Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require all private landlords in England to be registered; and for connected purposes.
Over the years, one of the key issues consistently raised with me by my constituents has been the role played by some private landlords and their tenants in the local community. Let me say up front that the majority of private landlords are responsible. As always, there are those who do not fall into that category—private landlords who do not care about their tenants or who they rent to, or the communities in which their properties are placed; all they are interested in is the rent they can secure, and nothing else.
The whole policy area surrounding the regulation of private landlords is frustrating. It is failing to solve the problems faced by local communities, local authorities are stretched beyond their ever-shrinking budgets, and local people feel neglected. I now believe it is time to consolidate regulation on private landlords, underpinned by a mandatory licensing scheme to help to remedy some of the disquiet felt by people in Sedgefield and throughout the country.
Once, Durham’s economy was based on coal: 100,000 miners worked down 100 collieries and, with their families, lived in tight-knit communities. Many of the colliery villages thrived in that economy—villages such as Ferryhill, Fishburn, Chilton, the Trimdons, Wheatley Hill, Wingate, Thornley and West Cornforth. They all had and have one architectural characteristic in common: row upon row of back-to-back colliery terraces. Now, years after the end of the coalmining era, they have become the preserve of private landlords, and in some areas a hotspot for neglect and crime.
Some residents who have lived in the local area for years and remember earlier times can tell better than most how it has changed. To help to resolve the problem, selective licensing schemes have been introduced in the county, with some success, but they can be administratively burdensome and very staff intensive. The council’s accreditation scheme is voluntary and attracts only the good landlords. A mandatory registration scheme would place the onus on the landlord. In 2008, the Labour Government ordered a review of the private rented sector. In response to the review, in May 2009 the Government outlined their intention to introduce a national mandatory register of the private landlord sector, but the general election intervened and the coalition Government decided not to take the proposal forward.
By the time of the 2011 census, the number of private rented homes in the county had increased by 78% to nearly 16,000 properties, or 14% of the housing stock. Half of that stock consists of typical colliery terraced housing, which is difficult to sell and difficult to let. Also, there are about 4,000 long-term empty homes in Durham. They are empty for different reasons: some are inherited, some are part of the estates of deceased persons with no living relatives, and some are left empty because the owners have moved on and cannot sell their property; while other properties are bought by investors and left empty through choice. Under current legislation, properties can stand empty for as long as the owners like, and their only duty is to ensure that accessible windows and doors are secure. This leads some properties to become an attraction for antisocial behaviour, arson and fly-tipping. The county council informs me that it sometimes takes weeks or even months to track down the owner of a property so that a problem can be addressed.
I have been working on this issue with the police and crime commissioner for Durham, Ron Hogg. The police are concerned about the effect that a high concentration of private landlords has on areas of high deprivation. Ron Hogg’s office has provided me with data from the Office for National Statistics showing that nationally there is a link between the prevalence of private landlords in areas of high deprivation and levels of crime. In Wheatley Hill in my constituency—one of the most deprived communities in the county, where the number of people who are economically inactive due to long-term sickness or a disability is almost three times the national average—43% of households in an area of the village that is of concern to the local authority and agencies are private lets, of which 30% are standing empty. The crime figures for the village are equally startling: in 2017 there were 122 crimes per 1,000 head of population, whereas the average for County Durham is only 77 per 1,000 head of population.
The lack of information on private landlords leads to an increased workload for the police. In one incident, a property in County Durham was being used for drug taking. The police had the previous landlord’s details and later discovered the details of the new landlord, but did not have a contact number. Letters were written to him, but it took a fixed penalty notice from environmental health to make him contact the council. The tenants who had caused the problems had moved on by this time due to rats in the property, but the house had also been trashed. Had the landlord’s information been available at the start, the issue could have been resolved quickly, instead of dragging on for seven months. In another incident, a police constable reported that he had attended an empty private rented property after an arson. It was in the process of being burgled. Two arrests were made. Local letting agents and the council were contacted, but no one knew who the landlord was. Those arrested were released under investigation because the matter could not be recorded as a crime without an injured party. If the landlord’s details had been known, charges could have been brought.
Ron Hogg has said about the private landlord sector:
“Not only are large numbers of properties unfit for habitation...but the lack of control over the market is resulting in the breakdown of many of our communities and in many cases resulting in increases in crime and disorder.
He goes on:
“This is costly to local communities and costly to the state—too much police time is being spent dealing with problems that could be avoided if it were possible to identify the landlords and provide enforcement at an earlier stage.”
Mr Hogg says:
“Only a mandatory private landlord registration scheme, administered by local authorities and funded by private landlords and fines from enforcement, can create a situation where this can be brought under control.”
Chief Constable Simon Cole of Leicestershire police, who is the National Police Chiefs Council portfolio lead for antisocial behaviour, has said that
“it would be helpful to local policing if local authorities had to have a register of private landlords so that they can fulfil their responsibilities in protecting vulnerable people.’
Chief Constable Mike Barton of Durham constabulary has said:
“A mandatory register would save time and public money for the whole range of organisations delivering services in areas where antisocial behaviour is common... It would mean that police and our partners...would be much better placed to nip problems in the bud rather than being unable to carry out enforcement on unidentifiable landlords, often based hundreds of miles away. I am sorry to say that, too often, such people couldn’t care less about the misery their indifference causes to decent hard working families”.
