Clause 63 - Government policy on supported and temporary accommodation

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 28 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Government amendments 112, 115 and 116.

Government new clause 20—Decent homes standard.

New clause 60—Extension of Awaab’s law to the private rented sector—

“(1) Section 10A of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 is amended as follows.

(2) Omit subsections (1)(b) and (6).

(3) In subsection (7), omit the definitions of ‘low-cost home ownership accommodation’ and ‘social housing’.”

This new clause would require private landlords to deal with hazards affecting their properties.

Government new schedule 1—Decent homes standard.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

Everyone deserves to live in a safe and decent home. It is completely unacceptable in this day and age that people are forced to live in homes that do not meet basic standards of decency. There is already a decent homes standard for social housing that has been successful in improving housing conditions. Since the standard was last updated in 2006, the level of non-decency in social housing has fallen from 29% to 10%, but there is no equivalent standard for the private rented sector, and homes in that sector are more likely to be non-decent.

Of the 4.6 million households that rent privately, 23% live in properties that would fail the decent homes standard that currently applies to social housing. That is around 1 million homes. That is why we committed in the levelling-up White Paper to halving the number of non-decent rented homes by 2030 and, in the “Fairer Private Rented Sector” White Paper, to introducing a legally binding decent homes standard in the private rented sector for the first time. It is also why we have tabled the Government amendments, which will allow Ministers to set a new standard to apply the private rented sector and for it to be enforced.

It is imperative that we get the content of the new standard right and that we ensure that it is both proportionate and fair. We are working closely with a range of stakeholders to co-design the standard and make sure the balance is right for landlords and tenants. For most PRS properties, our expectation is that the landlord will not need to do any additional work to meet the decent homes standard beyond what is needed to meet existing requirements and keep their properties in a good state of repair. We will provide further details on our proposals for the standard in due course.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to continue our deliberations with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue.

Clause 63 is a short and straightforward clause that would require the Secretary of State to prepare a report that sets out the Government’s policy on safety and quality standards in relation to supported housing and temporary accommodation and to publish it within one year of the day on which the measure comes into force. The group of Government amendments we are considering with the clause, which are intended to replace it entirely, will extend part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, which relates to housing conditions, to cover temporary accommodation, and provide for regulations to specify new requirements that will form part of a decent homes standard that applies to temporary accommodation, supported exempt accommodation and rented property more generally. We welcome both the intent and the design of the amendments.

The private rented sector is manifestly failing to provide safe and secure homes for all those who live in it. We fully accept that the absolute number and proportion of poor-quality private rented homes continues to fall—albeit steadily rather than drastically—as part of a half-century, if not longer, of improvement in housing standards. However, it remains the case that some of the worst standards in housing are to be found in the private rented sector. It should be a source of real shame for the Government that after they have been in office for 13 years, an estimated one in four homes in the private rented sector—the Minister made it clear that that equates to around a million properties—do not meet the decent homes standard, and one in 10 has a category 1 hazard that poses a risk of serious harm.

For the considerable number of private tenants who are forced to live in substandard properties—those who wake up every day to mould, vermin or dangerous hazards—what should be a place of refuge and comfort is instead a source of, at best, daily unease and, at worst, torment and misery. More must be done to bear down decisively on this problem. Measures designed to drive up standards in the sector should be enacted as a matter of urgency.

As I made clear during the debate on clause 52, the Government deserve appropriate credit for seeking to introduce a decent homes standard that covers the private rented sector through this Bill rather than through separate future legislation. We believe that Government new clause 20, new schedule 1 and the related amendments are well drafted and that they have the potential to tackle the blight of poor-quality homes in local communities and ensure that renters have safer and better homes to live in; however, I would like to take this opportunity to put to the Minister several questions about those provisions.

My first question concerns enforcement. A decent homes standard that covers the social rented sector has been in place since 2001, yet we know that far too many social tenants still live in damp, cold and mouldy properties that harm their health and their life chances. Indeed, that was one of the chief reasons why the Government felt it necessary to enact the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023. That demonstrates that over the 22 years of the decent homes standard’s existence, although it has led to some improvements it has not been enforceable in the social rented sector. That experience suggests that introducing a decent homes standard covering the private rented sector will not achieve its objectives unless it is properly enforced.

