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Talked out

Karen Buck04/11/2015 - 13:17

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Ms Buck's bill was talked out last month
Ms Buck's bill was talked out last month

Conservative MP and landlord Philip Davies talked out a private members bill last month which would have given renters that ability sue landlords for letting out homes unfit for human habitation. Karen Buck, the backbench MP who initiated the bill, reflects of the fate of her bill and the urgent issues it raised.  

EHN has asked Mr Davies to write a response. 

Less than 24 hours after my private member’s bill, lifting restrictions on tenants being able to take action against landlords who let unfit homes, was talked out in Parliament, The Times led with a powerful story [which drew on EHN’s investigation into rogue landlords: ed] showing ‘250,000 tenants suffer as councils fail to act’.

It was a strong story. I would have been even more pleased with it the day before when I was making the case to parliament. I was arguing that the provisions of the Landlord and Tenant Act restrict tenants from seeking redress in the courts for conditions such as damp and infestation because of rent caps, which were last updated in 1957. Hence, if your rent is over £52 a year (yes, a year, not a day), you are above the threshold at which you can enforce the statutory duty on your landlord to let and maintain your property at a standard fit for human habitation.

The Times story reinforced one of my central points - that local authorities are not always stepping into the gap, and as resources are increasingly squeezed, that situation may get worse rather than better. I have said on many occasions that EHOs are the unsung heroes of the public sector - a first line of defence for consumers and tenants who are put at risk by ill-qualified, sloppy or sometimes plain criminal service providers. Yet more than a quarter of councils in England failed to prosecute a single landlord for providing unsafe accommodation, and half of local authorities prosecute fewer than two a year.

Enforcement of the housing health and safety ratings system (HHSRS) is highly variable, with a heavy reliance on informal action. This may have its place, but the low level of enforcement can’t help but raise questions, not least since the Chartered Institute of Housing’s 2014 UK housing review calculated that 33 per cent of private rented housing in England would fail the government’s decent homes standard for social housing, almost one in five privately rented homes (18.9 per cent) contains an HHSRS category 1 hazard (Yougov/Shelter survey 2014) and 61 per cent of tenants have experienced mould or damp; leaking roofs or windows; electrical hazards; animal infestations or a gas leak in the last 12 months.

That same survey found that 10 per cent of tenants report that their health has been affected in the last year because their landlord has not dealt with repairs and poor conditions in their property.

I would like to see more consistency in the enforcement of HHSRS powers, but I don’t believe councils can or should do it alone. My bill would have given tenants the power to go to court themselves, to obtain an injunction and seek compensation, in line with the Law Commission recommendations from as far back as 1996. Tenants deserve better protection, so we shall return to this in the Housing Bill.

As for the MP who talked my bill out, he concluded by saying: ‘All they ever want to do is clamp down on private landlords, even though the problem does not seem to exist to the extent they believe.’

It took one more day for the evidence to prove him unequivocally wrong.

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