented accommodation for a time during their studies, and as he says, many of them are being exploited. However, they will often put up with conditions that others would not tolerate, in order to pay a lower rent. For that reason, they often do not draw problems to the landlord’s attention. That is clearly a problem.
We need to make it clear that this is a problem not only in the private sector. There are local authorities that do not maintain their properties to a decent standard. There are pockets of poor housing in that sector as well. I remember, as a local authority leader, applauding the then Labour Government for providing funds to bring local authority housing stock up to a decent home standard. That was a great thing, but large numbers of properties owned by councils are still not being maintained at a decent standard. We also have housing associations. About 28% of accommodation in the private rented sector is non-decent, but 14.8% of local authority housing is non-decent and 11.8% of housing association properties is non-decent. That shows that the problem is not limited to the private rented sector; it extends into the social rented sector. That is one of the reasons that I strongly support the Bill. It looks at these issues in a comprehensive manner, rather than a narrow one.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are problems in local authority housing stock when local authorities subcontract out the maintenance of their properties, often for very long periods, with inadequate scrutiny? Tenants who are responsible to the local authority are unable to do anything, and the local authority is often unable to reel in the contract. The Bill could help to provide more leverage for the local authority to step in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, local authorities that choose to outsource their responsibilities should not abdicate their responsibility to their tenants. One problem is that when tenants come to complain about that sort of issue, local authorities can wash their hands of it and say, “That is nothing to do with us. You have to go to the service company.” Tenants then find it difficult to identify who is actually responsible, and there are many examples in my constituency of where individual tenants have complained but have not been able to get the service that they should get from their landlord, be it a housing association or the local authority.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous in giving way again. In my local authority, I understand that the budget for maintenance and repairs to local authority-owned properties in this financial year ran out before Christmas, so the authority is unable to make those repairs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We all recognise the clear pressures on local authority budgets, but the key issue is that it is the local authority’s responsibility to find the money to honour its obligations. I cannot talk about an individual council’s budget, but the reality is that councils have legal obligations to provide tenants with decent quality homes, and they should not ration the service they provide.
Almost a year ago today, I was standing up and speaking on my Homelessness Reduction Bill—now the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—on Report. I remind the hon. Member for Westminster North that the only amendment accepted by the Government when the Bill was in Committee was her amendment, which means that local authorities, when placing vulnerable people in accommodation, have to inspect the premises and ensure that they are fit for human habitation and safe. That was a dramatic change to the law, but it is a narrow requirement relating only to when vulnerable people are placed in accommodation by local authorities. I am therefore delighted that this Bill will force all landlords to bring their homes up to a decent standard in an acceptable fashion.
However, I just want to raise one or two concerns, because I think the Bill can be improved still further. Tenants need to understand their rights and those rights need to be enforced. I want protection for people who complain about their landlords, so that we do not see retaliatory evictions, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). We do not want people who take action suddenly to find themselves homeless because the landlord has said, “You can take me to court if you want, but if you do, I am going to evict you as a result.” That would be reprehensible and we have to find a way of combating it.
The Bill gives tenants the right to challenge bad landlords, but the primary responsibility for inspecting and ensuring that properties are safe should reside with local authorities. I am concerned that local authorities are now unable to carry out that function due to a lack of funding. The Bill’s explanatory notes state that a money resolution is not needed, but local authorities should be provided with more funds to enable them to enforce the rules that should apply. I ask the Minister to look at that, because the Department needs to consider the matter in the round to ensure that local authorities are given the necessary resources to ensure that people can live in decent accommodation.
I commend my hon. Friend for introducing the 2017 Act, under which money has been made available to local authorities to carry out some of their new duties. Therefore, does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be some support for local authorities in order to make this Bill work?
When I got my Act through, the Government were generous and produced some £83 million to support the first two years of the legislation, £17 million of which came as a result of the amendment of the hon. Member for Westminster North to ensure that homes are inspected and made fit for habitation before anyone is moved in. That was much narrower than the broader requirement in this Bill, so there is the need for a substantial injection of cash into local authorities.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 2017 Act is still not being enforced in many cases? At Christmas, a mother from my constituency was moved into temporary accommodation where the toilet was overflowing, and that situation stayed the same until I intervened; the local authority only took action after that intervention. That shows that the 2017 Act is too weak and that without resourcing for local authorities, without increasing the cap on housing investment and without proper enforcement, these are nice words, but they are unenforceable.
The hon. Gentleman and I would agree that we clearly need to ramp up activity and funding and give local authorities the powers and resources that they need to carry out their duties under both this and other pieces of legislation.
I ask the Minister to consider the sentencing guidelines for rogue landlords. A maximum fine of £30,000 may be possible, but it is rare for the courts to issue such fines. Not only should fines be reinvested into the inspection and enforcement process, but we need clear sentencing guidelines so that magistrates courts can maximise fines, particularly in the worst-case scenarios.
For the hon. Gentleman’s information, I am coming to the end of my speech. I am very supportive of the Bill, and the debate will be interrupted while we have the statement, but it will continue to its conclusion thereafter, so he does not have to worry about that.
I have another concern about the legislation’s implementation period. The explanatory notes state that the provisions will come into force three months after the Bill becomes an Act, but will the Minister consider whether there is any need for secondary legislation—for any regulations—when the Bill becomes law? The Government are introducing myriad secondary legislation next month in relation to my Homelessness Reduction Act, and we do not want to reach a situation where much-needed secondary legislation is not ready in time for this legislation’s commencement, which could lead to problems later on.
In summary, I strongly support this Bill and trust that it will receive the House’s unanimous support. If the hon. Member for Westminster North wants me to serve on the Bill Committee, I will be delighted to do so to help her get the Bill through Parliament.
It is a pleasure to follow my near north-west London neighbour in one direction, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and to support a Bill introduced by a north-west London neighbour in another direction, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck).
When we consider legislation, there is usually a sophisticated lobbying operation through Change.org and 38 Degrees spamming us with lots of emails, but on this Bill I have been contacted by a far wider range of people. In fact, every Friday at my surgery—I will hold my surgery after I finish here today—people come before me to ask, knowingly or unknowingly, for this legislation.
In September 2017 my office went over the 20,000 mark of individual cases processed since 2015, and a large number of those cases are housing issues. People come and show me on their phone pictures of damp problems that are too big to be dealt with by buying a spray, and “Bang! And the dirt is gone.” It is a bigger problem when the ceiling is caving in. There are people living in properties with rodent infestations, and their children cannot sleep at night because of the gnawing.
There are a multitude of cases, and I am getting a strange sense of déjà vu because in 2015 one of the first debates I spoke in was on my hon. Friend’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill. That Bill was talked out by Conservative Members, which is why some Opposition Members were getting jittery when the hon. Member for Harrow East was being a bit loquacious. We are relieved to hear that he was not trying to talk out the Bill. It is not a good look for a modern Conservative party to oppose homes fit for human habitation, and I am glad it has seen the error of its ways and will be supporting the Bill today.
I will be brief because I do not want to play the same game and talk out the Bill. The gaps that have led to this Bill, such as the difficulty of enforcement, have already been mentioned, but I draw attention to fire safety, which is not addressed in existing legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North and I have the A40 between our constituencies, and at the side of the A40 is Grenfell Tower, which I went past yesterday. Anyone living in Ealing who goes to central London by road passes Grenfell Tower, which is a burned carcase on the skyline of one of our nation’s richest boroughs.
Our nation used to be the world’s fifth largest economy—post-Brexit, I think it is now the sixth largest, which is another story that I will not go into now—and the fact is that people were burned alive in their homes because people pooh-poohed the idea of regulation and batted away the idea of health and safety as meddlesome and troubling. What happened is the logical extension of that, and it is something that shames our nation.
My hon. Friend mentioned the powerful groups that are backing her Bill, including the Law Society, the National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, and Shelter. Fifty-one years ago, Shelter’s film “Cathy Come Home” shocked the nation, and Grenfell has shocked the nation a second time.
As an Opposition Member, I am into holding the Government to account, and this Bill holds landlords to account where standards are not met. As the chair of the new all-party parliamentary group on single-parent families—Members do not have to be a single parent to be in our group, so a quick plug—I am duty-bound to point out that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s figures show that single parents are more likely to live in substandard accommodation and poverty than any other type of family, a rate of 20% compared with a national average of 7%. The English housing survey shows that people in poverty are far more likely to live in hazardous homes than those who are not in poverty, which is why this Bill is needed.
I am pleased to see the Government’s change of heart. Last time such a proposal came before the House, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who is now a Conservative party vice-chair and is no longer a Minister in the Department, scandalously said that the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, and in fact all the Labour party’s proposals on things such as landlord licensing—I am pleased my council, the London Borough of Ealing, has a register of landlords—will
“result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords, which will deter further investment and push up rents for tenants.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 785.]
The new Prime Minister talked on the steps of Downing Street about burning injustices, and I am glad the Government will put their money where their mouth is and back this Bill, which I hope will be a staging post for a Government after the next general election that is for the many, not the few.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow some fantastic and informative contributions from both sides of the House. I too will be brief, because I know a number of Members wish to contribute. I start by welcoming the Minister to her place and by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on all his work on his Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on her cross-party work over a number of years to ensure the Bill can be supported. I rise with the intention of supporting the Bill today.
The Bill will grant tenants the right to take action in the courts against landlords who fail to ensure that their property is fit for human habitation, and a number of colleagues in the House today will identify with and recognise some of the stories and examples that have already been raised, especially by the hon. Lady. We have all seen the damp and the lack of proper drainage and water in some properties, and I thank her on behalf of a number of constituents in Thornbury and Yate for raising this matter.
I also pay tribute to the citizens advice bureau in south Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire Council for all their work and for the thoughts they provided ahead of this debate. It is clear that the current system needs updating. If a tenant is living in an unfit property, the housing health and safety rating system allows local authorities to assess whether the property contains serious risks to the individuals living there, and where it does, the local authority requires the landlord to reduce or, ideally, remove the risk.
The upshot is that an offence is committed only when a landlord fails to comply with the enforcement notice, and the upshot of that is that tenants have to rely on the local authority to take action on hazardous properties, and are unable to do so themselves. I welcome that the Bill is righting that wrong across all sectors by putting an obligation on landlords to keep their property in good condition.
As has been pointed out, there are already statutory obligations on most landlords to keep in repair the structure and exterior of their properties, and a number of other factors. However, provisions requiring landlords to ensure their properties are fit for habitation have realistically ceased to have any effect—that has been explained much better than I could by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).
Where a landlord fails to maintain a property so it is fit for habitation—the Bill’s definition of which will include freedom from damp, proper ventilation, proper water supply and drainage, and a number of other factors that everyone here would take for granted in our own lives—the Bill empowers tenants to take action themselves in the courts, giving tenants the ability to hold landlords to account where there has been a failing and allowing tenants to apply for an injunction.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact tenants will be able to receive damages is a huge improvement, particularly because living in substandard accommodation, such as accommodation with mould or damp, can be incredibly depressing and can have an effect on people’s mental health? The punitive element of damages will make a real difference to enforcement, and hopefully lawyers will enforce tenants’ rights through no win, no fee cases.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Bill not only gives the power to hold landlords to account by making them carry out the works; it also gives the power to instruct compensation, which is a real strength.
The Bill achieves all that while still being proportionate. It is not overly burdensome on landlords because of the simple principle that it should not increase costs or create cumbersome work for the vast majority of landlords who are already providing a good service and safe, good-quality accommodation to their tenants. The Bill will push landlords to act proactively, and I hope it will create a ripple effect to create more of a safety and people-first culture in the industry.
The Bill also seeks to protect landlords from potentially spurious claims by ensuring that landlords are not liable if the property is not being used for the purpose for which it has been let. Landlords will not be responsible for repairing items that the tenant may remove from the property—essentially the tenant’s own property. Just this morning, I was contacted by a landlord in my constituency, who welcomes this Bill because it is not seen as a threat; it is actually supporting the industry by enhancing the reputation of the vast majority of landlords.
I will conclude, as I know a number of Members wish to speak. This Bill empowers tenants, protects landlords and will drive up standards across both sectors. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westminster North for bringing it forward and look forward to supporting it today.
I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for introducing this Bill and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) for the debate we had in Westminster Hall yesterday afternoon on supported housing. Although that was clearly not on exactly the same issue, many of the tenants we are talking about in this Bill are very vulnerable people and clearly there is a benefit to society in enabling the maximum number of people possible to lead independent lives. Some of the people who are not currently able to gain redress for inadequate housing run the risk of ending up either in supported housing or in hospital.