Given that the Government intend, by means of new schedule 1, which amends part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, for enforcement of the new standard in the PRS to be undertaken using the same powers as the regime for the housing health and safety rating system, it should be a relatively straightforward matter for local authorities. However, local authorities’ ability to do so successfully depends in practice on their capacity and capabilities. As we debated just prior to the break, in relation to clauses 58 to 61, a great many authorities are struggling when it comes to resources and skills. Will the Minister provide more detail on what steps, if any, the Government intend to take, in addition to the various proposals in the Bill, to ensure that local authorities can appropriately enforce the application of the decent homes standard to the private rented sector where it is not already being met?

My second issue concerns the nature of the standard itself. The Government consulted on the introduction and enforcement of a decent homes standard in the private rented sector in England late last year, and the responses to that consultation obviously fed into the Government amendments we are considering. However, the Government have also committed themselves to a more fundamental review of the standard at some unspecified point in the future. Will the Minister confirm whether that commitment remains in place? If so, will he give us some idea of when that more fundamental review, presumably across both the social rented and private rented sectors, might begin?

The third issue relates to the current enforcement regime for the housing health and safety rating system. The regime is primary means by which local authorities can tackle poor property conditions and compel prompt action from landlords who do not fulfil their responsibilities to provide homes free from dangerously hazardous conditions. We take it from the Government amendments that while the new decent homes standard for the private rented sector will be located in part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, it will not necessarily be the same thing as the HHSRS, which is also in part 1 of that Act. We will presumably need to wait for secondary legislation to work out how, if at all, the decent homes standard and the HHSRS differ, but their workings will need to complement each other.

In answer to a written question that I tabled on 2 May, the then Housing Minister confirmed that a review of the HHSRS, including the statutory operating and enforcement guidance, was under way. Given the obvious implications of that answer for the functioning of the new decent homes standard introduced by this group of Government amendments, will the Minister tell us whether that review has concluded, as the decent homes consultation suggested? If it has, when did it conclude, when will the results be published, and does it remain the Government’s view that any changes will require further legislation? The status and outcome of the review of the HHSRS and its associated statutory, operating and enforcement guidance are important because that guidance is applied when local authorities consider using their statutory powers to remedy defective housing conditions, including and especially damp and mould.

That brings me to our new clause 60. When the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 was on Report, the Government tabled and passed, with our support, amendments designed to force social landlords to investigate and fix damp and mould-related health hazards within specified timeframes, with the threat of legal challenge if they do not, owing to the insertion of an implied covenant into tenancy agreements. The provisions were termed Awaab’s law because they were a direct response to the untimely death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from respiratory arrest, as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in the rented Rochdale Boroughwide Housing property in which he and his family lived. Although enactment of the new requirements is dependent on secondary legislation, with the consultation having closed last week we are hopeful that the necessary statutory instrument will soon be forthcoming. We look forward to its enactment so that social landlords who continue to drag their feet over dangerous damp and mould will face the full force of the law.

New clause 60 would simply extend Awaab’s law to the private rented sector by amending the relevant section of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, and the reasoning behind that is straightforward. The Government were right to introduce Awaab’s law in the social housing sector, but the problem of debilitating damp and mould, and landlords who fail to investigate such hazards and make necessary repairs, is not confined to social rented homes.

A Citizens Advice report published in February made it clear that the private rented sector has widespread problems with damp, mould and cold, driven by the poor energy efficiency of privately rented homes—an issue that we are minded to raise later in the Bill’s proceedings. The report went on to evidence the fact that 1.6 million children in England currently live in cold, damp or mouldy privately rented homes. In the face of such a pervasive problem, we can think of no justification whatsoever for restricting Awaab’s law purely to the social housing sector. We hope that the Government will agree and accept new clause 60, because we can think of no reason whatsoever why they would resist doing so.

