Lyn Brown

Member of Parliament for West Ham

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Lyn's speech in the House of Commons during the Second Reading of Tenancies Reform Bill as it happened

Lyn Brown: It is an honour to be here today and to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and to discuss the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I congratulate her on securing such a high-profile place in the ballot, which I envy, and on her choice of Bill, her excellent speech and her approach to the subject. Her choice of Bill is important for two reasons. First, it is limited in scope. It recognises the importance of addressing the needs of millions of private renters, a matter of which I am very conscious, given the size of the private rented sector in my constituency—40% of all households in my constituency are in the private rented sector, a massive increase over recent years. That is surely, and very clearly, reflected in the support for this Bill outside this House shown in the large number of e-mails I have had from my constituents urging me to be here today, and the very strong campaigning efforts of various groups at national and local level. I pay tribute to Shelter, which has campaigned on this issue for many years and worked very closely with the hon. Lady on producing the Bill.

Generation Rent must also be congratulated on its vigorous campaigning efforts at national and local level. The Home Sweet Home campaign has been working on the ground in Brighton for many months, backed by Labour’s excellent parliamentary candidate and by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is in her place; I agree with much of what she said earlier. It is heartening to hear of tenants and residents taking action, influencing this place, and actively seeking to improve their families’ quality of home, education and life chances. Labour has been clear that for too long their needs have been totally ignored. That is why we have set out ambitious plans for reform of the sector, and I will come to those later.

The second reason this Bill is so important is that the issue it seeks to address—retaliatory eviction—is completely unacceptable and must surely be brought to an end. That is why the hon. Member for Brent Central has our support for its passage through the House.

In recent years, the private rented sector has grown massively in size, but also beyond recognition in terms of the demographics and the character of those who rent from private landlords. Nine million people now rent privately—more than those who rent a social home. Over a third have families with children, and nearly half are over the age of 35. Many people who are renting privately are doing so not out of choice but because they cannot get on the housing ladder or secure a socially rented home. Yet private rented accommodation is not the cheapest option—far from it. It is, in effect, the most expensive type of housing. On average, people who rent privately spend 41% of their income on housing. For those in the social rented sector, the figure is 30%, and for owner occupiers, it is 19%. However, the extra expense does not buy greater stability or higher standards. Someone who rents privately is more likely to live in a non-decent home than someone in any other tenure, yet they are spending 41% of their income to do so. A third of privately rented homes fail to meet the decent homes standard.

Two issues are at the heart of these proposals—standards and stability. For too long, renters have had to put up with a choice between keeping their home and accepting the poor conditions they are living in. As we have heard, there is currently no protection from eviction for renters who report poor conditions to their landlord or local authority. Shelter has estimated that over 200,000 renters have been evicted or served notice in the past year because they complained to their local council or their landlord about a problem in their home.

This kind of unacceptable action can have a really damaging impact on renters. It can damage the lives of families and the fabric of communities as people are uprooted from their homes with as little as two months’ notice, disrupting schooling, support networks of family and friends, and even access to health care. It means that renters feel unable to complain and are forced to put up with awful conditions.

Philip Davies: The hon. Lady was bandying about some rather exotic figures earlier. Can she verify those figures in the context of the English housing survey, which goes into detail as to why people are evicted?

Lyn Brown: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as always with his contributions here on a Friday. I know that he is going to make a fairly long speech—

Stephen Pound: Don’t give him any ideas.

Lyn Brown: Trust me—I am not suggesting he does; it is just that I know the hon. Gentleman of old, and I know he will come to those figures in due course. The figures I am using are robust, and he knows it.

It is estimated that one in eight renters have chosen not to ask for improvements or to challenge a rent increase because of fear of eviction. This reduces the incentives for landlords to improve their properties. Rather than pay for repairs, unscrupulous landlords can take a short cut by evicting their current tenants and replacing them.

Mr Chope: The hon. Lady keeps on referring to unscrupulous landlords, but the Residential Landlords Association, which represents good-quality landlords, hotly disputes the extent of the problem as she describes it.

Lyn Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I am very clear that there are good landlords and there are bad, and I am talking about the bad. He said to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who is no longer in her place, that he hoped she would have reported the unscrupulous landlord she was discussing to the council or to the environmental health services. Let me tell him that if someone has their complaint referred by an MP, that does not stop them being evicted by a landlord who takes umbrage at being forced to do repairs—as some of my constituents, sadly, know to their cost.

