Campaigning to Improve Electrical Safety in the Private Rented Sector

Phil Buckle, Director General of Electrical Safety First

Phil Buckle, Director General of Electrical Safety First

With an estimated 9 million people living in private rented accommodation, the Private Rented Sector (PRS) is a major and expanding element in England’s housing market. But such rapid growth brings its own problems, with safety a key concern and electrical safety a particular priority.

Around half of all domestic fires in Great Britain arise from electricity, killing one person each week, and well over a quarter of a million (350,000) are seriously injured by electricity each year.

In the PRS, if a landlord fails to ensure electrical safety in their rented properties then they can face significant financial risks from fires and invalidated insurance claims. Yet the regulations surrounding electrical safety are piecemeal and ambiguous – and poor electrics are often ‘invisible’, lying undiscovered until a serious accident occurs.

Electrical Safety First – the UK’s consumer charity whose mission is to help safeguard people and places from the dangers of electricity – has long advocated a series of changes to the law which would protect both landlords and their tenants. These include the need for mandatory, five yearly safety reviews (by a registered electrician) of the electrical installations in a PRS property – along with any electrical appliance supplied with it. We have also called for residual-current devices (RCD), which rapidly turn off the electric current if they detect a fault, to be installed in the fuse box of all privately rented homes and on all appliances supplied by landlords.

The proposals have been generally recognised as an extremely cost-effective way for landlords to ensure the safety of their property and their tenants. Indeed, ARLA (the Association of Residential Letting Agents) has supported our campaign to make the checks a mandatory requirement.

Although regular electrical safety checks are considered best practice, by leading landlord bodies, a landlord’s legal obligations around electrical safety are rather broadly defined, the exception being Houses of Multiple Occupation. Legally, a landlord must ensure that the electrical installation in a rental property is safe when tenants move in and that it is maintained in this condition during the tenancy. Also, any appliance supplied with the property must be safe and have (at least) a CE mark – the manufacturers claim that it meets EU standards.

However, for some years now, private landlords have been required to obtain an annual gas safety certificate when renting out their property. Our proposals would bring electrical safety more in line with the regulations covering gas safety and provide increased clarity to PRS safety legislation and the landlords’ responsibilities.

According to House Proud, a report we produced jointly with the Local Government Information Unit, most councils consider that the majority of landlords in their community are ‘good’. Almost two-thirds of English Councils took part in the research for this report, and just under 90% of Local Authorities surveyed agreed – or strongly agreed – that; “The council has a good relationship with private sector landlords’”

But national statistics show that, amongst any tenure, PRS housing has the greatest level of non-decency. Our evidence suggests that PRS tenants are at greater risk from electrical accidents than homeowners, or those in social housing. Poor electrical safety in the PRS is a very real problem which can – and does – kill and injure. In the last year, 16% of PRS tenants experienced electrical hazards and this figure increases to 20% for those with children.

Some believe a contributory factor to this situation is the increase in ‘accidental’ landlords – individuals who are landlords but did not intentionally acquire the property in order to let it out. In fact, research by Electrical Safety First found that 13% of UK adults are considering leasing out a property in the near future. We also found that there was confusion regarding the respective obligations of landlord and tenant, with three in ten landlords and four in ten tenants being unaware of who is responsible for electrical safety in their rented properties.

Failing to understand their legal obligations can have serious consequences for a landlord. A landlord found to be negligent, in relation to electrical safety, can be prosecuted and recieve a fine (of up to £5,000 for each count) or face imprisonment. This may come as a shock to the 38% of landlords who don’t believe there are any penalties for ignoring electrical safety.

While Electrical Safety First is working for improved electrical safety throughout the UK, it has already seen some success in Scotland. We were instrumental in getting electrical safety information into Scotland’s Tenant Information Packs, which came into force on May 1st. But, more importantly, we secured an amendment to the new Scottish Housing Bill – put forward by Bob Doris MSP – which requires regular checks of all installations and electrical appliances supplied in private rented homes.

Putting together a coalition of organisations, who publicly put their support behind the amendment, was key to this advance. And the fact that the Scottish Association of Landlords joined this alliance was particularly important, as gaining the support of the sector is essential in ensuring new regulations are implemented effectively.

Electrical Safety First is continuing to engage with Westminster and the Welsh Assembly in order to bring a consistent and properly recognised approach to electrical safety throughout the UK. But additionally, while we continue to work for effective safety requirements at the national level, we also support empowering local councils to address the safety of housing in their community. Previously, we have collaborated with proactive councils, such as Newham, to discuss their approach to safety in the PRS, and we intend to do so more widely.

We also believe that education can help tackle the issue and, with this in mind, Electrical Safety First has developed a range of tools to help people understand their responsibilities. These tools include a landlord guide and mobile phone app, which guides people through a quick visual check to help them establish if their property is electrically safe.

We believe the legislative changes we have proposed are cost-effective and sensible – but most of all we know they will save lives and protect property. Some of the worst examples of landlord neglect relate to poor electrical safety. With the rapid expansion of the PRS it’s become even more essential to address this issue and put electrical safety at the heart of the home.

Phil Buckle

Electrical Safety First is a campaigning charity dedicated to preventing deaths, injuries and damage caused by electricity. With a significant level of in-house expertise, it is recognised as a leading expert on electrical safety by industry, government and consumers.

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