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Private Rented Sector

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020

[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the private rented sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I declare my interest as a landlady to private renters and I refer everyone here to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I know the whole House is focused on the coronavirus—rightfully so—and I think I speak on behalf of everyone here when I say that our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones and those suffering the symptoms and having to self-isolate. I give a nod to everyone here, including our civil servants who have made the effort to come in. Things are quite scary, and I have just found out that my daughter’s nursery is closing, which is the scariest prospect for the children. I want to talk about how coronavirus will impact those who privately rent, especially those on a low income.

The crisis poses a serious threat to private renters. I wanted to bring this topic up because I do not want people to have to choose between whether they pay rent or self-isolate should they be faced with the symptoms in the months and weeks ahead. I am sure the Minister understands that we need to act now to protect tenants. A large number could be unfairly evicted, which could lead to homelessness if people start to fall behind in paying rent in one of the scariest and most dangerous periods of our history in this country. It is vital that we protect people in the private rented sector from homelessness and vital to insulate them financially to ensure that security of tenure is available to them if they feel they need to self-isolate and cannot go to work. I hope the Minister will seriously consider Labour’s Front Bench proposals on rent deferrals and a ban on evicting those who fall behind in their rent because of coronavirus.

A lot has been talked about coronavirus in terms of what happens if we get it, what we should do, and how we should self-isolate, but one thing missing, perhaps rightly, is what happens when we actually get the symptoms. The godmother of my children—Members need not worry; I have not been near her in weeks—got it and she told me the breath was taken away out of her. She was lying in bed and could not get up. She felt like a shadow of her former self. There was absolutely no way she could go to work, but she is in a situation where, even if she does not go to work, she will still get paid. She is one of the lucky ones because she can continue to live in her house, but that is not the case for all of us, which is why this debate is so important today.

It is not only working-age renters that coronavirus will impact. I have looked at the Office for National Statistics and found a few facts and figures that surprised me. The private rented sector is gradually becoming older as fewer families can afford to buy a home. According to Age UK, more than 700,000 over-60s privately rent in England, and the proportion of households headed by older renters has doubled in the past 15 years. In my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, an estimated 937 over-60s are on housing benefit alone. Older renters are more likely than homeowners to have long-term health problems. I am sure other Members are aware from their advice surgeries that problems in the private rented sector are rife. We have probably all dealt with damp walls and other conditions that people live in. We have to ensure that older and more vulnerable renters are protected, which is why this debate is so important today.

We know that poorly maintained housing is rife in the private rented sector. As a democracy, as a Government and as a country, we need to start looking at it more and more, especially as we have been warned over and over again that we are more likely to get the virus if we have an underlying health condition.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a passionate speech. The other day at the all-party group on housing and planning, it was pointed out that one in four adults in this country suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition, and one in five says that it is exacerbated by their housing. Does she agree that with this killer/death/invisible pandemic in our midst we should address mental health conditions, too, in the housing picture? Will she also pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and her Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which the Government agreed to only after Grenfell?

I will pay tribute to our hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) shortly, but what my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) says is very important. I have not mentioned mental health in this speech, because it is already too long, as most people can see. However, every time I hold an advice surgery, 80% of my casework is based on housing. When I deal with housing casework, people say, “Well, I have asthma”, or this or that problem medically, and then, “As a result, I have had mental health problems,” so there is a clear link between the housing conditions that someone lives in and the mental health problems that they may develop. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that the Minister will address this topic.

More and more people are growing old in substandard rented accommodation, and that shines a light on the fact that, as a country, we do not take private renting seriously. Five million people in the UK live in the private rented sector, which is an enormous number, up from 2.8 million in 2007. The proportion of renting households in London, where my hon. Friend and I are MPs, is expected to grow to 40% of the total in five years’ time. Again, these are staggering figures, yet I feel that too often as politicians, and as a Government, we see renting as nothing more than a stepping stone to home ownership. While the aspiration to own a home is common among us, including many of my constituents, the obscene cost of housing, especially in London, puts this dream well out of reach for the hundreds of thousands of private renters who are living on the breadline and the 63% who say that they have no savings at all. We have to do more to tackle the problem facing private renters. The economic and social crisis that we face as a result of coronavirus is shining a light on how many low-income private renters’ lives are fragile, and it lends greater urgency—and maybe provides an opportunity—to address this and provide them with the security and safety that they need.

I want to talk a bit about my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, because we have one of the largest proportions of people who live in private rented houses in the country—30% of my constituency privately rents. The more than doubling of the private rented sector over the last 20 years has meant that in the Borough of Camden, which I live in, that type of tenure is now only slightly smaller than the owner-occupied sector. Ahead of this debate, I emailed my constituents to ask them for their experiences and thoughts about it. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who emailed to talk about their experience and how important this issue was to them. Many made the point that privately renting is not a short-term solution for them. They will have to do it for the rest of their lives, and therefore, they feel very passionately that we as politicians should tackle the problems that come with it.