Just last weekend, I called on a couple who invited me into their flat to show me the mould that had grown all around their bathroom, under the window in their sitting room and even in the bedroom. This couple live in a council flat in Ipswich, so I was able to pass on their details to the local councillors in the strong expectation that something will be done to rectify the situation. Of course, the council does not always get things right. I believe Ipswich Borough housing is an exemplar of good practice, but even good landlords get things wrong sometimes. That is why it is so important that this Bill will apply to local authority housing properties, in the same way it does to private rented accommodation. Indeed, in some ways, it impacts more on those public sector tenants who need its help than it does on private sector tenants, because whereas a private sector tenant might hold out some hope that they could persuade the local council to act legally on their behalf, a council is not going to take out a legal case against itself.
One would hope that accountable local authorities would take their responsibilities to their tenants seriously enough to rectify any unfitness without the need for legal recourse, but unfortunately that is not always the case; in such cases, council tenants have no recourse to the law at all. This Bill will enable council tenants to take legal action against their landlord if no action is taken to put right any unfitness, just as it will for private sector tenants. I know that Conservative Members would not be willing to accept a Bill that unfairly favoured public sector housing over private sector housing, and rightly so, and this Bill does not do that. I could wish that, in the interests of fairness and a level playing field, Conservative Members might consider other measures for the private sector, and changes to the law and regulations for the local authority sector, but I think that is for another day.
Of course, although this Bill does afford a very important and necessary protection to council and housing association tenants, the majority of the problem exists in the private sector. In the east of England, 20% of private sector rented stock is in a state that poses a serious risk to its tenants’ health, as compared with just 8% of the council and housing association stock. In my 20 years as a local councillor I was constantly being contacted by distraught residents who showed me mouldy walls, dodgy banisters, awkward and cramped entrance halls, and rickety windows. I would raise these issues with council officers but in almost every case I was told there was no action the council could take with the private sector landlord on these matters. This Bill will empower the tenants themselves to demand safe and healthy homes from their landlords.
I do not believe that there will be any rash of prosecutions as a result of this Bill. I believe it will focus the minds of those landlords, both private and public, who do not currently pay quite enough attention to the welfare of their tenants and encourage them to provide the level of service that 75% of landlords are already providing. All good landlords should welcome this Bill. Why should the 75% who provide fit and proper housing be undercut by rogue operators or see their sector tarred with the brush of inadequate maintenance or shoddy flat conversions? I am delighted that this Bill is receiving support from across the House, and I look forward to it becoming law.
I join colleagues from across the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on introducing the Bill and on her opening speech, which set out well why the Bill is so important. It addresses an important issue for not only some of my constituents, but constituents from across the country. I join colleagues from both sides of the House in recognising that the vast majority of private landlords are not rogue landlords and act responsibly, providing their tenants with excellent accommodation and service. However, the reality is that a small minority exploit some of the most vulnerable in our society and this Bill is hugely important in addressing that. I am therefore pleased the Government have decided to support the Bill today, and I add my support to that.
The Government have already made good progress. Since 2010, we have introduced powers for local authorities and, with those, provided £12 million to help authorities to identify and prosecute some of the worst offenders. I understand that 70,000 properties have been inspected, and that 5,000 landlords have had further action taken or even had a prosecution brought thereafter. The Government have also brought in measures to protect tenants against retaliatory evictions, and last year further measures were introduced to clamp down on rogue landlords, which could lead to penalties of up to £30,000. That is very welcome indeed. But clearly those measures alone, as the Government recognise, are not enough, and there is more—
The hon. Gentleman missed out one regulation from his list—the one on minimum energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector, which I brought to this House and which it passed, and which can be a huge attack on fuel poverty. Will he join me to ensure the Government go ahead and implement those from April this year, so that we can tackle fuel poverty and the worst examples of uninsulated homes in the private rented sector?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that he and I are fellow travellers in our enthusiasm for home energy efficiency, and indeed that was exactly what I was moving on to in my speech. I fear, however that he may need to stay for a little while during the statement in order to hear both parts of my thoughts on home energy efficiency, as I suspect an interruption may be imminent.
The Government have introduced some excellent measures thus far. There is much more to do, as they have recognised, and of course this Bill is therefore hugely important in addressing what remains to be done. As the right hon. Gentleman said, one key part in ensuring that homes are fit for habitation is how well insulated they are and how energy-efficient they are. Too many people live in fuel poverty, not necessarily because they have not got the money to heat their property, but because their property is so poorly insulated and the appliance within it so inefficient that the costs of heating that property are disproportionate to what they should be if all of those measures were adequately in place. We have to start to move on from an argument that all that matters in housing is providing it at the most affordable cost to rent and buy—equally important, surely, is what it costs to live in the property each month thereafter. In talking today about homes that are fit for human habitation, we should be very much focused on making sure that the houses people are living in are not only affordable to rent, but affordable to live in each month. That requires much higher expectations of landlords on the home energy efficiency measures and the insulation in their properties.
One Opposition Member, either in the second speech from that side of the House or in an intervention on the opening speech, gave a startling statistic about the cost each year to the NHS of people living in poorly insulated homes. I think the figure was £1.4 billion, which seems to me to be a good reason why we should make better-insulated and more energy-efficient homes a higher priority, so that people can not only live in comfort but afford to live in their home.
I see that you are on the edge of your seat, Mr Speaker, so I shall draw my remarks to a close and let other business proceed.
Parole Board: Transparency and Victim Support
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a further statement on the Parole Board’s decision to release John Worboys and the Government’s response to the issues raised by this case.
I know that the victims of these horrific crimes have suffered significant emotional trauma. The prospect of the release of this man is deeply concerning to them, to many Members and to the wider public. I owe it to those victims and to the public to consider all the options open to me as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. I therefore took the step of seeking legal advice from specialist leading counsel to establish whether there were grounds to challenge the decision in the courts and therefore to ask the court to stop the release of Worboys before the decision was reconsidered.
Let me set out my approach to judicial review in general. Whatever one’s personal feelings about a case, Ministers should not choose to bring a legal challenge that has no reasonable prospect of success, but it is right that public bodies can be held to account for their actions through due process of law and, specifically, judicial review. There has been significant public debate about the possible basis for a legal challenge in such a case. It has been speculated that there are two grounds open to me to challenge such a decision: that the decision was one that no board could reasonably have taken, or that there were significant procedural failings in the way that the decision was taken.
The bar for a judicial review to succeed is very high. The test for deciding whether a decision is unreasonable is not simply that the decision maker—in this case, the Parole Board—could have made an alternative decision, but that no reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion on the facts of the case. Similarly, on procedure, it would be necessary to identify a failure by the Parole Board to follow the process that would have had a material impact on the decision.
Having taken considered and expert legal advice, I have decided that it would not be appropriate for me, as Secretary of State, to proceed with such a case. Members will appreciate that I cannot go further and expose detail of the legal advice that I have been given. I know that will disappoint the victims in this case and Members. Given the crimes for which Worboys has been convicted, on a personal level, candidly, I share those concerns.
I have taken a close personal interest in this case since I assumed office as the Secretary of State for Justice. It is important that all the victims have clarity as soon as possible, which is why I am before the House today. I can reassure the House and the public that Worboys will not be released until his licence conditions have been finalised. I understand that contact and meetings with victims who have chosen to receive the services of the probation victim contact scheme have taken place this week, and further meetings in respect of his release will take place next week. That will give those victims the opportunity to make representations to the Parole Board on the conditions to which Worboys should be subject on release.
Let me be absolutely clear: Worboys will not be released until the victims’ representations have been properly considered and his licence conditions are in place. Indeed, last week, I asked for assurances that the views of victims were being taken into account and that robust licensing conditions would be put in place to manage his risk.
I am aware that some third parties have indicated that they are seeking to bring legal proceedings themselves and that correspondence has been served on me, as Secretary of State, as a potential interested party to any litigation. I fully support the right of victims to take their own legal advice and to challenge the decision. The approach I am taking does not mean that others, who may have significant interest in the case, are precluded from taking action. Each case depends on the circumstances of each individual bringing a claim. That is one of the reasons why I do not intend to say more on this matter. I would not want to prejudice any legal challenges by commenting further on the facts of this case or the legal advice I have received. I will be taking advice on how my Department should consequently engage in any proceedings, but it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.
It is vital that the public and victims have confidence in the justice system, which is there to serve them. This case has exposed some issues with the parole process as a whole. I have already indicated that aspects of the parole process more generally should be examined. In my statement on 9 January, I said that my Department would review the case for transparency in the parole-decision process, how victims are communicated with and how they are appropriately engaged in that process. I now believe that that review should go further, so I have expanded its terms of reference to include consideration of the law, policy, guidance and practice relating to challenges to Parole Board decision making. I have published them today and placed a copy in the Library.
In particular, I have expanded the review to include consideration of whether there should be a mechanism to allow parole decisions to be reconsidered and how that might be best achieved, while retaining the independence of the decision-making process. The review remains a priority for me and for the Government, and despite the significant expansion of the terms of reference, I intend to complete it before Easter.
I acknowledge the concerns that the victim contact scheme, which is operated by the National Probation Service, may not have worked as well as it should have in this case. It is right that, as well as looking at the process around parole decisions for all cases, we consider whether existing processes were followed in this instance. I have therefore asked Dame Glenys Stacey, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of probation, to conduct a rapid fact-finding exercise to confirm whether the legislative provisions, existing policy and processes relating to victims were adequately followed by the National Probation Service in this case. Her findings will inform the wider review.
As I have said, I know that Members are concerned about this case and about how we deal with the release of offenders. I hope that this statement has reassured them of the thorough and careful consideration that I have given to this difficult case and that we are now giving serious and urgent consideration to ways in which the process can be improved to reassure not only victims of these terrible crimes but the wider public.
I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement.
Two weeks ago, it was announced that John Worboys would be released from prison. In those two weeks, it has been absolutely clear that the victims of his vile crimes feel that our criminal justice system has let them down. The criminal justice system must ensure that it has the victims of crime at its core. When it fails in that, it not only affects the direct victims themselves but risks undermining wider public trust in our justice system.
As Labour has reiterated since John Worboys’s release was announced, it is important that the Secretary of State does everything in his power to ensure that the victims of Worboys’s crimes, as well as the wider public, have faith in our justice system. Many will be disappointed by today’s news. It is understood that legal advice cannot be shared and that the Secretary of State does not want to prejudice other cases, but today’s news makes the need for changes in the Parole Board even more pressing.
The existing rules permit either the Secretary of State or victims to seek judicial review. Many will have seen that some victims are doing just that, and they have attracted much public support for their fundraising efforts. Judicial review is a key tool for every citizen to be able to challenge unjust or unlawful decisions by the state or other public bodies. Deep cuts to legal aid have undermined the ability of many to pursue judicial review. Will the Government commit today to using their review of legal aid to look again at how it can support judicial reviews?
Any judicial review would look at whether the Parole Board’s decision was taken properly. If it was not, the case would go back to the Parole Board for it to look at again. As it stands, though, the existing rules mean that we still would not know the reasons for any subsequent Parole Board decision.
As the Opposition have said repeatedly both here and elsewhere, there is no need for the review of Parole Board transparency to debate the case for greater transparency. It should be a practical review of how to ensure the public are informed of the reasons behind decisions. Just as the public are clear about court judgments, they must be clear about Parole Board decisions. Greater transparency has widespread support. We therefore welcome the widening of the review announced today, especially the idea of a mechanism to allow Parole Board decisions to be reconsidered, while retaining its independence. People were shocked that some victims found out about the decision to release Mr Worboys through the media.
Labour has said from the outset that it is totally unacceptable and very concerning that some were not given the opportunity to participate in the Parole Board hearing, as was their right. The victim contact scheme is responsible for informing victims of significant changes in a case, including Parole Board hearings. This service is managed by the National Probation Service, which has experienced significant difficulties, especially case overload, since the Government’s reforms to probation services in 2014. Labour has called in the House on the Government to look into the failings in the NPS and victim contact scheme, so it is a step forward that the Secretary of State has now asked Dame Glenys Stacey to conduct a rapid fact-finding exercise into the role of the NPS. He needs to ensure that this answers the question whether his Government’s wholly negative changes to the probation service contributed to any failings in this case and how he plans to address them.
I have listened to the statements of Mr Worboys’s victims in recent weeks, and it is clear that their concerns are not limited to the decisions or functioning of the Parole Board. Labour has repeatedly stated that the Worboys case raises so many serious questions that anything less than an independent end-to-end review into the handling of the case, from the first report to the police of an attack through to the Parole Board hearing, would let down the victims and wider public. Labour has repeatedly called for this wider inquiry, but it is not clear why the Secretary of State has repeatedly refused it. It is a reasonable and rational request and would help to rebuild public trust. I hope that he will take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will undertake this end-to-end review.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. In the context of wanting to support the victims, he was right to focus on the areas that he did, and I am grateful to him for not pressing me further on either the facts or the legal advice.
