Thursday 29 November 2018
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Private Rented Sector
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Private rented sector, HC 440, and the Government response, Cm 9639.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. The Select Committee chose to have the inquiry because of the increasing importance of the private rented sector, which has doubled in size over 15 years. Clearly, more families are living in the sector than ever before, and more people see it as their long-term form of accommodation, whether by choice or because it is the only form available to them.
The Committee heard that 82% of people were satisfied with their accommodation, although when people answer such surveys, I sometimes question whether expectations are as high as they might be. If we look at other figures, we see that while non-decent accommodation in the sector fell from 47% to 27% over 10 years, the actual number of non-decent properties has stayed the same—it is a lower percentage of a larger number. Citizens Advice also produced figures showing that 41% of tenants in the sector had waited longer than they thought reasonable for repairs to be carried out, and 800,000 properties had a category 1 hazard.
There are therefore problems, but while many properties might have some problems, other properties are clearly in a really bad state of repair, with some landlords doing little about it—indeed, they almost run a business in properties of that type.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for his excellent speech. Does he agree that we need to give local authorities the power to tackle and crack down on rogue landlords through private sector licensing, rather than having to get permission first from central Government?
We made a number of recommendations in our report and—my hon. Friend is right—that was one of them. We recognised that the Government had made some changes to the rules on selective licensing, in line with the recommendation on widening the criteria used to bring about selective licensing schemes in the Committee’s previous report back in 2013. They are also changing the legislation about the definition of properties included in licensing for housing in multiple occupation, which we welcome.
Nevertheless, in essence, our recommendation is that licensing ought to be a local matter, depending on local circumstances. It should be a local decision, subject to the Secretary of State’s intervention only when councils have not followed the proper procedures. As I understand it, the Government are now reviewing selective licensing. One of my questions will be about the state of that review and when it is likely to report.
In our report, we tried to focus on those landlords who are not doing the job that we would expect them to do. To divide landlords up, there are the bad ones, who are not good at getting around to doing things in a timely way—they are inefficient, or incompetent to some extent, and are sometimes accidental landlords. There are then the so-called rogue landlords, who have more systematic failings, leaving a large number of properties in an unacceptable condition. Then there are the really hardcore landlords—we ought to call them criminals, because that is what they are. The criminal landlords run a business to exploit vulnerable tenants in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. They are robbing not merely the tenants but the taxpayer, because they are getting money in and yet not providing homes that are fit to live in. We tried to concentrate on how to deal with those landlords, but our report also recognised actions the Government have taken in a number of respects. Quite reasonably, we highlighted actions that they have taken in response to our previous report on the private rented sector. We are pleased with that as a Committee.
Right at the beginning of the report, we refer to the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords, and to how that needs addressing. However, I will not go through all our recommendations. Instead, I will focus on where the Government have said they will do something—whether that is to consult, review or consider in some way—and ask the Minister where that has got to and what we can expect.
On the Deregulation Act 2015, we call for a review of the retaliatory eviction legislation and guidance on how it has worked. The Government did not seem totally enthusiastic about that at first, but they have now said that they will review the Act, looking at its effectiveness in terms of retaliatory eviction and perhaps at bringing in more formal requirements to have longer-term tenancies. The Government have gone a bit quiet on that since their announcement, so where is that review up to, and when can we expect some announcement?
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I put on record my apologies because I am unable to stay for the duration of the debate—I am hosting an event elsewhere in this place about a related matter, which is housing rent arrears arising from universal credit.
On retaliatory evictions, the Committee recommended reform of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. There is a growing body of evidence that section 21 should be not only reformed but abolished. In response to our report, the Government stated that, on the one hand, they recognised
“the concerns of the Committee around retaliatory eviction”,
but, on the other hand, that they did not accept our recommendation that section 21 needs to be reformed. They said:
“We believe the current legislation strikes the right balance between the interests of landlords and tenants and we have no plans to change the legislation in this way.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that, without meaningful action on section 21, those are simply empty words from the Government?
I hope that the Minister will come back on that, because we made a clear recommendation, and it would be helpful to have her response to it. The two things go together. Our report called not for the abolition of section 21, but merely for it to be looked at again. The same is true of retaliatory evictions. The Government are looking at one thing, so will they indicate that they might be prepared to look at the other as well, as part of a joint review?
We also called for a specialist housing court. We are pleased that the Government have now announced a call for evidence on the setting up of such a court. Will the Minister explain what will be covered and the likely terms of a housing court’s jurisdiction? Will it cover section 21 notices or retaliatory eviction? Will it cover tenancy fees, which we have recently had legislation on? Will it cover the issues arising from the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)? Will it go so far as to look at the whole matter of leasehold, which we are discussing in another inquiry? Will the Minister explain precisely what it will cover, or whether the Government have ruled on what it will not cover? It would be helpful to have such information.
The first of two other issues we asked to be looked at was that of five-year electrical safety checks. We are pleased that the Government have announced support for that in principle, but when will we get a clear announcement and action on it? In terms of having carbon monoxide alarms not only in every room with a coal fire but every room with a gas fire, I understand that a working group inside the Department is looking at that. Where has that got to? Every day of delay might lead people to lose their life because of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is easy to stop with a very simple measure. Will the Minister give us information about that as well?
We looked at enforcement and local authority powers. That is clearly important, and we questioned the housing health and safety rating system, as we have done before.
On enforcement, the report makes the point that half of the prosecutions in the country happen in my borough, Newham. In the Committee’s view, what problems are there with the enforcement arrangements that seemingly make it so difficult for the vast majority of local authorities to carry out such prosecutions?
My right hon. Friend raises a good point. Newham is a trailblazer—I think 50% of the prosecutions in the country happen there. We looked at two main issues in the report: the first is resources. I am sure it is not true that Newham has too much money and does not know how to spend it on other things; I am sure it has many challenges. The second is political will: is there the political will in the council to address these issues? Clearly there was, and still is, in Newham, but in more than half the councils in the country there are no prosecutions at all.
Councils will say, “We adopt a softly, softly approach and try to persuade.” Often that goes on with landlords who are in the inefficient and incompetent but reasonable category. Officers say to them, “You need to put this right,” and they do, but it does not work with the rogues and the criminals. Tougher action is needed. At the end of the day, it is about political will. Clearly, resources are under pressure; there is pressure on care services—the Committee will look at children’s services shortly—and that does mean there is less money for important things such as private sector housing enforcement.
We looked at how easy the powers were to use. I said that the rating system is complicated. Is there a case for bringing in a simpler minimum standard? By and large, the professional officers do not want to change. Landlords and tenants gave evidence that, although the rating system may be understood by most professionals working in the service, it is understood by very few landlords and virtually no tenants. Is a system that is so complicated that no one outside the professional sphere understands it fit for purpose? The Government have done some events, where they have talked to professional officers. There is a division of opinion among them—perhaps the majority still want to keep the rating system—but at least the Government have now acknowledged that there is general support for updating the system, in terms of both the evidence base and the guidance, which is very out of date. Will the Minister tell us how far we have got with that?
One of the landlords organisations that gave evidence told us that private sector housing legislation was based on 150 different pieces of legislation. Everything the Government do—however worthwhile—is built on top of this higgledy-piggledy structure, with no real coherence. Will the Government ask the Law Commission to do an overall review? We made that recommendation in our 2013-14 report. At some point, someone must do a comprehensive review, not necessarily to change the intention of the legislation, but to pull it together as a coherent whole. The Government responded that they will have discussions with the Law Commission. Will the Minister tell us where those discussions have got to?
We raised the issue of fees and penalty notices. The Government say they are at an appropriate level, but the Committee wants them to be raised because, for some of the really bad landlords, the fines levied are a business cost that they write off against the business. Courts should give back the cost to local authorities who take a case. Local authorities’ resources are under pressure; if authorities spend a lot of money prosecuting a landlord and they get the prosecution, the court does not give them back the cost involved. That can be really discouraging. Has the Minister had discussions with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on that recommendation?
We recommend the creation of a benchmark system, whereby the different approaches of local authorities could be compared, including the number of prosecutions they take out. We asked the Government to work with the Local Government Association on that. They said they would have talks with the LGA. How far have those talks gone?
The Committee supported the Government’s decision to bring in banning orders. The Guardian and ITV News have publicised the fact that the banning orders are not public. That is not to say that that will not happen, but under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 they are available only to local authorities to tackle problems in the private rented sector. They cannot be made public as the legislation stands. The Prime Minister has committed to change that, but I understand that that needs primary legislation. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend to bring in primary legislation to do that?
Although a local authority may know that someone is banned in another local authority area, knowing whether a landlord is operating in an area and the properties they have is very difficult, because of the lack of information. To make public that a landlord has been banned would cause other people to come forward and say, “That landlord is banned, but he is renting a property down our road.” It would be very helpful if that could be done.
I went to a meeting of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Leeds to talk about our report and the general support for it. Interestingly, Mark Baxter, an environmental officer in Scarborough Borough Council said, “If the Government change legislation, could they go further and insist that when a landlord is banned in court, they have to give the court, for the public record, a list of all the properties they own, manage or have an interest in?” That is an incredibly simple but effective way forward. Once publicity shines a spotlight on these bad landlords, they should be made to help by giving that information, and it should be an offence not to give all the information at that stage. That would be very helpful to get a proper grip on this issue.
My hon. Friend is very generous to give way again. Does he agree that deposits should be capped at three weeks’ rent rather than the current six weeks proposed by the Government? That would mean an average saving of £575 for tenants across England, based on the latest English housing survey data.
That came up in the Tenant Fees Bill, and the Committee recommended a compromise of five weeks. The Government did not accept it, but we support that recommendation, so as Chair of the Committee I cannot completely agree with my hon. Friend. If I remember correctly, the Government have held a consultation on alternatives to deposits, which is a helpful response to one of our recommendations.
We all agree that we must be as tough as we can be, and tougher still, on bad landlords. I hope the Minister will revisit our recommendation. The really bad, criminal landlords may be banned and have management orders against them, but in the end some of them will find ways around that because it is really profitable for them to do so. They have broken the law once, so they will carry on by ignoring banning orders if they can. Why do we not take the properties off them? Why have the Government resisted that recommendation? The proceeds of crime operate in other spheres. Let us get tough on the bad landlords.
I thank my hon. Friend. Allow me to add a small example to the point he makes so powerfully. My constituents were evicted from their private rented property after they complained because the bathroom ceiling collapsed over the bath 10 minutes after they had finished bathing their children. I hope the Minister agrees that, in those circumstances, it is not too much of a sanction to confiscate the property from such criminals.
I hope the Minister will reflect, even if she cannot commit to a change of policy today. These are bad people renting bad houses to vulnerable tenants. They are making proceeds from their crime, so let us take from them the asset that enables them to do that. I hope the Minister will think about that and respond to the points I have raised.
It is a great pleasure to follow the Chair of our Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). When I was a Housing Minister, I looked at the issue of crooks running beds in sheds and, often, human trafficking alongside. I entirely agree: seize the asset, take the money off them and make them pay for what they are doing.
On the broader issue, the hon. Gentleman made a very good set of recommendations about the Committee’s report. Six months on from the report’s publication and the Government’s response, this is a good time to step back and look at where the Government have got to and at the market as a whole. As the Chair of the Committee pointed out, one in five households lives in rented accommodation. There are many reasons for that—some economic, some demographic and some social. Although many people would clearly prefer to own their homes, we should not ignore the fact that, certainly in my experience, an increasing number of young people prefer to rent. Theirs is a generation that expects to have two or three careers, never mind jobs. It is a generation that rents its music rather than buying it as old fogies—I nearly said the wrong word—like me did. Their expectations are different. When we form policy, we need to think about that generation, too.
As the Chair of the Committee said, the vast majority of tenants said during the inquiry that they were satisfied. We should not overlook that. However, the gap between the majority of homes and the very worst has increased, so I have no hesitation in supporting the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). That will help us to root out the worst offenders.
Put simply, reform of the sector is needed, but it should be focused. We should not be tempted into pretending that every landlord is out to exploit their tenants. That helps no one. We need a consumer-led—tenant-led, so to speak—rental market. That means we need clarity about services and charges, fair dispute and redress arrangements for when things go wrong, greater choice and a more modern housing stock. It means we should encourage the building of more homes for rent and the rectification of substandard homes. It also means—this addresses the point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—that local authority enforcement needs overhauling so it is consistent and effective. I will come to that in a moment.
One of the report’s key themes was the respective rights of landlords and tenants. One of the main benefits of the Tenant Fees Bill is that it will help to clarify the role of landlords and letting agents. Alongside reforms to money laundering, that will help the market and improve the way it works for people. Our report also sought clarification of the law concerning people’s rights and obligations, including those of tenants. I welcome the reference in the Government’s response to publishing easy-to-understand “how to” guides for tenants. That is good, but we may also need consolidation. We need the law itself, not just the words that describe it, to be made simpler.
