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Update: Fit for Human Habitation Bill is back in Parliament

Posted on 2017-08-31

Update: Fit for Human Habitation Bill is back in Parliament

In July, MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck, relaunched the Labour Party’s 'Fit for Human Habitation Bill' into Parliament.

The private member’s bill will now have a second reading in Parliament on Friday 19 January 2018. The aim is to update the law regarding rented accommodation, requiring landlords to present and maintain a property in a state fit for human habitation and to give tenants the right to sue their landlord if they rent a property considered to be in a squalid or inhospitable condition.

If it is passed, it would resurrect a law that has been lying dormant since 1885. Currently, tenants already have the right to a home that is fit for habitation. However, this is only the case if the rent is less than £52 per year (or £80 in the capital) – figures set way back in 1957.  

If at first you don’t succeed…

This is the second time that Karen Buck has attempted to get a bill passed to amend the current law. In 2016, the Bill failed to pass through parliament after being blocked by opposition MPs.

At the time, she said that she wanted new legislation to ward against “a growth in the numbers of landlords who try to cut corners and get away with letting out substandard accommodation.”

While the Housing Act 2004 ensures that landlords can be forced to make repairs by local councils, authorities usually only act when tenants complain and lack the resources to regularly inspect private rental accommodation to make sure it is up to standard.

There are also those who argue that regular council inspections, and measures such as blanket licensing or selective licensing, would be too much like state intervention in the private sector.

Opponents of the latest Bill may also point to the fact that only 2,006 landlords have so far been convicted of offences under the Housing Act 2004, which would suggest the number of people letting substandard accommodation is fairly low and that it’s still a problem among only a minority of unscrupulous landlords.

Does this version of the bill differ?

This version goes further than the first attempt by applying to all parts of the building which are owned by the landlord, making it more relevant to blocks of flats in particular. As well as being able to take action through the courts if a property is deemed to be in an unfit condition, the revised Bill would also give tenants the right to take action against builders who have carried out work on the property that has resulted in injury, even if the landlord has commissioned the work.

Supporters of the Bill say it will help to empower tenants to take action when there is just cause to do so. Opponents, however, fear that the new law could be abused, with the lines blurred over what exactly constitutes a home that is fit for habitation and what doesn’t.

They fear messy, protracted legal action could become par for the course in the private rented sector, dissuading landlords who play by the rules and abide by the law from entering the market or expanding their portfolios. 

Will it pass in January?

In the wake of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in June, the Government has come under increasing pressure to ensure that all housing – both social and private – is safe and fit for human habitation. MPs who were previously against the bill may now receive the proposals differently. The incident raises wider questions about how all homes – rented and otherwise – can be kept safe at all times.

Buck has already managed to secure cross-party support for her Bill, with some Conservative MPs giving their backing, while the housing sector is generally in agreement when it comes to improved tenants’ rights and protections.

The return of the Bill was welcomed by David Smith, policy director at the Residential Landlords Association (RLA), who 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.”

He added: “By providing a route to direct tenant enforcement of basic housing standards, the Bill will give a further opportunity to deal with the minority of landlords who have no place in the market. Current legislation often lets these criminals off the hook due to underfunded councils being unable to properly enforce it.”

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower incident – and with increasing pressure from campaign groups – it seems more likely that the Bill will pass through this time, but we won’t know for sure until the second reading is carried out in January 2018. 

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