Before I conclude, I want to touch briefly on a final issue in relation to this group of amendments. We welcome the inclusion of supported exempt accommodation in a decent homes standard and part 1 of the Housing Act 2004. We believe that will resolve an issue of concern that we flagged in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill Committee—namely, the loophole that exists, and is being exploited by unscrupulous providers, as a result of non-profit-making providers of supported exempt accommodation being able to let properties at market rents that are eligible for housing benefit support, on the basis that “more than minimal” care, support or supervision is being provided, without those properties coming within the scope of consumer regulation.

The inclusion of temporary accommodation is also welcome, but it is slightly more problematic, because local authorities are responsible both for enforcing part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 and for procuring sufficient temporary accommodation to meet their duty to prevent and relieve homelessness. As such, while there may not be a legal conflict of interest, there is certainly a potential practical conflict of interest, as local authorities will be forced to weigh the case for any potential enforcement action, outside the scope of the contract in question, against the need to retain private landlords as an ongoing source of desperately needed temporary accommodation. It is for precisely that reason that we tried to convince the Government, in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill Committee, to have temporary accommodation regulated by a third party, such as the Regulator of Social Housing.

The Government amendments will undoubtedly help to improve the quality of some temporary accommodation, and the inclusion of temporary accommodation in a decent homes standard and part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 is to be welcomed for that reason. However, we encourage the Government to consider whether they might go further. For example—here, I again commend my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North for her Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018—could the Government extend section 9A of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to also cover properties occupied under licences as homelessness temporary accommodation? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that, and I look forward to his response to new clause 60 and all the other issues that I have raised regarding this group of amendments.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s point about local authorities and their ability to enforce. We will establish a new duty on landlords to ensure that their properties meet the decent homes standard. For landlords who fail to take reasonably practicable steps to keep their properties free of serious hazard, local councils will be able to issue fines of up to £5,000. That will encourage those landlords who do not already do so to proactively manage their properties, which will allow local councils to target their enforcement more effectively on a small minority of irresponsible and criminal landlords.

We will also explore requiring landlords to register compliance with the decent homes standard on the property portal. That will support local councils in identifying non-decent properties to target through their enforcement activity. As I have already said in response to different parts of the Bill, we will also do a full new burdens assessment for local authorities, and where there is a new burden, they will be resourced to fund that.

On the hon. Gentleman’s questions about the HHSRS review, the simple answer is that we will publish that in due course. Secondary legislation obviously needs to coincide with that, so I do not have anything further to add at this point. However, I am happy to write to him in further detail on that. Similarly, I will commit to writing to him on on the DHS review too.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 2:15, 28 Tachwedd 2023

The hon. Member is trying to press me for a specific timeframe, but I am unable to give him that commitment today.

I thank the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for tabling new clause 60. The tragic case of Awaab Ishak’s death has thrown into sharp relief the need for the Government to continue our mission to rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants in this country. It is right that all tenants across both sectors should expect safe and decent homes from their landlords. However, our focus for the private rented sector is to strengthen the enforcement of standards by local housing authorities, as well as introducing new means of redress through the PRS ombudsman.

We do not consider it to be of interest to private rented sector tenants to introduce a further route for potential litigation and enforcement. Private tenants already have rights when it comes to repairs in their home and the safety of their home. Private landlords are required to make sure that their homes are free from the most serious health and safety hazards. If hazards are present, the local housing authority can issue an improvement notice requiring them to be remedied within a specific time. Landlords who fail to comply can be prosecuted or fined up to £30,000. Additionally, if tenants consider that their rented home is not fit for human habitation, they can seek remedy through the courts under the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, to which the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich referred.

Our focus is on strengthening the new system through the Bill. As I have just set out, we intend to introduce a decent homes standard in the private rented sector for the first time. The Government’s amendment to introduce the relevant provisions will place a stronger duty on landlords to keep their properties free from serious hazards, and allow local housing authorities to take enforcement action if private rented homes fail to meet decent homes standards. Through the Bill, we are also introducing a private rented sector ombudsman, which will be able to help private tenants to resolve repair issues quickly and for free if their landlord has not acted appropriately to remedy an issue within a reasonable timeframe.