Equally, we legislators should all recognise that laws and regulations are sometimes limited in what they can achieve. They certainly stop bad practice, but they are not good at changing the culture of a business sector or promoting best practice. For that, we need people in the sector themselves to change—we need the practitioners to raise their game. That means we need qualified letting and managing agents who are committed to high standards.
What needs to happen? First, we should require anyone working in lettings and property management to be qualified. Members of the public might be amazed that that is not the case already. Secondly, the scope of those qualifications should not be imposed by the Government but should be agreed jointly with the industry and consumer representative bodies—I think of the Consumers Association as a good example—and forged with professional bodies such as the Institute of Residential Property Management and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, of which I am a fellow.
We should also grandfather across existing qualifications and ensure that they are part of the new process. We cannot afford to create a new barrier for people who have already committed to being professional. Indeed, there is a shortage of good, qualified people in residential property management for some of the blocks our constituents live in. We do not want to create a problem there, so grandfathering across existing qualifications would be sensible.
Thirdly, qualifications need to recognise not only different roles and levels but the different demands of the private rented sector and the social housing sector. Essentially, what matters is that people are competent to perform their roles financially, technically and of course legally. I also want a culture of continuous professional development to be adopted in the sector so that people keep up to date. Together, those elements, which build on the report, would help to change not only who works in the sector but the standards they maintain. I would be grateful if the Minister specifically addressed those points.
We heard about the standard of buildings and the housing stock, which is a big challenge. It is right that we rectify and improve the bad buildings we have now, but we need to do more than that—we need to build more modern homes to rent. That is why in 2012-13, when I was Housing Minister, I actively promoted a new model—the build-to-rent market. Having attracted billions from pension funds and long-term institutions, that market has blossomed in the past five years. More than 117,000 homes—modern, purpose-built homes that are available on long-term leases and provide services to tenants—are under construction or available to let. As it matures, that market will offer an even broader range of homes and rents, and provide greater choice for tenants seeking an alternative to the old housing stock. I hope the Minister confirms that the Government are committed to continuing to support the build-to-rent sector.
The Committee’s report also highlighted the need for effective enforcement by local authorities, which was touched on earlier. We received evidence—it was some of the most concerning we received—that there is not only a low level of enforcement but huge variability between councils in similar areas. For example, the Residential Landlords Association told us that in 2016-17, although more than 105,000 complaints were made by tenants, councils prosecuted just 467 people. That is less than one tenth of 1%. I appreciate, as Members said, that prosecution is not the sole enforcement action, but it is a pretty good indicator. At less than one tenth of 1%, something is not working.
Enforcement is hugely variable, too. There are 32 London boroughs. One of them—Newham—is responsible for 60% of prosecutions. The Committee heard that six out of 10 councils did not prosecute a single landlord in 2016. David Cox from ARLA Propertymark told us—this is in the report—that laws are passed but they are just not enforced. Part of the problem is a lack of money. That is why we asked the Government to ensure that councils have the money to enforce both current and future regulations.
However, as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East highlighted, this is not just about money; clearly, it is also about local political priorities and political leadership. That is why I strongly support the Committee’s suggestion that there should be a benchmarking scheme. That should be introduced, funded and run by the Government and managed through the Local Government Association. Councils should publish data about the number of complaints they receive, how they are resolved and prosecutions so all of us—our constituents included—can compare the enforcement levels of councils in similar areas. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made with the LGA on that issue?
My constituency is in two boroughs with very different approaches. In 2016-17, one had to spend £5 million on temporary accommodation. For that borough, trying to end any sort of tenancy—no matter how bad the landlord—is counterintuitive, because it would then have to house the tenants but it does not have any housing stock. This issue is to do with political will and resources, and doing something about the private rented sector, but it is also about finding safe premises for people to live in—it is about supply, too. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is very complicated?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think it is complex, which is why benchmarking solely on prosecutions is too narrow. She is right to say that it is a constant challenge for councils to judge the resources available, but the different levels of enforcement—even between neighbouring councils in similar areas—suggests to me that the system is not working.
My last point is about whether the report and the Government’s response are in danger of being overtaken by technology—something that both the Committee and the Government will want to come back to, I think. For example, online services such as Airbnb are creating completely new ways for people to find somewhere to stay, ostensibly and originally when travelling on holiday. Equally, the web is now enabling the emergence of a grey market in informal serviced lettings.
I have seen examples of both in my constituency. No one is quite clear about how to define such activity, let alone whether it can be regulated. At what point does an Airbnb letting, which was initially for one week but then becomes two weeks or four weeks, become something more formal? Should those platforms, which enable the transaction, be defined as letting agencies in law?
Some would reasonably say, “Do not interfere, do not meddle”—it would be my natural instinct to say that—but as we tighten up the regulation of the private rented sector, the danger is that the crooks will shift into these emerging markets, creating the potential for the next property scandal. All of us in this place, but the Minister in particular, will need to decide how to ensure that any changes we make are future-proofed.
Does the technological nature of the transaction matter or do we just focus on making sure that we have modern, up-to-date consumer rights? How do we shape the regulations so we do not stifle genuine enterprise? Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to think about that? She is always looking at the picture in the round, as any good Minister does, but can she tell us whether the Government would be prepared to look at the issue and whether we as a Committee should consider it in the future?
There are a number of crucial areas where the reform of the sector could make a positive difference not only for tenants, but for landlords. The report sets out a clear way forward, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and the owner of a small property portfolio.
I rise to do three things: first, to talk about the situation in my own borough of Harrow; secondly, to look at the detailed report that we, as a Committee, produced; and thirdly, to add a few things that I think are needed. It is pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), with his measured approach and his experience of having been the Housing Minister. Equally, it is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who I have worked with on this Committee over many years—probably more than we would care to mention.
On the Committee, and certainly since I have served on it, we make sure we proceed by consensus. Individuals may hold views that are not contained in the report, but it comes from the entirety of the Committee and is produced on a cross-party basis. I warmly welcome the Minister to her place and I hope she will tell us why the Government are not taking forward some of the measures that we have recommended—again, on that all-party basis.
In my borough, the private rented sector is growing dramatically. It used to be a tradition, in outer London in particular, that as people became more prosperous and more likely to commute for longer distances, they would sell their homes and move on, then commute into central London for a job. Nowadays, they tend not to sell their homes. They move on and acquire a new home, but they keep their existing home and rent it out. One challenge that has arisen in Harrow is that large numbers of properties—typical suburban, three-bedroom semis—are now rented out to 10, 12 or in some cases 20 people, who are living in them. This brings the consequences of antisocial behaviour and overcrowding, and quite frankly the people living there are being exploited.
Most people in that position come from eastern Europe. I now have 10,000 eastern Europeans living in my constituency. They are warmly welcomed—they are here to work and want to contribute to the economy—but they are being exploited. Rents of a typical three-bedroom property are in the order of £2,000 per month. If you have 20 people sharing that £2,000, then the rent is not too bad. However, the living conditions are absolutely disgraceful. That is, I think, one of the key challenges.
The local authority has responded by setting up a selective licensing scheme in one ward, which was vigorously opposed by the private landlords concerned for the obvious reason that they thought they would not be able to continue to exploit their tenants. The challenge for the Government when legislative changes take place is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned, that although the vast majority of tenants are satisfied with their position, what do we do about the bad, criminal landlords who exploit vulnerable people and make their lives a misery.
We have been on the Committee together for more than eight years, and I think we have all had examples of landlords behaving quite badly, not merely in letting properties but in objecting to licensing schemes. It is not just about the regulatory framework, but about the fact that their names will be known, as well as which properties they own and rent out, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs gets rather interested at that point. The cost of that could actually dwarf anything else they have to do, such as paying fees for the licence.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for that intervention. That is particularly true in the Edgware ward of the London Borough of Harrow, where I asked the council a series of questions about how many registered houses in multiple occupation they had on their books. I was astonished when they told me they had 89 for the borough. I can take Members to roads in Edgware where there are 89 in the road. One problem is the local authority’s resources to deal with these issues, but, more importantly, people just ignore their responsibilities. That has to be dealt with.
I come now to the report itself. I will not deal with the recommendations that the Government have taken on board, because they are fine and we all agree with them. I am delighted that they have been taken on. I worry about some aspects that the Government are not addressing so far. When the Minister replies, will she update us? The Government response was some five months ago and I hope that things have moved on. I will go through the report, looking at the questions that I would like the Minister to answer.
In the Government’s response, the housing health and safety rating system recommendation is partly accepted, but the view is that the Government will review the position in due course. Can the Minister update us on where that review is? The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the reality of carbon monoxide poisoning and other safety measures in homes. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who is no longer in her place, raised a desperate situation in her constituency. The issue is ensuring that tenants’ safety is paramount. Over the time I have served on the Select Committee, we have considered various different aspects of safety, and my concern is that building regulations and safety regulations do not seem to be being updated as they should, both to protect tenants and to point out to landlords their responsibilities. I would like to understand the Government’s position in that area.
Equally, where the Government and Law Commission are reviewing what legislation could be enacted, the Government say they are having discussions with the Law Commission. That is always helpful, but could we be updated with the results? As I have said, if we introduce legislation we must be careful that we do not put off good landlords from renting out their properties and maintaining good order at the same time as squeezing out the criminal behaviours that are clearly unacceptable.
I turn now to section 21 notices; we will have a debate on that subject next Thursday, I think, and I do not want to rehearse the discussions we will have there, because no doubt the Minister will be answering that debate too if it proceeds as expected.
That is welcome.
Let me take up the issue, because we made recommendations on this and the Government have not accepted them, but they agree to keep the issue under review. We have a delicate balance to strike, because the sad reality is that if landlords are in a position where they cannot evict bad tenants, there is a serious problem and they will say that it is not worth being a landlord and letting out the properties.
As the author, promoter and sponsor of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 on section 21 notices, I know them in infinite detail. They are deemed to be no-fault evictions, and clearly we need to preserve the position whereby a landlord can get their property back, but at the same time, some landlords seem routinely to issue section 21 notices on six-month tenancies as protection for getting the property back at the end. One solution is to have longer tenancies, with protection for the tenant and for the landlord, with the potential for break clauses on both sides. That seems to have gone very quiet in Government thinking, and I hope my hon. Friend the Minister can update us on where we are going with longer tenancies and protection of tenancies.
There seems to be a suggestion from the Government that retaliatory eviction is a relatively rare occurrence. For those people who gave evidence to us having suffered it, it might have been a rare occurrence but it was a life-changing experience and we must condemn it. Landlords have a duty to keep their homes up to a reasonable and safe standard, and if tenants complain that the property is not kept up to that standard, it is quite right that the landlord should then put it right. If the result is that the landlord evicts the person or the tenants, that is an outrage and we need to ensure that action is taken. At the moment there is not enough protection for the tenants. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the specialist housing court, which would be warmly welcomed by both landlords and tenants. If we could have an update on the status of the Government review, that would be terribly helpful and informative to the Committee.
I will say two last things before I sit down. First, we made a recommendation on the local housing allowance, particularly regarding studio accommodation. In London, this is becoming a big issue. Properties are subdivided into small units and put out to rent and the tenants are therefore being exploited. There is a case, which we have made in the report, for taking action in this area, and I would welcome the Minister’s taking some action. I accept that this situation is not necessarily true across the country, but in London it is a serious issue that must be addressed.
Secondly, on penalties for bad landlords and the protection of tenants, although I do not normally read The Guardian, it has provided a very helpful brief in its coverage on rogue landlords and what has happened. The sad reality is that if landlords fail the fit and proper person test and are banned, all their tenants should know about it. That just makes sense. To have a position where a landlord can be banned in one borough but carry on renting in others just does not make sense at all. One thing we need to see is urgent action to introduce a position where landlords are banned and action is taken.
I agree that in the most serious cases, a fine just becomes part of doing business, so having the ability to confiscate the property and protect the tenants from the behaviours of rogue or criminal landlords must be the final resort. On that point I will sit down, but I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working with colleagues to improve the position for both tenants and the good landlords in this country.
It is a pleasure to join my former colleagues on the Communities and Local Government Committee to debate their excellent report. I can genuinely say that I miss the Committee; if the Committee members know that I have been moved on to the Procedure Committee instead, they will understand quite how much I miss them. The reports we did together on the Committee were very useful and thought-provoking, and the contributions by hon. Members today are indicative of the attitude they take to their work on the Committee.
The report is an excellent piece of work that highlights many issues within the private rented sector in England. I suppose I must be missed from the Committee too: when I was on it, I would try to make comparisons with Scotland, where we have done a huge amount of work in the private rented sector in recent years. I notice that there are some good points of comparison that, if I were still on the Committee, I might have added to the report. I hope to highlight some of those issues here; I know the Minister has come to visit Glasgow before and spoken to some of the professionals in Scotland, so she will understand that there are things we have done in Scotland that may be of use in England also.
