Last week, while MP Apsana Begum was defending herself against fraud charges relating to her socially-rented studio flat, a quarter of Conservative MPs were supplementing their salaries by renting out homes. openDemocracy analysis has found that 90 Tory MPs, including 27 percent of the party’s ministers or whips, had declared earnings of over £10,000 per year from rent. The law was treating one of the victims of the housing crisis with suspicion and contempt, while at the same time rewarding its beneficiaries with unearned profits.
On one level, it’s immediately obvious why the existence of landlord MPs is a problem. It offends against notions of independence. There is a whiff of the self-serving and the corrupt. It’s exactly why we have a register of members’ interests, why Jeremy Corbyn has rightly raised the scandal of Sajid Javid remaining on the payroll of private companies with an interest in the NHS, and why we’re aghast at the revolving door between local council seats and property development jobs.
But it’s too simplistic just to argue that some MPs are landlords, and that Parliament is going to look after its own. After all, as Tribune has repeatedly pointed out, housing makes up a massive part of the UK’s economy, and the government would have an interest in protecting that market regardless of any landlords in its ranks. This does not mean that openDemocracy’s findings are irrelevant, though. As a recent London Review of Books piece said about the housing crisis, ‘in the absence of global meltdown or a collective Maoist turn by […] renters, politics remains the only remedy,’ and it is therefore worth understanding exactly how and why this intersection between landlords and lawmakers is politically relevant.
Parliamentary business can have a dramatic effect on everyday reality and social attitudes. In the housing field, we see this through the changing language of the law. In 1977, at the historical high point of tenants’ rights law, a senior judge called Lord Justice Lawton said the following in an illegal eviction case: ‘the [landlord] at times seemed to be suggesting that this was a comparatively minor dispute between a landlord and a tenant. I emphatically disassociate myself from that. To deprive a man [sic.] of a roof over his head in my judgment is one of the worst torts which can be committed. It causes stress, worry and anxiety.’ Lawton was no comrade—at the beginning of his career he was an open member of the British Union of Fascists—but his attitude towards evictions reflected the legal and social reality of the time.
Contrast that with 2016, when Supreme Court judges Baroness Hale and Lord Neuberger wrote a judgement explaining that successive Conservative and Labour governments had since stripped away tenants’ rights by imposing laws that were designed to ‘[make] renting out a property a much more attractive alternative for owners.’ The Supreme Court was examining the relationship between today’s quick and easy evictions and human rights issues, and decided that Parliament’s erosions of tenants’ rights since the 1980s ‘reflect the state’s assessment of where to strike the balance between the [human] rights of residential tenants and the [human] rights of private sector landlords.’ In other words, Parliament had decided that these profitable short-life tenancies with ‘no-fault’ evictions are good enough for tenants, and the courts would not interfere with MPs’ decisions in that respect.
This gulf between judicial moods tells us two things. First, it shows the extent to which matters have moved on over the last 40 years. The Supreme Court’s easy conscience about evictions now chimes with the general tone of today’s landlords, judges, media, MPs, and even some tenants. Today, even during a housing crisis and a pandemic, we tend to talk about a landlord’s legal entitlement to ‘get their property back’ (although this phrase has always struck me as absurd in the case of buy-to-let homes). There has been a government-led project of commodifying and deregulating the housing market, and Parliament’s attitude towards landlords’ rights seems to have has become lodged in the public consciousness.
Second, in the 2016 case the Supreme Court effectively told us, ‘Yes, housing security is a very important human rights issue, but really it’s down to Parliament to decide what to do about it.’ The fact that such a heavy responsibility rests exclusively with Parliament means that we ought to scrutinise MPs very carefully indeed. ‘Which side are you on?’ is absolutely an appropriate question.
When we look at how housing law reform happens under parliamentary democracy, it becomes clear why the landlord-MP phenomenon is a genuine problem. One of the reasons rent controls remained in place for so long during the twentieth century was that a series of reports and inquiries found that there was a general consensus in favour of them, and rent controls were consequently re-enacted several times between the First World War and the 1970s. The current position is that there is fairly broad support for improving housing law, but the landlord lobby is standing in the way of the reforms that are needed to begin to tackle the crisis.
As a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper points out, many are urging the government not to delay in implementing its Queen’s Speech commitment to reforming the private rented sector, but the lone voice against reform comes from the landlords. The landlord lobby represents a tiny proportion of the population (about three percent), which means that government ministers are vastly overrepresented in that small, self-selecting group of people who rent out homes for profit. That also means the voice of the National Residential Landlords Association is a particularly powerful one when it speaks for so many members of the government, and we should bear this in mind when we see the Tories refusing to implement their own manifesto commitment.
It would, of course, be wrong not to acknowledge that 18 of Labour’s 199 MPs also declared a rental income, including shadow housing minister Lucy Powell, who lets a room to a lodger. ‘No idea where this list came from,’ she tweeted when this fact emerged. ‘I have a lodger. I’m not a landlord.’ But Powell is a landlord, and the fact that she has a lodger rather than a tenant is if anything an aggravating factor given that lodgers tend to enjoy even less housing security than private tenants. What’s particularly interesting is the defensive stance Powell took on the subject, refusing to acknowledge the economic relationship at play, and failing to see a conflict between rent extraction during a housing crisis and the interests of her constituents.
When thousands face eviction, soaring rents, and inadequate homes, it matters that the state’s managers are personally implicated in landlordism. It would go against these MPs’ own interests to unpick the ‘attractive’ and economically beneficial anti-tenant laws that are causing such a severe social crisis, and they hold the key to manipulating the social perception of landlordism. Given the scale of the crisis we face in housing, and the ambitious changes in law and attitude that we would need to solve it, the over-representation of landlords in the House of Commons is not something we can allow to go unnoticed any longer.