Monday 16th March 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Grand Committee

Read Hansard Text

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

Earl of Courtown Portrait The Earl of Courtown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Grand Committee do consider the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020.

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Earl of Courtown Portrait The Earl of Courtown (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this Government are committed to ensuring that all tenants live in safe, secure and high-quality properties. These important regulations help deliver that commitment for private tenants. Private landlords make an extremely valuable contribution to the housing market. The majority of landlords in England provide well-maintained and safe accommodation for their tenants, allowing them to put down roots, work and thrive in their communities. However, some landlords wilfully flout their responsibilities and put their tenants at a significant risk of harm as a result. This is not acceptable. These regulations will target those irresponsible and unscrupulous landlords and will help to level the playing field for the majority of good landlords who already meet this requirement. As a result, the regulations will help to drive up safety and standards across the private rented sector and reduce deaths and injuries caused by electrical faults.

The numbers are telling. In 2016-17, 16 people died and 871 were injured in England as a result of electrical fires in the home. In a five-year period, the London Fire Brigade dealt with 748 fires caused by electrics. In the same period, only 97 fires it dealt with in London were caused by gas. Only 60% of homes in the private rented sector have all the recommended electrical safety features installed, compared with 75% of homes in the social rented sector. This amounts to a compelling case for change.

These regulations will require all landlords to have the electrical installations in their properties inspected and tested by a qualified and competent person at least every five years. Good landlords already keep the electrics in their properties safe, but there are those who avoid doing this and undercut the good ones. They will now have to comply and better protect the safety of their tenants. If they do not like it, they can leave the business. The regulations will also require landlords to provide a copy of the electrical safety report to their tenants, and to their local authority if requested, to give tenants the information they need for their peace of mind and to support local authority enforcement.

But what about those landlords who decide to continue to flout the law and put their tenants at risk of electrocution and perhaps even fire? These regulations will provide local authorities with strong enforcement powers to tackle this minority of landlords. Local authorities will be able legally to require landlords to carry out vital remedial works. If landlords still do not comply, the council will be able to arrange the works and recover the cost from the landlord.

Local authorities will also be able to request proof from landlords that the electrical installations in their property are in fact safe. If a landlord has to carry out essential remedial work, they must let their local authority know. There will be a serious penalty for landlords who do not comply with the requirements—requirements that they should already be meeting. Local authorities will have the power to issue financial penalties of up to £30,000; it will be for them to decide the level of penalty. They can see the severity of the issue and will know best how to tackle irresponsible landlords in their areas.

Our local authorities are working hard to enforce standards in privately rented properties, so we are mindful of the risks of putting new burdens on them. That is why we have legislated that they may retain the proceeds of these financial penalties for enforcement purposes, allowing councils to keep up the good work and drive up standards further. This will contribute to the long-term financial stability of housing enforcement teams. These regulations form part of the Government’s comprehensive programme of work to improve safety in all buildings and conditions in the private rented sector in particular, where overall standards are significantly worse than in other tenures.

We took decisive action to address the risks identified following the Grenfell Tower tragedy and accepted in principle all recommendations in the Grenfell Tower inquiry phase one report. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will introduce a fire safety Bill which will clarify that, under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, building owners and managers of multioccupied residential buildings must ensure they assess fire risks linked to external walls, including cladding, and the entrance doors to individual flats. We also accepted the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building safety and will publish a building safety Bill as soon as possible.

This is all in addition to the renters’ reform Bill, which will deliver a better deal for renters. I look forward to sharing the details of this Bill with Members of the House over the coming months. However, I can tell noble Lords now that it will improve security and affordability for tenants and professionalise the sector. It will include measures to drive criminal landlords out of the sector while strengthening the rights of landlords who have a valid reason for regaining possession of their property.

I appreciate the opportunity to set out all this exciting new work and thank noble Lords for their interest in this important matter. These regulations will help drive up standards and reduce injuries and deaths due to electric shocks and fires caused by electrical faults in residential premises within the private rented sector. As I said at the start, the majority of landlords are proactive in ensuring the safety of their tenants, so these requirements will not put an additional burden on those landlords who make a welcome contribution to the housing market.