I start by mentioning the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016, which came into force on 1 December 2017 and is coming up to its first birthday. The Act made a number of changes within Scotland: it moved tenancies to being open-ended, so that rents were more predictable and there was protection against excessive rent rises, and it included an ability for local government to introduce local rent caps for rent pressure areas, which is important when we see rents spiralling out of control in some places.
The 2016 Act also introduced comprehensive and robust grounds for repossession for landlords, which could only happen in 18 specified circumstances rather than because the landlord felt they wanted to take the property back; they had to meet those tests as well, so that gave protection to both tenants and the landlord. Disputes between tenants and landlords can now be heard in a new specialist tribunal that we brought in to handle them, which is a useful thing for everybody all round.
We also ensured that letting agents have to register and adhere to a code of practice, which goes some way towards what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) said about professional qualifications and skills; if there is a code of practice in place at least, then that gives some professionalism to those companies.
I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said about qualifications. An awful lot of people who end up being landlords in the private rented sector did not start out that way. They may have bought a flat as a younger adult and then moved on but kept it and tried to use it to earn rental income, and they may not quite understand their obligations and responsibilities. For a while, buying flats and renting them out became a quick way of making money. A bit more needs to be done to make sure that landlords understand all their obligations.
I agree with the hon. Lady about codes of practice, and I am keen to support them. However, I have come to the conclusion that we need to be clear that someone cannot operate in this market unless they have the qualifications. It is rare for me to say something like that. Does she accept that mandating qualifications is actually a stronger move than introducing a code of practice?
Yes, and I am interested to see how that proposal develops. I certainly think it would be useful: it would reassure tenants to know that their landlord had some kind of qualification to put a roof over their head. It might get rid of some of the more criminal elements in the sector as well.
All landlords have to be registered in Scotland—there is not the hotch-potch of local registration mentioned in the report—which means that, if they step out of line, they can be banned. We have had problems in my constituency, slightly like those mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), of tenants being exploited and lots of people being crammed into one flat. Govanhill in my constituency has a very large private rental sector and lots of rogue criminals. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) suggested that “rogue” sounds a bit more casual; I certainly feel that “criminal” is the better word.
In May 2018, five landlords were struck off the landlord register for renting substandard properties, and a further nine were struck off and banned in September 2017. That is all publicised and goes in the press, so there is no doubt about who those landlords are, what they have been up to and the conditions that their tenants have been living in. The Govanhill enhanced enforcement area gives council officials the right of entry into properties if there is any suspicion that they are not up to standard. On their first inspection, only 21 properties met the Scottish repairing standard. When they came back for a subsequent inspection, 175 properties met the standard, so there had been a clear improvement through that process.
Giving local authorities the power to enter flats and do those assessments is quite important in making sure that standards are met. It also gets around the issue of some local authorities not having the political will to do things. If everybody has to be registered across the board, that is at least a first step from which prosecutions can follow, if required. However, I do not think it has been in force for long enough in Scotland for us to be able to tell whether there are postcode lotteries, because housing varies quite substantially in my constituency and in other parts of Scotland as well.
I draw the House’s attention to the Nationwide Foundation’s report on vulnerability among low-income households in the private rented sector in England, because it makes for very interesting reading. It mentions that the proportion of privately rented properties failing to meet the decent homes standard has been falling, but that the number of such properties has actually increased. Numbers and proportion are quite different here. It also highlights, as other hon. Members have mentioned, that most properties that failed had a category 1 hazard—a severe or immediate risk. It should frighten us all if people are in such terrible conditions that their lives could be at risk. I urge the Government to do a bit more to make sure that properties meet those standards.
I also urge the Government to do more on revenge evictions, which our legislation in Scotland has militated against. It is something that we have managed to act on. Generation Rent also produced a very interesting briefing on this. It mentioned that, in 2017, 12,711 evictions by bailiffs happened under the accelerated process under section 21 of the Housing Act 1998, but that that is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. An awful lot of those people will not go through the court process, so we do not necessarily know how many people have actually been evicted. It also points out that two thirds of private renters have no savings. If someone with no savings has just been evicted, the last thing they will want is to go through a court process. They will just not have the means to do so, so they will try to find somewhere else as quickly as they can and move on. We need a better understanding of how many people face evictions through this process.
Moving towards a national database with better data gathering on this issue would be useful in informing what happens next, and the Government ought to think again about that. I am interested in hearing what the Minister says about the things that the Government did not accept from the review. The Committee will continue to push those suggestions, because they are good and solid. We particularly need to protect people from revenge evictions.
Private renting is a growing sector, with more and more people who are more and more vulnerable, including families. It is not only young people renting a flat for a while. There are people who live their whole lives in the private rented sector now because there is a severe shortage of housing in some parts of England. We need to look at how we can better protect those people. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East and others made clear that the cumulative effect of introducing legislation on legislation is that the protections are not where they should be. People need those protections so that they can have some certainty in their lives. Not having that certainty has a huge impact on people’s health, wellbeing and prospects, and particularly on children if they have to move quite a lot. We need to make sure as best we can that people are protected.
Lastly, I very much agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford about lettings from companies such as Airbnb. The Minister would do well to consider that further, because there could be an emerging gap in the market and we need to somehow make sure that there is protection within regulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. This is an important debate, and we have heard some really helpful contributions. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) for securing it and for his leadership of the Select Committee, and I thank the other Committee members who are here. All have raised important points.
I should be clear at the outset that, as hon. Members might expect, the Opposition agree with the Committee’s assessment that the majority of landlords are good. I do not think anybody questions that. They play an important role in the housing system and in our society. However, as the Committee’s report illustrates, the situation faced by a growing number of private renters is intolerable. Most of us here today will see in our constituency surgeries—I certainly do—the horrible things that too many people have to endure. That includes the 800,000 privately rented homes with at least one category 1 hazard, landlords cutting off electricity to vulnerable tenants, and letting agents demanding hundreds of pounds to do things such as view a property.
We need to keep in mind all the time what private renters want, and that needs to be the test for policy makers. I think there are two things: first, people want to rent a property fit to be called a home; and, secondly, they want the same rights and redresses enjoyed by consumers in lots of other areas of society. For many, the private rented sector undoubtedly fails those two tests. Standards at the bottom end of the market are poor. As Opposition Members have said many times, people have more rights when buying a fridge-freezer than when renting a property.
The report identifies some important failings in Government policy that have led us to this point. I will look at two broad areas: the lack of intervention and enforcement, and the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords. On the first, as the report demonstrates, outdated legislation and a lack of enforcement mean that the current system of setting and enforcing standards does not work. We agree that the current legislation is overly complicated. It has built up over many years and has become somewhat hard to navigate and dated. Penalties are not strong enough to deter bad practice, and fines are too small to incentivise legal action in the first place.
We have already heard about the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). However, the Government could have helped its provisions to become law years ago by accepting Labour amendments to the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The fact that so little enforcement action is taken is all the proof we should need that the system is broken. As we have heard, Advice4Renters estimates that just 0.1% of landlords letting non-decent homes are prosecuted each year.
The Guardian revealed today that nine out of 10 local authorities failed to issue a single civil penalty notice against a landlord or letting agent last year. It is impossible to deny that the billions of pounds of cuts faced by local authorities have affected their ability to enforce through environmental health and trading standards. I accept the argument that we also need leadership in local authorities, but the extent of the cuts has been very significant and must inhibit what local authorities can do. The fines being so low means that there is neither a deterrent for bad landlords nor an incentive for councils to take action. We share the disappointment expressed by the Local Government Association and others that the Government ignored the Select Committee’s recommendations to improve enforcement through increased fines and powers.
The report was right to express concerns about the situation with landlord licensing schemes. I have seen the positive impact of such schemes in my own borough, where Croydon Council has issued more than 30,000 licences. It is wrong for the Secretary of State to hold a veto over councils wanting to tackle rogue landlords. The Secretary of State has blocked councils such as Redbridge from introducing borough-wide licensing. There is a clear contradiction: Ministers talk about standing up for renters, but their actions prove otherwise.
Let me turn to the imbalance in the private rented sector. The report is clear about the things that need to be done to make the rules fit for purpose and to ensure that they are enforced more, but there are deeper structural issues in the private rented sector. The Committee rightly points out that we cannot draw a clear line and say that there is a small minority of rogue landlords and everyone else is perfect. That would oversimplify the issue and ignore the structural problems that mean that a landlord does not have to be rogue or even breaking the law in any way to make tenants’ lives difficult. There is an imbalance that no court or enforcement authority can solve, because it is part of a system that is fundamentally skewed against private renters.
The system is stacked most heavily against those at the very bottom—that is clear. Permitted development and abuse of the local housing allowance in lockdown properties make a mockery of planning and welfare rules. That is a symptom of a broken housing market. We are failing so badly to build the homes that the country needs that the Government are essentially saying, “Anything will do.” Tenants, left with little or no choice, pay the price, but yet again the Government ignore the Committee’s valid recommendations on this topic.
We could talk more about what needs to be done about landlords refusing to rent to people on benefits. That issue comes up repeatedly in my constituency. I know that Shelter is trying to take some legal cases through the courts to affect that. I will not talk more about that now, but it really is heart-wrenching in constituency surgeries.
Retaliatory evictions are a real concern. They have been talked about today and were rightly raised by the Committee. When 44% of renters say that they will not negotiate over disrepair for fear of eviction, and when charities are having to warn people that raising a complaint might get them evicted, that is a structural failure in the system. We agree that the current protections are nowhere near robust enough to avoid retaliatory evictions or punitive rent rises. I have seen this happen to my own constituents, as we all have. Labour would go further than the Committee’s suggestion of extending the time limit for protecting tenants from section 21, which the Government seem not to be observing anyway. If we say that section 21 is unfair for those who have made a complaint, why do we accept it for those who have not complained? No-fault evictions are at the heart of the imbalance between tenants and landlords and should be scrapped entirely.
The Government have admitted that they need to do more. They say that they want to rebalance the relationship in the rented sector and give tenants access to redress. But given the record of the Government in relation to renters, people would be right to be sceptical. Consultations, calls for evidence or plans to introduce measures such as a housing court, ombudsman schemes or letting agent regulation are worth very little if they do not result in action. The Department has a bad record in terms of turning consultations into legislation: 185 housing consultations have been launched by the Department since 2010. Too often, consultation fails to translate into anything substantial.
The Government recently announced plans to look at introducing three-year minimum tenancies, which then appeared to be quietly dropped. There is little point in a housing court or ombudsman if tenants do not have rights to protect in the first place. The Department’s record on private renting so far has been to talk tough but under-deliver. The Government have blocked Labour’s proposals to amend the Tenant Fees Bill so that deposits could be capped at three weeks’ rent. As we have discussed, that would mean an average saving of £575 for tenants across England and £928 in London. The current six-week cap has the potential to cost tenants more: we know that the majority—more than 50%—of landlords charge four weeks’ rent as standard, so it would end up increasing people’s deposits and not saving them money.
As I was about to say, we would introduce three-year tenancies, and it would not be possible to increase rents above inflation over that period. It is a matter not of setting what the rent would be, but of people having more security in a tenancy and more ability to understand the level at which the increase would happen over that longer period.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should say that, because we are looking at developing our policies in this area and have also said that we want to scrap section 21. We need to look at how that would work and what the conditions would be. It is really important to stress, though, that we are not saying that people should have the right to remain in their home indefinitely if, for example, they are not paying their rent or are, in other ways, causing disruption or antisocial behaviour. That is absolutely not the point of what we want to do. There will always be a need for a landlord to be able to evict tenants who are not paying their rent or who, for whatever reason, should not be in the property.
We need to find the middle ground. At the moment, there is a problem, particularly in London, and I have seen it in Croydon. When we talk to renters organisations such as Generation Rent, they talk of a cycle whereby people are being evicted for no obvious reason. For example, a landlord might not be an expert landlord, as we have talked about. Someone may have inherited a property or have moved out of London. They might have a property and not really know what they are doing. They might decide to move back in or they might decide to do something else with the property. Then we have a group of people who are constantly having to move because they are being moved on through section 21 evictions, or we have people who cannot afford the rent increases, so they are also having to leave through section 21. An imbalance of power is our starting point when we are looking at policy development. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Is my hon. Friend basically saying that the proposal will be very similar to one that I think Shelter put before the Select Committee in 2013-14, which was to introduce three-year tenancies, with the rent in that period linked to some inflation measure so that there was a clear understanding by both landlord and tenant of how it would progress in the course of the tenancy? The other issue that we raised, which brings us back to the housing court idea, is that if that tenancy proposal happens, landlords do need a way reasonably quickly to get out a tenant who is not paying their rent. Having a housing court might be one way to enable that process to happen and to make landlords more comfortable with longer-term tenancies.
