Treating renters as imbeciles

In the last week parliament has had the chance to tackle two of the most glaring injustices for private tenants and flunked both of them.

After debates in the Lords on Monday and Commons on Friday, letting agents are free to carry on charging outrageous fees to tenants and landlords can continue to evict tenants in retaliation for complaining about unsafe conditions.

The last word on Friday afternoon went to one of the villains of the week proved to be ironically apt. ‘We must not treat the people who enter into these contracts as imbeciles,’ was the very last sentence uttered by Christopher Chope before the debate was terminated and he and Conservative backbench colleague Philip Davies completed their successful attempt to talk out the Tenancies (Reform) Bill.

His argument was that if people get evicted for complaining about the energy performance of their homes it’s their own fault for not opting for one with proper central heating. It was of course completely spurious but the point was to keep talking until the 2.30pm cut-off for debate rather than make sense.

According to House of Commons rules, once fewer than 100 MPs had voted on a motion to terminate the debate and take the second reading of the Bill to a vote, all Chope and Davies had to do was keep talking. On and on and on. And on.

There were not enough of them but the 60 MPs who did vote for the closure motion represented a healthy cross-section of political opinion. Alongside Labour MPs with an interest in housing like Karen Buck, Lyn Brown and Meg Hillier, Lib Dem colleagues of the Bill’s proposer Sarah Teather and Caroline Lucas of the Greens, there were also a number of Conservatives including housing minister Brandon Lewis, Nick Boles and Nicola Blackwood.

But where were the rest of them? I won’t name specific names since Friday is traditionally a day for MPs to work in their constituency and some may have had good reasons why they couldn’t make it but even so. The Bill had official government support but some ministers seemed keener to turn up to demonstrate it than others. There were plenty of MPs from London, where problems with the private rented sector are greatest and Westminster is closest, who did not turn up. And while MPs from further afield might have more excuse, that did not seem to be a problem for Liverpool Labour MP Luciana Berger or Cornwall Tory George Eustice.

It’s a revealing fact about our politics that the 60 MPs who were there to vote to stop one of the most blatant abuses of private tenants are outnumbered by the more than 100 MPs who are private landlords. Combine that with the defeat of the letting agent fees ban and other amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill and the message to private tenants seems pretty clear. The message to bad landlords seems to be to carry on turfing out tenants who have the temerity to complain about things like disrepair and unsafe electrics.

Last week’s events only strengthen the impression of a housing policy that is run for the benefit of people who already own property at the expense of the ‘imbeciles’ who do not. Add the woeful record of governments of all parties on supply to their failure to address demand through reform of property taxation and, as I blogged last week, the resultant boom in house prices has been a major factor in creating the impression of a political elite that is out of touch with their constituents.

However, things are slowly changing beneath the surface. Friday’s debate actually showed parliament at its best before Chope and Davies showed it at its worst. Even if more MPs had turned up, it would not have guaranteed progress for the Bill, as Andrew George found out when his bedroom tax Bill survived a similar attempt to talk it out and secured a second reading only to be stymied by the government’s refusal to agree a money resolution.

The fact that Sarah Teather had government support was also a promising sign. Until very recently the DCLG was denying that retaliatory eviction was a problem so it does perhaps show a shift in attitudes to renters’ rights. It still has a chance to prove its credentials by adding the provisions to the Consumer Rights Bill.

Unsuccessful though it was, Friday’s vote could also signal that the penny has dropped among some MPs that renters have votes too. The lobby group Generation Rent argues that the number of renters is growing so fast that there will soon be more than 100 constituencies where they outnumber owners. The old orthodoxy that you win elections by appealing to the home-owning majority may be breaking down – though renters are still far less likely to be registered to vote.

As each election goes by there will also be more younger MPs who are not part of the home owning majority. One of the tellers for Friday’s vote was Stephen Gilbert, the Lib Dem MP who was still living with his parents at 34 when he won in 2010 because he could not afford to buy in his Cornish constituency. That seemed unusual at the time but it won’t be in future.

Christopher Chope may have had the last word on Friday but how much longer will politicians be able to get away with treating renters as imbeciles?

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