We’ve updated this article since it was originally published on 16 June 2017. We’re grateful for input from Giles Peaker, who is a solicitor specialising in housing law.

Housing safety standards have come into sharp focus since last week’s devastating fire in west London that left at least 79 people dead or presumed dead, and dozens more injured.

Since 2015, Labour has put two pieces of legislation before Parliament to try and improve housing safety for council houses and privately rented properties.

The Tories have blocked both. We take a look at what happened.

A Labour MP laid a bill in 2015 to make all rented properties safer – including council houses

In 2015, Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck put forward her own legislation called the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill.

The bill was designed to:

  • Make sure that all tenancies on terms shorter than seven years are fit for human habitation. That includes council houses and privately rented homes.
  • Put the obligation on landlords to make sure that the homes they rent are fit for human habitation. That includes homes where the landlord is the local authority.
  • Give tenants power to take their landlord to court if there are major safety failings in the home. Tenants can already take their landlord to court if there is disrepair to the property. This would expand that power to cover health and safety concerns.

The Tories blocked Labour’s proposed legislation

Private members’ bills like Buck’s are not the same as legislation laid by the government. They are “sponsored” by individual backbench MPs, rather than ministers, and only a tiny minority actually make it onto the statute books. They’re often used to draw attention to key policy issues.

A handful of these bills make it to the debate stage. And those that do are often deliberately “talked out” by other MPs. This stops the bill dead in its tracks.

That’s exactly what happened to Karen Buck’s housing bill. It was talked out by Conservative MPs, including Philip Davies, who describes himself as both a landlord and tenant. He said this dual status put him in the “unusual position of being able to see both sides of the argument”, but he ultimately declared that the proposed legislation would put “huge burdens” on landlords and should be dropped.

His lengthy filibuster meant that it was.

Labour tried to amend the government’s Housing Bill in 2016 – and was thwarted again

After the private members’ bill failed to pass the debate stage, Labour MPs and peers took a second shot at rental regulation in 2016 – this time trying to amend the government’s Housing and Planning Bill.

Shadow Housing Minister Teresa Pearce wanted to get the content of Karen Buck’s rejected bill included in the government’s legislation.

But then-Housing Minister Brandon Lewis said that his bill already contained policies to tackle bad behaviour, and that Buck and Pearce’s proposals would impose “unnecessary regulation” on landlords.

The Labour amendment was defeated. 309 Tory MPs that turned up, and all voted against it. All 205 of the Labour MPs that voted supported the amendment, but it wasn’t enough to force the change in the law.

Council tenants still have no legal power to challenge local authorities on safety failings

The Tories’ Housing and Planning Bill eventually passed in 2016. It gives councils the power to levy civil penalties on private landlords that fail to act on “category 1 hazards” in the properties they rent. That includes exposed or faulty wiring, dangerous or broken boilers, and damaged steps.

But it doesn’t help people in local authority housing.

While all council homes are expected to be fit for habitation, no existing law – including the government’s most recent housing bill – actually allows that standard to be enforced. Even if the council’s own inspectors discovered failings in local authority properties, they wouldn’t have the power to force through changes or impose sanctions on those responsible.

Labour’s proposed laws would have allowed council tenants to challenge local authorities on unsafe homes, but both were rejected.