I thank my hon. Friend: I did not see Shelter’s evidence in 2013, but, yes, that sounds a reasonable way forward. The absolute starting point, as I said at the start of my contribution, is that we know that most landlords are good landlords. We are not trying to create a system in which they cannot function and cannot evict people when they need to; we are trying to create a system that is fair. The Labour Front-Bench team were fortunate to go to Berlin recently to see, as many people have, the system of renting that people have there and to look at some of the other models. There are lots of lessons to be learned from other countries.
I should make progress. The Guardian and ITV investigation into the private rented sector, which has been talked about and has forced a U-turn from the Prime Minister, is worrying. Despite the Government estimating that there are 10,000 rogue landlords, not a single name, at the time of that investigation, had been added to the database; that was in October, which was more than six months after its launch. One wonders what the point of a rogue landlord database is if the rogue landlords have not been identified. The Mayor of London’s database has more than 1,000 entries. I hope that the Government, through the Minister, can update us on where the rogue landlord database has got to today.
The Government announced that they would give £2 million to local authorities to take action against bad landlords, but that amounts to £6,000 per council. Meanwhile, the trading standards teams expected to enforce new legislation such as the Tenant Fees Bill have seen enforcement officer numbers go down by 56% since 2009. These teams have faced funding cuts of almost £100 million since 2010. Local authorities overall have had billions of pounds taken away from their budgets. In that context, £6,000 does not feel like enough.
The Opposition recognise that the scale of the challenge means we need a more radical response—a consumer rights revolution. We have a commitment to end unfair evictions. I am proud that my local authority, Croydon Council, was the first to pass a motion calling on the Government to scrap section 21. We have committed to give renters greater security, as we have just discussed, with a three-year cap on rent rises. We want to name and shame rogue landlords and introduce tougher fines for those who fail to meet minimum standards, with those fines funding local authority enforcement work. We would properly support landlord licensing. We also want to see greater powers for Mayors across the country to control rents, if appropriate, in high-cost areas such as London.
Inspired by the system in Germany, we have committed to spend millions to kick-start renters’ unions. I spent time at the Labour party conference talking about that with London Renters Union, which has helped many renters out of situations in which they would have struggled on their own. We want root-and-branch reform of the private rented sector. It is too dysfunctional for us to tinker around the edges. The end result of insecure tenancies, unsafe homes or extortionate rents is staring us all in the face. The end of a private tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness today. There are 1.6 million people in chronic debt, and 120,000 children will wake up tomorrow without a home. That is not to mention the extra 1 million people under the age of 35 who are unable to buy their own home and are forced to rent in the private rented sector. For all of their sakes we should reform the private rented sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank hon. Members from across the House for their considered speeches. I congratulate my friend, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on securing this debate. I thank him and all the members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for their inquiry into the private rented sector and for working with the Government to improve the lives of those living in it.
The private rented sector plays a vital role in providing homes across the country and is an integral element of the Government’s approach to making the housing market work for everyone. As we outlined in our response to the Committee’s inquiry, the sector has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not only has it grown to become the second largest tenure, but it also houses an increasingly diverse range of tenants. It is of great credit to those who deliver and support the private rented sector that it has managed to react to such change, and continues to drive forward improvements in quality, standards and safety.
I want to use this speech to reflect on the Committee’s report and outline some of the work the Government are delivering to ensure that everyone living in the private rented sector is able to build the life they desire. We agree with the vast majority of the Committee’s recommendations; where differences arise, they are of degree, not kind. Although I cannot cover everything in such a short time, I hope that hon. Members will see how the Government are pursuing a package of measures that will work together to improve the private rented sector. As the Committee cautioned in its report, the Government recognise that they cannot take a piecemeal approach to the sector—they must take a holistic approach to reform.
Successive Governments have shared the opinion that the rights and responsibilities that govern the private rented sector must be placed on a statutory footing. In its report, the Committee raised concerns that the volume of legislation covering the private rented sector could be creating a complex and challenging landscape to navigate, as we have heard again today.
Although the Government share the Committee’s desire for greater understanding, we do not feel that the legislation is in need of the type of root-and-branch reform that the Committee—or, indeed, the Labour party—suggests. Instead, we believe that the challenge for the Government is to help everyone understand the legislative foundations of the sector, to ensure that people can make the best use of these important protections. That is why we are structuring our work to address the key challenges that flow from our overarching objective, which is to rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants, to deliver a high-quality, fairer and more affordable private rented sector.
To achieve that aim, we need to address a number of interconnected challenges, which the Committee also highlighted in its report: affordability, property standards, enforcement, and the rights and responsibilities of landlords, agents and tenants. I want to use this debate to set out some of the work under way to drive improvements in the sector, how this work links together and the progress made since we responded to the Committee’s inquiry.
A lack of affordable rental property can mean that tenants are forced to accept substandard or unsafe accommodation. That is not a choice that we want anyone to face, so we are working hard to improve the private rented sector to ensure that no tenant faces that choice in the future. We believe that the key to improving choice and affordability for tenants is to build more homes for rent.
To answer the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), we want to build more homes. We want build to rent to continue to grow and make a significant contribution to housing supply. That is why the Government introduced the £1 billion build-to-rent fund and the £3.5 billion private rented sector guarantee scheme, to support thousands of extra homes built specifically for private rent. However, we also recognise that house building takes time. That is why we are working to improve affordability and conditions for tenants now.
We introduced the Tenant Fees Bill to protect tenants by capping tenancy deposits and banning unfair fees at the outset, renewal and termination of a tenancy. As well as helping tenants, the Bill will strengthen the hand of good landlords and agents across the UK by levelling the playing field, driving out rogue operators and ensuring that reputable landlords and are no longer undercut by those who overcharge.
Christopher Mullins-Silverstein, who works in our Whips Office, brought it to my attention that there are quite often disputes around leaving a tenancy. For example, he had to pay for cleaners before he was allowed to leave. The landlord then disputed the fact that the cleaners had been in and done a good job, and is withholding the deposit. He has to pay for additional cleaners plus the deposit, plus an exit fee. Those fees mount up and make it more and more difficult for people to move on to other tenancies, given all the debt that they accumulate.
Indeed, such stories are legion. That is why we brought in the Bill. Finishing a tenancy is very important and should be done incredibly carefully on both sides, so that that matter does not arise.
It is testament to the work of hon. Members from across the House that the Bill has been so well received and supported throughout its parliamentary journey. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield South East and the other members of Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee for their detailed prelegislative scrutiny, which served to strengthen the Bill. Although our commitment to improving affordability runs throughout our work, I know the Committee shares our commitment to improving property standards and safety.
I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for all her work in developing and progressing the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill. It is an excellent example of cross-party work, which will lead to meaningful progress and strengthen the private rented sector in the future. Under the provisions of the Bill, landlords will have to ensure that any dwelling they rent out is free of hazards, from which a risk of harm may arise to the health or safety of the tenant or another occupier of the property. Where a landlord fails to meet that requirement, their tenant will have the right to take action in the courts. The Bill will give the courts the power to order non-compliant landlords to take action to reduce or remove a hazard, and tenants will be able to seek compensation when landlords refuse to do so.
I will move on, because time is running out and there were so many questions from hon. Members for me to answer. I will do my very best, but if I do not manage to answer them today, I am sure I will be able to write to hon. Members later.
When it comes to the housing health and safety rating scheme—I can never say the acronym HHSRS, which I hate—the Government are explicit that one person in an unsafe home is one too many. We understand the scale of the challenge. We are taking steps to ensure that central Government set out the appropriate standards and that local authorities have the tools they need to enforce these standards. The housing health and safety rating scheme has been around since 2004, and everybody has said that it is very complicated, so we recommend a review. It is the right time to look at it, so we need to put that into practice to see how it needs to be updated. That fits nicely with the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, which I hope will finish its progress and become an Act shortly.
We are also acting to improve safety. In line with the Committee’s recommendations, we have announced the introduction of mandatory five-yearly checks on electrical installations in the private rented sector. We will introduce legislation for those mandatory checks as soon as parliamentary time allows. We will also give the Government response to the consultation before Christmas. We expect the outcomes of the scoping review for the HHSRS next spring—[Interruption.] I know, I got it that time. The second stage, which will also be set out in the scoping review, will follow. We expect the outcome of the review on carbon monoxide shortly, then we expect to consult on the proposed changes. An announcement on the next steps will also be made shortly.
On lockdown properties, it is absolutely unacceptable that a minority of rogue landlords exploit the housing system by converting their properties into tiny, unsuitable self-contained units so they can get a higher rate of housing benefit or rent and try to avoid the HMO licensing requirements. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions are analysing evidence of the relationship between housing benefit, housing tenure and quality. We are committed to working together to understand how we can make best use of our financial levers and existing powers to support tenants and improve the quality of housing, while ensuring value for money.
Many hon. Members have talked about the housing court, which we are very interested in taking forward. Both landlords and tenants have raised concerns about it. Effective and efficient access to the courts is vital for landlords and tenants who wish to challenge bad practice. When all the other options have been exhausted, landlords should be able to recover their properties when they have reason to do so and tenants should live in the knowledge that the court system should protect and support them where needed and not leave them lost in a sea of legal confusion.
We hope the Committee welcomes our recently launched call for evidence, which will gather views on user experience of the courts and how it could be improved. Building on the Committee’s recommendations, our proposals explore whether a specialist housing court would make it easier for all users to resolve disputes, reduce delays and secure justice for landlords and tenants in housing cases. That work not only speaks to the court experience, but cuts across the Committee’s concerns about retaliatory eviction and is a key consideration in our work on longer tenancies.
To be specific, the call for evidence on the housing court was launched on 13 November and closes on 22 January, so it is a work in progress. It is designed to understand the correct use and experience of the courts, so I am looking forward to seeing the evidence put before us when it closes.
On retaliatory eviction and section 21, our position is clear. No tenant with a genuine complaint about the condition of their property should be fearful of retaliatory eviction, which is why we have already taken steps on the matter by legislating to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction through the Deregulation Act 2015. We are also aware that the vast majority of landlords provide well-maintained properties and that, thankfully, only a small number of tenants encounter the threat of retaliatory eviction.
As set out in our recent letter to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, despite the rarity of the practice, our commitment to protecting tenants against retaliatory eviction is undimmed—what a great word; well done to my officials for writing that. We share the Committee’s position that the Government must ensure that tenants are properly protected from that, which is why we have included the consideration of retaliatory eviction in our consultation on the barriers to longer tenancies, to ensure that we have the most up-to-date information to inform our thinking.
The consultation on longer tenancies closed at the end of August—not that long ago—and stakeholder events were held in September. We are analysing the responses and we will respond shortly. We had a large number of responses—more than 8,000—and it is important to consider them fully, and align them with the workload of our experience in the courts. Considering the volume of responses is no small feat. We are working to provide the Government response to the consultation in due course.
I will move on—I appreciate that I have to leave two minutes for my good friend, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, to close the debate. Local authority capacity and enforcement has been a key point of the debate. From my experience in local government, I know the vital role that local authorities play in the private rented sector, particularly in enforcement. The Committee called on the Government to support local authorities to make best use of the powers available to them, and to go further, and that is what we are going to do. We have designed our enforcement tools to allow local authorities to retain the financial penalties they raise and drive them back into their teams to fund future enforcement activity, exactly as Torbay has done. Torbay has been extremely successful in enforcement work and receiving fines—indeed, it has employed another officer on the back of the fines that it has already received.
Committee members will clearly also be pleased to hear that we have launched a £2 million fund to support local authorities with their enforcement work. That upfront boost will allow local authorities to grow and refine their approach. The funding came as a direct response to my Department’s engagement with local authorities across the country at our roadshow events throughout the summer. In response, we are creating a compendium of enforcement guidance that will bring all the relevant guidance into one place, along with templates. That will form part of our national training offer to local authorities. Equipped with effective powers and armed with guidance and support, local authorities will become ever more effective in targeting their work to remove bad landlords and protect tenants.
I am running out of time, so I thank all hon. Members for an excellent debate. The way parliamentary time works means that, in effect, it has been six months since the work, and it is great that other stuff has been able to come to fruition in that time. I hope my remarks demonstrate the Government’s commitment to building a private rented sector that works for everyone, that supports good landlords to deliver the homes the nation needs and that provides safe, secure and affordable homes for tenants.
We do not shy away from the challenges facing us and we are aware that we need to support the entire private rented sector if we are going to achieve these goals—taking on Airbnb, if necessary. It is in that spirit that I thank hon. Members for their speeches and questions. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Sheffield South East and the other members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in the weeks and months to come.
Everyone would agree that it has been an excellent debate on the report, and that the report has generally been welcomed. I should have referred to the fact that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, which should be on the formal record. As well as thanking hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, I thank members of the Select Committee. As the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, as usual we produced our report with a unanimous recommendation, having considered the evidence before us. That is how we try to work.