It is right that the victims be treated with concern and sympathy and that all due processes be followed. We need to understand precisely what happened in this case and whether support was provided as it should have been, which is why I am pleased that Dame Glenys Stacey is undertaking that role. I share the hon. Gentleman’s instincts for greater transparency in Parole Board decisions. It frustrates victims that they do not get to know what is happening or the reasons for a decision. Equally, it can be frustrating for the Parole Board, too, if it cannot articulate its reasons. We need to look carefully at this, but we also need to move swiftly, which is exactly what I intend to do.
On an end-to-end review, my focus has been on transparency and victim support, which are the immediate issues in front of us. I recognise that there is a debate about the original investigation and how these indeterminate sentences for public protection, which we have now abolished, operated, but it is right at this point that our reviews focus on transparency and the victims and that they continue as a priority to look at how these matters are dealt with.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
It is clear that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has applied himself to what is a very serious and troubling case with the greatest scrupulousness and care. He is to be commended for having applied a difficult legal test to what is ultimately a legal decision, and I welcome his extension of the review into the operation of these matters. Does he agree that one political and policy decision we could make as soon as possible would be to change the Parole Board rules to permit Parole Board panels to give reasons for their decisions. It would likely command support across the House and, as he rightly observes, have the support of the Parole Board itself. It would also be of great reassurance to the public.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We understand the full implications of greater transparency in Parole Board decisions and what those implications might involve. It is not my desire that as a matter of course offenders should take cases where, for example, Parole Board panels have taken the firm line, based on the evidence in front of them, that they should not be released. We need to understand the full implications, but there is clearly a case for much greater transparency.
I welcome the statement and the Lord Chancellor’s decision to widen the review’s remit. That will command support on both sides of the House. Has he been informed whether the Crown Prosecution Service and police are reviewing the many other serious allegations against Worboys and whether there is any chance of further charges being brought against him before he is released? This is the question that many of the victims really want answered.
I should declare that during my 17 years in the Treasury solicitors department I frequently acted for both the Secretary of State and the Parole Board and sometimes for both together.
I commend the Secretary of State for his detailed work on this case. Can he reassure us that the views not only of the statutory victims but of the wider group of victims known to the authorities will be taken into account?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are different systems in place for the statutory victims versus others, but sometimes, as in this case, there will be many people who essentially are victims but not in respect of any convictions—in this case, Worboys’s convictions—and we need to ensure that the system works for them as well.
Following the Secretary of State’s previous statement earlier this month, I raised the importance of confidence in our justice system, and my fear is that the decision not to judicially review the Worboys decision will not reassure the public. He has talked about greater transparency, but I want to press him on the point that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made. Will the Secretary of State commit to changing the statutory rules, so that Parole Board decisions are open not just in the Worboys case but in future cases as well?
May I urge the Lord Chancellor to write to the CPS and ask it to undertake a review? It might well be that the public interest test was not satisfied because an indeterminate sentence had been given, and the change in circumstances may mean that that test is now satisfied in respect of victims whose cases were not prosecuted. Will he give that undertaking to the House today?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, accountability for decisions on prosecutions is not an area that falls within my responsibilities. However, I very much understand and sympathise with her point, and I know that this is an issue on which the Attorney General is very focused.
Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), will the Minister be looking at how the CPS and the police deal with cases where it comes to light that, in cases of serious offences such as this, there are further victims? John Worboys was convicted of the rape of and sexual assault against 12 women, but more than 85 others came forward after the event, and that needs to be looked at in case similar such events occur.
The hon. Gentleman has put his point, which is a very fair one, on the record. To some extent, I refer to my earlier answer, but clearly with regard to whether there is a public interest case in bringing further prosecutions, that is no doubt something that both the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service will want to consider.
It is essential that we not only recognise and respect the independence of our legal system, but recognise that the public are disappointed and angry with the Parole Board’s decision. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by opening up the Parole Board’s decisions and making them more transparent, the public may still disagree with the decision, but they will have an understanding of how that decision was reached?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. As a society, the direction that we have gone in more generally has been towards greater transparency. As Professor Nick Hardwick was one of the first to make that point, there is clearly a case in this context for the Parole Board as well.
Although all of us understand the desire not to prejudice any possible action by the victims, a letter from the Secretary of State’s predecessor on 8 January—it is a public letter open to MPs—states that the victims were not contacted until October, having last had contact in 2009. He knows the concern that it is not just about updating victims, but about involving them in Parole Board decisions. Can he give an assurance that the involvement and participation of victims will be looked at and that he will publish the date in October when contact was made with the Warboys’s victims so that we can understand the process used?
With regard to the facts of a particular case, that is exactly what Dame Glenys Stacey will be investigating. I have no doubt that she will make public her conclusions. It is very important that victims are involved. I know that in this case they are involved, as I said earlier, in making representations in terms of licensing conditions. It is right that due and appropriate weight is given to those representations when it comes to determining the licensing conditions.
My constituents in Kettering believe that the best way to protect the public is for violent offenders to be kept behind bars, and they take the straightforward and honourable view that if an offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the offender should serve that sentence in prison in full before being released. Given that this is a statement about the transparency of Parole Board decisions, who is held to account in the Parole Board, and how, if those released early reoffend?
The numbers of reoffences are put into the public domain. Clearly, that is one of the tests of the effectiveness of the Parole Board. It is clearly a matter of priority for all of us that people who are dangerous are not released. The test for a Parole Board panel in the context of one of these IPP prisoners is an assessment of their risk to the public, and that is what the Parole Board must determine in these circumstances.
My hon. Friend the shadow Minister is absolutely right that this case raises wider issues about the rights of victims in our criminal justice system, right through from the offence being committed, through the process and to parole. Will the Secretary of State tell us when he will bring forward the victims’ Bill that was promised in 2015?
I thank the Lord Chancellor for the detailed explanation for his decision, and I welcome his comments on further transparency, which will of course increase public confidence and, importantly, victims’ confidence in the system. He says that he wants these changes to happen quickly—how soon does he anticipate that changes can be made to the system?
Well, even though the review has been broadened, and even though we are looking more widely not just at transparency but at whether there should be an opportunity for the Parole Board to look again at decisions, that review will report by Easter. Obviously, the timing will depend on precisely what it recommends, but I am keen to make progress as quickly as possible.
May I too welcome the extension of the review that has been announced today? However, there are serious questions to be answered about the way that the police and the CPS operated in this case. I do not think that it is satisfactory just to leave it to the Metropolitan police and the CPS. I want to know what the Home Office—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), is sitting next to the Secretary of State—and the Attorney General’s Office are doing to look at what happened in those early stages and whether this man should have been charged with further offences.
I know that both the Home Secretary and the Attorney General have been very focused on this case. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that my focus has been on the immediate issues, which relate not only to the consideration of judicial review but to the issues of transparency and support for victims. Of course there are questions that probably do need to be asked about how the IPP system, which this Government have abolished, operated in terms of whether it met the test of honesty in sentencing, but perhaps that is a debate for another day.
Recognising the importance of the independence of the judiciary, but considering in this case the crimes, the victims and the level of public concern, can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has sincerely looked into all the options in this case?
The Secretary of State has quite rightly concentrated on the victims and the issue of transparency in his remarks, but he also referred to the fact that there are some victims who are crowdfunding to bring potential legal proceedings. That is because civil legal aid has been severely restricted for judicial review cases by the previous coalition Government. Will he please look again at the availability of civil legal aid for judicial review?
It is very reassuring that despite having been in post for only a short time, the Lord Chancellor has sought to get behind the victims of this terrible, terrible case. May I press him on the point that has just been made about legal aid? He has mentioned that he supports the rights of the victims potentially to pursue their own cases. Will there be discretion from the Legal Aid Agency perhaps to provide funding for those victims to do so?
In terms of the action that may be brought by victims on this, I do want to be very careful in my remarks. As I have said, just because I am not taking action does not mean that others cannot, because these legal cases can depend precisely on the position that they are in. It is the case that legal aid generally remains available for advice, assistance and representation in relation to judicial review of an enactment decision, act or omission, and that would include decisions of the Parole Board where there is sufficient benefit to the individuals in bringing judicial review.
All of us in this House respect the independence of the judiciary, but transparency needs to come with that independence—hence sentences are given in open court and judgments are available for all to read. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the outcome of this review must be greater transparency in Parole Board decisions, which are such a key part of our criminal justice system?
I welcome the extended review that the Justice Secretary announced. Will he confirm to the House that it will include a very detailed assessment of the decision-making processes that the Parole Board goes through, particularly in reference to expert reports from, for example, Dr Jackie Craissati in this case, that are at the heart of such decisions, in order to ensure that those experts are suitable to give the expert advice that they provide?
I too welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement and the decision to expand the review. However, he will be aware that this is not the first such case. Mubarek Ali, a serial child sex exploitation offender, was released only five years after his trial, having been given a 20-year sentence. His victims felt that the victim contact scheme let them down. Will the Secretary of State consider this case as part of his expanded review?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s measured approach to this sensitive and emotive issue. The matter highlights the importance of care and support for victims, and the need to listen to them. It also brings into focus the victim contact scheme. Will the Secretary of State give assurances that it will be looked into? Is it fit for purpose, and was the process adequately followed by the Parole Board?
Frankly, different views have been put to me on how the victim contact scheme worked in this particular case. There is conflicting evidence. It is absolutely right that we have the review by Dame Glenys Stacey so that we can properly understand what happened and what lessons can be learned.
I welcome the Justice Secretary’s commitment to a broader review and appreciate that he has set himself a pretty aggressive timeline. If the end result is generally going to be a better reflection of victims’ views, can he assure me that the review will engage the victims?
I think that all hon. Members across the House recognise and appreciate my right hon. Friend’s candidness with the House. But, for the sake of all victims, will he ensure that all appropriate and measured steps are taken to ensure that he is never put in this position again?
The most important thing is not my position, but the position of victims. We clearly need to ensure that victims have a system in which they have faith. When there are large numbers of victims in particular, it can sometimes be a difficult challenge to make sure that their voices are properly heard. Victims are entitled to have their voices heard and we need to ensure that we have a system that works for them.
Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill
It is good to be back debating the Bill again and to speak after the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) and the six other very good contributions from Members on both sides of the House who followed the introduction of the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). I welcome the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government to her new post and to the Dispatch Box for the first time. I am glad that her first outing is on this important Bill. She came to this post from the Whips Office, so if any of her colleagues at the back start to play up, she is the ideal woman to sort them out.
I give the warmest welcome and strongest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, whose speech showed just how and why she is one of the best experts and strongest voices on housing in the House. This is her Bill. It is not a handout Bill from the Government, nor one from outside organisations. Over a long period, she has put together the case and the content for this Bill, and she has built the coalition of support behind it, which includes the Residential Landlords Association, Citizens Advice and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. I should also make special mention of Shelter, which made the call for this exact change four years ago in its report, “Safe and Decent Homes”.
I welcome the Government’s declared backing for the Bill. I trust that means that Ministers will do all they can to advance its progress to and through Public Bill Committee and the Lords, and on to the statute books. However, this is something of a groundhog day for the Labour party, especially for my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. Three years ago, she brought a similar Bill to the House, which the Government blocked. Two years ago, Labour’s Front-Bench team—led by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce)—proposed the same legal changes via the Housing and Planning Bill, but the Government voted those changes down. The Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister all voted against the change that day, so today’s Conservative party change of mind is important and significant; and it is important because this Bill is important.
The Bill gives all private, council and housing association tenants the right to take action in the courts if their landlord fails to let and keep a property that is fit for human habitation—fit for people to live in. That will mean homes that are safe from fire, homes with adequate heating, and homes that are free of vermin, constant condensation or mould. This is so basic. In this day and age, it is extraordinary that landlords currently have no such obligation to their tenants. In practice, tenants can often do nothing about such serious hazards that affect their health and safety.
The Bill is important because it deals with a really big problem. Desperately bad, indefensible standards are widespread. More than 1 million rented properties, which are home to 2.5 million people, have these downright dangerous category 1 hazards. Nearly 800,000 households are private renters. A further 244,000 live in council and housing association properties. New Labour analysis from the official data in the English housing survey that we released yesterday shows that almost 700,000 children are growing up in homes plagued by damp, mould, dangerous electrics or extreme cold, with all the costs to their health and welfare that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North and other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have spelt out to the House.
Councils can of course act to help private or housing association tenants, but last year half of all councils served just one or no enforcement notices. One especially active London council served almost half of all the notices nationally last year. That council was not identified in Stephen Battersby’s report, but I suspect that it is not unconnected with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. Over the past year, my own council in Rotherham has trebled the number of inspections it carries out under the housing health and safety ratings system to 721, and half the properties have been found to be a category 1 hazard. The council prosecuted six, but only six, of the landlords.
May I offer the Minister four questions to work on alongside the passage of this Bill? First, will she make a commitment to increase funding for local council enforcement, as Members on both sides of the House have called for, to help to reverse the deep Government cuts to councils since 2010? Secondly, will she confirm that legal aid will be available for tenants taking action to get their landlord to do the work needed? Thirdly, will she extend legal aid to help tenants to claim damages? Fourthly, during the passage of the Housing and Planning Bill, Labour Front Benchers forced the Government to change the provisions to make regular electrical safety checks mandatory. That has been law for two years. When will it be implemented?
