Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Electrical Safety Council

Overview

The Electrical Safety Council (ESC) welcomes the opportunity to submit written evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into the Private Rented Sector (PRS).

In our response, we focus in particular on the quality of private rented housing, and steps that can be taken to ensure that all housing in the sector is of an acceptable standard. We will also address the issue of landlord regulation and steps that can be taken to deal with rogue landlords.

Whilst we recognise that in the majority of cases private landlords adhere to the necessary regulations and provide safe and secure homes, there are numerous cases of landlords1 failing to provide safe electrical installations and appliances, thereby compromising the wellbeing and safety of tenants. We would therefore encourage the Committee to actively consider any measures (and implementation strategies) which may force irresponsible landlords to improve the electrical safety conditions in their properties as part of this investigation.

Executive Summary

1. Historically, the English PRS has had the lowest proportion of decent homes across the housing sector. This is due to a number of factors, including poor maintenance and the lack of knowledge among landlords and tenants with respect to their responsibilities.

2. We therefore welcome an innovative approach to raising standards in the sector, in order to safeguard tenants without imposing undue regulatory burdens on landlords.

3. In terms of electrical safety, there are several core measures that we would like to see introduced for the PRS:

Provision of Residual Current Device (RCD) protection within all properties that are let.

Mandatory wiring checks every five years by a competent person.

Appropriate guidance for Portable Appliance Testing (PAT). 

4.There are several ways the Committee could encourage the spread of these measures:

By recommending that any local landlord licensing schemes include the electrical safety of the premises in the registration conditions.

By recommending the adoption of a minimum condition standard for the Private Rented Sector, perhaps mirroring the Decent Homes Standard.

By advocating the introduction of additional rights and responsibilities guidance to raise awareness amongst both landlords and tenants of their own roles.

About the Electrical Safety Council

5. The ESC is a UK-wide charity committed to reducing electrical fires and electricity-related injuries at home and at work.

6. Every year over 20,000 domestic fires2 are caused by faults and misuse of electrical appliances and installations throughout Great Britain. A further 2.5 million UK adults experience a mains voltage electric shock each year3 and around 70 people die from electrical accidents in the home.4

ESC concerns about the Private Rented Sector

7. As set out above, the PRS has the lowest proportion of Decent Homes across all tenures. According to Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) figures from 2006, 40% of the private rented stock failed to meet the basic Decent Homes Standard (DHS)5. Of these, over 30% could be classed has having category 1 hazards under the framework set by the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), which means they have some elements of serious disrepair and would be classed as non-decent.

8. Given the continuing growth of the PRS, it has never been more important to ensure that sector standards are maintained and improved.

Core Measures which would significantly improve Electrical Safety Standards in the PRS

9. Fitting one or more Residual Current Devices (RCDs) into a consumer unit is the most effective way to protect against dangerous electric shocks and reduce the risk of electrical fires. RCDs are designed to constantly monitor the electric current flowing along a circuit and almost instantaneously switch off the circuit if they detect electrical faults, such as somebody touching a live part or wire.

10. The value of RCDs is being increasingly recognised by governments throughout the world, and there have been significant moves to legislate for the wider use of RCDs in recent years. In England, they are conventionally included under the Building Regulations in all new build homes, and internationally an increasing number of governments have made the use of RCDs in all domestic properties mandatory, most recently Western Australia in 2010.

11. As part of an overall commitment to improving standards in the PRS, we would like to see RCDs made mandatory for all let accommodation.

12. The ESC recommends that landlords have a full wiring check carried out on their property by a competent person every five years as an effective means of enhancing safety. We believe this should be required by law, with an add-on specifying the need for visual checks on change of tenancy (if occurring before the 5-year cycle ends).

13. We have found that there is general support for such a requirement. In 2011, the ESC conducted a cross-party survey of 100 MPs in order to gain a sense of their understanding of the risks associated with poor electrical safety and their views on how best to tackle them. 24% of MPs surveyed strongly agreed and 41% agreed about the need for mandatory wiring checks in the PRS.

14. Furthermore, 78% of UK adults believe that landlords should be required to have regular inspections of electrical installations and cabling, in a similar way to gas checks.6

15. It is generally accepted that portable electrical products are likely to develop faults through wear and tear in the course of their use. Many landlords already consider it good practice to subject any portable electrical products in their properties to regular Portable Appliance Testing (PAT).

16. It should be confirmed that any portable electrical equipment provided for use by tenants has at least a CE mark to indicate the manufacturer’s claim that the item meets all the requirements of European law and is safe to use.