It is true that the majority of landlords do a good job and offer good premises to tenants, who are satisfied with their homes. Our report focused on the bad landlords who really need tougher action to be taken against them. We welcome many of the steps that the Government have taken, but we want to push them further.
We recognise that there is an issue of resources for local authorities—I think the Committee will look again at local government funding in the new year—and, of course, of available properties. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) pushed the idea to the Minister of build to rent, which is absolutely right. We also need more social housing. There is also an issue of political will for enforcement at local authority level, which we referred to. We are looking forward to the LGA’s response to the Government about benchmarking.
It is a pleasure to have the Minister back in her place; we all welcome her. She answered many of the points we raised, but I have noted that we did not get an absolute response to some in the time available. We will write to her next week about them. I thank the Government. We will continue to monitor their progress on our important recommendations and their actual actions on them—not just the words, but the action we want to see in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Private rented sector, HC 440, and the Government response, Cm 9639.
International Men’s Day
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Men’s Day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I start by thanking the many colleagues from all parties in the House who supported the application for this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for finding the time for it as close to International Men’s Day as possible.
I am sorry that the debate is not in the main Chamber and that we have been put back into Westminster Hall, but that is certainly not the fault of the Backbench Business Committee, which tried to make it happen in the main Chamber. The debate was actually allocated time in the main Chamber, but unfortunately the Government did not allocate the time for the Backbench Business Committee to hold it. I certainly do not blame the Backbench Business Committee; I am actually very grateful to it for finding an alternative date, namely today.
I also thank once again all the many people who have been in touch with me to tell me their story or to put forward their organisation’s point of view. I am very grateful to them all for taking the time.
International Men’s Day was actually on 19 November, and for most people I should imagine that it was a case of blinking and missing it. That is why I feel that this debate is important. International Men’s Day does not receive anything like the coverage that International Women’s Day does. As I have said in previous debates, the aims of International Men’s Day are admirable. Its objectives are:
“To promote positive male role models…To celebrate men’s positive contributions…To focus on men’s health and wellbeing…To highlight discrimination against men”—
that includes highlighting the inequalities that men and boys face—
“To improve gender relations and promote gender equality”
“To create a safer, better world”
for everyone. It is worth reiterating those aims, as they provide a focus for what International Men’s Day is trying to achieve.
There is so much that I could say today that it is very hard to know where to start. As I have said before, there are many areas where I think the plight of men is ignored or minimised, and many areas where men are certainly treated differently from women. I will concentrate on the things that I feel need to be pointed out, which others will perhaps not mention today. That way, we can ensure that we cover a wide range of subjects in the debate.
I start with the issue of domestic violence. I will keep mentioning the unrecognised male victims of domestic violence in this type of debate, especially as the issue can—tragically—sometimes lead to suicide, which, as has been said during these debates many times, disproportionately affects men.
One message I have received that links these things together was from someone who said they had been suicidal in the past. They wrote to me and said:
“Thank you so very much for all that you have done for equality by calling attention to Men’s rights issues. I have only recently…discovered the men’s rights campaign after seeing a 2011 episode of the US Talk show, ‘The Talk’, in which a majority female panel and audience mercilessly jested at the idea of a brutally violent sex crime in the news, purely because it had been committed against a man.
To see how that, and other things, was acceptable made me want to give up.
Earlier this year I was suicidal. I’ve contemplated it several times before, but have never come so close.
Without exaggeration of ego, I can tell you that you have saved my life.”
An episode of “The Jeremy Kyle Show”, which was along the same lines as the TV show that I have just mentioned, was recently brought to my attention. A woman was explaining that her partner had gone to the bathroom and she discovered that he was cheating on her. She said that when he came out of the bathroom, she hit him in the face. The audience laughed, then clapped and then whooped with delight. That is the reaction of the public to domestic violence against a man. If attitudes need to change, then it is these attitudes that should be at the top of the list. Can people imagine what the reaction would have been if that had been a man admitting to hitting a woman in the face?
Yet that was not an isolated incident. There are many examples of these attitudes to male victims of domestic violence, which to me is like everyday sexism towards men. The crime survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics showed that in the year ending March 2017 more women than men thought it was acceptable to hit or slap a partner if they had been having an affair or cheated. That paints an uncomfortable picture for those who want to portray domestic violence as purely a male problem. Is it any wonder that men are less likely to come forward to be counted and report abuse, especially if that is the social reaction to such violence?
One man who contacted me said:
“My mental ill health started affecting me as far back as 2010 when I was in a relationship with an abusive ex-girlfriend. I was frequently hit, had my bank account drained of money and was often locked in a bedroom with no way of getting out. I got out of the relationship, but it did have a dramatic effect on my own mental health and wellbeing.”
Later on, he was assisted by the Richmond Fellowship, which I believe is a national mental health charity, and he actually ended up working for it. He says:
“Without the support of Richmond Fellowship and Cambridge 105 Radio, I wouldn’t be here now sharing this story.”
This is just one example of a man suffering domestic abuse. On the positive side, it also shows that there are people and organisations out there that can and do help.
Nothing highlights more starkly the apparent lack of concern for male victims of domestic abuse than the Equal Treatment Bench Book, which is used in the courts—by magistrates, for example. It should be renamed, given that its section on domestic abuse has nothing “equal” about it at all. It refers to the number of women killed each week by a current or former partner, without making any mention at all of the men murdered or abused by their current or former partners. It also says:
“There are a number of significant reasons why women do not leave dangerous partners, including safety”.
What about men? That is a Ministry of Justice publication, for goodness’ sake. I fail to see how publications such as this help magistrates to abide by their sworn oath that they will
“do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”
Interestingly, within further breakdowns of domestic abuse figures there are some noteworthy facts that an Equal Treatment Bench Book should perhaps have taken into consideration. For example, according to the crime survey by the ONS for the year ending March 2017, the number of black African men who have suffered domestic abuse is more than double the number of black African women who have suffered such abuse, at a rate of 8.7 per 100 for such men compared with 4.2 per 100 for such women. In the white Irish category, men are four and a half times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than women, at a rate of 8.2 per 100 of the population for such men compared with 1.8 for such women. There is so much more that could be said about the Equal Treatment Bench Book, but I will resist the temptation to go down that route today.
I move on to the issue of women and men in prison. I have covered this problem in the justice system on many occasions and highlighted the clear bias in favour of women at every stage, yet there are still people who do not want to see any women at all being sent to prison. Setting aside the fact that it is very hard for a woman actually to get sent to prison in the first place, those so-called equality supporters are just showing their true colours. It would almost be easy to confine their comments to the loony bin of thinking if it was not for the unbelievable fact that the Ministry of Justice appears somehow to have been hypnotised by these idiotic suggestions.
The Government’s recently launched strategy on female offenders is completely wrong-headed. One of the justifications for its lily-livered approach to female offenders was said to be that female prisoners were often victims of domestic violence. Having recently tabled parliamentary questions, I can confirm something that people might not expect: there are two and a half times more men than women in prison who have suffered domestic abuse. That is the fact of the matter. In the latest figures, which relate to 30 June 2017, the Ministry of Justice says that 1,626 female prisoners had been the victim of domestic abuse. On the same day, there were 4,146 male prisoners in the same position. Again, that might be an inconvenient truth to the Ministry of Justice, but it is the reality, based on the Ministry’s own statistics.
In another irony, the same parliamentary questions revealed that nearly one in five female prisoners—18%—is a perpetrator of domestic violence. You couldn’t make it up: the Ministry of Justice’s strategy is based in part on women being the victims of domestic abuse, yet the beneficiaries of the policy could well have committed domestic abuse themselves.
All these noises about female offenders, saying how a different approach is needed to deal with women, are supposed to be in the name of equality, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is one of the most blatantly sexist, discriminatory things that is happening under our very noses. I should say, before the Ministry of Justice suggest it, that the solution is not letting out male prisoners and rehabilitating them in the community as well, to make it a level playing field. All those people are criminals, and the solution is to make sure that we keep them in prison.
I also want to touch on male circumcision: male genital mutilation. According to a barrister’s opinion, carrying out circumcision on males when there is no medical need—non-therapeutic circumcision—is a crime under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, being at least actual bodily harm if not grievous bodily harm. In 1983, Lord Hailsham, the then Lord Chancellor, said of female genital mutilation:
“in the case of a minor under the age of 16, there is no possibility that consent is any defence at all. A minor under the age of 16 is not able to consent to the commission upon her of a criminal assault. Neither parental consent nor the consent of the minor would be any defence at all, and if the parents did such a thing, or instigated such a thing or participated in such a thing, it would only render them liable to criminal penalties, too.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 April 1983; Vol. 441, c. 677.]
When I put it to the Government in 2016 that female genital mutilation was already illegal before specific laws on the subject were introduced, they agreed that it was. When I then put to them the position regarding boys, they took a different line. They quoted Sir James Munby, who was the president of the Family Division of the High Court, in a case of January 2015:
“Whereas it can never be reasonable parenting to inflict any form of FGM on a child, the position is quite different with male circumcision. Society and the law, including family law, are prepared to tolerate non-therapeutic male circumcision performed for religious or even for purely cultural or conventional reasons, while no longer being willing to tolerate FGM in any of its forms.”
As the former barrister who I mentioned earlier also said, it would require a parliamentary override for male circumcision to be legal, and that has never existed. No exemptions to the law of the land are permissible for religious or cultural reasons.
The Ministry of Justice went on to say that there was no doubt that female genital mutilation could have a physical and psychological impact on women, and also said that some girls die as a result of the procedure, which is absolutely correct. I do not pretend to be an expert in this field, but I believe that boys have also been reported to have died following a circumcision, and I have seen accounts of the physical and psychological impact of circumcision on men.
I understand that the position of the NHS is that the risks associated with routine circumcision, such as infection and excessive bleeding, outweigh any potential benefits. I am mentioning all this because I believe it should be on the record, not least because of the very different approaches to male and female genital mutilation. The Government said back in 2016 that they had no current plans to change the law in relation to male circumcision. Given everything I have said, there may be no need to change the law to bring about a change in male circumcisions. However, I would be particularly interested to hear from the Minister on that point.
I also want to touch on parental alienation. Men are clearly disadvantaged when it comes to family breakdowns and how children are allocated after those breakdowns. Women are more likely to get custody of the children and, as has been noted on many occasions, men really do draw the short straw in these instances. Parental alienation is a topic that requires much more time than can be given to it today, but I want to put on record how concerned I am about what is a growing problem in this country. For those not familiar with parental alienation, it is what it sounds like: parents being alienated from their children, usually by the other parent, to the detriment of that parent and the children. In my view, it is a form of child abuse. It can happen for all kinds of reasons, and in some cases it is clearly right that parents are kept away from their children—for example, when there are genuine safety concerns. However, parents—when I say “parents”, it is usually men, in reality—are being kept from their children without justification.
One solution is more use of child contact centres. I recently visited Bingley contact centre in my constituency, which is run out of Bingley Baptist church. It is one of the centres under the umbrella of the National Association of Child Contact Centres, which says that more than 1 million children have no contact whatever with one parent or another after separation. I want to place on record my thanks to everybody who works at the Bingley contact centre. They are all volunteers, and they give up their time week in, week out to make sure that parents get to see their children and—just as importantly, if not more importantly—that those children get to see their parents. It is fantastic to see the reaction of the children when they see the parent who has previously been alienated from them. These centres are meant to be a temporary solution, and they work to give—mainly—fathers the chance to get back into their children’s lives. There is a waiting list for that service in Bingley, and no doubt in other places around the country. That is a shame, as the more fathers who can see their children, the better.
I mentioned everyday sexism against men earlier in relation to domestic violence, but there are plenty more cases that need to be challenged. People may recall the absolute hoo-hah over the Presidents Club charity event. That men-only event was derided because the hostesses were asked to wear certain clothes, and a lap dance was given as a prize. I am sure we remember that all hell broke loose when that event was reported. Even the millions raised for good causes, including Great Ormond Street Hospital, were under threat of being returned in disgust.
Fast-forward a few months, and the Daily Mail featured an article about 11 old ladies who invited their daughters and granddaughters to their nursing home for a performance by Hunks in Trunks, complete with numerous pictures of male dancers in the buff, with no trunks in sight. That was of course hilarious, and not seedy at all: women ogling men, women touching men—and those men had far fewer clothes on than the women who were at the Dorchester hotel for that charity dinner, I can assure you, Mr Bailey.
If that had been a bunch of male pensioners doing that with women with no clothes on, apart from a scrap of material, I am pretty sure that the reaction in the newspapers would have been very different. The papers certainly would not have been reporting the story in such a glib fashion. I accept that the events are not totally comparable, but there are plenty of other, similar examples of how we treat men and women differently. Adverts that apparently objectify women do not, it seems, do the same for men.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman almost admitted at the end of his remarks that the two situations are not comparable. Does he not see the difference between essentially forcing women to look and dress a certain way as part of their job to please men, and a person having a job where they take their clothes off for a living?