The breadth of support for this Bill is a tribute to my hon. Friend but also telling, especially that from the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association. The large majority of landlords take their responsibilities seriously and make sure that their tenants’ problems are sorted out promptly. The Bill reinforces what landlords should already be doing. I am glad to say that it follows similar legislation already in place in Wales: the Welsh Government’s Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016.
As I said, this Bill is important and significant. It is a policy and political landmark to have Conservative Ministers back a Labour Bill to tighten regulation to help renters. The former Housing Minister and now party vice-chairman, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), stated Tory policy and philosophy in January 2016 when he opposed this change, saying that it
“will result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords”.—[Official Report, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 785.]
This was part of the prevailing Conservative approach to market regulation based on the infamous “two out, one in” rule. The Secretary of State this weekend confirming Conservative backing for this Bill was welcome and a significant shift.
My right hon. Friend is making a really powerful speech. Does he agree that the Government should be very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for bringing forward this legislation again and giving them an opportunity to overturn their previous opposition to the measures that he has outlined, including during the passage of the Housing and Planning Bill? Will he join me in pressing the Government to implement the measures in this Bill very quickly, because their resistance to them previously has meant that there has been a delay for tenants in getting the protection they very much need?
My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the opportunity that this Bill gives the Government. I would rather that it were a Government Bill that also went further to make the private rented market fairer. She is also right that there is too long a history of legislation being passed but implementation lagging. She makes a really important point for the Minister to respond to.
This is a welcome and significant shift that shows that Labour is winning the arguments and forcing Government to change policy. It shows that Ministers are coming to terms with the hard reality of our first minority UK Government in 38 years, with no domestic policy programme. That is because it is not covered by their deal with the Democratic Unionist party. If the Government want to act beyond Brexit, only policies that can command some support from beyond their own ranks will stick.
This Bill is an important first step to deal with the failures in a market that the Prime Minister herself describes as “broken”, but more is needed. Alongside the Government’s backing for the Bill, I therefore urge them to rethink their refusal to help renters in other ways. I also urge them to consider backing the Labour plans for longer tenancies, for controls on rents, and for more freedom for councils to license private landlords.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said that everyone should have a right to a safe, warm, comfortable home. She is so right. We will give this Bill our strongest possible support.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who has worked closely with Government to be able to bring this Bill to a really strong position of cross-party support so that we can all really stand up for what it does.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a private landlord. As a landlord myself, this Bill has my wholehearted support because it changes the status quo by empowering tenants to take action with legal backbone if their landlord is failing them and their family. The Bill empowers those living in social housing and private rented accommodation to take charge of taking on their landlord to enforce housing standards for their home that has fallen below standard, making it unfit to live in due to serious and immediate risks to their health and safety.
The Bill is an excellent example of something that we should try to use more often than we do—the philosophy of “nudge” politics. I am genuinely hopeful that, because it means that a tenant can compel a landlord to fix these housing failures, the vast majority of landlords will start to discover the satisfaction of proactive property maintenance. Everyone deserves a decent and safe home to live in. Every child should be able to grow up in a home free from damp. Properties both old and new can fail to be properly ventilated, thereby leaving children in conditions that aggravate or indeed create skin and breathing health difficulties.
My constituency extends over a vast area of north Northumberland. It is the most beautiful and rural of constituencies. It consists of over 150 villages, many of which have old, stone-built cottages as the backbone of the housing stock. These bring their own challenges to meet modern heating standards. However, many local landlords have shown creativity by investing in sustainable and renewable heating methods that have given their tenants a greatly improved day-to-day living experience. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned, a good landlord knows and acts on their responsibilities to provide and maintain a good standard alongside their right to collect rents. Sadly, some private landlords have not been as speedy in making long-term improvements in such old properties, leaving tenants with rotten window frames, which ensure that no amount of heating will keep their home warm, or with poor and degraded provision, which means that entirely avoidable health risks are still in the mix.
One of my frustrations is that the recently built or refurbished social housing for my constituents, mostly in Berwick and in Alnwick, still fails to meet the standard, despite investment for improvements. A family living in Berwick have a daughter with respiratory problems who cannot live with her mother and sisters in their council property. So-called ventilation improvements simply sealed up the property and created such dampness and health problems that the child cannot spend more than an hour in the house before suffering an asthma attack. In fact, I have sat in the living room several times, and each time I have felt a constriction in my breathing airways caused by the damp air.
The so-called improvements have completely failed to do what the family asked for, but we are continuing to battle on, and the housing association wants to fix this problem. It is an example of poor installation—the builders who did the work failed to meet the requirements they were given—that needs to be sorted out. This is a huge frustration to all those involved, but we have to find a way to fix the problem. If we cannot find a different house to which to move them, the Bill will empower my Berwick family—with an amazing mum, who has been fighting for her daughter’s health and for her right to live with her mum—to enforce the improvements. My local authority cannot do so, because it cannot take enforcement action against itself.
The Bill will give thousands of tenants in my constituency a new empowerment to get the home they deserve—from repairs that landlords refuse to complete to a properly ventilated home, free of dampness, with a good and reliable water supply, effective drainage and sanitary systems, facilities for cooking and waste disposal, and good internal arrangements that mitigate and eliminate fire risks. For colleagues with high-rise blocks, the Bill will help with the absolutely key issue of fire risk. We have the chance to support our constituents, who are newly empowered to get homes to live in of which we can all be proud.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I welcome the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) to her place on the Front Bench—a promotion richly deserved. May I say that I am looking forward to knocking on her door and having a conversation about the contents of my speech?
I fully support the Bill, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for her absolute persistence in trying to see these changes put in place. It is a testament to her dedication and the dogged support of so many people and organisations across the country that the Government are, I understand, content to allow the Bill to proceed this afternoon.
I want to address quickly the development of the regulation of standards in the private rented sector that affects my constituency of West Ham. I know that hon. Members have noticed that my borough of Newham has been largely successful in its application for permission to renew its licensing scheme for private sector landlords. I am very grateful to the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who took the time to listen properly to our case and acted positively on it. In fact, he was in his place earlier, and I had hoped he might stay so that I could thank him formally and publicly from the Labour Benches.
However, the permission excludes one area of my constituency—the E20 postcode, which includes much of Stratford. I think I understand why the previous Minister did that, but I believe it to be a mistake. Poor-quality housing and abuses by private sector landlords exist in E20, just as they do in every part of my constituency and, indeed, of our country. The exclusion of E20 will make it far easier for these abuses to continue, and I am worried that it may make E20 more of a draw for rogue landlords if it is the only place in which they can take advantage of Newham’s high housing demand while avoiding enhanced enforcement by the council. I will get in touch with the Minister at a later date to offer her a cup of tea and a bun, should she like it—or even something a little stronger, after dry January has finished—so that we can talk this through.
While I am talking to Members on the Conservative Benches, may I say to the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) that I would really like to invite her to come to West Ham? If she has a look at one of our enforcement visits and sees what a difference it makes, I may be able to persuade her, too, that this is a journey she might like to take with her Front Benchers and she might start to accept that this is possibly the way forward. We have decent cafés in West Ham, and I am happy to take her for a latte or a cappuccino, or whatever she might desire, in order to win her support.
Excellent. My office will be in touch with the hon. Lady’s to see if we can get a date.
Enabling local authorities to take tough action against rogue landlords is very important and can be a real help in driving up standards. The Bill would tackle the problem at the root by clarifying, updating and strengthening the right of tenants to live in a rental property that is fit to be called a home. As we have heard, a minority of landlords make huge profits from their tenants, who sometimes live in appalling conditions.
Before Christmas, I mentioned the case of a man who was found living in a 1 metre by 2 metres space under some stairs, in a property with 11 other people and with electrical and fire hazards to boot. On the same day, that Newham enforcement team also found three people who were paying £200 a month for a space in an outside shed, and four other separate families who had been crammed into the main house. I believe that it will begin to solve the problem of abused tenants if all landlords, from the beginning of a tenancy, have a clear duty to provide those tenants with basic liveable conditions, and that should be enforced not just by our councils, but by the courts.
Newham Council was absolutely right to take the action it did, and the Government were right to support it further. Only through such schemes, which are paid for by landlords, can we ensure that there is money for enforcement activity and that tenants can live in homes that are fit for them.
All our constituents deserve to have workable and realistic legal redress against landlords whose properties are dangerous, cold or damp. Giving tenants that help will ensure that the horrifying conditions we have heard about today will not be allowed to continue. I am delighted to support this Bill. It is about time that it progressed through the House, and I hope that will happen this afternoon.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). She is no doubt a doughty campaigner on behalf of her constituents, and I have regularly heard her raise housing matters in the Chamber. I also congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), on her promotion. She is a good friend of mine and a colleague who I respect enormously, and she will be very effective in her new role.
Just as in the constituencies of other hon. Members, housing is a key issue in Corby and East Northamptonshire. We are right of the forefront of the housing growth agenda and entirely supportive of the Government’s aims. There are obviously some reservations, and we keep arguing the case about the need for infrastructure to keep up with the new homes, but that presents a slightly misleading picture of the local situation. Thousands of new homes are being built, but like Telford, Corby is a new town and a lot of our housing stock—both in the private sector, and homes under housing association and local authority control—is of a similar age, which obviously brings with it considerable challenges. Despite the perception, the East Northamptonshire part of my constituency contains pockets of deprivation—there are housing challenges there too, despite the fact that on the face of it some of those areas look very affluent.
I am pleased that there is currently a particular effort in my constituency to try to deliver improvements to the housing stock. I recently had a productive meeting with Corby Borough Council and its housing staff, and we went through a plan that the council has just produced to deliver a programme of works to help upgrade quite a chunk of the town’s housing stock. Those are very welcome steps, but I accept that performance can be patchy, and in some areas and local authorities the situation is better than in others.
Back in the day when I was a councillor in Wellingborough we were always careful to manage our resources. A lot has been said today about local authority resources, but we always made sure that a comprehensive capital programme was in place, and that housing was regularly placed at the front of that. We were also prudent with our reserves, to ensure that if issues arose that needed addressing, we were able to take the required action.
As I said, there are challenges, but I am pleased that this Bill builds on steps that have already been taken. I am also pleased that it commands cross-party support, because on such fundamental issues it does not matter whether our constituents vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or UK Independence party. All of us and all of our constituents—I do not think that any Member could deny this—have concerns about the issue of housing.
The Bill strikes the right balance. It adds an extra tool to the box to tackle the challenges. Constituents visit all of us in our surgeries every week to raise issues about the quality of the housing stock in which they live. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that there are also many excellent private rented landlords who provide a quality, well-managed service that meets the needs of people in our communities. I am pleased that the Bill’s provisions will not adversely affect them through increased costs. It is important that we do not make them feel vilified by the steps we take.
This Bill is an opportunity to congratulate landlords who do it right, provide an excellent service and are mindful of the needs of their tenants. At the same time, however, it offers an opportunity to level up and to make sure that those who are not providing the sort of service and quality of stock we would expect put that right by taking the necessary steps. It adds an extra tool to the battle to achieve that.
I have huge respect for the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), but I was slightly disappointed by the tone of his remarks. A lot of steps have been taken in the past few years under this Government to help progress the housing agenda, particularly in getting to grips with the issues under discussion. Let me allude to some of them. The extra £12 million for local authorities to identify and prosecute rogue landlords has led to 70,000 homes being inspected and 5,000 landlords facing action or prosecution. Steps have been taken to address retaliatory action when legitimate complaints are made—surely we can all welcome that as a step forward. It is no longer possible to serve open-ended eviction notices at the start of a tenancy; again, I would like to think that that is a common-sense step on which we can all agree and which we all welcome. There was further legislation in 2015 to improve safety, which we should also all welcome, and the Housing and Planning Act 2016 allows local authorities to impose civil penalties of up to £30,000 as an alternative to prosecution, which is another step forward. As the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee has noted, banning orders will come into force as of April and a database of rogue landlords will also be introduced. Those are positive, concrete steps forward, and I would like to think that every Member welcomes them.
We must not, however, be complacent, which is why this Bill is so important. It continues the journey on which we have already embarked. I think that all of our constituents would like to see improved and better cross-party working on such fundamental challenges, which affect each and every one of us. I am pleased that we are in the position in which we find ourselves as a result of this Bill and the spirit in which the debate is being conducted.
As has been said, it is important that tenants have the confidence and support to enact the Bill’s provisions, should they need to do so. I hope the Minister will say something about that when she sums up. I would be particularly interested to hear about our engagement with Shelter, Citizens Advice and local authorities on how they can help support tenants to make best use of the provisions, should they come into force. I very much hope that they will come into force, and I am keen to do everything I can to help bring the Bill into law.
