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House of Commons Hansard

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill

19 January 2018
Volume 634

    [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.]

    Second Reading

  • 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 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 hyperthermia 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?

  • My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that, as chair of the all-party group on legal aid, I very much agree with her. Many issues relating to advice and legal aid and other aspects of housing need still need to be resolved if the Bill proceeds.

  • 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 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 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.

  • Many tenants who are in temporary accommodation with private landlords have been placed there by local authorities. Does my hon. Friend agree that many tenants have difficulty dealing with that dilemma?

  • 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, where acting, 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 leant 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 today 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?

  • My hon. Friend is right. We must help to empower those vulnerable tenants, because legislation will not be a remedy if people are not helped to exercise it.

  • 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?

  • Indeed. Much more can be done to persuade and encourage local authorities to enforce their role. As I have said, they have an important part to play, and they have existing powers to bring about a remedy.

  • 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. Gentleman is right: local authorities’ powers are not being enforced, and there is a reason for that. We need to do much more to ensure that local authorities do enforce them.

  • 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 has 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 delighted to hear that Torbay is using these powers, and I urge my local authority, Telford and Wrekin, to follow its example.

  • 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.

  • The hon. Lady is right. The objective of selective licensing is to bring in more funds. However, there is a raft of bureaucracy surrounding it, and some landlords will pass the cost on to their tenants.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • I want to make one more point, but I may give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.

  • Will the hon. Lady give way?

  • 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.

  • Order. Has the hon. Lady completed her speech?

  • I have, Mr Speaker.

  • We are immensely grateful to the hon. Lady.

    Is the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) ready, or has he been detained by other matters? No; he is ready. Let us hear from the fellow.

  • 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 issue 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 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 both Houses.

    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 changes, 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 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.

  • The hon. Gentleman 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 are 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.

  • 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 have a 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 and the local authority took action. 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.

  • On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I just confirm something? We only have 23 minutes until the statement, and is it correct that this very important debate must conclude then?

  • There will be a statement at 11 o’clock, but the debate will not conclude then.

  • 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 were 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.

  • That is extraordinarily considerate, and characteristically so of the hon. Gentleman, in time for the statement by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

    Proceedings interrupted (Standing Order No. 11(4)).