I see the hon. Lady’s point, and I absolutely accept it. I just hope that when the papers report a similar event in reverse, she will say, “Well, that is absolutely fine.” I do not think the reports would have been the same if male pensioners had been doing to women what those female pensioners were doing to men, but if the hon. Lady is saying that she would treat both exactly the same, that is fine; that is all I ask in this particular instance. I just doubt that that would have been the general reaction.
To show how ridiculous these things are, I was recently accused of sexism, and I could not for the life of me think what the lady who complained was talking about until she explained. I had sent her an email in response to her message to me following the mass misreporting that I had blocked the Bill to deal with upskirting, when, in fact, as the Speaker confirmed afterwards, I had done nothing of the sort. I said I was
“sorry people just act like a herd without knowing the facts.”
She tweeted that I had sent her a sexist message. I was dumbfounded because I could not work out what on earth was sexist about that line. When I inquired, she sent me an email back saying that by referring to the words “people” and “herd” it sounded as though I was referring to women as cows. That is how ridiculous the situation has got. You literally could not make it up.
Then we have the pay gap, which is reported in such a way as to be sexist against men. Although the whole thing is a nonsense from start to finish—I suspect most people who complain about the pay gap have not got even the first idea how it is calculated—it seems that a pay gap against women is totally unacceptable and yet a pay gap against men is apparently a good thing—at least, it seems to be, according to organisations such as the Parliamentary Digital Service. On Parliament’s own website, on the release of its figures, it states:
“In the Parliamentary Digital Service...the mean pay gap was -5.21%. The median pay gap was revealed to be -4.16%. This negative gap”—
the fact that men are paid less than women on average in that department—
“illustrates that women have a pay lead in terms of both mean and median hourly pay over men.”
The director of the Parliamentary Digital Service said:
“I am delighted that this first set of gender pay data is so encouraging for women in our organisation and I am proud to lead an organisation which is committed to ensuring equality and diversity in staff, including gender equality.”
So it seems the politically correct belief is that a pay gap is OK if it is against men. That cannot be right. We surely should not want a pay gap at all. Any pay gap must be wrong. We have a part-time pay gap in the UK that has persistently favoured women over men. I never hear anybody complaining about the part-time pay gap in this country, but we have to treat these things equally. If a pay gap is wrong, it is wrong. One cannot be right and one wrong. We can all agree with that.
This is one of the myths that has taken on an untouchable status as evidence of discrimination against women, when it is nothing of the kind, particularly given that the pay gap is not about paying someone less for the same job, which is already illegal. I wish that normally intelligent people would grasp that and do more to expose this issue for the sham that it is.
Yet again there are many more issues that I would like to cover today, but I do not have time. We have blatant discrimination against men in businesses, organisations and politics, where we are hellbent on having more women. No care is given to how that is achieved, so we now have positive discrimination, which is, as it says, discrimination. People think, not without justification, that women have been discriminated against in the past, but rather than thinking the solution is to remove that discrimination, it seems their agenda is to try to reverse it and say, “We want you to be discriminated against in the way that we were for all those years.” That kind of revenge tactic is what positive discrimination is. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) laughs, but women-only shortlists, which she may have been a beneficiary of, discriminate against men. She thinks it is funny, but the people of Blaenau Gwent did not think it was funny when Labour lost one of its safest seats in 2005 simply because it had imposed a women-only shortlist and denied a good local man with impeccable local credentials the chance of standing. He stood as an independent and won the seat, which had been one of Labour’s safest seats in the country. That indicates the hon. Lady is probably slightly out of touch with working-class Labour voters around the country.
What amuses me is how out of touch the hon. Gentleman is when he talks about the hoo-hah over girls as young as 18 years old being forced to wear short skirts and high heels to serve men. He talks about the “untouchable status” of women when we try to get some balance and equality into the system. Without all-women shortlists, this House would not be as diverse as it is, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has taken offence at.
I do not really want to get into women-only shortlists, apart from saying that they clearly discriminate against men. There are only two possible reasons to have a women-only shortlist: either the women standing are not as good as the men and therefore need positive discrimination to help them, or the Labour party selection committee is so sexist it would choose a worse man than a better woman. If the hon. Lady believes the Labour party is stuffed with sexists who would choose a worse man than a better woman, I will not disagree with her, but it is hardly a ringing endorsement of people running the Labour party up and down the country. I will not even go on to the barmy idea that our stretched police forces should now extend the list of hate incidents—not even hate crimes—that they spend time on to cover misogyny and maybe misandry, but, in all likelihood, just misogyny.
I hope that the issues I have covered are different from those that others will speak about in this debate. I think the world really has gone mad at times, which is why I am glad that we can have these debates to discuss the variety of issues affecting men. As I have said before, nothing I say on this subject should be controversial in a normal world, yet people who have read or seen things about me might get the impression that I have somehow been unbelievably controversial in simply asking for men to be treated exactly the same as women. It is apparently sexist to ask that men are treated the same as women, but I do not think it is.
Finally, one clear message that I would like to go out today is that men should not feel alone. Whatever their problem, there are people out there who can see their point of view and can help. We politicians are not all blind to the problems that men face, and I hope that men feel reassured that they have a voice in Parliament on all issues and not just those that fit certain politically correct agendas. Also, the vast majority of women out there agree with common sense rather than the politically correct dogma that many people in this House give them as they claim to represent their interests. Together I hope we can make this country a better place for men and women, so they can live together equally happily, being treated the same and not differently simply because of their gender.
Before I call the next speaker, may I make it clear that I want to call the Front-Bench spokesperson at 4 o’clock? You can do the arithmetic as well as I can. If all speakers on the Back Benches take that into consideration, I will be grateful.
I am afraid my arithmetic is not as good as yours, Mr Bailey, but I have a fairly short speech. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I would like to have said it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and it is good to know that his sense of grievance is alive and kicking.
I know International Men’s Day was earlier this month, but we are debating it today. According to its UK website, the day
“provides a fantastic opportunity...to...Highlight some serious issues affecting men and boys and their wellbeing...Make a difference to men and boys’ lives....Celebrate...men and boys in all their diversity...Have some serious fun”.
The day is overseen by six volunteers who are involved in a range of British charities and academia, and all of us should be grateful to them for the hard work that has gone into the day.
I want to start by highlighting one of the serious issues affecting boys and men: mental health and wellbeing. There have been many suicides within my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw in the past year. As a community we felt helpless, frustrated and confused, and have looked for someone to blame. In our communities the trauma has had a ripple effect, which is still going on. Many departments and agencies have supported our communities and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you. I should say that all the suicides were of young men.
I know from meetings with Chris’s House, Families and Friends against Murder and Suicide, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and North Lanarkshire Council’s suicide prevention team that much proactive work is already being carried out on suicide. The big question that remains unanswered is why so many people, especially young men, choose to end their lives. Unfortunately it is in the nature of suicide that many questions remain unanswered. Deprivation, life traumas and mental illness can be key factors, but not everyone is known to agencies before attempting or completing suicide. Men aged 34 to 54 are more likely to complete suicide, and that may often be due to men being less likely to talk about their feelings and mental health. The age group in question is most likely to suffer relationship breakdowns resulting in decreased income, child maintenance payments or turning to drugs or alcohol, which can lead to the stigma of unemployment or homelessness.
The players of Scottish premiership football club Motherwell wear suicide prevention logos on their shirts. Players have made a video to encourage men to open up and talk about their feelings. Suicide prevention helpline numbers are displayed throughout the stadium. MPs need to speak openly about the issues and encourage our constituents to do the same. All my staff have had “safe talk” training, so as to be able to spot the indicators, encourage difficult conversations and signpost for help. Those interventions can save lives. In Scotland one in 10 people at any time is having suicidal thoughts. Thankfully the majority do not act on them, and many seek help. The Scottish Government have poured money into suicide prevention. We are all concerned for our communities and should be suicide-alert.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Shipley suggested, I am going to talk about domestic abuse, which knows no boundaries of gender, culture, class, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or belief. It continues increasingly to affect people in LGBTI+ relationships, members of ethnic minority groups and men. It remains under-recognised, under-acknowledged and under-funded in the communities in question. In my constituency I work with Sacro and Fearless, both of which have received lottery funding. Fearless reaches out to those people who are less inclined to seek access to domestic abuse services. It offers practical support in getting access to a range of supports including housing and health services, and support appropriate to inclusion with someone’s community. Fearless recognises that men too are increasingly victims and survivors of domestic abuse. I thank Nikki Beardsmore and her team for their work in that area.
Male role models are important to young men and boys, and not everyone is as lucky as my two sons were. It was the greatest tribute that my younger son could give his father when he said that his dad’s legacy was the way he brought up his three children, and that he wanted to do the same with his family. Role models are what boys who do not have good dads need. That is why it is important that men in public life—especially first-class sportsmen—take cognisance of the fact that young men and boys adulate and mimic their behaviours. My father was a typical Scot who did not share his feelings and who harboured suicidal thoughts as a result of his war experiences. It affected his entire life thereafter and he only once talked about his service. We need to break away from that stereotypical male buttoned-up approach to mental health and emotions. Men need to be more like women.
Last Saturday I hosted an evening with some girlfriends. We met at 6 and were still talking at 11.30 when male drivers arrived to pick up their partners. We discussed our health, children and experiences of work. I of course do not have a proper job. I am something of an object of curiosity to those friends, who have known me a long time. They find my status as MP quite puzzling. My point is that we talked and shared experiences. I got a lot out of the evening and I hope my friends did too. I know that that close circle will help to sustain me through difficult times. For International Men’s Day I hope that many men will change the habit of a lifetime, open up to those close to them and enjoy what women have known for centuries—the fact that a problem shared is a problem halved.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. It is also a great pleasure to speak in this debate, whose equivalent I had the honour of leading last year. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke then, and I am grateful for his remarks today, and for those of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I entirely agree with her that it is extremely important to have a circle of friends such as she described. I recall a time when I was in business, living overseas, and the business was going through a particularly difficult time. The opportunity to share that not just with my wife but with friends was hugely important. Having that ability is important for people who are under the weight of difficulties such as potentially having to make people redundant, and who cannot see a particular way out.
I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said about the many different areas in which we need equality. For reasons of time I shall not dwell on the issues that have already been covered. Suffice to say that male suicide is an incredibly important issue for us to address. One might say it is a public health issue, but it is more than that. It is a personal issue affecting families throughout the country. It affects children, parents and circles of friends.
I am going to concentrate on the international aspect of International Men’s Day. I had the privilege of visiting the refugee camp at Calais in January and I saw some of the young people, who are almost—not entirely—exclusively young men. They had made their way up to Calais in the hope of reaching the United Kingdom. I spoke to one or two of them and, interestingly, although one would think most would have come from the middle east because of the conflict there, most actually came from countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Nigeria. What struck me—and it is something I have been passionate about for most of my working life, including in this place—was the need for jobs and livelihoods, which applies to everyone, men and women. We are fortunate to have a relatively low unemployment level in this country, even among young people, although it is still too high. I was in Kosovo a couple of months ago to discuss with its Government ways they could tackle their youth unemployment figure. There—in a European country—60% of young people have no job. I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges facing the world at the moment is ensuring that young men and women around the world have the chance of a job or livelihood.
That is why, together with others, I have tried to form a global coalition for youth employment. I was speaking with the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, about that very issue just a week ago. She is passionate about it. It is not just a question of economic development and the creation of jobs—important though that is; it goes right back to education in primary and secondary schools, and to ensuring that boys and girls have the education and training in life skills to enable them to get work and have a livelihood in the future. That applies to both boys and girls, and to young men and women. However, I would say that because so much of young men’s identity is invested in their work as well as their family, it is absolutely vital for them.
I want to challenge not just our Government and our country but global organisations and national Governments across the world to take this issue seriously. Some of them are, but unfortunately an awful lot are not—they are perhaps concentrating on the needs of the better-off in their country. They are listening to the people with the loudest voices, not to the young men and women who absolutely need jobs and livelihoods for their future.
I shall give just a few examples of what can be done. I have already mentioned education. As we have heard, there needs to be much more mentoring so that people with experience, skills and compassion can talk to young men and women about their future, and feel that they are being listened to. That needs funding—I do not mean lots of grants giving out money with little accountability; I am talking about loans. The small business loan scheme, for instance, has been a great success in helping young men and women set up their own businesses in this country, but around the world young men and women do not have access to that kind of capital. I declare a personal interest in that, having been involved for a number of years in setting up a social enterprise in leasing in east Africa. We see young men and women entering work, whereas previously they were not able to.
Let us not beat around the bush: in this country, often it is young men who want to acquire practical skills. Young women do as well, but it is more often young men, particularly at the age of 16. We sometimes find that training and practical skills are not available to them because there is greater emphasis on the academic route, and that is the case not just in this country but around the world. I have seen some excellent programmes, supported by the Department for International Development in places such as Nepal and Nigeria, where there have been opportunities for young men and women to pick up those practical skills. There needs to be much more of that—the idea of training in these skills is often lost in the drive for university education and academic education, because everybody sees that as the way forward.
