The private rented sector has swelled in recent years as people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder.
For some, renting offers greater flexibility and many tenants have positive experiences, but for others there are hidden dangers that can be harmful, and in some cases fatal.
One of the least visible or high profile of these is the risk posed by faulty electrics, which can cause shocks and fires and often go unchecked.
This is why Electrical Safety First is raising awareness of the issue among the public and calling on the next government to hold landlords to account.
The charity is urging policy makers to make five year safety checks mandatory in rented properties; a measure which is already in place in Scotland.
“Our main concern is that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland you could move into a flat or a house and it would never have had an electrical safety check,” says Electrical Safety First Public Affairs Manager, Robert Jervis-Gibbons.
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“The landlord would have to have a gas safety certificate which must be renewed each year. Our key ask is that people who move into the private rented sector at least know that there has been an electrical safety check in the last five years.
“Our proposals actually benefit landlords and tenants. Landlords can face significant financial risks from fires and invalidated insurance claims, if they fail to ensure electrical safety in their rented properties. A five yearly check for people in the private rented sector when people are moving in and out, we think is quite reasonable. In fact, it is a small price to pay to protect people and property. And with more and more people now living in the private rented sector, increasing numbers could be potentially putting themselves at risk.”
Someone who knows that risk all too well is Jane Andain, whose daughter Thirza Whittall was killed as a result of faulty electrics six years ago in her rented home.
Ms Whittall received a fatal electric shock one night whilst getting in the bath. This was later found to have arisen from deficient wiring throughout the property leading to an electric current making its way through to the bathtub.
“It’s an horrific case,” Mr Jervis-Gibbons says. “What we are saying is, do the checks and we can prevent these things from happening.”
Electrical Safety First is focussed on “protecting people, particularly in the home,” he adds, and as the UK undergoes a demographic shift the charity is especially concerned about the safety of older people.
“The number of people aged over 65 is predicted to double in the private rented sector. Are people going to remain safe in their own homes with appliances? If you have got dementia or Alzheimer’s certain everyday tasks become a complete and utter nightmare and how will people remain safe?
“So, all we are asking for, on that basis again, is that we think that the most vulnerable people and those aged over 75 should have the option of having a free electrical safety check.”
“Another key ask of course is statutory five year electrical safety checking in all care homes. Because if you can’t live in your own home you would want to know that your family member has gone to live somewhere where the electrics are fine… it’s about awareness raising on all different levels,” Mr Jervis-Gibbons says.
Although he is keen to stress that it is not just older people who are vulnerable, suggesting that there is much more to do on informing the wider public of the dangers posed by electrical appliances.
“I think there is probably a long way to go… Electrical appliances in this country are responsible for 19,450 domestic fires, nearly 2,500 serious injuries and 49 deaths each year. There are about 228 electrical items which were recalled in the last four years and the success rate of recall is about 10-20%. An issue for us is how to get a better way for manufacturers to recall their products and for the public to actually know about it.
“There’s the issue of product safety but there is also the problem of counterfeit goods. I think we have all gone out for the day or stayed somewhere overnight and thought: ‘I have left my mobile phone charger at home’. And we have all gone out and bought a mobile phone charger for a quid and thought it looks OK.
“But the public need to be aware that the number of fake mobile phones seized in the last year has risen by more than 50%. And with other things like fake mobile phone chargers there is a real risk of causing a fire in your home if it doesn’t work properly, or it is substandard or counterfeit.
“We run media campaigns for consumers through our website and social media as well and we have got a number of plans for this year. But my focus obviously is on awareness with politicians and policy makers, so a key focus for us going forward would be counterfeit goods because it’s totally unregulated.”
Having worked in the House of Commons Mr Jervis-Gibbons is optimistic about how the issue is being received in Westminster, although he concedes that MPs’ attention is currently focussed elsewhere.
“We published a report in January called A Shock to the System: Electrical Safety in an Ageing Society. It was very warmly received – we had a launch in the House of Lords. But the election has got in the way of that now.
“I think most MPs are interested in issues to do with older people, highlighted recently by the changes to pensions, for example. Having worked for an MP in the past lots of older people tend to want the services of their MP as well. So, we do think it is something which members of parliament will find of direct interest to their constituents, particularly the private rented sector and the hydro-electrical safety check has had a good deal of cross-party support in Westminster.”
As the political establishment faces upheaval in the coming weeks and months Mr Jervis-Gibbons and Electrical Safety First will be making the case for firmer regulation and hoping to garner the support of the next government, whoever it may be.
For Jane Andain, new rules will not bring back her daughter, but as she says: “the law has to change so that no one else has to go through what we’ve been through.”