It is reasonable to expect all landlords to make sure their tenants are safe from the risk of electrocution or fire. Ultimately, these regulations will help ensure that tenants are kept safe. I beg to move.

Lord Tope Portrait Lord Tope (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his thorough introduction to these long-overdue regulations, which I welcome. Before I go any further, I declare an interest as a patron of the charity Electrical Safety First. It has been campaigning for many years—longer than I have been involved with it—for these regulations, which they too very much welcome.

I have a few questions and points of concern, the first of which relates to the current state that the country—indeed, the world—is in. The regulations are due to come into effect for new tenancies, as I understand it, from 1 July, with guidance to local authorities being issued during June. As I said, the regulations are long overdue; it is very important that they go ahead. However, given the crisis affecting everybody in the country—not least local authorities—how confident can the Minister and his department be that we will be able to stick to the implementation dates, particularly 1 July, but also the later date for existing tenancies? I urge the Government to do everything possible to ensure that they stick to those implementation dates and that proper guidance is issued beforehand.

My principal concern about these regulations relates to enforcement. Here, I again declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Also, although this is no longer a declarable interest, I was a London borough councillor for 40 years and a council leader for 13 years. My concern—I have much experience of this—is that Governments are sometimes good at giving power but no good at all at providing the resources necessary to enforce it. I am pleased that local authorities will have the enforcement power, but I hope the Minister can assure me they will have the financing and capacity to carry out that enforcement effectively. What discussions have the Government had with the Local Government Association, and particularly with the professional bodies, to ensure that local authorities have sufficient environmental health officers to carry out the enforcement duties effectively?

Do the Government recognise that this is an additional burden on local authorities—albeit a welcome one as far as I am concerned—and what additional finance is being provided to meet it? I am sure the answer will be the one I have heard many times over the years: that it is included in the general government settlement. However, we can never find any specific reference to that.

Of greater concern to me than finance—the financial position of local authorities is well known—is capacity. Will there be enough able and competent environmental health officers to carry out these necessary duties? Can the Minister confirm that local authorities will retain 100% of the fines they impose and collect? Experience has taught me that their ability to raise money acts as a considerable incentive to carry out enforcement, so I hope so.

I turn to a particular point that was raised with me. Although all the professional bodies, including Electrical Safety First, believe that this legislation is completely fit for purpose, I understand that some landlords are concerned about some of its language, particularly what is meant by

“the eighteenth edition of the Wiring Regulations”.

Can the Minister explain why it mentions this standard, and can he assure landlords that this does not impose any further burdens on them, such as the need to rewire, so long as their properties are safe in the first place?

I am told that some landlords are concerned that the legislation may create a temporary loophole in safety legislation for houses in multiple occupation. Can the Minister clarify that there will be no such safety gaps for tenants in these properties and no reason, therefore, to delay the legislation’s introduction?

Finally, in his letter to me, and no doubt to other Peers, of 17 January confirming that the regulations had been laid, the then Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie—who I am pleased to see is in his place, although I believe in a different role—said:

“I strongly believe that everyone deserves a decent and safe place to live, regardless of tenure.”

We would all agree with that, but will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to provide similar protection for tenants in the social rented sector?

That is all I have to say, other than to welcome these long-overdue regulations.

Baroness Grender Portrait Baroness Grender (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, my party gives its full support to these regulations. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Tope and our former colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, have been assiduous campaigners for this change over a long period. Their dogged persistence, alongside that of other opposition parties, has finally borne fruit. I also congratulate Electrical Safety First on its constant and unwavering focus on getting this done. These regulations will start to keep many people safe from electrical accidents and fires.

Every year, around 350,000 people are injured and 70 people are killed in the UK by electrical accidents. Compare that with, altogether, 300 injuries and 18 deaths per year due to fires, explosions, carbon monoxide poisoning and gas leaks. That leads to my first question: why has this taken so long? I looked back at some previous debates to find that, in April 2018, I raised the issue of the achingly slow pace with the then Minister, who promised something soon. The electrical safety working group completed its work in autumn 2016. Even then, regulations were promised by spring 2019. The people who have been injured in the interim period, and the families of those who have been killed, expect an answer now. I appreciate that it is not easy to answer that right here, right now, but I would like an undertaking to write to explain why these regulations have taken so long to come through.

