Thursday, 9 September 2010

HANSARD - Yesterday's debate on Rogue Landlords

Yesterday's debate on rogue landlords by John Cruddas can be found in full in Hansard here. Below is the extracted version at the points I was able to raise.

11.19 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): 

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing the debate and other colleagues on their potent interventions. In particular, let me mention my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), and thank him for bringing to the attention of the House some of the specific and horrific examples that he described.

I think that everyone present understands the importance of the private rented sector in delivering affordable and suitable accommodation for households. As has been reported, there are 3 million private tenants in this country. In the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay and in London, a much higher percentage-as many as one in five-are in private rented accommodation. The sector provides a lot of choice and flexibility at all levels of the housing market.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): 
The Minister makes the point that there is quality provision in the private rented sector, but I should like to point out the situation in my constituency and the east Lancashire corridor, which probably reflects that in many areas of the country. In my area, 40% of properties do not meet the decent homes standard and 11% are unfit for human habitation; and within those statistics, it is predominantly the private rented sector that features. How can the Minister say that there is adequate provision and no need for regulation when such squalid conditions exist? Urgent action is needed on rogue private landlords. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) made the good point that environmental health officers are really struggling. The sector does need regulation, because such landlords are able to evade legislation. They are able to work round-

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be making a speech.

Andrew Stunell: 
Indeed. I am getting a bit cramped for making my own speech, if I may say so, Mr Robertson. I shall just challenge the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on one point. He says that 40% of the homes in his constituency are below the decent homes standard-a figure that I fully accept. I do not know what proportion of them are in the private rented sector-he did not say-but of course a lot of homes below the decent homes standard are not in the private rented sector, and I do not want him to get away with the idea that the coalition Government believe that there should be no regulation. On the contrary, I shall outline in a moment, I hope, what we think is there and should be there and what should be done to enhance the situation that we face.

The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham, in introducing the debate, was, I think, criticising my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government for saying that the vast majority of private tenants are satisfied with the service that they receive. Well, 75% of them say that, which I think is somewhat near to being a vast majority, but I certainly recognise that there is poor practice.

Graham Jones: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Andrew Stunell: I think that it would be a courtesy to the House if I continued with my speech at this point. Perhaps there will be a space at the end of the debate.

There is bad practice; a minority of landlords clearly behave in an unacceptable way; and the management of the poorest-quality stock is an issue. Those properties are often the ones that are occupied by the most vulnerable tenants, too. That causes real problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out.

The Minister for Housing and Local Government is well aware of the position that some people face. He is also well aware of the Shelter campaign. I can tell hon. Members that he will attend a public meeting with Shelter in a couple of weeks' time, when he visits the Liberal Democrat conference, so I am sure that if he is in any doubt, he will be able to understand the position fully there.

What can we do to tackle the problem? Local authorities already have significant powers. Some hon. Members talked about illegal action that has taken place. Illegal action can be confronted by local authorities, whether by environmental health or by rent officers. Indeed, in Liverpool, there is an interesting situation in which such action is being confronted by the primary care trust, which is also involved in local health issues. It is certainly our intention to work with those who have an enforcement role, to ensure that the barriers to them using their powers effectively are lifted. Of course, those are mostly powers that are given to local authorities, which is exactly as it should be. Where landlords fail to maintain their properties, local authorities can use the housing health and safety rating system to make a risk assessment.

Graham Jones: 
The health and safety rating system involves very minimum standards. Does the Minister not agree that it involves appallingly low standards and does not come anywhere near meeting the decent homes standard? When environmental health officers are asked to go round and look at properties, they have no power at all to make the house reach a decent standard, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay.

Andrew Stunell: 
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is asking me to do. If he thinks that there should be a legal requirement for private landlords not to let if their home is not of a decent standard, I think that that will give a number of social housing landlords problems as well. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point that standards in some places are low and need to be brought up to standard. I was trying to illustrate the fact that local authorities have powers at their disposal to achieve that.

There is an extensive enforcement framework. Where high levels of hazard are identified-categories 1 and 2-the local authority can compel private landlords to make the necessary improvements. It can issue improvement notices and can require property to be closed down. Failure to comply carries a fine of £5,000.

One of the points that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham made was that there are repeat offences, and one of his questions to me was what the Government will do about repeat offenders. Repeat offenders go to the courts, and the courts will take the decision based on the facts of the case. I strongly support the hon. Gentleman in thinking that the courts should take those breaches very seriously.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab):
Given that the legislation in place to pursue rogue landlords is not strong, and even if we take the Minister at his word that the current legislation is strong enough, is it not the case that when local authorities are being asked to make cuts of 25 to 40%, the ability to pursue those landlords will be curtailed?