I, those who work in local government, the police and, more importantly, the communities we serve want attention to be paid to this issue, which has been neglected, or at best addressed with piecemeal legislation from those who believe a light touch is best. Light touch is not good enough if you have to live with the consequences of inadequate resources to chase people who do not care.
How would a mandatory registration scheme work? Under such a scheme, to rent out property a landlord would have to register, pay a fee and adhere to a strict code of compliance. The code should require all landlords to manage their properties to ensure they are fit to live in, with tenancies managed in such a way that any issues are addressed immediately. The scheme should be administered by individual local authorities with appropriate budgets attached. Revenue would be raised by a registration fee, with tough fines imposed for failing to adhere to the code. Tenants’ rights should be enshrined in law, and fit-for-habitation certification procedures introduced. A mandatory scheme should make data sharing between statutory agencies easier. That would bring in revenue to the Exchequer by ensuring that all such incomes were registered for tax purposes, and enable statutory agencies, the police and HMRC to co-operate more effectively to tackle landlords who are not prepared to play by the rules. The benefits would be improved quality of life in our communities, reduced demand on policing, reduced demand and cost to local authorities, and potentially increased revenue to the Exchequer. This would be a self-funding scheme administered locally.
Before some people start mentioning red tape, I point out that the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016 require private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. Non-compliance can lead to a fine of up to £3,000. It would seem that national schemes can be implemented when we want them to be.
I believe that a mandatory scheme would look after the best interests of private landlords, their tenants and the communities in which they are located. The people of Wheatley Hill and similar communities deserve the security such an initiative would offer.
Let me say at the outset that I understand that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) has issues in his constituency, about which he has spoken eloquently. However, I believe that his Bill is a totally disproportionate response to a local matter. I have always been of the opinion that any Member of this House who wishes to introduce a Bill should be able to do so—I have presented a fair number of my own, so I will not oppose the hon. Gentleman’s request to be given leave to bring in a Bill—but I wish to put on record the fact that I will not support his Bill.
There is great pressure on this House to pass ever more regulation. That regulation needs to be necessary, effective and proportionate, and having heard the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I believe that his Bill fails all three tests. I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the private rented sector, which is sponsored by the Residential Landlords Association. Among the APPG’s distinguished vice-chairs is the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), whose private Member’s Bill comes before the House on Friday. That Bill is strongly supported by the Residential Landlords Association. I wish to impress on the hon. Gentleman that while the RLA is perfectly rational in its approach to this issue and shares his dismay at there being so many bad landlords, it recognises that by far the majority in this country are responsible and good landlords, and that the last thing they need is another stealth tax placed upon them, which is what he is proposing.
I share the view articulated by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government when he said that
“public safety is paramount and I am determined to do everything possible to protect tenants. That is why government will support new legislation that requires all landlords to ensure properties are safe and give tenants the right to take legal action if landlords fail in their duties.”
Let us deal with the substance of the matter and ensure that where there are bad landlords, every facility is made available to ensure that tenants can get proper redress against them. At the moment—let us not dispute this—responsibility is given to local authorities to enforce the legislation already on the statute book. That responsibility is to enforce housing standards in rented homes. As a result of a freedom of information request, the RLA found that in 2016-17, among the 296 councils in England and Wales that responded, there were just 467 prosecutions of landlords. This averages out at just over 1.5 per council. In the same year, councils received 105,359 complaints regarding landlords. That is an indication that, although the responsibility lies with councils, they are not fulfilling it.
The hon. Gentleman’s Bill would impose on councils the additional burden of maintaining a register of landlords and then carrying out enforcement against those who have not signed it. The inevitable consequence of his proposal is that once again the responsible landlord—the person who lets a house to family members or lodgers, or who brings into use a family home that would otherwise be empty—would end up being penalised and brought before the courts, but there would be no impact on bad landlords, whom I assume, on the basis of his definition, would include those thousands of people who are illegally sub-letting social housing, despite that already being a criminal act that is subject to criminal sanctions. Why do we not deal with that? Why do we not enforce existing laws against bad landlords and those who are illegally sub-letting social housing?
Another reason to oppose the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that it would have a disproportionate impact on the law-abiding. Ultimately, it would be another deterrent to people letting their properties. Labour Members often refer to the slogan “property is theft” and try to create an atmosphere in which every private landlord is regarded as scum. I am just trying to redress the balance and make it clear to those who wish to legislate against bad landlords that we already have an enormous amount of relevant legislation on the statute book. It might well be that the Bill being debated on Friday will be an additional part of that legislation, but setting up an expensive, bureaucratic registration system is the last thing we need.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Phil Wilson, Anna Turley, Bridget Phillipson, Grahame Morris, Graham P Jones, Mr Kevan Jones, Stephen Timms, Ian Austin, Gareth Snell, Liz Kendall, Toby Perkins and Conor McGinn present the Bill.
Phil Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 152).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) felt very strongly about the ten-minute rule Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) just presented, but given that he did not call for a vote or oppose the Bill, was it in order for him to make a speech criticising it?
Yes, it was perfectly orderly. The truth is that although the hon. Gentleman did not then seek to divide the House, he was, even though he politely and gently indicated otherwise, opposing the Bill. The technical position is very clear: he was opposing the Bill—he was expressing his opposition to it. Possibly in the interests of time, however, or for other reasons—it is not my responsibility to fathom his motives—he did not seek to divide the House. His behaviour, as usual, was orderly.