Cross-party support sees Fitness Bill safely through second reading

On Friday 19 January, MPs debated the second reading of the Fitness for Human Habitation Bill. The bill passed unanimously after a positive and constructive debate, which saw MPs from all the major parties speak in support of it. We’ve been campaigning hard to get to this point, so were delighted to see the bill clear this important hurdle.

The debate covered some well-trodden ground. MPs took turns to share stories of constituents living in shockingly poor and unsafe accommodation. Unfortunately, our advisers are all too familiar with these stories, and help people living in these circumstances every day.

But the debate also moved beyond the strict bounds of the bill; covering some of the key issues facing both social and private renters. The tone of the debate suggested a growing cross-party consensus on the need to strengthen tenants’ rights. It also pleasingly saw MPs from opposite sides of the House advocating similar solutions, such as Legal Aid and increased resources for local authorities.

Rogue landlords vs. the rest

A key point picked up by many MPs was the need to differentiate between landlords who will be caught by the bill, and the vast majority of good landlords who will be unaffected. This is because they are already meeting their obligations. Many praised the balance struck in the bill between new rights for tenants, and sensible safeguards for landlords. This point specifically was a key factor in the bill winning support from both the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) and the National Landlords Association (NLA).

This is a valid point to make and one we highlighted in our own parliamentary briefing. But the debate on Friday was more nuanced than we’ve often seen before. Both Conservative and Labour MPs made the point that we need to progress beyond the usual rogue landlord versus everyone else argument, as the real picture is much more complex.

There are many reasons why someone becomes a landlord. Often it is not a conscious decision or indeed planned – for example, inheriting property or moving in with a partner. Many of these accidental landlords are ignorant of their responsibilities or negligent, without being purposefully exploitative. As one Conservative MP put it: ‘People often inherit a property, but they do not inherit with it any understanding of building or safety regulations, or the knowledge to enable them to keep the property in good condition while they rent it out.’

We’ve always argued that a key benefit of the bill is the broader positive impact on landlord education and awareness of their responsibilities. As we consider how best to safeguard tenants, it is important we don’t oversimplify the debate. Friday’s discussion signalled a pleasing shift in how MPs from both parties are approaching this issue.

Resourcing for local authorities

One particular area of agreement amongst MPs is the need for local authorities to be properly resourced, so they can protect vulnerable tenants and drive up housing standards. Although this bill will mean that private tenants may no longer have to rely on patchy local authority resources, many MPs took the opportunity to raise the important issue of funding.

Freedom of Information research in 2015 found that formal enforcement activity (hazard awareness notices, improvement and prohibition notices) had fallen by 40% since the past Parliament, while the number of private rented properties with category one hazards has increased. Performance varies wildly between councils – and more often than not, the capacity and resource to enforce simply aren’t there.

This issue is currently being examined by the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee, and multiple members of the committee raised the issue in Friday’s debate. Although the bill doesn’t currently have any funds attached, both Conservative and Labour MPs challenged the minister to re-think this. Seeing MPs from different parties join forces to call for more resources for local authorities sends a powerful message to government. We hope it listens.

Legal Aid

Finally, it great to see MPs of all parties advocating for early advice and the importance of Legal Aid in allowing tenants to exercise their rights. The cuts to housing Legal Aid have been some of the most damaging– and help available for disrepair cases is already severely restricted. A number of MPs highlighted the importance of Legal Aid in helping tenants use the new rights that the bill will give them. As one Conservative MP stated: ‘Legislation will not be a remedy if people are not helped to exercise it.’

The long-awaited review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will give government the opportunity to consider whether Legal Aid can be extended to cover the provisions of this bill – including to help tenants claim damages.

What’s next

The bill will progress to Committee stage, where we are hopeful that this cross-party collaboration will continue. Given the positive tone struck on Friday, the vast areas of agreement and government support of the Bill, we are counting on the government to allot this bill a Committee slot soon – and ensure a speedy passage through Parliament.

We will seek an amendment to the bill at this stage, to ensure that it applies to the common parts of the building, and not just individual flats. More on that soon.

Thank you

A thousand thank yous to our wonderful supporters, who tweeted and sent postcards to their local MPs, asking for them to attend the second reading. We also want to say an enormous thank you to the MPs who took time away from their constituency on a Friday to support the Bill. A list of those MPs is below, although it is not necessarily exhaustive. Many more likely stayed in Westminster; on hand to come and vote, had an MP tried to filibuster!

Diane Abbot, Hackney North and Stoke Newington
Lucy Allan, Telford
Rosena Allin-Khan, Tooting
Clive Betts, Sheffield South East
Bob Blackman, Harrow East
Roberta Blackman-Woods, City of Durham
Tracy Brabin, Batley and Spen
Lyn Brown, West Ham
Karen Buck, Westminster North
Richard Burden, Birmingham Northfield
Ruth Cadbury, Brentford and Isleworth
Alex Chalk, Cheltenham
Sarah Champion, Rotherham
Bambos Charalambous, Enfield Southgate
Julie Cooper, Burnley
Jon Cruddas, Dagenham and Rainham
Edward Davey, Kingston and Surbiton
Emma Dent Coad, Kensington
Marsha De Cordova, Battersea
Anneliese Dodds, Oxford East
Rosie Duffield, Canterbury
Clive Efford, Eltham
Jim Fitzpatrick, Poplar and Limehouse
Kevin Foster, Torbay
Lilian Greenwood, Nottingham South
Luke Hall, Thornbury and Yate
Harriet  Harman , Camberwell and Peckham
Helen Hayes, Dulwich and West Norwood
John Healey, Wentworth and Dearne
James Heappey, Wells
Sharon Hodgson, Washington & Sunderland West
Philip Hollobone, Kettering
Nigel Huddleston, Mid Worcestershire
Eddie Hughes, Walsall North
Rupa Huq, Ealing Central and Acton
Caroline Johnson, Sleaford and North Hykeham
Diana Johnson, Kingston Upon Hull North
Darren Jones, Bristol North West
Liz Kendall, Leicester West
Eleanor Laing, Epping Forest
David Lammy, Tottenham
Clive Lewis, Norwich South
Holly Lynch, Halifax
Sandy Martin, Ipswich
Kerry McCarthy, Bristol East
Siobhain McDonagh, Mitcham and Morden
Neil O’Brien, Harborough
Mark Pawsey, Rugby
Teresa Pearce, Erith and Thamesmead
Chris Philp, Croydon South
Luke Pollard, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport
Stephen Pound, Ealing North
Rebecca Pow, Taunton Deane
Tom Pursglove, Corby
Will Quince, Colchester
Ellie Reeves, Lewisham West and Penge
Matt Rodda, Reading East
Chris Ruane, Vale of Clwyd
Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Brighton, Kemptown
Antoinette Sandbach, Eddisbury
Alok Sharma, Reading West
Barry Sheerman, Huddersfield
Andy Slaughter, Hammersmith
Jo Stevens, Cardiff Central
Emily Thornberry, Isligton South and Finsbury
Stephen Timms, East Ham
Michael Tomlinson, Mid Dorset and North Poole
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Berwick-upon-Tweed
Stephen Twigg, Liverpool, West Derby
Catherine West, Hornsey and Wood Green
Matt Western, Warwick and Leamington
Heather Wheeler, South Derbyshire
Martin  Whitfield, East Lothian
Rosie Winterton, Doncaster Central
Sarah Wollaston, Totnes
Mike Wood, Dudley South