17. As with the installation, electrical appliances should be subject to a combined inspection and test at least every 5 years. In any case, regular basic visual safety checks should also be carried out on appliances. Where this inspection highlights signs of damage or deterioration of the flexible cable or its connection to power source, continuity and insulation resistance testing should be carried out on the live and protective conductors in the flexible cable.

Means by which Core Electrical Safety Measures can be adopted in the PRS

Landlord Licensing Schemes

18. A number of mandatory landlord licensing schemes are currently being taken forward at a local level throughout England, for example in the London Borough of Newham.

19. We would like the Committee to recommend that any landlord licensing schemes include our key electrical safety measures in the registration conditions.

20. As a pre-condition of obtaining a license, the ESC believes landlords should have to demonstrate electrical safety by providing an electrical installation condition report which is less than five years old. Similarly, and as set out above, a requirement in license agreements for landlords to install Residual Current Devices (RCDs) in all privately rented properties would dramatically reduce the risk of electrical fires and electric shocks in those properties, as would issuing appropriate guidance around PAT testing.

Extending the Decent Homes Standard (DHS) to cover the Private Rented Sector

21. Given the relatively high level of non-decent housing in the PRS as set out above, consideration should be given to the possibility of extending standards applied in the social housing sector to the private rented sector.

22. The introduction of the DHS has led to a significant decrease in the number of homes in the social rented sector that are classified as non-decent. The ESC sees no reason why tenants in the PRS should be subject to lower housing standards than other tenants.

23. We would therefore like the Committee to consider encouraging the Government to ensure the DHS, or a similar condition standard, extends to all rented properties, including those in the PRS.

24. The Committee may be interested to note that this concept is slightly more developed in Scotland, where the Scottish Government’s recent Homes that Don’t Cost the Earth consultation asked for views on a mandatory condition standard which would apply across all tenures. In our response to that consultation, the ESC argued that householders should enjoy the same safety standards regardless of the tenure of their property. We understand that around 80% of responses were supportive of a unitary standard.

Improving Understanding through Enhanced Rights and Responsibilities Guidance

25. One of the major obstacles to achieving improved standards in the PRS is a lack of knowledge among both tenants and landlords of their respective rights and responsibilities. This is particularly the case for so-called accidental landlords entering the marketplace who may not be aware of their obligations regarding electrical safety. In addition, there tends to be a low level of knowledge amongst tenants regarding what defects may lead to severe injury or fire from an electrical installation.

26. Landlords and tenants need to be aware of their respective obligations and rights laid out in various pieces of legislation which include the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, the Housing Act 2004, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order) 2005, Part P of the Building Regulations 2005 and the Management of Homes in Multiple Occupation (HMO) Regulations 2006.

27. From our own research in collaboration with the National Landlords Association (NLA), we understand that the ESC’s “Landlords Guide to Electrical Safety” is used by 31% of landlords, suggesting that there may be demand for similar documentation applying to other aspects of landlord responsibilities. Furthermore, 39% of respondents felt that a guide to legislation and regulations relating to electrical safety would be more useful than a risk reduction guide (18%), a practical guide to inspecting a property (19%) or a free helpline (16%). This indicates that bringing together information centrally is something that landlords want.

28. However, we are conscious that those who choose to join the NLA are the more responsible landlords who are keen to ensure that they do a good job. This leaves a significant number of landlords who would remain outside the scope of any industry agreement. For that reason, self-regulation may not be appropriate, and a centrally agreed strategy may be necessary.

29. We understand that the Government may be considering a proposal to introduce a simple standardised document containing all landlord and tenant responsibilities. This would be a significant improvement on the current position, and already has support from landlord associations.

30. The ESC is again encouraged by work done in Scotland to develop a Tenant Information Pack (TIP). The TIP will come into force in early 2013 and will require PRS landlords to provide all tenants with a pack likely to include, among other things, vital safety information about the property, for example when the last inspection of the electrical installation took place. Whilst the TIP does not make it mandatory for those inspections to take place, it will make tenants and landlords more aware of the electrical safety and general condition of properties and will hopefully see a significant improvement in attitudes towards home safety.

January 2013

1 The Thirza Whittle case from 2009 is one such example - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1198470/Young-mother-electrocuted-live-tap-ran-bath-familys-new-home.html.

2 Data derived from Fire Statistics Great Britain 2010 to 2011 by DCLG and presented in Electrical Safety Council Core Data Set, http://www.esc.org.uk/stakeholder/policies-and-research/statistics/

3 Electrical Safety Council Core Data Set, http://www.esc.org.uk/stakeholder/policies-and-research/statistics/

4 ibid

5 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1229922.pdf

6 Attitudes towards electrical safety in the home, Ipsos MORI, 2010

Prepared 16th July 2013