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).