This Commons Library briefing paper explains the provisions in Karen Buck's Private Member's Bill on housing fitness in preparation for the debate on Second Reading. The Bill is seeking to require that residential rented dwellings in England are fit for human habitation at the start of the tenancy and thereafter. The debate on Second Reading is scheduled for 19 January 2018.
The purpose of the Bill
Karen Buck’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill 2017-19: Download is seeking to amend relevant sections of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 by extending its obligations to cover almost all landlords and to modernise the fitness for habitation test. As a result of rent limits which have remained unchanged since the 1950s, the current requirement for fitness in section 8 of the 1985 Act has ceased, for the most part, to have effect. Where a landlord fails to let and maintain a property that is fit for human habitation, the Bill would give tenants a right to take action in the courts.
The Bill extends to England and Wales but will only apply to tenancies in England. The Welsh Government has already included similar provisions in relation to housing fitness in the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 (see section 1.5 of this paper).
Relevant documents on the Bil can be found on the Parliament website. The Bill's progress through Parliament can also be tracked from this page.
On 14 January 2018 the Housing Secretary, Sajid Javid, confirmed Government support for the Bill.
Housing standards in England
There have been longstanding concerns about property standards in the private rented sector (PRS). The PRS houses more households in England than the social rented sector but has some of the poorest property standards. The 2015/16 English Housing Survey: Download (EHS) found that the private rented sector (PRS) had the highest proportion of homes with at least one indicator of poor housing (40%).
The EHS records that 28% of PRS homes failed the decent home standard in 2015. The PRS has always performed less well than other tenures against this measure, but the level of non-decent homes in the PRS reduced between 2006 and 2013 from 47% to 30%.
More broadly, the EHS 2015/16 records that “there has been no year on year improvement on the prevalence of non-decent homes for the whole housing stock since 2013.” The Grenfell Tower fire has focused attention on housing standards in the social rented stock, and also in privately owned blocks of flats.
Why is the Bill needed?
There are statutory obligations on most landlords to keep in repair the structure and exterior of their properties, and to repair installations for the supply of water, heating and sanitation. However, provisions requiring landlords to ensure that their properties are fit for human habitation have ceased to have effect as a result of annual rent limits (£52 or less, and £80 or less in London).
The Housing, Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) was introduced by the Housing Act 2004. The HHSRS is a risk-based approach used to assess risks to health and safety in the home by looking at the likelihood of particular faults or deficiencies, which could cause injury, ill health or impact on the wellbeing of those living in the dwelling. While this risk-based approach is felt to offer benefits over a pass/fail standard of housing fitness, the HHSRS is widely viewed as complex and to suffer from inconsistent application and enforcement by local authorities. The operating guidance has not been updated since 2006. Reports published by several bodies, inlcuding the Communities and Local Government Select Committee in 2013, and Shelter in 2014, have recommended a review of the HHSRS.
There are particular issues faced by tenants seeking to improve housing conditions. Local authorities cannot take enforcement action against themselves – this can leave council tenants at a relative disadvantage if their landlord does not respond to the presence of health and safety hazards in their homes. Landlords of private tenants may respond to requests for repairs by beginning eviction procedures, this is referred to as retaliatory eviction. Commentators also highlight the lack of legal aid for disrepair cases as a barrier to tenants seeking to improve their housing conditions.
A joint report commissioned by Shelter from the universities of Bristol and Kent (2017) concluded:
The law relating to health and safety in people’s homes is piecemeal, out-dated, complex, dependent on tenure, and patchily enforced. It makes obscure distinctions, which have little relationship with everyday experiences of poor conditions.
Recent attempts to amend the law
Karen Buck presented the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill on 24 June 2015. The purpose of the Bill was "to amend the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to require that residential rented accommodation is provided and maintained in a state of fitness for human habitation; and for connected purposes.” The Second Reading debate on the Bill took place on 16 October 2015. The debate was adjourned and the Bill failed to make progress.
During the Committee Stage of the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16, Shadow Housing Minister, Teresa Pearce, attempted to amend the Bill to introduce Karen Buck’s fitness for human habitation proposals. In response, the then Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, said that the Bill’s proposals on rogue landlords were a better way to improve standards without imposing “unnecessary regulation” on landlords. The Minister argued that the HHSRS was in place to keep properties in a decent state of repair, and that it was up to local authorities to enforce this properly. The amendment was withdrawn but further attempts to amend the Bill in respect of fitness for human habitation were made on Report in the Commons and during the Committee stages in the House of Lords. On both occasions the amendment was defeated.
Reaction to the Bill
The Shelter briefing on the Bill calls on the Government to:
…adopt this Bill as part of a cross-party, national, response to the Grenfell tragedy so that future tenants are not ignored and their safety put at risk.
Both the Residential Association of Landlords (RLA) and National Association of Landlords (NLA) have expressed support for the Bill. Policy Director at the RLA, David Smith, said:
Tenants have a right to expect that homes are fit for habitation, and the vast majority of good landlords already provide this. This Bill therefore reinforces what landlords should already be doing.
The joint report by the universities of Bristol and Kent, Closing the Gaps: Health and Safety at Home: Download (2017) also expressed support for the Bill’s provisions:
This Bill addresses and provides redress for the gaps which currently exist in the private law of landlord and tenant regarding the state and condition of the property; the restrictions on a landlord’s repairing obligations; and updating the criteria for determining fitness.
As noted above, the Government confirmed that it would support the Bill on 14 January 2018.