Finally, I want to make a couple of wider but related points. First, all of us see examples of best practice in our constituencies. It was interesting that the shadow Minister alluded to best practice in London, but how do we best share that best practice? There is no point having isolated best practice. If local authorities are doing it well, I do not really care about the political persuasion of any given council. Corby Borough Council in my constituency is a Labour council and we have a productive and sensible working relationship. I think my constituents expect that, but it also helps to get things done. I want us to better use the best practice identified around the country to help improve outcomes across the country. I think that when that can be achieved we should go after it, in all policy areas, and I should like to think that Ministers and the Local Government Association would help to disseminate that information.
The hon. Lady is incredibly generous. It would be remiss of me not to accept such a kind invitation. It seems that we are to have quite the outing and quite the afternoon in West Ham, given that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) are lined up as well. I look forward to having a date in the diary; and I will definitely hold the hon. Lady to the “cake” part of the offer.
Most housing stock, especially in new towns, is of a similar age, whether it is in the private or the public rental sector, and that poses specific challenges. I think that we should develop a cross-party strategy that will make a fundamental replenishment of that stock possible in due course, because all the problems are likely to come to a head at the same time—but that is one for another day.
From behind the crisp white façades of Kensington, and from neighbouring Chelsea, come tales of the most unimaginable squalor.
Some Members may know that my move into active local politics 12 years ago was propelled by a five-year legal battle with my housing association after a plaster ceiling collapsed—following many, many complaints—and missed my young daughter’s head by inches.
How can there be about 70 excess winter deaths a year in the “richest borough” when cold is a category 1 hazard? My office is currently asking constituents who report damp and mould about their health. So far—and this will come as no surprise to many Members—every one of them has reported asthma and other breathing problems. Two constituents whom I visited recently—one council and one housing association tenant—had to walk around nebulisers dispensing oxygen to show us the black mould. Their homes were 100% in danger.
Kensington and Chelsea Council is proud of its enforcement record, but, as we know, its work on housing is constrained by funding, staffing and legal restrictions. Since 2015, just 11 successful prosecutions for disrepair, poor management and lack of fire precautions have been reported. We should give credit where it is due, but that is the tip of the iceberg. It has been widely reported that some of the prosecutions have improved the external appearance of properties. Action taken against landlords who have not maintained their façades has improved visual aspects rather than living conditions: that is a theme.
In Kensington it is difficult to identify and pursue many negligent offshore landlords. We do not even know who they are, and they are the bane of our property market. As we have heard, the current legal framework is unwieldy, bureaucratic and time-consuming, and has no power over local authority landlords. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has hit the proverbial nail on the head, which is a far better standard of workmanship than much that I have seen.
Kensington and Chelsea Council is better at keeping up appearances and sanitising poverty and squalor than it is at addressing it. As we know, the prime motivation behind the rainscreen cladding at Grenfell Tower was to improve visual appearance for the benefit of the conservation areas nearby. That was detailed in the planning application, and mentioned several times. We know what happens when bad landlords, including local authorities, get away with ignoring complaints. Grenfell is a stark reminder of what the current legal provisions can lead to: complaints are sidelined, ignored, ridiculed and, in the end, subject to “cease and desist” letters.
Time is up for bad landlords. Our homes are making our residents ill. They are responsible for early deaths, and sometimes even kill. My daughter survived her very frightening experience, but many do not. Some of my neighbours’ daughters did not survive. As a legacy—for the 71 victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, for the countless survivors and frightened neighbours, and for all those living in unhealthy homes—I support the Bill unreservedly.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad). I, too, support the Bill and commend the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for introducing it; I worked with her on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman).
I pay tribute to Shelter. It has done a fantastic job campaigning on many of the issues we are talking about today, and the Bill receiving its Second Reading would be a testament to all its hard work in this area.
We have already seen action to help people get into properties—Help to Buy for those looking to own, and the Budget included help to rent—and this must now be extended to ensuring that people live in properties that are fit for purpose. The 2015-16 English housing survey found that almost 795,000 homes in the private rented sector and almost 245,000 in the social rented sector have a category 1 hazard. A category 1 hazard is defined in the housing health and safety rating system as:
“a serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety.”
The phrase “health and safety” might cause a few eyes to roll, but we are talking here about some very serious things: asbestos, mould and damp, carbon monoxide and the products of fuel combustion. What if I said this represents 6% of properties in the social rented sector, or that it represents 17% of properties in the private rented sector? Let us just think about that for a moment. There is nearly a one in five chance that a property one of our constituents goes out and rents has a hazard considered a “serious and immediate risk”; this has to change.
The Bill’s key function is to provide a meaningful route for those living in properties that are not fit for purpose to get necessary repairs done. We are not seeking to be disparaging about landlords; the overwhelming majority of them always try to do the right thing by their tenants and take swift action to resolve any faults or problems with their properties. If anything, the majority of them, who are tired and fed up with having their reputation trashed and tarnished by others in this sector who simply—excuse my language, Madam Deputy Speaker—don’t give a damn, want this Bill to pass.
At present, tenants are dependent on their local authority for action to be taken regarding property standards. This can be difficult enough when someone is renting accommodation from a private landlord, but what about when their landlord is their local authority? It is important to have a route open to tenants that ensures that local authorities do not have conflicting interests.
The Bill will give tenants the right to take their landlords to court where the property they inhabit is not fit for purpose. They will be able to apply for an injunction directly that will compel their landlords to carry out the necessary repairs or for compensation from their landlords for their failure to maintain the property. In the worst cases, tenants will be able to provide their own evidence to the judge, rather than, as at present, having to rely on an environmental health officer or independent surveyor’s report. Local authorities can focus their resources on the very worst landlords.
There is always a reluctance about legislating in this area—a belief that this is a matter best left to be resolved between individual landlords and tenants—but let us be clear: this is not about the Government telling landlords what to do; it is about levelling the playing field. Nor does it introduce anything new. No new property standards are defined in the Bill. There is no additional regulation. We are simply making sure that existing standards are enforced.
The final point I want to make is to do with the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, which the hon. Member for Kensington rightly referenced. An inquiry is taking place, and I do not want to speculate about what it will find or who is to blame, but we have all heard the harrowing stories about the unsafe conditions, including fire doors that did not work, insufficient emergency lighting in stairwells and inadequate smoke ventilation. A number of those concerns had previously been raised by tenants, who felt that they were being ignored. We must never again have a situation in which genuine issues, particularly those relating to safety, are not tackled by landlords. When tenants feel unsafe, landlords have to take action. They must listen; no ifs, no buts.
That is what the Bill will do. It will empower tenants so that when they tell a landlord that the condition of their property is simply not good enough, the landlord must take notice and resolve the problem. This is not some kind of top-down diktat; it is bottom-up accountability. That is why I am pleased to support the hon. Member for Westminster North and her Bill on Second Reading. It is a welcome and necessary step towards ensuring that every tenant is given the basic right to live in a home that is fit for purpose. Our constituents deserve nothing less.
This is such an important issue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and on all her tireless work on this issue over the past two years. I wish I could say that all homes in my constituency were fit for human habitation. I would love to be able to say that, but unfortunately I cannot. Sometimes, social housing provided for and on behalf of our local authority has the highest proliferation of category 1 hazards and other factors that put at risk people’s health and safety.
One example in Canterbury involves a lovely family who came to see me. They have three children and they found themselves homeless in November after their private landlord sold the property. Since then, they have been moved from pillar to post, from one unsuitable unhealthy property to the next. They have been moved five times in two months. How, in supposedly affluent Canterbury, in the supposedly affluent south-east, can there be so many places that are unfit for human habitation? One house provided to the family by the council was riddled with bedbugs crawling everywhere, and there was also a serious leak. The family’s mattresses and other belongings are now ruined, but they have yet to be compensated.
The family were then moved to a house that had been freshly painted to disguise a serious mould problem. Now, their children are exposed to mould and fungus growing inside their home. It is around their beds, their clothes and their toys. We all know that damp and mould can worsen conditions such as asthma, eczema and chest infections, and articles published in The BMJ show that adults living in mouldy homes are also more likely to have symptoms such as fainting, headaches, fevers and even raised anxiety. I wanted to tell the House about that family this morning because I am disgusted by the way they have been treated and housed. I have put a video of their accommodation on my social media. Please go and see it; I promise you will be horrified. Any council that places people in accommodation such as that should be ashamed.
I am saddened to hear about the way in which my hon. Friend’s constituents have been treated by the local authority in Kent, but would she acknowledge that not all local authorities are the same? My own Labour-led Norwich City Council has 15,000 properties, and not one of them has a category 1 hazard. In the private sector, however, nearly 3,000 of the 14,000 homes have a category 1 hazard, and they charge two to three times as much rent.
I absolutely acknowledge that. That is disgraceful.
Some of the providers in Kent are failing the public, but this is bigger than Kent; this is a national shame. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), local authorities cannot enforce the housing health and safety rating system—the HHSRS—against themselves, and social tenants can often do very little about poor, unhealthy accommodation.
This Bill is important. It will prevent cases like the one I have described today and compel local authorities to carry out repairs, and I support it wholeheartedly. All social tenants and renters deserve accommodation that is safe. The old saying is that there is no place like home, but for many families in Britain that is true for all the wrong reasons. Let us change that today and make sure that all homes are fit for human habitation.
I commend the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for bringing in this important legislation for debate, and I know how much work she has done on this issue. I welcome the Minister—a former Whip—to her new position. I am a private landlord, so I refer the House to my entry in the register.
As we have heard today, everyone is entitled to a clean, safe and comfortable home. Indeed, one would have thought that that was a given, but the fact that we are discussing this legislation today illustrates that it clearly is not. Home really should be where the heart is, but there are long-standing concerns about property standards in both the social and private rented sectors. I have been made particularly aware of the issue not just through my work as an MP and my involvement in the Bill that became the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was guided so well through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), but through supporting so many Adjournment debates, which you probably sat through, Madam Deputy Speaker, with a former Housing Minister, the previous Member for Croydon Central, in which I heard so many harrowing cases of rogue landlords forcing people to live in squalor and making their lives hell. I am therefore pleased that the Bill will address some of those issues.
Given that the private rented sector is composed of a plethora of small landladies or landlords, such as the hon. Lady, does she accept that people can be good landlords? We need good landlords and landladies, but we need good legislation and good enforcement.
I thank the hon. Lady. I will be touching on that later. It is important that we do not make private landlords—the good ones—feel that we are outlawing them. We need to help them, but we also need everyone to have good standards.
In England, the private rented sector currently houses more people than the social rented sector, and that is borne out in Taunton Deane. Last year, the English housing survey found that 40% of homes in the private rented sector had at least one indicator of poor housing.
I am going to plough on, because I know that many colleagues want to speak.
The survey results show a pretty poor record and clearly demonstrate why the Bill is so necessary, and I am pleased to give it my support today. I am also pleased by the amount of cross-party work. When I talk to people back in my constituency, they ask, “Do you work with other parties? Are you always arguing?”, but we clearly do not argue about the many issues on which we can work together effectively, as we did on the 2017 Act. I have mentioned the private sector, but the problems are not confined to it. The social sector is important, too, and I do not need to remind people of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, which brought the situation starkly under the microscope.
To give a few statistics about the scale of the problem, according to the 2015-16 English housing survey the number of properties with a category 1 hazard—things that pose a serious health risk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) so ably pointed out—is just over 200,000 in the social rented sector, but over 800,000 in the private rented sector. I reiterate that social tenants currently have no effective means of redress over poor conditions because local authorities cannot enforce the housing health and safety rating system against themselves. This Bill will provide social tenants with a much-needed tool to compel the local authority to carry out repairs.
In my time as the MP for Taunton Deane, I have dealt with quite a number of issues relating to rogue landlords, some of which were very serious. One person had no proper back door that they could close, because it had not been mended, so they felt unsafe. Other people had windows that they could not shut or heating that did not work. I am pleased to say that we have worked hard to solve lots of these issues.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am going to plough on.
I am in regular contact with Citizens Advice, which is quite easy because the citizens advice bureau is just two doors down from my office. There is me, a pub and then the CAB, and the church is opposite, so I like to think that we cater for all needs. The CAB has dealt with 530 housing-related issues in the past year, almost a fifth of which relate to accommodation that is not fit for purpose. Those tenants, who are facing very serious issues, will be able to take some action because of the Bill.
I make it clear, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) said just now, that the vast majority of landlords offer good accommodation. Private landlords are an important part of the mix, and we need to make sure they are not jeopardised in any way and that they offer good standards. I am reassured that the Bill will in no way seek to penalise those landlords—perhaps the Minister will clarify that—but simply aims to build on this Government’s strong record of introducing measures, in whatever way, that set clear, simple and enforceable standards.