The No. 1 thing that came up over and over again is how unaffordable renting in London is. That came out loud and clear and I am sure that my hon. Friend—a London Member—will recognise that. Renters in Camden face the fourth highest rents in the whole country. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom flat is over £2,000. That reflects the dramatic growth in rents that we have seen in the last decade, far outstripping any rise in earnings that my constituents may have had.

I very much agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. Is not one of the problems the failure to keep the level of rents in track with the local housing allowance, which supports families on low incomes who rent privately? On the latest assessment, after the four-year freeze that we have had, and the tiny inflation rise this year across England, only in 2% of the country can people afford to rent a three-bedroom home within the local housing allowance.

I will come to the link between local housing allowance rents and rental growth later, but I thoroughly agree with my right hon. Friend that because the link has been broken, people are put at risk of eviction and eventually homelessness. He will know that more than ever, representing a London constituency, where there are serious problems with overcrowding—I know his constituency well.

We have seen a dramatic growth in rents in the last decade. The average private rent is an astonishing £4,500 more than it was in 2010. That is how much it has accelerated in the last 10 years and here are some of the results. Some 30% of tenants now struggle to pay rent; over a quarter of London renters spend more than half their wages on rent alone; one in three older renters lives in poverty after rent has been paid; and it is no wonder that 60% of renting families say they are just one pay cheque away from losing their home.

On that point, over the past week, I have been contacted by many constituents with coronavirus. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for the Government to step in and ensure that those people are looked after, as has been done in other countries?

This is why I felt that we should continue with this debate even though I know there are other things on our mind. With the virus, there is a big link to those who are renting. This is a time when we need to pull together and make demands of the Government to fix this problem, which has been ongoing for a long time but which requires particular urgency now in the light of the situation we are facing.

The impact of coronavirus on low-income private renters could be devastating. I know many renters are already contacting housing charities and renters’ organisations such as ACORN out of fear they will not be able to pay rent this month: those on zero-hours contracts are particularly worried. I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituents are emailing her constantly about that.

Statutory sick pay of £94.25 will not even come close to covering rent for most Londoners. Members from these constituencies in this room will know that their constituents are struggling to make ends meet, and they could face far bigger income reductions from the loss of a job or working hours. I hope the Government will listen to calls from Opposition Members and others to increase statutory sick pay and give more protection to low paid, insecure and self-employed workers from the effects of coronavirus.

Anyone who needs to self-isolate—I keep making the point—needs to be able to do so without fearing that they will lose their home or that they will not be able to feed their children or themselves. We have to make sure that anyone who has a cough or a fever feels that they can stay at home without fear of falling behind on their rent and suffering huge financial repercussions.

Does my good friend concur that landlord licensing is a good way of ensuring that, in the private rented sector, the most vulnerable members of our constituencies live in adequate accommodation and do not suffer adversely because of the poor quality of their properties, exacerbating their health conditions? Will she call on the Government to extend landlord licensing in Liverpool?

I will come to this later in my speech, but I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Some of the conditions in which our constituents and especially those who are very vulnerable live, which are described to me and in some of the reports I have read, is despicable. We have got to do something about this and tackle the issue, which is becoming a serious problem across the country—not just in London but, as my hon. Friend says, in Liverpool as well.

The long-term impact of our failure to tackle sky-high rents is a slow erosion of our communities. That is why I brought this debate here because I am worried about what that is doing to our communities. Local people from my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn are being driven out of areas where they grew up and which they love but where they cannot afford to live.

The Conservative Government have wasted so much time, effort and money on schemes such as Help to Buy. I know some people benefit from that, but the vast majority of my constituents have not. We want the Government to build genuinely affordable homes and we need to bring down rents in the private sector. Now we want to make sure the Government do not block mayors such as Sadiq Khan from introducing sensible rent control. That will help people in my constituency from being priced out of London. I feel very strongly about this. I grew up in my constituency and I went to school there, but I can afford to live there. There are thousands like me who were born there, lived there and went to school there, but who feel they can no longer afford to live there.

I will turn now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about poor housing conditions. Anyone who has held advice surgeries will know that conditions in the private rental sector are the worst of any tenure. One in four privately rented homes is classified as “non-decent”, which should make us hang our hands in shame. That means that an estimated 600,000 children are living in housing that is either damp, dangerous or overcrowded, sometimes lacking in basic facilities. Some 200,000 households are in overcrowded private-rented accommodation, including a shocking 32% in Camden, where I live. That could pose huge challenges for people who have coronavirus or have the symptoms of it and want to self-isolate.