As with the ban on tenant fees, the wheels of government appear to move slowly when it comes to people in the private rented sector, who, I believe, continue to be treated as second-class citizens. This extends to the current coronavirus pandemic. Much effort is being made to ensure that there are holidays for mortgage payments. Every time the Government make such a move, I ask them to ask themselves the following question: how do we mirror this now in the private rented sector, given that, even by the Government’s own figures, which I believe to be a significant underestimate of 4.8 million households, over one-quarter of the population is excluded from something like a mortgage holiday? What is the equivalent in the private rented sector? Will the Minister urgently look at rental holidays, too, to help those who are often the poorest through this crisis?

Will the Minister also use this opportunity to revisit the issue of a central register for landlords to enable tenants and local authorities to ensure tenants’ rights are enhanced and upheld? The Government originally said no to banning tenant fees, but rightly changed their mind. Again, they said no early on to mandatory checks, but again, they rightly changed their mind. Will the Government now change their mind about a central register of private rented sector landlords? This would help local authorities in particular. As the Minister will know, local authorities have had their funding reduced by 60p out of every pound, as my noble friend Lord Tope explained. The £30,000 financial penalty for a breach of regulations is very welcome, but will the Minister outline what additional support will go to local authorities in advance?

We always have a chicken-and-egg debate at this point. I urge the Minister to consider what funds are made available to the local authority to raise its first £30,000 penalty in breach, so that it can then pay to reinforce. It is exactly like the recent legislation on the prevention of homelessness. What is the up-front payment that goes to a local authority so that it can then start to enforce, as I believe it should? Paragraph 12.8 of the Explanatory Memorandum seems very similar to what exists for rogue landlords. What is the up-front payment to help ensure that it is upheld? Under paragraph 11, “Guidance”, I notice that there is further information about how the guidance will come through and be explained to people. What resource will be placed behind explaining to people their new rights, and how they can assert them as tenants?

We are very grateful to the Minister for giving us a brief and most welcome update on progress towards a Bill on the private rented sector. If he would like to take a fast-track approach to dealing with no-fault evictions, I recommend my Private Member’s Bill, which is currently in the Lords, as a way to ensure that we address this issue at a slightly faster pace than the Government are currently dealing with private rented sector issues.

I will touch briefly on the issue of property guardians, which I have also raised with the Government. Towards the end of Theresa May’s premiership we were getting closer, as I understood it, to introducing greater rights for property guardians. I had a very useful meeting with Minister Wheeler and the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, about this. I felt that we were getting quite close to a solution; then there was a change at No. 10, since when it has gone very quiet. The property guardians issue is an increasing problem that we need to be ahead of, so I refer the Minister to a recent investigation by Vicky Spratt of the i newspaper of a former residential care home. Not untypically with property guardian issues, there were 31 residents, who are often older renters. Nothing has been tested. They have all had to sign NDAs, which are unenforceable—but how do they know that?—and the HMO licence is not an HMO licence. I point out to the Minister that recently, Colchester Council took Camelot Guardian Management Company Ltd to court on this very issue.

The property guardians issue is a growing problem that the Government could be well ahead of in legislation. It would be good, at the very least, to offer to sit down with interested parties and follow up the discussion held a year ago, when it felt as if we were getting close to something useful and helpful, because they are not included under any kind of assured shorthold tenancy rights. We now have teachers, NHS staff and low-income workers being housed in former care homes that are, frankly, dilapidated buildings. It is on the increase and being advertised in a lot of local authority areas.

Finally, will the Minister update us, as my noble friend Lord Tope asked, on any plans to include mandatory electrical checks in the social rented sector, and on what the Government are going to do to ensure home safety visits for vulnerable and older people, who are sometimes owner-occupiers? Again, this would be very useful. All those questions having been asked—for which, many apologies—I welcome this legislation. But it was achingly slow, and people deserve an answer on that.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I first declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and pay tribute to the work of Electrical Safety First. As we have heard, it has been assiduous in its campaigning over many years to get these regulations before us today, as have noble Lords on all Benches, including the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend Lady Hayter. I thank the Government for bringing them forward and offer them many congratulations. It is appreciated.