Some of my constituents, not surprisingly, have found the current law rather complex. It is not always clear what their rights are, and a common issue such as dealing with damp does not always fall under the landlord’s legal responsibilities, even if it makes the home uninhabitable. The Bill should clarify such matters. It will introduce a wide range of additional health standards, such as on fire safety, through the housing health and safety rating system, which will all help to keep landlords up to the mark.
Stamping out bad practice is essential, and the Bill sets improved standards by giving clear indicators to landlords. Above all, the Bill will empower tenants who, in the worst cases, will be able to provide their own evidence to a judge, such as photographs of the awful things that are happening in their property, without relying on an environmental health officer or an independent service, which can add extra expense and can be time-consuming. That will be a helpful element of the Bill.
The Bill will bring greater protections for the residents of Taunton Deane and for wider society, and it will make residents’ lives happier and, I hope, more comfortable. I strongly support the measures in the Bill, and I wish the hon. Member for Westminster North all the best in progressing it on its journey.
I am delighted to support a Bill that will make a real difference to serious problems affecting millions of people who rent in the public and private sectors. Housing is 45% of my casework, and the largest proportion relates to house conditions. Unfitness beats disrepair as the major concern. Put simply, this is the biggest single issue for many Members whose constituencies have a large private rented sector.
I see damp, mouldy, draughty, infested and unsafe properties every week when I knock on doors in my constituency. It is utterly appalling and it affects the health, wellbeing and life chances of many of my constituents, and it has been getting steadily worse over the past few years, which is highly regrettable.
I am delighted that, at last, there is a likelihood of getting this Bill on the statute book. As the shadow Secretary of State said, this is not the first time such a Bill has been before the House. The predecessor Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, which was also introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), was talked out in 2015. I suppose we should thank the usual suspects for staying away today to allow this Bill a fair wind.
Two years ago, in January 2016, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) moved a new clause to the Housing and Planning Bill with similar terms to create a duty on landlords to ensure that properties are fit for habitation when let, and remain fit for habitation during the tenancy. En passant, I note that all but one of the Conservative Members who have spoken today voted against that new clause, so we welcome their contributions today. The hon. Members for Telford (Lucy Allan), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), for Corby (Tom Pursglove), for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and indeed the Minister, have all seen the light in the past two years.
Indeed. I would hate ever to be churlish in the Chamber, and I raise these matters only to rejoice at lost sheep who have been found. They have spoken so well today.
I do not wish in any way to delay the passage of this Bill today, but I want to make one serious point. Paragraph 32 of the explanatory notes states:
“The Bill will not entail additional public expenditure, local authorities already have strong enforcement powers to tackle poor property. The aim of this bill is to enable tenants to pursue their landlord without recourse to their local authority.”
Many people have made the point that local authorities now lack the resources to do that, and that is part of the reason why we need to enable tenants themselves to do this, but these are often complex matters, legally and procedurally, to pursue. I ask the Minister to address that point specifically when she comes to speak.
In only two or three months’ time, we are due to have the long-awaited review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and I hope that part of it will look at whether legal aid can be extended to cover the provisions of this Bill. Indeed, I hope that we can go further than that, because, as has been established in review after review—in the Bach commission and the Low commission, and in what the Law Society, Shelter and Citizens Advice have said—the cuts in housing legal aid have been some of the most damaging. That applies to disrepair cases, where only “serious” disrepair is now eligible for legal aid. In fact, because the cuts are so substantial we often now have legal aid deserts as far as housing is concerned, and it simply is not possible, given how little is in scope, for private practitioners or law centres to offer the same degree of advice. That has to be looked at, and as part of that process we need to bring in the provisions of this Bill.
I always watch the Conservative party conference with great enthusiasm, so I noted that the Secretary of State said in his speech there that he was thinking of introducing a housing court as part of a simplification of the process for resolving housing issues. I do not know whether the Minister has any more to say about that, but we need a simple and straightforward process.
Is my hon. Friend aware that £22 billion is spent each year on housing benefit, with much of it going to slum landlords, who own houses in multiple occupation. A better solution would be to give part of the housing benefit bill to local councils to build properties on land that they own, so that—I hope hon. Members pardon the pun—we will have more bangs for our buck.
I could not agree more, although I do not want to be tempted too far away from today’s subject. Clearly the switch from investing capital sums in building decent properties, which happened under parties of all colours for many years, towards subsidising landlords—in many cases, bad landlords—has to be reversed at some point; that was a deliberate ideological step taken by Conservative Governments and it has served us very badly. That is a more endemic and chronic problem. This Bill resolves the immediate crisis that we have, particularly in the private rented sector. I look forward to the Minister at least saying what the Government are intending to do to enable tenants to pursue their remedy properly.
Let me end, as so many other Members have, by saying that we would not be here at this point were it not for my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. She has championed this cause and this Bill over many, many years, and it is right that Members from both sides of the House have paid tribute to her today. I hope that we can now proceed to see this Bill become law.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), although I am not one of the lost sheep that he referred to, having been an MP for only seven months; I am just a keen, enthusiastic advocate for the Bill in its present form.
Before I turn to the Bill, I would be grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you would convey to Mr Speaker my best wishes for his birthday. The Moonpig card, personally designed by me, that I ordered earlier this week has not arrived, so he will have to settle for just my verbal congratulations.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of people’s birthdays, so it will not have escaped him that today it is also the birthday of the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose Hudson-Wilkin. Will he join those from all parts of the House in wishing her the happiest of birthdays?
Let me return to the Bill—or nearly, at least. I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for introducing it. In the near future, I shall seek her advice because I have a private Member’s Bill on carbon monoxide safety. I am grateful to Project Shout for helping me to publicise the Bill earlier in the week, and I am grateful for the support of many Government and Opposition Members, particularly the hon. Members for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Wolverhampton South West (Eleanor Smith), to name but a few. I shall seek some advice on how to take my Bill forward. Thanks to the support of the Members I have mentioned and Project Shout, I secured a meeting yesterday with the new Minister for Housing, who convinced me that the Government will consider my Bill. I shall return to that topic on another day.
Were this speech an essay, I guess it would be entitled “It’s not always easy being a landlord”. I have three separate perspectives: first, I am an accidental landlord; secondly, immediately before I was elected to the House, I was the assistant chief executive of YMCA Birmingham, which is a small housing association; and thirdly, I am currently the chair of the board of Walsall Housing Group, a housing association with 20,000 homes, mostly in Walsall, although the group operates across 18 local authorities.
My personal perspective is that of an accidental landlord. When I married my wife and we bought a house together, she already had a house. She obviously did not have complete faith in the longevity of our relationship, so decided that it was appropriate for her to hang on to her house, just in case things did not turn out for the best, so we have a property that we rent out.
People often inherit a property, but they do not inherit with it any understanding of building or safety regulations, or the knowledge to enable them to keep the property in good condition while they rent it out. Indeed, I think the ridiculous statistic is that something like 95% of landlords in this country have only one property. How do they get the knowledge they need to ensure that they maintain their property appropriately? As the chair of the board of a housing association with some professional experience, I feel that I personally have the knowledge, but there are many other landlords who do not. It is not the tenants’ fault if their landlord does not have sufficient experience to know how to maintain the property, and they should have some means of redress through the law. That is why, as a landlord myself, I am delighted that the Bill will afford tenants the ability to seek redress, should it be necessary.
As I said, immediately before I was elected, I was the assistant chief executive of YMCA Birmingham, which has 300 accommodation units for previously homeless young people, some of whom lead chaotic lives, to say the least. We had a 72-bed direct-access hostel in Northfield that was definitely the ugly sister of our portfolio. I was delighted that, just before I left the YMCA, the Homes and Communities Agency awarded us £800,000 to install some en-suite accommodation, training facilities and better cooking facilities on the ground floor of the hostel. The existing accommodation was passable and clearly legally compliant, but for someone coming straight out of prison or off the street—
I completely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The YMCA took people from 16 years of age—sometimes previously looked-after children—and it was incredibly important that the accommodation was of the highest standard. I am grateful to the HCA for giving the YMCA the money to do that.
Will the hon. Gentleman also accept that a safe and secure environment should mean having carbon monoxide detectors in accommodation, for which he and I have campaigned for many months? It is a high priority that people not die from that silent killer.
I completely endorse those comments. As the hon. Gentleman says, carbon monoxide is a silent killer—you cannot see it, smell it or taste it—so the best protection is to install an audible carbon monoxide detector. I thank him for his endorsement—I think that is what it was—of my Bill.
The HCA has given the YMCA £1 million to build new-build accommodation at the site in Erdington. When I was working on that project, I was approached by one of our tenants, who asked that I try to find him employment on the building site, which I did. I offered my support, and the company arranging the construction offered considerable support as well, and then all of a sudden that tenant disappeared. He did not turn up for work for a few days, and when I went to see him in his room, I found he had had some mental health problems and had smashed up his room completely, causing considerable damage. That brings me to one of the exemptions in the Bill. Clearly, in such a situation, the circumstances of the case are different: it is not that the landlord has not maintained the property appropriately, but that the tenant has not lived in the property appropriately. It is not necessarily the case that the landlord is not maintaining the property properly; sometimes it is that the tenant has not treated the property appropriately.
Finally, I would like to move on to my tenure as chair of the board of Walsall Housing Group. It is a housing association with 20,000 homes, so clearly it has the facilities and money to maintain its stock properly, but at any given time up to 10 of those properties might not have a current gas certificate. That is not because we have not been diligent in ensuring there is a certificate for the property, but because we have not been able to get access to that property. Sometimes, the only way is to seek legal access, which can take many months and costs thousands and thousands of pounds. I heard of a case this morning: the tenant is in prison, yet we still cannot gain access to the property to service the boiler because the courts are saying we need to consider further action. It is possible to be a completely diligent landlord, and still be unable to maintain a property to the expected standard.
I know, then, from my broad range of experience that landlords often do their best to maintain a property in a fit and proper state, but sometimes that is not the case, and when it is not the case, we need legislation that protects tenants. Tenant safety is a very high priority for this Government, as we have seen in the work carried out since Grenfell, and we will continue to deliver on that. For my part, in all the various guises of my landlord responsibilities, I will continue to discharge my duties as well.
I wholeheartedly endorse and support the Bill. Along with the financial strains placed on my constituents by the ever-rising cost of living, coupled with the wage stagnation that many of them have suffered, Reading has some serious and substantial problems with poor-quality private accommodation.
Although the council has been robust in tackling rogue landlords, much more clearly needs to be done. I wish briefly to run through some of the issues that we have in our area. Reading Borough Council has on a number of occasions taken legal action against unscrupulous landlords who have allowed their properties to fall into such decline as to cause safety and environmental health concerns. Such action has resulted in considerable financial penalties and in conditions being imposed through the court system.
It is unfortunate that there are some landlords whose properties do not meet the standards that every tenant has the right to expect. Nobody should have to live in a property that has mouldy walls, faulty electrical sockets, holes in the ceiling, open drains or cockroach infestation, yet in recent years we have seen these issues in a relatively wealthy town in the south-east of England, which is something that I find deeply disturbing and, indeed, shocking.
There has also been a significant ramping up of the price of rented properties, while the standards for many renters have, sadly, declined at an alarming rate. The impact of living in such squalor is not only a financial one, as we have already heard from other Members. There have been instances in my area of local people having to visit their family doctor, or even go to A&E, with illnesses that are quite clearly born out of the unsavoury conditions in which they are having to live. I should point out that the scale of this issue is interesting given the relative wealth of the town that I represent. Currently, 28% of Reading’s housing stock is privately rented—that indicates the size in many of our small to medium-sized towns across the country. The town’s population has grown at a rapid rate, but the infrastructure is not able to support that. That includes the lack of supply of affordable housing. With demand outstripping supply, there has been a profusion of flats, bedsits and studios for rent appearing across the town, often at exorbitant prices. I should add that Reading Borough Council did have a plan to build 1,000 new council houses, but, sadly, in the summer 2015 Budget, the plan was stopped.
My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of healthy accommodation. Does he agree that, actually, poor-quality rented, unhealthy accommodation is not only terrible for those living in it, but a drain on the NHS? I have heard of a number of cases where, perhaps, an elderly person is needing to be discharged from hospital, or a premature baby to be brought back home for the first time, but they are not able to be discharged from hospital because the home to which they are returning is not safe.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her contribution. It is a very sad, but salient, point that this is indeed happening and putting unwanted pressure on our NHS at a time of great strain on the service and, indeed, when the Government have had to cancel many non-urgent operations during this winter crisis. In fact, she has brought up many points that I wished to make, so, for the sake of brevity and allowing other hon. Members to speak, I will conclude my remarks by thanking her and saying that I appreciate the all-party support for this Bill and the initiative and determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) in bringing it forward.
I rise briefly to welcome this Bill and to congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on bringing it forward. We all need a good home. It brings us stability and a place of family and of safety. As has been said today, we recognise that the vast majority of landlords are providing safe, secure and nice accommodation for people to live in, but it is unacceptable that, for some, that is not the case.