Advice4Renters, a fantastic organisation based in the Brent part of my constituency, highlighted the story of one family who have developed serious health problems as a result of nearly two decades of living in a property that Brent Council eventually declared uninhabitable. The surveyor’s report makes for grim reading—I am sure lots of Members have seen similar reports. It talks about water leaks, black mould, rotten wood, waterlogged brickwork, insufficient heating, loose electrical sockets, long-broken fixtures, cracked walls—the list goes on.

Another corporate landlord who has been sued multiple times by both Camden and Brent left one elderly resident with health problems in accommodation with serious water penetration for more than 15 years. With coronavirus posing the greatest risk to exactly the people I am describing, it is vital that we provide resources to local councils to enforce improvements to their housing.

It is not all gloom and doom. Obviously, there are good landlords. I spoke to a landlord who is going to let his private tenants defer payment until August to ensure that they do not feel nervous and are not living in fear. There are good landlords, and I am grateful for all the good landlords who are showing compassion at a difficult time. They take care of their properties and respect their tenants. One of the most thoughtful responses I received when I emailed my constituents ahead of this debate was from a landlord who keeps rent low. He said that he wants to see tenants’ rights strengthened. He thinks that the market will be better if his tenants have better rights than they have right now. Unfortunately, there are far too many landlords exploiting the lack of protection for tenants, to avoid responsibilities, and who are, in some cases, breaking the law. There are some cases where people have come to my surgery and I say, “They are actually breaking the law.”

One particularly aggressive corporate landlord I am dealing with at the moment—he will remain unnamed, although I am very inclined to name him—has hundreds of properties in my constituency. Constituents have spoken to me about how he is aggressively refurbishing properties to drive out existing tenants and drive up rents.

One of the issues we face at the moment is that private landlords are benefiting significantly from housing benefit and public sector money. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how we invest that money in a different way to ensure that our constituents live in good properties? We need to look at how public sector funding stays in the public sector, to support the most vulnerable.

I agree with my hon. Friend and will come to that topic later in my speech.

We are hearing stories of some landlords trying to increase rents since coronavirus hit and refusing to negotiate with tenants over rent holidays in response to the pandemic. That not only highlights the need for the compulsory rent deferrals that Labour is calling for—I hope the Minister will address that point—but for a universal register of landlords, to crack down on rogue landlords and to give renters the information they need to make informed choices when they are thinking of renting a house. As one good landlord who lives locally wrote to me, a register is in the interest of good landlords.

I am pleased to see that Labour is leading the way around the country. The Welsh Labour Government have introduced a compulsory licensing scheme, called Rent Smart Wales. Sadiq Khan, who I have already mentioned, has used the limited powers he has to introduce a rogue landlord checker. Brent is one of the councils that has successively used selective licensing to improve conditions in thousands of homes and to prosecute rogue landlords. It was disappointing that Brent’s application to expand the licensing scheme was rejected by Ministers last month. The Government should be encouraging landlord licensing, rather than trying to shut it down at every opportunity. I hope that the Government will look seriously at introducing an England-wide landlord register.

The most important thing that renters need is enforceable rights to get their accommodation improved, if it is not to standard. They have some options. The first is to contact the local authority, which has the power to inspect properties and take enforcement action against landlords. However, local government funding has been cut so much—by 43% since 2010—that councils’ ability to enforce standards has been decimated. The amount available to spend on housing enforcement has fallen by 25% in that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned that our constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, to whom I pay tribute, pushed the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 through Parliament. That means that renters can take their landlord to court. However, to do that people need the financial means, and the Tories have taken an axe to the legal aid system. I hope that they will look again at that, because few people can now apply for legal aid for housing matters. There is a need to restore funding to both local government and legal aid.

There is a lot more I want to say but, because of the time, I will ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he can answer. First, what measures do the Government plan to bring in to support private renters who are affected by coronavirus? That is the obvious question. In particular, will he support low-income and insecure workers, including those on housing benefit, so that they can self-isolate safely and not worry about eviction? Secondly, with rents in London remaining so stubbornly high, for what possible reason are the Government refusing to devolve powers to introduce sensible rent controls? Why are they blocking attempts by regional and local governments to bring in landlord licensing? Thirdly, when will the renters reform Bill be introduced, and how long will it take for no-fault evictions to be scrapped? Will the Minister consider bringing in emergency legislation to ban evictions for rent arrears caused by loss of a job or income as a result of the virus? What measures does he plan to tackle DSS discrimination in the private rented sector, so that people have a fair shot at getting accommodation and councils can easily rehouse homeless people? Finally, I have focused on older renters, and, given the risk to them from the virus, what urgent steps will the Government take to improve conditions in the private rented sector, so that people can be safe in their homes?

