Housing standards have come into sharp focus this week after the devastating fire in west London that left at least 30 people dead and dozens more injured.
There have been reports of Tory MPs rejecting Labour legislation that would require all rented homes to be “fit for human habitation”.
Labour have put two pieces of legislation before Parliament on this issue since 2015. Both have been blocked. We take a look at what happened.
A Labour MP laid a bill in 2015 to make private rented properties safer – it was rejected
In 2015, Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck put forward her own legislation called the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill. The proposed law was designed to do two things.
1. Make sure all privately rented homes are fit for human habitation – not just the most expensive.
There is already a legal requirement on private landlords who charge more than a certain level of rent to make sure that their properties are fit for human habitation. Buck’s bill tried to extend that obligation all private rented properties – regardless of how much landlords charge in rent.
2. Make sure that privately rented homes with “category 1 hazards” like dangerous boilers and faulty wiring cannot be signed off as fit for human habitation.
Under current law, (the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985) landlords must consider several factors when deciding whether a property is fit for human habitation. These include “freedom from damp”, “water supply”, “drainage and sanitary conveniences” and “[structural] stability”.
Karen Buck’s bill sought to add another requirement to that list: that landlords must take action against so-called “category 1 hazards”.
According to Shelter, a category 1 hazard is anything in a home that causes a serious threat to the health or safety to residents or visitors. Examples include exposed wiring or overloaded electrical sockets, dangerous or faulty boilers, broken steps at the top of the stairs, and leaking roofs.
At the moment, local authorities must take action if they find a category 1 hazard in a rented home (including homes in the private rental sector).
Buck’s proposed law would put a legal duty on private landlords – not just local councils – to make sure there are no category 1 hazards in their rental properties.
What happened to Labour’s bill?
Private members’ bills like Buck’s are not the same as legislation laid by the government. They are “sponsored” by individual backbench MPs, rather than ministers, and only a tiny minority actually make it onto the statute books.
Private members’ bills are often used as a way of drawing attention to issues.
A handful of these bills make it to the debate stage, but government or other MPs can deliberately “talk out” them out as a quick way of killing them off.
In the case of Karen Buck’s housing bill, it was talked out by Conservative MPs, including Philip Davies, who describes himself as both a landlord and tenant. He said this dual status put him in the “unusual position of being able to see both sides of the argument”, but ultimately declared that the proposed legislation would put “huge burdens” on landlords and should be dropped.
His lengthy filibuster meant that it was.
Labour tried to amend the government’s Housing Bill in 2016 – and was thwarted again
After the private members’ bill failed to pass the debate stage, Labour MPs and peers took a second shot at rental regulation in 2016 – this time trying to amend the government’s Housing and Planning Bill.
Shadow Housing Minister Teresa Pearce wanted to get the content of Karen Buck’s rejected bill – i.e. the “fitness for human habitation” clauses – included in the government legislation.
But then-Housing Minister Brandon Lewis said that the government’s bill already included policies to tackle rogue landlords, and that Buck and Pearce’s proposals would impose “unnecessary regulation” on landlords.
The Labour amendment was defeated; all 309 Tory MPs that turned up voted against it. All 205 of the Labour MPs that voted supported the amendment, but it wasn’t enough to force the change in the law.
But the government has effectively taken through Labour’s policy proposals under a different name
It’s easy to confuse the substance of the legislation with its appearance. Understandably, Tory MPs voting down legislation that contains the words “fit for human habitation” attracts negative headlines.
And much has been made of the fact that 39 per cent of Conservative MPs in 2016 were themselves landlords, and might therefore have an interest in voting down potentially burdensome regulation.
But, as this research by the House of Commons Library (which is independent from government) shows, there are several areas of legislation that already require landlords to maintain safety standards.
For example, under the Gas Safety Regulations 1998, landlords are responsible for repairing and maintaining gas fittings and appliances. Legislation from 2015 requires all private landlords to install a smoke alarm on every storey of the property, and says they can be fined up to £5,000 for non-compliance.
The research also points out that the health and safety regulations that Karen Buck wanted to introduce in her failed 2015 bill were included in the government’s Housing and Planning bill the following year.
In effect, the government has taken forward a lot of the substance of Labour’s proposed legislation, but avoided using the language of “fit for human habitation”.
So to some extent, Labour have succeeded in making sure the government improves regulation of privately rented homes.
Is there a link to the Grenfell Tower disaster?
It’s important to remember that both the private member’s bill and the Labour amendment to the government’s legislation were about regulating private sector landlords – not social housing.
We understand that the flats in Grenfell tower were owned by Kensington and Chelsea council and run by its housing association. There were a handful of flats sold to private owners, but the majority were in public hands.
So while the two pieces of legislation that Labour have put forward in recent years have made inroads in reforming private rentals, they’re not directly linked to social housing policy.
But still, the Tories will struggle to get away from continued accusations that austerity and lack of regulation are partly to blame for the tragedy.