As a doctor, I wish briefly to highlight the medical and health implications of poor housing conditions. The hazards of having things such as faulty wiring or faulty boilers are very obvious, but living in a cold or damp home has significant effects on health, particularly for the elderly and young children. Things such as eczema, depression, asthma and all sorts of respiratory conditions are made significantly worse if someone lives in a home that is cold or damp.
As has been mentioned, this is costing the NHS around £1.4 billion a year, but it is not just costing the NHS—it is also costing those individuals who are suffering. We need to recognise the effect on the individual as well. Like me, many doctors have, over time, written to authorities to highlight the fact that people are not being discharged from hospital because their home conditions are not satisfactory. That is a particular issue for pre-term babies, who may be on oxygen. It is clear that we have an obligation to make this change. We must remember that children suffering from ill health do not sleep very well. When they do not sleep well, they attend school tired and perform less well, so they are less able to pull themselves out of the poverty trap in which they have found themselves. We have a clear moral obligation to ensure that people have safe homes that are healthy for them.
Is the hon. Lady worried, as I am, that not only do we have homes that are not really fit for human habitation, especially for families with children, but that we often do not know where those children are? With the growth of home schooling—look at what happened in California, news of which has emerged in the past week—there are some very serious problems confronting society.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is extremely important that we make sure that all children live in safe and secure homes. The Bill brings a welcome ability for people to have individual redress against their landlords, and takes away the conflict of interest from local authorities, which would effectively have been asked to enforce themselves. We are putting this provision into law to ensure that people have this ability and are empowered. It is important for the Government to ensure that people know that the Bill has been passed and that they have this right, and that they have access to the advice and legal representation they need to be able to enforce that right. I welcome the Bill.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak on this Bill. In fact, it is a pleasure to be able to speak on it; before the reshuffle, I would have had to sit where my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) is currently sat. As the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), I know how hard the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) worked to reach agreement and come forward with a Bill that would genuinely make a difference. To be fair to her as an Opposition Member, she resisted the urge to make points because she actually wanted to make progress and to deliver for those she represents and serves well in this House.
I welcome my long-standing friend, the Minister, to her place. She probably remembers when we slogged our way across parts of Cheylesmore and Whitley together, delivering her election literature about 13 or 14 years ago. I think I first met her 18 years ago, when I was also helping to put out some literature for her. It was lovely to have her at my and Hazel’s wedding last year. It is great to see her in her place, and to know that she will be following me to respond to the debate.
For those who know that I can speak for a while on a Friday, I have absolutely no intention of attempting to talk the Bill out. I will set out why the Bill is needed, its benefits, why it is a proportionate approach and what I hope its impact will be. Many hon. Members have made their points about why the Bill is needed. I was particularly struck by the figures from the 2015-17 English housing survey quoted in the Library briefing note. The research mentioned that the private rented sector had the highest proportion of properties with at least one indicator of poor housing standards, at 40%. In fairness, the level of non-decent homes in the private rental sector declined from 47% to 30% between 2006 and 2013, but the figures still indicate the need for this type of legislation.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who is sadly not currently in his place, referred to the housing health and safety rating system, which—I think it is safe to say—is far from perfect. The system is risk-based, and it is hard to see many tenants being able really to grasp what it means and what the balances are.
As was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), councils cannot enforce against themselves. If a tenant in a council house is concerned about their landlord, where do they go? They go and talk to their landlord about the poor condition of the property. Introducing this civil remedy makes it possible for a tenant to enforce a legal right against their landlord, which is welcome. It would be bizarre if we said that those looking for social care provided by the local authority could not challenge it legally because the care was provided by the local authority. It is right that we bring in this measure. I welcome the fact that it can sit alongside other areas.
With regard to the housing standards in parts of my constituency such as Melville Hill, Nick Burleigh is a gentleman I probably do not agree with a lot on politics, but in this case we have had similar concerns about the standards of rental accommodation. My hon. Friends the Members for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Corby (Tom Pursglove) referred to the standards of a type of property in new towns that was innovative 60 years ago and now is anything but. In Paignton, we have Victorian properties that were once grand villas—big places that were used in the summer by aristocratic families—but have now been split into multiple units that are not of particularly good quality, may have a very high turnover of tenants, and are sometimes rented to those who can rent nowhere else. One or two of the photos that Nick has shared on his “We love Melville Hill” website look like something one would expect of the Dickensian era. That is why it is right that we provide this further ability to enforce standards. This is a modern piece of legislation that is grounded in the 21st-century housing market, not just an attempt to revive a piece of Victorian legislation passed in an era when housing standards were very different. It sets a clear standard, brings forward a clear remedy, and makes it possible for a tenant to take action.
Is the Bill proportionate to needs? Many Members have made very clear the problems that poor housing can bring. I certainly see that in some of my own advice surgeries. This should bring absolutely no fear to the vast majority of landlords who provide decent accommodation at reasonable prices. For anyone sitting at home thinking, “But I try to do a good job, and I keep my property in good condition”, this debate is completely irrelevant. The person who does need to be concerned is someone who never picks up the phone to their tenant when there is a complaint, who has just about avoided prosecution by the council a couple of times, and who knows, bluntly, that the property they rent out is not somewhere they would even think of living themselves. Those are the sorts of people who should be listening in.
It is right that this Bill makes progress alongside the inevitable review of the main regulations that we will be having following the incident at Grenfell. It was a pleasure to work on some of that in what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government. As we make progress with the remedy that the Bill gives, we can have a debate about the exact process we go through.
On selective licensing, I support that in some parts of my constituency, but it cannot be applied everywhere. It would not make sense to apply it in my coastal areas. This Bill applying everywhere deals with properties that have an issue. I welcome the fact that licensing was approved to continue in Newham. It is right that local authorities are able to look at whether it is right for their areas and their communities. In parts of Torbay, it would be right to have it.
We need to make it very clear to local authorities—I hope that the Minister will be clear in her response—that this is not about replacing the system of prosecuting those who do not make repairs they have been required to make. It is not a replacement for the criminal law. It cannot be used as an excuse for not prosecuting people. It is an additional right and power on top of what local authorities should be doing. In my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, I said that the increased level of civil penalty that councils can now apply has prompted Torbay to appoint someone extra to its housing standards team to be able to increase its enforcement, on the basis that, when it does so, it can apply appropriate penalties. This is, in effect, rogue landlords paying for enforcement against themselves—something I think we would all welcome.
I hope that the Minister will dwell slightly on how she sees the ability to bring this process to court. What discussions will she be having with the Secretary of State for Justice about how it can be taken through? Will it be on the small claims track? How can we make sure that the process is simple and easy to do? How will that be communicated? We do not want a right that sits on the statute book but is then very hard for people to implement.
Overall, the Bill is very welcome, and the tone of this debate has also been extremely welcome. This is exactly what a sitting Friday should be about: we are taking a problem that Members have identified from casework in their constituencies, and plugging a hole in the law and fixing the problem. The Bill will be of benefit to the residents of Torbay, and it will certainly be of benefit in areas that have more acute housing pressures and problems than, thankfully, is the case in Torbay.
The Bill is proportionate in what it sets out to do. As I have said, there will be those listening who will ask whether it is something that landlords should fear. No, it is not, as is made clear by the support of the main landlords associations. The only people who have anything to worry about are those who do not maintain their properties to the standards that tenants deserve.
I, too, wish a happy birthday to Mr Speaker, and to Rose Hudson-Wilkin.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on her success in the private Members’ Bill ballot, on bringing attention to the important issue of property standards in the rented housing market and, indeed, on her huge amount of work and interest in this area. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register of ministerial interests.
Everyone deserves a decent and safe place to live, regardless of their tenure. Most properties in the private and social rented sectors are of a good standard and do not contain potentially dangerous hazards. However, according to the English housing survey, 17% of private rented properties and 6% of social rented properties contain at least one hazard that constitutes a serious risk of harm to the health and safety of an occupier. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the Chamber, these percentages equate to 795,000 homes in the private sector and 244,000 homes in the social sector. While there is a large range of potential hazards, in practice, as we know from English housing survey data, the vast majority of hazards that occur are associated with slips, trips and falls, as well as with excess cold and issues such as fire risk, damp and poor sanitation.
The Bill fits well with the work the Government have already done to improve standards in the private rented sector. That sector is an important part of our housing market, housing 4.3 million households in England. The quality of privately rented housing has improved rapidly over the past decade, with 82% of private renters satisfied with their accommodation and staying in their homes for an average of 4.3 years. The Government want to support good landlords who provide decent, well maintained homes, and to avoid putting further regulation on them that increases costs and red tape for landlords and also pushes up rents and reduces choice. However, a small number of rogue or criminal landlords knowingly rent out unsafe and substandard accommodation. We are determined to crack down on these landlords and to disrupt their business model.
There is a need to act now to require landlords proactively to ensure that properties are free from hazards and to empower all tenants to hold their landlord to account. The alternative of allowing these practices to go unchecked would not be fair on the large majority of good landlords and proactive, responsible local authorities, or on their tenants who suffer because of poor conditions or because of the inability or failure of local authorities to act.
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because some very important business is coming up after this debate.
The Government are committed to providing tenants with alternative means of redress, strengthening tenants’ rights and protecting renters against poor practice. The Bill aligns with and supports broader proposals to improve consumer experience across the housing sector. Furthermore, enabling tenants to take direct action themselves will help to free up local authorities’ resources to tackle better the criminal landlords who rent out hazardous and unsafe dwellings.
I will not give way, if my hon. Friend does not mind, but I will refer to him in a moment.
We have already published guidance for tenants to help them to understand their rights and responsibilities and what to do if something goes wrong. This should satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who has concerns about retaliatory action. That was perfect timing. We have also published guidance for tenants to help them to ensure that their home is free of potentially dangerous hazards. Revised versions of these guidance documents will be published shortly, alongside guidance for landlords about their responsibilities.
To respond to Members’ questions about legal aid, the procedure in the Bill is designed to be straightforward and tenants will frequently be able to represent themselves, but for more complex cases, legal aid will be available, subject to income criteria. We do not expect this to be necessary in the majority of cases, as most tenants will be able to identify an obvious hazard without the need for a solicitor. However, I repeat that legal aid will be available in cases where the tenant is eligible.
Other Members raised issues of local authority funding. We have given local authorities the power to impose civil penalties of up to £30,000 for housing offences. Councils will be able to keep that money and reuse it for housing enforcement purposes, exactly as we have heard. Very proactive councils are taking on staff to deal with that because they know—sadly—that the money will come in. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has already announced the Government’s support for this Bill, which is fully in line with the thoughts and desires of our Prime Minister.
No. Sadly, I am about to finish because a very important Bill follows this one. I met the hon. Member for Westminster North yesterday, and she has also had productive meetings with the previous Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), and my officials. I thank them, and all stakeholders involved, for their work so far. I have every confidence that this Bill will continue into Committee.
We also heard a wonderful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), and I thank him for raising awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. We share a common goal in wanting people to be safe in their homes. The Government and their agencies continue to work to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and that includes a role for regulation where it is sensible and proportionate to do so. We already have powers to extend further the requirements for carbon monoxide alarms, but we need an updated and stronger evidence base to inform properly the case for new regulation. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing that we can agree to work together and take this matter forward.
This is an excellent Bill. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North on her huge amount of work. I congratulate all the 27 speakers. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Telford (Lucy Allan), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Harrow East, for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), for Wells (James Heappey), for Corby (Tom Pursglove), for Colchester (Will Quince), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), for Walsall North, for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), the right hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) and for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), and the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), and for Reading East (Matt Rodda).
This has been a superb debate on all sides, and it is what the Chamber does best on a Friday.
I rise only to thank the Minister on her first outing at the Dispatch Box for her support, and I also thank the many speakers from across the House—she listed them so I will not do so again—who made important contributions to the debate. They supported the Bill, and also reminded us through a number of examples from their casework just why it is needed. This has been a consensual debate—it is almost overwhelming—and I am grateful for that. Members also raised a number of issues that we must keep in mind about advice, legal aid, overall investment in housing and other ways that we can strengthen the rights of tenants. Normal service will be resumed on all those issues by me and many others. This important Bill has been a long time coming and I am delighted that we are now able to take it forward, with Government support. I look forward to seeing it proceed.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).
Stalking Protection Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Stalking is an insidious form of harassment, characterised by fixation and obsession. The relentless nature of the unwanted contact from perpetrators, which sometimes continues for many years, can make it feel completely inescapable. It is often directed not only at the intended victim, but at all those around them—their family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. It can seriously affect both the physical and the mental health of victims, leaving them feeling isolated and fearful. It can also escalate, as we know, to murder and rape. It is much more common than many people realise. About one in five women and one in 10 men will experience some kind of stalking behaviour in their adult lifetime, according to the crime survey for England and Wales. However, it typically takes about 100 episodes of stalking for victims to come forward.