I want to celebrate International Men’s Day and the role that young men and boys—as well as young women and girls—play in this country, but let us also remember that we need to address this internationally and encourage countries across the world to celebrate this day and the role that equality for boys, girls, young men and young women can play in their development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I commend the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing the debate. He has raised many issues, each of which is probably worthy of long debate. It is difficult in a debate like this one, which is quite short, to have the conversations that we really want to have.
I am feminist, and I have two sons. They have brought issues to me while growing up, and we have always talked about equality. We are going back a generation—my sons are in their early 40s. I remember one coming home from school and saying to me, “It’s not fair—the girls have a special room where they can go at lunchtime, and boys don’t have one.” Girls who had their period or were not feeling well were allowed to go to that room and have some quiet time, which I tried to explain to my sons. Should schoolchildren—whether boys or girls—not feel well, they should have a room where they can sit down quietly. That is just sensible.
We have to be careful about our language and ensure that people who have an audience, such as those in the media, think about what they are saying. Another issue was picked up just last year. My son and I were listening to the radio—something was going on in Coventry—and the presenter commented on some men’s “wonderful six-packs”. My son was appalled and said, “What if that was a man on there, talking about what big breasts someone had?” We have to be careful about the language that we use, especially in the media and in newspapers, although we cannot often control what happens there, and people will always read what they want to.
International Men’s Day is designed to highlight some extremely important issues—none more so than men’s mental health and tackling male suicide. I want to focus on those issues, and this debate gives me the opportunity to do so. I will always take the opportunity to talk about it.
Last year, suicide rates among men in the UK were at their lowest for more than 30 years. While that is, of course, extremely encouraging, we must not overlook the underlying statistics, which show that there were 5,821 suicides in the UK last year. Of those, 4,383 were male suicides, which means that more than three quarters of people who took their own lives were men—the rate was 15.5 suicides per 100,000 men. One such death is one too many. Those statistics lay bare the scale of the crisis in men’s mental health, and they also highlight how essential it is for us to continue to target expertise and resources at understanding the causes of male suicide and trying to prevent it.
Why is suicide such a highly gendered occurrence? We know that mental health issues can affect anyone and are caused by a number of factors, including bereavement, unemployment, finance and debt issues, family and relationship problems—as has been said already—social isolation, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol issues, and many other personal factors. It is not that men are necessarily more susceptible to these mental health triggers; societal expectations have shaped men’s behaviour in how they deal with—or, more accurately, how they fail to deal with—their emotions, feelings and wellbeing when confronted by them.
The malign influence of masculine conditioning—it shapes the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, traits and behaviours that society expects of them—demands that rather than talk about their emotions and how they feel in times of difficulty or crisis, men should instead be silent, manly and strong. That social and emotional disconnectedness simply adds to men’s vulnerability and contributes to a higher rate of suicide across the male population.
How do we tackle this problem? Part of the answer is to reduce the stigma around men’s mental health and to encourage men to open up and seek help when they are struggling or feeling in despair. In Coventry, the encouragement and the conversations are being initiated by the award-winning mental health awareness and suicide prevention campaign, “It Takes Balls to Talk”. It is the brainchild of mental health nurse Alex Cotton, who is my constituent.
The campaign is a public information programme targeted at male-dominated sporting venues across Coventry and Warwickshire, which uses sporting themes to raise awareness of mental health support services and seeks to reduce male suicide by encouraging men to talk about their feelings. Since its launch more than two years ago, “It Takes Balls to Talk” has played a vital role in breaking down the barriers that prevent men from initiating conversations about their mental health and wellbeing, and from positively engaging with mental health services in my local area. Such targeted initiatives promote positive mental health and make a lasting difference. That is why I am extremely proud of what the campaign has achieved so far and of the work it does across my city and Warwickshire. It is why I support it wholeheartedly.
I want to conclude by encouraging any men affected by a mental health issue not to bottle it up. Those are wise words for anyone. Talk to a friend, a colleague or a family member. Contact Mind, the Samaritans or “It Takes Balls to Talk”. They need to know that there are always people and organisations out there who will listen and offer practical help, advice and support. After all, you know what they say—it has just been said: a problem shared is a problem halved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. It is great to be here to celebrate International Men’s Day. I know a lot of lovely men and the international ones are my particular favourites. I am very fond of modern European men, although sadly ardent Brexiteers do not seem to share my enthusiasm.
In these days of the #MeToo movement, we are hearing thousands more women’s voices that used to be silent. We have women demanding they are not paid less for the same or similar jobs as men, and women seeking to do their jobs without worrying about being groped or sexually assaulted by their boss. We have women who want to be able to go where they choose and wear what they choose without being attacked and then blamed for it. We hear a lot from women now. Thank goodness for today’s opportunity for men to stand up and demand those rights, too.
Some men who have long enjoyed the easy comforts of a patriarchal society feel threatened by more women having a say. Their own voice is no longer dominant and their privilege is no longer secure. They are left in a state of confusion by this politically correct agenda. They do not know what is acceptable to say or do around women anymore, now that they may have to account for their actions. They cannot even trust other men to laugh at their sexist locker room banter—too many metrosexuals around nowadays! The feminist agenda is seeking to enforce the radical notion that women are equal human beings, and those men’s grip on power has loosened.
Still, there is not too much for the privileged male to worry about just yet. Modern Britain is a long way from gender equality and old stalwarts such as those in the legal profession are keeping the side up. White, privately educated men are still far more likely to rise to the top across the old professions and we have the lowest proportion of female judges in the EU. Those trusty Brexiteers are doing their bit to keep it that way by distancing the UK from that gender diversifying European influence. If men’s voices really can be silenced in this place when still fewer than a third of MPs are women, we must be doing a pretty good job. Imagine what would happen if gender balance was actually achieved.
All joking aside, I am only too aware that many serious health concerns particularly affect men—hon. Members have already touched on them—and that is perhaps the justifiable reason for having this debate. Those issues deserve thorough scrutiny and action taken to tackle them. They include such things as increased risk of alcoholism, earlier mortality and the alarming suicide rates among young men, to name just a few.
Anyone determined to improve the stats might be interested in the findings of a recent report from the World Health Organisation. After studying the figures for 41 countries, it found that places with greater gender equality also had better health outcomes for men. In the most equal societies—measured by such factors as women in leadership positions and educational attainment—the risk of depression among men was halved, suicide rates were lower and there was a 40% reduction in the risk of a violent death. It is official: feminism is good for everyone.
It is not some innate biological differences that cause the different problems men struggle with—anatomical-specific issues aside—but societal pressures. The intense nurturing of a narrow, stereotypical idea about what men should be and how they should interact with women is difficult for many men. It is damaging to their health as much as it is to society’s. The more macho cultures encourage heavy drinking, for example, linking it to increased status and power in a group. On the other hand, speaking out about feelings, as has already been commented on, is discouraged.
There are no simple solutions, but society is shifting. Diving back into the world of the 1950s with its heavily embedded gender roles is the opposite of what needs to be done to improve matters. We must untangle masculinity from the toxic forms that have become so prevalent and let men and boys breathe a bit more easily. For International Men’s Day, the best thing we can do is to stand together in support of feminism and equality because it is good for men’s health. When women’s voices are speaking out for parity of the sexes, they are speaking out for men, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and a pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for his comprehensive opening speech.
International Men’s Day is indeed a significant date on our calendars, although we are a wee bit late with the debate, as it was on 19 November. This annual international event is celebrated in more than 80 countries, including the UK. It was inaugurated in 1999 in Trinidad and Tobago with backing from UNESCO. The theme for 2018 is “Positive male role models”. The UK themes for this year are, “Making a difference for men and boys” and “How we can give men and boys better life chances”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) set out.
We have heard much today about why International Men’s Day is so important. The hon. Member for Shipley and my hon. Friend starkly set out the taboo around men who are victims of abusive domestic relationships, and we need to break that silence for men and women. We have heard that the biggest killer of young men across the UK is suicide, so it is extremely important that men and boys alike can access the support they need. We have heard much about that today. It is also important that young men and young boys have positive role models to inspire them—not just famous celebrities or sportspeople, but people in their own families, their own communities or their own orbit living good, decent lives. To that end, we need to continue to encourage men to enter the primary education sector, as well as the secondary education sector.
International Men’s Day must be a far-reaching, big conversation, celebrating the contribution of men to our families, our communities and our country. We must work to ensure that men are more willing to talk about their hopes and fears, and take more care of their health and wellbeing. We have to do more to remove the stubborn stigma that persists around mental health issues and to continue the conversation about it being okay to struggle and about it not being a sign of weakness for a man to ask for help. We also need to make it clear that equality progressing for women does not in any way take anything away from men, who are, after all, half our population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) shared with us, more equal relationships between men and women appear to have better health outcomes for men.
Much has been said today about the male suicide epidemic, and it is not an overstatement to call it that. The falling behind of young men and boys in education is also a challenge. We understand, too, the challenges faced by fathers as new parents or fathers separated from their children, as outlined by the hon. Member for Shipley. There is also the range of other challenges we have heard about today. There is no doubt that men feel under pressure to fit roles and behaviour that society has traditionally defined as masculine, such as not showing feelings and having to seem strong all the time. As we know, that can lead many men into despair and can even damage their mental health, as the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) pointed out. That is a culture that we need to change, because it does not help men—it does not help anybody.
On average, men’s life expectancy is four years shorter than women’s. While that gap is decreasing, it is decreasing pretty slowly. Men have a higher incidence of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and obesity. They are 14% more likely to develop cancer than women, and 37% more likely to die from the disease.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and the hon. Member for Coventry North East reminded us, the suicide statistics are the most concerning. Some 76% of suicides in the UK are committed by men. It is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, which is difficult for me to get my head around. Every single day, about 12 men kill themselves across the UK, which demands some kind of response. In Scotland, men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. The rate is the lowest in the UK, but it is still far too high.
To tackle suicide, we need to ensure that mental health support is available and works for those who need it, and to encourage men who need that help to seek and accept it—we can all agree on that. It will require a tremendous culture change, which I think will take longer than we would like. We know that men are more likely to be reluctant to seek help and are far less likely than their female counterparts to go and speak to their GP about pretty much anything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw and the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) outlined.
We know that, on average, boys do worse in post-educational attainment. That means that we need to ensure that learning experiences for boys and young men take account of their needs and the ways in which they learn, because there is evidence that boys and girls learn differently. As the hon. Member for Stafford pointed out, young men and young women need opportunities to find their way and their place in the world in order to reach their potential, whether they live in the UK or anywhere else in the world.
We know that the majority of children in care are boys. In 2017, 55% of the 14,897 looked-after children in Scotland were boys. That itself leads to poor outcomes, with poor educational attainment. It means a greater likelihood of experiencing the criminal justice system, of dying prematurely and of ending up homeless. It is a stark and worrying picture, which we need to address.
These are complex matters, as the hon. Member for Coventry North East pointed out, but over time we need to demonstrate to those we represent that we are mindful of these things and are actively seeking to address them together. These are not party political issues; they are issues about the society in which we live and how we can work to make it better and make the statistics relating to men better for all our sakes.
I pay tribute to two men’s sheds that have sprung up in my constituency—one for the three towns of Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Stevenston, and one in the Garnock valley servicing Beith, Kilbirnie and Dalry. Those men’s sheds—I am sure that others are springing up in constituencies across the UK—offer support, friendship and skills- sharing. They are run by volunteers and welcome all men aged 18 and above. I have seen first-hand the camaraderie and friendship that men’s sheds foster. They do nothing but good for the men who choose to attend them.
What damages men damages us all, and damages our society. Men are an integral part of all our lives, since we all have fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Advancing the rights of women is not about doing men down; it is about ensuring that we can all reach our potential, regardless of our gender—men and women together. International Men’s Day cannot be about setting genders against each other, any more than International Women’s Day should be, because that does not help anyone. It is an important day to celebrate the fact that all men contribute, and have contributed, to our countries, societies, communities and families, and to recognise the particular, and sometimes unique, challenges that men face.
I reassure the hon. Member for Shipley that I agree that men should be treated equally to women. That is actually all that women want, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith pointed out. I am pleased to have participated in today’s debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing the debate, but I think he has done a bit of a disservice to it and to its theme. The hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) hit the nail on the head when they talked about a fear of male privilege being taken away, and how the debate should not pitch one gender against another. Equality is equality, and that is what we strive for.
I am pleased that the debate is in its fourth year, and that I have been able to speak in it again on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. As we have heard, more than 70 countries around the world celebrated International Men’s Day this year. I am always happy to appreciate and talk about the positive contributions that men make in society. Today plays a pivotal role in raising awareness of the issues affecting men in the UK, some of which we have heard about.