Through existing legislation and new measures introduced by the Bill, private rented sector landlords will be held to account for providing safe and decent homes, and for providing timely repairs. We do not consider that it would be in the interest of private rented sector tenants to introduce a further route for potential litigation.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Before the Minister sits down, will he deal with the issue of licences? Those of us who deal with a large number of people in homeless accommodation know that those in temporary accommodation, whose accommodation is held under licence, often endure the worst conditions of all, and very little of this legislation currently applies to them. Will he bring something forward?

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am happy to have that conversation with the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich at a later date. If there are specific points that I have not addressed, I am happy to write to her, but I ask the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I welcome that response from the Minister. With regard to Government amendments, I thank him for what he said about the HHSRS and the more fundamental review of the decent homes standard across both tenures. If he has any further detail on that, I would welcome it. I particularly welcome the implied suggestion that the registration of a decent homes standard, when it is forthcoming, will form part of what is required for landlords to submit on the portal. That is a very good idea, and in that way we could help to drive up standards by making it part of the general information that needs to be submitted as part of registration with the database. That is very welcome.

On Awaab’s law and new clause 60, I have to say to the Minister that he gave a particularly unconvincing answer. I entirely understand that when it comes to standards, the Government’s focus is on the measures in the Bill. We all want to see local authorities able to enforce properly, and we all want to see the ombudsman provide a mechanism for redress. However, I still fail to understand—I do not think the Minister responded to this point—why the Government believe that Awaab’s law is appropriate for the social rented sector, but not for the private rented sector.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will just make this point. The Minister said that the Government do not think it is of interest to tenants; I would be very interested to know what surveys the Government have done of tenants to find out their views on this matter, because I am certainly not aware of any such evidence. I think it would be of real interest to tenants if their landlords could be forced to respond within specific timeframes to sufficiently serious cases of damp and mould, as Awaab’s law provides for the social rented sector, with the threat of legal challenge as a stock response. I am happy to give way, but I find the Minister’s arguments on this point quite unconvincing. If these measures are appropriate for the social rented sector, with all the other measures in place in that sector, they should be appropriate for the private rented sector.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there is an obvious difference between a large social housing sector landlord, which has maintenance teams that can quickly act to address an issue, and an individual landlord, who may have only one or two properties, and may not have a wealth of skill behind them to address such issues in the timeframes that we hope to set out for social landlords. As I said, local authorities can request timely changes to properties.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Minister for that answer. I fully accept that there is a difference between a large registered social landlord, and a mum-and-dad landlord, who might own only one or two buy-to-let properties. However, we should not therefore say that it is acceptable for the kinds of cases that Awaab’s law would cover, if extended to the private sector, to go on unchallenged. I am not satisfied that there are existing powers to challenge those cases. If there were such powers in the social rented sector, the Government would not have needed to bring forward Awaab’s law. Actually, if the Government were properly resourcing local authorities to enforce, Awaab’s law might not be necessary, but the Government deemed it necessary in the social rented sector.

As the Bill demonstrates, the difference between the private rented sector and the social sector will break down to some extent, whether as a result of the ombudsman, who will cover both sectors, or other measures. We think the law should cover both sectors, and I find the Minister’s response unconvincing. I will press new clause 60 to a Division.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

It is worth pointing out that the Minister himself said that the condition of the housing stock in the private rented sector was now considered to be worse than the condition of the housing stock in the social rented sector. Surely the Minister should therefore argue that we need tougher regulation, because regulation is failing more badly in the private sector than in the social sector, but he seems not to have followed through on his argument.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend is right. We know that standards in the social rented sector are inadequate; that is why the Government brought forward their recent legislation, which we supported. Things are worse in the private rented sector. I quoted the Citizens Advice statistic: 1.6 million children are in damp, mouldy or cold homes. If anything, there is a stronger case for Awaab’s law applying to the private rented sector than to the social, but the Minister is trying to have it both ways, for the obvious reason that the Government do not want to accept our new clause. I encourage them to go away and think. We will press the new clause to a vote. If the measures are good enough for the social rented sector, surely they are good enough for tenants in the private rented sector; I have seen no evidence that those tenants are not interested in the tougher powers that Awaab’s law would provide.

Finally, I would welcome any further detail from the Minister on whether there is a need to go further on licensed temporary accommodation properties.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 63 accordingly disagreed to.