In our November blog we campaigned for constituents to contact their MPs’ in order to support the revived Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill, a private member’s bill which would significantly bolster tenants’ rights in relation to housing standards.
On 19 January 2018, the Bill underwent its second reading in the House of Commons with concern that it would be “talked out” as it had been previously in 2015. However, much has changed on the political landscape since then, and with wide-ranging public support and backing from a spectrum of organisations – including Shelter, Mind, and Citizens Advice at one end, and the Residential Landlords Association, the National Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Letting Agents at the other – the Bill was passed to the next stage by unanimous consent.
The tenor of the second reading debate was reflective of the broad support it now receives, a transcript of the debate can be found here.
A central thread in the debate was how the Bill would benefit landlords and tenants alike. An observation by chair of the Residential Landlords Association, Alan Ward, was repeated with approval, that “the Bill seeks to achieve what all good landlords want; better enforcement against the crooks that bring the sector into disrepute.” It was a common theme that the Bill would target the few rogue landlords responsible for the most egregious cases, who prey on the most vulnerable tenants and bring landlords generally into disrepute.
That said, it was recognised notwithstanding the discussion’s emphasis on ‘rogue’ landlords that the Bill’s scope should extend beyond the relatively small number whose landlords could be described as rogues. As Helen Hayes MP (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Labour) put it, “Some landlords are inexperienced, lazy or negligent in carrying out their responsibilities but fall short of being rogues. These practices are nevertheless unacceptable.”
Picking up on this theme, after summarising the biting powers the Bill would give to tenants Luke Hall MP (Thornbury and Yate) (Conservative) commented approvingly that still “It is not overly burdensome on landlords because of the simple principle that it should not increase costs or create cumbersome work for the vast majority of landlords who are already providing a good service and safe, good-quality accommodation to their tenants. The Bill will push landlords to act proactively, and I hope it will create a ripple effect to create more of a safety and people-first culture in the industry.”
Another major focus was on the importance that the rights being granted to tenants be enforceable. Again, this idea had cross-party support, and there was a consensus that it was a move in the right direction that it would put enforcement into the hands of the tenants themselves.
However, it is encouraging that there were (again, cross-party) calls for more: “Much as I welcome this Bill,” concluded Lucy Allan MP (Telford) (Conservative) at the end of a speech, “I must sound a note of caution. Tenants who are affected by the worst conditions in the private rental sector are unlikely to be able to complain effectively, let alone take enforcement action against their landlords… We have an obligation to help them to enforce the powers that the Bill will give them, as well as ensuring that local authorities use the powers that they already have.”
Likewise Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Conservative) – “However, I just want to raise one or two concerns, because I think the Bill can be improved still further. Tenants need to understand their rights and those rights need to be enforced. I want protection for people who complain about their landlords, so that we do not see retaliatory evictions…” and further, “The Bill gives tenants the right to challenge bad landlords, but the primary responsibility for inspecting and ensuring that properties are safe should reside with local authorities. I am concerned that local authorities are now unable to carry out that function due to a lack of funding.”
Indeed, it was repeatedly suggested that to help tenants benefit from their newly acquired rights, there should be some financial provision in the Bill (currently there is none, no doubt contributing to its Government backing) whether through extensions to Legal Aid funding, funding to local authorities for tenancy liaison and Environmental Health officers, and funding for advice services generally.
This call was reinforced by cross-party recognition of the strong financial case in any event for the Bill. Teresa Pearce MP (Erith and Thamesmead) (Labour) referred to a letter from the Department of Health and Social Care, which stated that conditions of poor-quality housing cost the NHS — by a conservative estimate — £1.4 billion a year.
In her final exhortation to the house, Karen Buck MP (Westminster North) (Labour), who has spearheaded this private member’s Bill concluded: “There is a great deal more to be done to turn the tide on insecurity, affordability, homelessness and housing need, and none of us will stop pressing the Minister to make progress on other fronts. But today we have the chance to progress a Bill that will give tenants new powers to hold the worst landlords to account. I hope that we will take that opportunity, and I commend the Bill to the House.”
The House did indeed take this opportunity and the Bill will now proceed to the report stage, followed by a third reading on a date to be announced, before making its way to the Housing of Lords for further scrutiny. Given the level of support shown in this debate, the political mood in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy and the ever-mounting need for reform in this area, there is now every reason to hope that the Bill will navigate the remainder of the course and become law.