When we talk about men, we mean all men—the intersectionality of men, including trans men, disabled men, black men, poor men and young men. As we have heard, they suffer from everything from domestic abuse to rape, bullying and forced marriages, to name but a few. Nobody has yet mentioned the rough sleeping rate. In 2016-17, 86% of rough sleepers were male, which is a shocking statistic. We must ask ourselves what we can do as a society to prevent that from escalating and to tackle the issue before us.
One major issue that also largely affects men and was mentioned a number of times by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) is, sadly, suicide. In 2017, 4,382 men tragically took their own lives—an average of 12 per day. We must look at what drives men to take their own lives and at what we can do as a society, and in this place, to reduce that high rate. Mental health plays a huge role, as do poverty, feelings of inadequacy, and social media. Hon. Members talked about health and cancer, and men have a high rate of prostate cancer. It is also a fact that men remain three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Again, we should focus on what we as a society can do to stop that happening. Mental health issues play a huge role in suicide and in homelessness, and disproportionately affect men from diverse communities—I think the hon. Member for Shipley touched on that. According to the Lambeth collective’s black health and wellbeing commission, black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with serious mental health issues.
Other issues, regarding institutional racism, pertain to the diagnosis of mental health issues, such as the overmedication of black men. However, that does not negate the fact that a high proportion of black men suffer from mental health issues. Again, we must ask ourselves what we can do collectively as a society, and in this place, to stop that happening. I should also say that always having to justify themselves against racial stereotyping plays a fundamental role in the mental health of black men.
In 2013, the gay men’s health survey found that 3% of gay men and 5% of bisexual men attempted suicide that year, compared with just 0.4% of heterosexual men. We need to understand the role that we play in society, through our language and our attitudes, in allowing people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Time and again, we hear the Prime Minister say that mental health will be given parity with physical health, but it seems to be all talk and no action. Money is not being put into mental health. It is so disappointing that mental health funding has been cut and that the number of mental health nurses has fallen by at least 6,600. How can we give parity to mental health if we are cutting the numbers of mental health nurses? We need mental health nurses in schools, in hospitals and everywhere we want to encourage men and young boys to talk about their issues. Every Member of this House must speak up and hold the Prime Minister to account. We must insist that mental health be prioritised and that mental health services be improved for everyone—young, old, male, female, intersex and non-binary. By doing so, we will prevent more people from taking their own lives.
One campaign that I supported this year was for Albert Trott to be recognised with a blue plaque. Albert Trott was a talented cricketer who played for Middlesex, Australia and England and who lived in Brent, my constituency, between 1897 and 1911. He is famous for being the only man ever to hit a ball over the pavilion at Lord’s—a great feat. Sadly, after his retirement he suffered from depression and mental illness. In July 1914, at the age of just 41, he took his own life. Some have alleged that he may not have been recognised for his accomplishments because of the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health. I am clear that Albert Trott should be celebrated and recognised. There should be a blue plaque in his name; perhaps it could even make mention of mental health to raise awareness of the issue, especially in professional sports.
Currently, no footballers in the premier league have publicly come out as gay. That is a sad situation—just imagine the anxiety and the turmoil for footballers who are gay. I am pleased that most of us in this House have agreed to make homophobic chanting at football matches a criminal offence. The Football Offences (Amendment) Bill will receive its Second Reading in January 2019 and I hope we will vote to make it law. We must do more to ensure that people are free to be their true and authentic selves at work, at home and in the street.
Let me mention a few names of people at the forefront who have used their fame to highlight the issue. Reggie Yates has done some amazing work on mental health and on what prison does to the mind. I was so impressed by hearing him speak and speaking to him. We need to do more to support him in encouraging black men to speak up. He has worked with #GramFam and CALM—the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which helps young men in regard to mental health. I could mention so many more people, including Stormzy, Zayn Malik and Gareth Thomas, who came out after retiring and who recently suffered a homophobic attack and was brave enough to speak about it. I am grateful to them all for sharing their inspirational stories, which remind us that we need to talk about men and celebrate good men.
I know that time is short, Mr Bailey, so I will conclude. There is no shame in being caring. We have heard today about how we want to encourage men to talk and share their feelings. Let me end with a reply to the hon. Member for Shipley, who asked me about the standard of women MPs. I want him to listen very carefully to this: I look forward to the day when there are more rubbish women in this House. I look forward to the day when there are as many rubbish female MPs as rubbish male MPs, because only then will I know that we have reached true equality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I hope that I can start my speech on a slightly more positive note than that on which the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) ended hers, although I understand how she meant it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing this debate and for his continued commitment to shining a light not only on the pressing issues that men and boys face, but on the issue of equality. Having observed him in the Select Committee on Justice, the Women and Equalities Committee and the Chamber, I know that it is striving for equality that motivates him. He may occasionally attract attention by spreading that message—with which I am sure we all agree—in ways in which other Members may not express themselves, but none the less he does it in a way that shines a light on it. If I may say so, he is also an extremely efficient speaker; I counted at least seven huge topics that he raised in his speech. I hope he will forgive me if I do not address each and every one, but of course I will write to him on issues that I do not cover.
I thank hon. Friends and Members from all parties for their contributions to this important debate. I am pleased that it is now in its fourth year, which marks its firm importance in this House. I was struck by the aims that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley set out for International Men’s Day, including the admirable aim of promoting male role models, a theme that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke very movingly about. She shared with us the incredibly important legacy of her husband, and her son’s thoughts on it.
Celebrating men is another aim of the day. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) gave us an international perspective based on all his work around the world helping the most deprived communities and trying to spread equality and fairness. I am particularly grateful that he was able to contribute to the debate.
Promoting gender equality is also an important part of International Men’s Day. I sense from all the speeches made today that we are united in that aim. We know that rigid gender stereotypes can and do inhibit people’s choices and aspirations. When that happens, capable young boys and men can be held back from reaching their potential and, more widely, from becoming the positive role models that they can be.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned the important role that male teachers can and must play in education, particularly primary school education. I am sure that everyone here feels, as I do, that the lack of male teachers is a sad fact about our primary school system. We are desperately trying to improve the situation, because we know the hugely positive effect that male teachers can have on boys and young men.
We all believe that it is crucial that we work together to champion gender equality in business, in politics and in our communities, because creating a more equal society in which everyone can participate and thrive benefits us all. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked that men be treated equally to women. I am tempted to say with a wry smile that I wonder whether men would like to constitute fewer than a third of roles at board level, as women do at the moment. That is why we have the Hampton-Alexander review—not because we are trying to push men out of boards, but because we are trying to ensure that women are recognised in the workplace and achieve their potential on merit at the highest levels of business.
Quite rightly, hon. Members’ speeches focused on probably the most pressing issue that men and boys face in the 21st century in our country: mental health. Very sadly, as we have heard, rates of suicide are much higher among men than among women and suicide is the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50. Colleagues have already set out some thoughts on why that may be so. I am sure we agree that we need to do more to ensure that men can feel comfortable talking about their mental health needs. That is not just a point for us to discuss in this place; it is a societal change that needs to happen.
The Government want to push forward and achieve parity of esteem for mental health. We are doing that in a number of ways, including investing more than ever before in mental health—spending is estimated to have increased to just under £12 billion—as well as introducing the first waiting times standards for mental health, to ensure that more people get timely access to the treatment that they need. The five-year forward view for mental health will ensure an additional investment of £1 billion by 2020-21. An extra 1 million people will have access to mental health services. There is additional investment to improve mental health crisis resolution services in the community, to improve perinatal mental health and to ensure that there are liaison mental health services in general hospitals to support people in mental health crisis.
Many excellent organisations have been referred to, including CALM, Time to Change, Men’s Sheds and so on. Those organisations are all helping men and boys in our constituencies to make contact with each other, reach out and, I hope, deal with some of their problems.
Colleagues have also raised domestic abuse. I make it very clear that everyone deserves to feel safe at home. Home for all of us should be a place of safety, kindness and love. We know that domestic abuse can happen regardless of gender, wealth, background, geographical location and so on. That is precisely why the Government are bringing forward a draft domestic abuse Bill this Session to tackle the terrible scourge of domestic abuse.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley will be pleased to know that the Bill is of course gender-neutral, because I fully recognise, as do the Government, that men can be victims of domestic abuse. However, I must place that in context: the reality is that a disproportionate number of victims are women. According to estimates from SafeLives, in 2016-17, 95% of victims were female. I do not say that to create controversy; I say it as a fact—and that is why so many services are focused on helping female victims. The most serious cases show us that the vast majority of victims are female, but I do not for a moment take away from the point that men and boys can be victims as well.
My hon. Friend mentioned the interesting statistics on offenders. He is extremely consistent and persistent in his campaign in this regard and wrote to the Ministry of Justice about the statistics for offenders in prison. His statistics are correct—1,626 female prisoners and 4,146 male prisoners have been victims of domestic abuse. I am obliged to put that in context. There are 3,287 female offenders and 68,827 male offenders in prison, which means that the percentage of domestic abuse victims in the prison population is 49% for women and 6% for men.
In terms of prisoners who are perpetrators of domestic abuse, 18% of female prisoners are identified as ever having been a perpetrator of domestic abuse or violence; 34% of male prisoners have been so identified. A great deal of our work on the Bill and the package of non-legislative measures that we are bringing forward will be to focus on the impact that domestic abuse has on children, as well as on people who end up in prison. We want to see whether there are things that we can do to help ensure that the cycle of violence is broken so that the prison population is not peopled with victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse.
The hon. Member for Brent Central raised the important issue of homelessness and rough sleeping. Men are more likely to end up sleeping rough for a variety of reasons, including higher rates of interaction with the criminal justice system and higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse. We are determined to tackle all forms of homelessness, including making sure that people in temporary accommodation are getting support to keep a roof over their heads.
We are investing more than £1 billion by 2020 to support those efforts and have been implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which requires councils to provide early support to people at risk of being left without anywhere to go. Our rough sleeping strategy is an ambitious package, which will help people who sleep rough now and helps to put in place the structures that will end rough sleeping once and for all. We want to make sure that we get to the root of the unique problems in every local authority and tackle the very complex range of reasons why people sleep rough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned access rights to children and the family courts. The legislative framework that governs family law cases is gender neutral and is focused on the welfare of children, not on the rights of parents. By law, the court must presume the involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further that child’s welfare, unless there is evidence to the contrary. There would need to be very good reasons for a court to decide that a parent should not spend time with their children or that there should be no parental involvement at all.
The court has a wide discretion to determine what is necessary to meet a child’s welfare needs. That may reflect the court’s consideration of social work analysis and recommendations from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the wishes and feelings of the child concerned, how capable each parent is of meeting that child’s welfare needs, and any harm or further harm the child is at risk of suffering. The evidence from research is that the family courts are in favour of contact and make significant efforts to try to facilitate an ongoing relationship between a child and its non-resident parent.
I am conscious of time, so I will fly through the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is 17.9%. The reason why we publish those figures is not to somehow discriminate against men—it is to close the gap. My hon. Friend raised in particular the issue of the gender pay gap for men who work part time. That reflects the fact that women, including those in well-paid jobs, are more likely to work part time, while men are less likely to work part time, and when they do, they tend to do so in lower paid roles. It is a fascinating area of research and there will be much more to discuss in coming years.
On hate incidents and the police, there is no requirement on police forces to record hate incidents, as perhaps has been reported. It is up to police and crime commissioners and chief constables to decide how they deal with hate incidents and to set local policing priorities. There is a pilot scheme in Nottinghamshire at the moment, where the chief constable has decided that misogyny hate crime incidents will be recorded. Although it is not a crime in and of itself, the force want to get a sense of the rate of such incidents and the chief constable has decided to do that. There is no requirement from the Home Office, but obviously such data is very interesting and we are watching it with great interest.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the very complex issues of female genital mutilation and male circumcision, and I very much understand why he raised that. Female genital mutilation is illegal and the range of ways in which a little girl can be mutilated is, frankly, horrific. I take the point he raised about male circumcision. I will consider that and will write to him, because I would not wish to address such an important matter on the fly.
My hon. Friend concluded his speech by wishing that we could all live together equally in happiness. I finish by saying that I think we can all agree on that.
I thank you, Mr Bailey, for chairing our session today. I thank everybody who has attended and spoken in the debate. I am sure everybody would agree that we have had some fantastic contributions, from Members from all parts of the House.
I am glad that people were able to give a plug to some of the initiatives in their constituencies, such as “It Takes Balls to Talk” in the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and the men’s sheds in that of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I thank everybody for their contributions. Everybody has raised a different element or issue, all of which are very serious. The hon. Member for Coventry North East said that there was not much time to talk about these things, and I hope we will have longer in the future. We might have lots of men discussing issues, but we do not often discuss men’s issues.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).