I am generally pleased that the regulations are here but, as has been outlined, this has taken years. It could not have been any slower; it has gone at a snail’s pace. I remember the debates during the dreaded Housing and Planning Act, in which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and I moved amendments yet could not get any action from the Government. Then, they finally moved forward. I have tried to write down how many people I have dealt with since then: when we first raised this issue in that Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, was the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Evans of Bowes Park, was the Whip; we then had the noble Lord, Lord Bourne; then the noble Viscount, Lord Younger; then the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield; now we have the noble Earl, Lord Courtown. I am sure there were many other Whips, but that is five Ministers.

Frankly, the length of time this has taken is outrageous. The Minister listed the number of fires, injuries and fatalities. It is shocking that we have waited so long for this. It is unacceptable. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said, people need answers. We discussed this five years ago and are finally getting some regulations; now we are worrying, in the present crisis, whether they will happen. We need an answer.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, was mentioning other things that have not happened, she reminded me of discussions about the rogue landlords database. Again, we could not get the Government to agree to make it public. They were not having it and we lost votes. I remember meeting with Greg Clark from the other place; very nice man though he is, we could not make any progress whatever. Two years on, the Government decided that they wanted to make it public. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, told me, “I want to do it, Roy, but I just can’t find any parliamentary time to do it in.” I thought, “Hang on, two years ago you had the vote and voted against it.” I know he was sincere about it and wanted it made public, but it is very frustrating when you sit here, make the points, win the votes and the arguments, yet they will not budge—then, literally a year or so later, there is a complete about-turn by the Government. They told us, “We want to do it, but we can’t get any time because of the pressure of legislation.” Up until last December, we had not actually been very busy in this House; there were no huge swathes of legislation coming forward, so time could have been found if we had wanted to.

A number of questions have been raised that I was going to ask, so I look forward to getting answers to them. On the issue of communication, how will we get this out to tenants so that they know what their new rights are? Equally, how will we get this out to landlords so that they know their new responsibilities? Will we use charities such as Electrical Safety First to get this information out, which will be very important? As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, what about electrical safety standards in the social rented sector? These questions need looking at, as does that of vulnerable people in the owner-occupied sector, who may not have the cash resources to get work done. We need to know about that.

I genuinely thank the Government for introducing these regulations—it is just regrettable that it has taken so long. I hope they have learned that they need to move at at least at a snail’s pace—we have not even got that far—in future to get these things on board.

Earl of Courtown Portrait The Earl of Courtown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, as always, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part for their valuable contributions. I am really pleased to note the general support for the intention of these regulations and our work to improve the private rented sector. I also understand the Committee’s concerns over the delay. I will come to that point later. If I do not cover everything in great detail or miss various points, I will ensure that I write to noble Lords on some of these issues.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Kennedy, asked how we will ensure that landlords, tenants and local authorities understand these new requirements. We will ensure they understand them; officials have been working closely with landlords, letting agents and trade organisations, as well as the electrical safety industry, which is already disseminating information to its members. We are also publicising the regulations across social media. In addition, ahead of the regulations coming into force we will publish guidance for landlords, local authorities and tenants. The introduction of the regulations before Parliament has already attracted broadly positive and welcoming media attention, including from the national press. We will continue to publicise them, to ensure maximum possible coverage. We will also work closely with local authorities to ensure they have what they need. We are fully committed to bringing these provisions forward as soon as we can but, as the noble Lord commented, these are exceptional times.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also asked whether local authorities will be overburdened with these regulations and raised additional financial support. These regulations will not mean additional work for local authorities, because local authority environmental health departments are already responsible for enforcing electrical safety standards in the private rented sector. The new regulations will in fact make it simpler for local authorities to do this, because landlords will now have to provide them with proof that their electrics are safe. As I said before, local authorities will also be able to keep any money raised from financial penalties to fund their enforcement activities, helping to raise standards in the long run, and these penalties can be up to £30,000 for the most serious offenders.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also looked at compliance with, for example, the wiring regulations, even if the wiring was installed before the edition was in force. The regulations state that a landlord must

“ensure that the electrical safety standards are met”

and that

“investigative or remedial work is carried out”

if a report requires it. The electrical installation should be safe for continued use. In practice, if the report does not require investigative or remedial work, the landlord will not be required to carry out any further work.

The noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, mentioned social housing. As I said in my opening speech, these regulations apply to the private rented sector. This is because that is where the standards were lower—in the private sector, as opposed to the social rented sector. These regulations target this sector. However, the Government are also separately considering safety measures for social rented properties.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, mentioned rent holidays taking account of a person’s situation. The Government have always been clear that our priority here is to put people first, which is why support is in place to help affected people and minimise any social and economic disruption. We have announced a range of measures to support people and communities, including a £500 million fund for households experiencing financial hardship, while ensuring that statutory sick pay is available from the first day that people take off work. If I can add anything more in relation to the noble Baroness’s speech, I will write to her on that.

I went over this in a slightly different area earlier, but the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about the 18th edition of the wiring regulations. In statutory instruments there are strict rules about making ambulatory references. In this case, when referring to an external publication such as a British Standard, a date or version number must be given. The national standard is set out in the current edition of the wiring regs—the 18th edition, published as a British Standard. If the wiring regulations are updated, we will have to consider carefully whether it is necessary and appropriate to update the electrical safety regulations. This depends on the level of update in the regulations.

The noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Kennedy, mentioned homes in multiple occupation. All existing houses in multiple occupation, both licensable and non-licensable, will need to comply until 1 June 2020 with the requirement in the 2006 HMO management regulations to have electrics tested. Any new tenancies created from this date will need to comply with the new electrical safety regulations from 1 July 2020.

In respect to existing tenancies in HMOs, all such properties should already have a certificate stating they have been inspected and tested in compliance with the 2006 regulations; this certification lasts for five years. In some HMOs, an electrical installation condition report may run out between the coming into force of the regulations on 1 June 2020 and 1 April 2021. However, during the familiarisation period, local authorities can rely on their enforcement powers under Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004, which requires that electrical safety hazards are remedied, and tenant safety is protected. Local authorities use their housing health and safety rating system to assess electrical safety hazards, and they have a duty to take full enforcement action if they identify a hazard at category 1 level.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, also asked why this has taken so long. The Government announced in July 2018 that we would introduce a mandatory requirement on landlords in the private rented sector to ensure electrical installations in their properties are inspected every five years. Following that announcement, we worked closely with experts in the sector, considering this complex issue carefully to make sure the changes were proportionate and delivered real benefit to tenants without undue burden on landlords, inspectors and testers. I should emphasise that I note the comments made by the noble Lords, and I am sure the department will as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, also mentioned guidance. We will be publishing guidance for tenants, as well as for landlords and local authorities, before the regulations come into force in June 2020. This will ensure tenants are aware of their rights and will know to approach their local authority if they have concerns. We continue to have regular contact with local authorities and their enforcement officers, who will have regular interactions with tenants. When the regulations are made, subject to parliamentary approval, we will publish an update to the suite of “how to” guides, including How to Rent, which must be provided to all tenants by their landlords.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also asked why there is no landlord register. We want to strike the right balance between supporting good landlords and tackling criminals. We introduced the database of rogue landlords to target the worst offenders and better protect tenants. Our consultations on how to open up and extend information on the database to tenants closed on 12 October 2019. We are currently reviewing responses and will update the House soon.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, brought up the subject of property guardians. I was interested to hear what she said on this issue. The Government are committed to ensuring that all renters live in safe conditions. Many property guardians live in HMOs, to which these regulations will apply. More broadly, the Government will soon publish updated guidance to help guardians understand their rights. We are also undertaking research to understand the size of the sector and the severity of problems. This will inform future policy decisions, addressing the concerns raised by her.

This is a major step towards levelling up the private rented sector and making sure it will offer high-quality, safe and secure housing. Along with our social and owner-occupier sectors, this is housing that this country deserves. I commend the instrument to the Committee.

Motion agreed.