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the urgency of the situation. This is a time when the country needs to come together and help the most vulnerable. We need to be bold and bring in emergency legislation to make sure that low-income private renters are not hit hardest by the virus that is taking over the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate to the House and for the way she did so. She brought a constructive tone to the issues that she raised, and is clearly passionate on behalf of her constituents. She made clear points about the number of people living in the private rented sector whom she represents, and the clear, positive level of engagement that she has with her constituents about those matters. I commend her for that, and I understand about her daughter’s nursery provision being cancelled. My two boys are under two and theirs has been cancelled this week. She made a number of points about the seriousness of the situation we face with covid-19 and I shall come on to that. I will touch on as many of the points she raised as possible.

The hon. Lady is clearly right that not only is the private rented sector the second largest tenure in England, housing more than 11 million people and representing about 19% of all housing in England; it is also housing an increasingly diverse range of tenants. The sector plays a hugely important role in providing homes across the country and is an integral element of our approach to making sure that the housing market works for people across the country. Yet the housing market has undoubtedly left many tenants feeling insecure. She highlighted that articulately in her speech. We are clear that we will introduce a better deal for renters and deliver a package of reforms aimed at creating a fairer, more effective rental market. We know that there is a lot more to do. We are committed to taking action and we know that that action must improve people’s lives across the country and deliver a sector that works for everyone living in it. Everyone renting in the private sector has the right to feel secure in their home and settled in their community, and to plan for the future with confidence. Millions of responsible tenants could be uprooted by their landlords with little notice and often, as I am sure we all agree, with little justification. That is wrong, and we plan to put an end to it.

We are therefore making the biggest change to the private rented sector in a generation: our rental reform Bill will introduce a better deal for tenants. It will contain a package of reforms to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market, improving the lives of many renters across our country. We will set out our plans for the Bill in the coming months. We are now working intensively with stakeholder organisations across the private rented sector to ensure we get that right. That is informing the development of the legislation, so that we create a system that really works.

The hon. Lady touched on older renters in her speech. She is absolutely right that the private rented sector is home to an increasing number of older people. Poor standards are a real risk for that group. We are working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that older people can keep their homes warm. That is why we are embarking on a major drive to improve standards in the private rented sector. The vast majority of landlords, I am sure we agree, are responsible and law-abiding people who care passionately and deeply about providing good-quality accommodation for the people who live in their homes.

Standards in the private rented sector, however, are lower than those in other tenures. That is not acceptable, and we have given local authorities strong enforcement powers, including banning orders, to address that by law. Private rented homes must be free from the most serious health and safety hazards. They must have smoke detectors on every floor and have gas boilers and installations checked every year. Just this morning, we debated our regulations requiring landlords to carry out electrical safety inspections at least every five years. I am grateful that support for that measure came from across the House. Landlords must also prove that the electrics in their property meet the legal standards, or get the work done to make them safe.

The hon. Lady and other Members raised the important issue of the mental health of tenants in the PRS. She is absolutely right: poor standards can affect mental health negatively. That is why they will form an important part of our reforms of the housing health-and-safety rating system. She also asked about the national register to protect tenants. We absolutely want to get the balance right between supporting good landlords and tackling criminals. We have already introduced a database of rogue landlords and property agents so that local authorities can tackle the worst offenders and prevent them from operating in order better to protect tenants. The consultation on extending information on the database to tenants closed on 12 October. We are reviewing the responses. When we publish any follow-up, I am happy to ensure that the hon. Lady is sighted of that information.

I highlight the fact that the vast majority of landlords play an important role in providing decent quality housing, but we are determined to crack down on the small number of unscrupulous landlords who neglect their property and exploit their tenants. We want such landlords to comply or to leave the sector altogether. The cost of enforcement should be placed on the few landlords who deliberately rent out substandard and unsafe accommodation, not on the taxpayer. We are also looking at ways to improve access to, and to expand the scope of, the database.

Given the time, I will turn to covid-19. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have taken a hugely constructive view of how to support people through this hugely difficult situation faced by our country. The hon. Lady is right that no one should feel that they cannot afford to self-isolate in the current climate. To preface some of the remarks that I am about to make, we have already announced some measures, but I confirm that very shortly the Chancellor will outline a further package of support for people in this sector later today. I cannot, unfortunately, update her on exactly what that is before it is announced; I hope she understands. However, I confirm that this is being taken very seriously, and we are working on it intensively to ensure that we can get it announced as quickly as possible.

We have already announced a range of measures, including a £500 million hardship fund. We will set out more details of that shortly. We are bringing forward measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the first day rather than the fourth. We also have a range of support in place for those who do not receive statutory sick pay, including those on universal credit and contribution-based employment support allowance. I hope that the hon. Lady will bear with us for a few more hours to hear some more detail.

We are committed to building a private sector that works for everyone across our country. We will introduce a better deal for renters that improves the lives of people across our country. I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.