It is an honour to promote this private Member’s Bill for better and earlier protection for victims of these terrible crimes. I want to start by paying tribute to the very many individuals and organisations that have come forward to support this Bill and to advise. Many of them have spoken with great courage about the devastating personal consequences for themselves, including, I am sorry to say, personal, tragic loss. It is with all of those individuals in mind that I promote this Bill. I am also very grateful to the Minister for her personal support; to her team for the support and advice they have given me; and to Members across the House for their support and advice on the needs of victims.
In order to make progress with this Bill, we should acknowledge the progress that has already been made. Two new stalking offences were brought forward in 2012, and it is encouraging that 959 prosecutions were commenced in 2016-17. Progress was also made in increasing the maximum sentence to 10 years in the Policing and Crime Act 2017. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for his work in bringing that about.
There remains in the law, however, a serious gap when it comes to victims of what is known as stranger stalking, by which I mean those who are stalked by someone who is not a former or current intimate partner. Those victims of stalking do not have recourse to the protections available under the existing protection order regime. That is well recognised, which is why I think there is widespread support for the Bill. If we can step in at an earlier stage, perhaps we will have a better opportunity to prevent stalking before the behaviour can become so deeply engrained.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her Bill. I was on the anti-stalking commission, which made progress when we were trying to catch up with the Scottish law. Some very brave people gave evidence. Increasingly, the issue is switching from personal to online, and the law finds it very difficult when someone is being stalked from elsewhere in the world.
The Bill specifically notes that acts carried out from outside this country will also be taken into account, particularly with regard to online stalking. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for making that point.
Although the proposed stalking protection orders would be civil orders, there would be a criminal penalty for breach. They are not intended to replace a prosecution for stalking where the criminal threshold has been met, but we all recognise that it can take time to fully gather the evidence and present a case for court, and during that time victims can be especially vulnerable. They are intended to act not only in those types of cases, but perhaps where the criminal threshold has not been met but it is recognised that the acts are at risk of escalating. Importantly, the Bill allows for the onus to be taken off the victim, because the police will be able to apply for the protection orders on their behalf.
It is also important that the penalties for criminal breach have real teeth, with a maximum sentence of up to five years. The civil protection orders will allow us to put in place a bespoke regime of not only prohibitions but requirements on the perpetrators, setting out very clearly what they must not do—in other words, stop contacting not only the victim but those around them—and setting out the ways in which that might take place. In some cases, perpetrators are not well, so the Bill will also allow the court to set a requirement that they attend a mental health assessment. There is also a notification requirement: perpetrators would have to give notification of all the names and aliases that they used in order to stalk their victims, and their address. None of those important protections will be of any benefit, however, if the police do not know about them and do not have the required training, expertise and willingness to exercise them.
Another purpose of a private Member’s Bill such as this is to explore the issues throughout the criminal justice system to ensure that everyone takes them seriously. Stalking should not be trivialised by references to someone’s having an “admirer”; there is nothing romantic about it. It is also important to recognise patterns of behaviour. Each individual action may in itself appear trivial, but the pattern should be viewed in its entirety. I know that the Minister is personally committed to acting on the findings in “Living in fear”, a joint report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the police response to harassment and stalking, and I hope that she will comment further on it. We need to improve the entire system of that response, and I am grateful to her for her personal commitment.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She may have heard Emily Maitlis talking on the radio this morning about how she was stalked for 20 years. She said that she felt that the current legislation was not fit for purpose, and did not provide her with any protection. Does the Bill not seek to address that?
Absolutely, and I pay tribute to Emily Maitlis for her courage. Anyone who reads her personal victim impact statement will see that not only the person being stalked but that person’s entire family is affected. She has been exceptionally courageous in coming forward to talk about her experience and in raising awareness. It is also true that stalking does not just affect people who are in the public eye; it can affect anyone, and sometimes after a relatively trivial contact. Victims are often made to feel responsible, or guilty. We have to break that cycle, and take the issue seriously.
I will cut short my remarks now, because I know that many other Members wish to speak. I thank all colleagues for their support for the Bill.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for presenting this important and timely Bill.
Let me begin by quoting a victim of stalking whose words were highlighted in last year’s “Living in fear” report, which was mentioned by the hon. Lady:
“You carry it all the time…it’s with you day in day out. Day in day out…it’s in the back of your mind all the time, ‘What is he going to do? What are we going to find…Who’s going to come knocking at our door?’”
Imagine how that feels. Imagine feeling too scared to go out to get a pint of milk or walk your dog. Imagine feeling so scared that you have to move house.
When a celebrity is being stalked, we take notice, but this offence is happening every day to so many people. The 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that one in five women and one in 10 men had experienced stalking since the age of 16. That means that millions of people have to deal with the terrifying consequences of stalking. Statistics show that 80% of victims are female and 70% of perpetrators are male. Apart from the horrendous psychological trauma of stalking itself, it often leads to horrific crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and murder. According to a study of more than 350 femicides, cited by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust:
“Stalking behaviours were present in 94% of the cases”.
In too many cases, there is not enough evidence for police to make an arrest before it is too late. The stalking protection orders proposed in the Bill would be an important early intervention tool for police officers while a criminal investigation was ongoing. That early intervention that could literally mean the difference between life and death. The orders are designed for use particularly in cases in which stalking occurs outside the context of domestic abuse, but it is important to reiterate that the links between stalking and domestic abuse are clear. The Metropolitan Police Service found that 40% of victims of domestic homicide had been stalked. Stalking occurs in isolation or as a component of a much wider profile of abuse. High-severity stalking and harassment can include threats to kill. Research has showed that one in two—50%—of domestic stalkers will act on that threat. It is therefore crucial that the police, the criminal justice system and other agencies involved receive comprehensive training on domestic abuse and coercive control and that the focus of the new protection order is not on stalking alone.
Stalking does not have to lead to physical violence to be incredibly harmful. In a case study from the “Living in fear” report, Elaine became aware of seven websites that were created about her containing malicious content, including pictures of her and details of her personal life which were then shared with her children and employers. When Elaine initially contacted the police, she felt that they were not interested. They advised Elaine that there was not enough evidence to arrest the person as there was no direct threat. It took 12 months of monitoring the posts before the person was arrested. Understandably, Elaine was scared to go out of the house. She had to change to a lower-paid job where she would have some anonymity. Her children had to move schools and she has suffered with anxiety.
A stalking protection order would have given the police an option for an early intervention that would have protected Elaine while the investigation was ongoing. Like Elaine, many victims report being unsatisfied with the police response to stalking.
The hon. Lady is making an important point, particularly about internet stalking. In terms of the SPOs, does she agree that some kind of internet tracking capability must be included, as so much of this activity now takes place online?
I agree, and that is the case for many crimes now, but unfortunately the police do not have the resources to train up their staff, and that is something we all need to address.
New guidance to the police is required under this Bill. I have no doubt that the police want to improve their response, but to do that they need the appropriate resources, powers and training. This Bill will begin that process by providing police with an important protection and prevention tool, but the recent debacle surrounding the John Worboys case shows that, as a country, we need to do much more to support victims.
We have heard today that stalking can be one of the most psychologically destructive crimes. Victims of stalking often feel so threatened that they change the way they live, and, like Elaine, 50% of victims have curtailed or stopped work due to stalking. Last year Chloe Hopkins bravely spoke out about the depression, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide attempt that followed the seven years of stalking that she endured. The forthcoming domestic violence Bill will be an opportunity for the Government to carry out a review of victim support services, and I hope that victims of stalking will be included in that.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who made some powerful points.
I am delighted to support this Bill, which represents a key piece of the jigsaw in terms of how we ought to approach the scourge of stalking. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for her efforts, determination and leadership on this important issue.
The issue is very close to my heart, and I was grateful for the opportunity, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and Members across this House and in the other place, to play a part in addressing the problem of inadequate sentencing. But if sentencing is principally about protecting victims after stalking has spiralled out of control, the SPOs are about arming the courts with tools to address this behaviour beforehand; they are about prevention as well as protection.
Before examining the SPOs in detail, I want to say a little about the context. Attitudes have changed. Gone—or almost gone—are the days when this was thought of as a bit of a joke or just a case of overly enthusiastic romantic advances. Lest we forget, the crime of stalking did not exist until 2012, and it is only thanks to the bravery of so many people—usually, but not exclusively, women—that we have been educated on this shocking phenomenon. We now increasingly appreciate that stalking is a horrible, violating crime that rips relationships apart and shatters lives. Inevitably, it is the cases involving celebrities that hit the headlines, but it is important to emphasise that this phenomenon is no respecter of fame or fortune. It is far more indiscriminate than that, and anyone can be a victim. I want to mention two examples, if I may.
Dr Eleanor Aston was a constituent of mine. I say “was” because she has now left the United Kingdom. She was a successful and popular GP, as Gloucester Crown Court was later to hear, and she was stalked over a nine-year period. This bears out the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) that these incidents often last for many years. Dr Aston was stalked by a patient who first attended her surgery in 2007. As is often the case in this type of offending, it began innocuously enough. A few cards progressed on to inappropriate messages, then messages started to be left on her car windscreen. It then became more serious, with the stalker attending the surgery more than 100 times. He vandalised it and posted foul items through the letterbox, and then began to attend her home. He attended a children’s party that her daughter was at, and her water supply was even interfered with. The situation escalated to the point that the police advised her to change her name and address, and even come off the General Medical Council register. She was off work for many months and was later diagnosed, perhaps unsurprisingly, with post-traumatic stress disorder. The stalker spent some time in prison, but when he was released she received two packages: one contained standard abusive material; the other simply said, “Guess who’s back.”
The second case relates to the 20-year-old hairdresser, Hollie Gazzard, who was murdered in 2014 by an ex-partner. The point was ably made by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) that stalking is all too often a gateway offence—if I can use that expression—leading to something even more serious. Indeed, some particularly powerful individuals have referred to it as murder in slow motion. Out of the tragedy of Hollie Gazzard’s death, her inspirational family—her parents Nick and Mandy and her sister Chloe—have set up the Hollie Gazzard Trust in Gloucestershire to improve protection for the victims of stalking in Gloucestershire and beyond. I am grateful to the mayor of Cheltenham for including the trust as one of her charities.
Those are just two examples of ordinary people from just one county, Gloucestershire, so it is no surprise that research carried out by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in 2017 showed that a staggeringly high proportion of homicides against women were preceded by behaviour that could properly be characterised as stalking. In that context, the stalking protection orders set out in the Bill will provide a powerful tool to be used while a stalking investigation is ongoing. They will give the magistrates courts a larger and better equipped toolbox with which to tackle such behaviour at an early stage and to protect victims. An order will be able to prohibit acts associated with stalking or require an individual to
“do anything described in the order.”
That can be used to impose positive obligations, which is an important difference. Ordinary bail conditions can say, “You must not go within a hundred yards of that address” or “You must attend court on such and such an occasion”, but this order could impose positive obligations, including an obligation to attend drugs or alcohol programmes. As we have already heard, the orders will have criminal sanctions. In plain English, if you do not comply, you will get locked up.
That is all welcome, but if I may, I will add a couple of notes of caution. First, it would really help if, as part of the positive obligations, the court could require an individual to undergo psychiatric evaluation. One of the things that makes victims’ testimony even more disarmingly powerful is that they often show a measure of compassion towards the people who have tormented them to their wits’ end, and even sometimes close to the point of suicide. They recognise that they are often struggling with their own mental health problems. It would be helpful if the courts could have, in the toolbox that I mentioned, the power to compel individuals to undergo psychiatric evaluation.
The second issue is that, if the SPOs are going to work, they will have to be deployed quickly. If there is too much delay, there is a risk of the behaviour becoming entrenched and therefore far more difficult to address. Why do I say that? Because my experience as a prosecutor in court, prosecuting offences of this nature and speaking to witnesses and victims, tells me that committed, entrenched stalkers show themselves unwilling to comply with orders of the court, or even incapable of so doing, even though that might lead to imprisonment. Very often, by the time someone gets to the long process of prosecution, the stalker will have ignored the police officer who told them to stop, and they will have ignored the harassment warning and the bail conditions that ordered them to stop. If a solution is to work, the problem needs to get nipped in the bud early, which will require police officers to take matters seriously. I am grateful for the fact that a huge amount of work has been done in Gloucestershire to ensure that police officers have the tools they need to recognise stalking and to act on it expeditiously, which is vital.
Orders must be imposed early, and before the inevitable delays that come from investigation, charge and trial. Conscientious and attentive police officers will be vital to the process, and changes could be made to allow individuals to play a greater role in gathering evidence and reporting it to the police in a way that serves the needs of victims, instead of the process being labour intensive and sometimes difficult. However, that is something to be discussed in detail on another day. For present purposes, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on taking up the baton in such a spectacular and effective way. I am grateful to hon. Members across the House, and I am delighted to support the Bill.