The effects of this shameful practice cannot be overestimated. Over the weekend, I read about the—literally—shocking case of Lela Lewis. Lela suffered a minor electric shock after taking a shower and, having discovered that it was due to faulty wiring, complained to her landlord. Much to her chagrin, the landlord responded by serving her with an eviction notice. There was the case of Greg and Laura Moore and their three children, who were served an eviction notice on their rented home in Norfolk just three weeks after reporting damp.

In the area where I live and which I represent, I have heard about the case of a constituent who I will call Chris. He is an assured shorthold tenant who has been in the same property since 2010. The property has damp, mice and a hole in the roof. His children’s health is suffering as a result of those poor conditions. He complained to the letting agent and it visited, along with the council, which agreed that the property was in a poor state of repair. Shortly afterwards, he received a notice to leave—a section 21 notice. He has been informed by the letting agent that the landlord will not renew his tenancy next May.

Mr Chope: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lyn Brown: No; I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.
Despite the innovative and sterling efforts of Newham council to bring some order and better standards to the private rented sector, it cannot prevent such retaliatory evictions. This will happen to more and more people as the housing shortage forces more and more people into private renting.

This Bill is a real opportunity for us to put an end to this unacceptable practice. As I will set out, the private rented sector needs far more radical and sweeping reforms, but the Bill can, and will, make a real difference. It provides protection for assured shorthold tenants against retaliatory evictions where they are suffering from poor or unsafe property conditions. It does that by preventing a landlord from giving a section 21 notice for six months from the date of service of a notice from the local authority regarding conditions in the property, such as an improvement notice, a hazard awareness notice, or a notice of emergency remedial action. It provides the power for the Secretary of State to prescribe legal requirements which, if a landlord were in breach of them, would prevent them from serving a notice.

There are also important safeguards for landlords. They are protected in cases where the poor condition of the property may have been caused deliberately by the tenant, or where they genuinely need to sell the property. The banks and mortgage companies are also protected where they have repossessed a property and need to sell it with vacant possession. We believe that those protections are more than ample to protect the very good landlords in the sector who would not dream of evicting their tenants from their property following a complaint.

Labour is pleased to support the Bill and to help bring an end to completely unacceptable practices, but we also believe that the sector is in need of more fundamental reform. We have set out far-reaching proposals to reform the sector to get a fairer deal for private renters. First, a Labour Government would legislate for three-year tenancies, not short-term tenancies, as the standard for those who rent their homes in the private sector. They will become the norm.

We will build in protections for landlords, which, crucially, will also provide much-needed stability for private tenants. The nature of the sector and the people who rent has changed, and we need to create stability for the growing numbers who live in the sector for longer. They are crying out for a better deal, especially—but not solely—the growing number of families with children who are renting privately and who need and deserve our support. There are now 2 million children living in the private rented sector, and this House and this Government must ensure that their homes, their home lives and their future chances in life are not put in jeopardy as a result of the lack of access to a stable home environment.

Secondly, we will act on unpredictable rent rises, because the new, longer-term tenancies will put a ceiling on excessive rent rises. We will make sure that families have the stability of longer-term tenancies and that they will no longer have to live with the uncertainty that their rents could jump up from one year to the next. Labour wants to promote as much stability as possible for families. That is what happens in Ireland, Spain and many other European countries, and it gives families and people the peace of mind and stability they need.

The reforms will be good not just for tenants, but for landlords, too. We know that the last thing landlords want is a home standing empty, which means that they are not collecting rent or that there is constant churn where tenants come and go, often costing landlords hundreds of pounds in fees.

Thirdly, we will ban letting agent fees for tenants. Too many letting agents charge extortionate fees every time there is a change of tenancy, and often both landlords and tenants are being charged for exactly the same thing—otherwise known as double charging. It is disappointing that the Government chose once again to vote against our amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill in the other place earlier this week.

Finally, we have set out plans to introduce a national register of landlords and to help make it easier for councils to introduce licensing schemes in their areas. Although the Tenancies (Reform) Bill will help to drive up standards, it will not be enough on its own.

I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Brent Central for promoting the Bill. Although we believe that reform of private renting must be more far reaching, there is no doubt that this Bill will bring about very real improvements in the lives of thousands of renters. The act of retaliatory eviction is completely unacceptable. It creates a climate of fear and families are afraid to complain about mould, damp and even worse because they may lose their home. It leads to huge instability, as too many who do complain are then served with notice to leave. Moreover, in effect it encourages poor conditions. Unscrupulous landlords take the easy way out, evicting their tenants rather than carrying out needed repairs. We therefore welcome the Bill and will be pleased to support its passage through the House.

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