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How to change the law

How to change the law
4 min read

Karen Buck knows what it takes to get a bill passed – she shares her tips for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit

Politics is by and large a team sport. We mostly win our victories (and face our defeats) collectively, by the part we play in electing and supporting a government to deliver its programme.

Yet sometimes a moment comes when individual backbench MPs can make a difference – amending legislation or even bringing it on to the statute book from scratch, and that is a rare joy.

I was able to steer the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act into law on my second attempt, and there is no point in acting cool about it; it was an utterly wonderful experience. So, what did I learn?

Experts on PMBs are like ancient sea captains – seek them out and learn from their wisdom

First, there is no avoiding the wider political context. My first attempt with the Homes Bill, in 2015, failed due to lack of government support. Success came in 2017-18, when the government did not have a majority and, tragically, also after the horrors of the Grenfell fire put housing safety in the spotlight.

Opposition MPs can receive government support for a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) in other circumstances but it is a lot rarer. That isn’t to say backbenchers from the government side are guaranteed success, of course, although those highly placed may be encouraged to progress a bill that has official blessing, and that can also lead to good things – such as Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act (2017).

Second, know your procedure! A lot can go wrong, even if you have backing. There are very specific rules and you can be vulnerable to the curse of the PMB – being ‘talked out’. Experts on PMBs are like ancient sea captains – seek them out and learn from their wisdom.

Next, choose your subject wisely, knowing the limits (and the opportunities) presented by this route. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act has huge implications for tenants in substandard housing, giving them a means of redress when their property is unsafe or unfit, even when this does not arise from disrepair.

It closes a major loophole in the law. Yet it was essentially a very short bill and, in many ways, the shorter and simpler the better. It gives less room for amendments and for … yes … ‘talking out’.

If you do well in the ballot, you will be flooded with offers of bills to take forward from lots of fine and worthy campaigns – but they won’t all know that secret and it is worth remembering, whatever topic you go with.

Build your support outside Parliament, and use this to get MPs on side if you need the numbers for a vote. I was fortunate to have help from Shelter, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Generation Rent, the Law Society and others, and they prepared briefings, promoted the bill in the media and lobbied hard as we approached the crucial second reading.

Spot potential opposition too, and do the preparation. I talked to and was delighted to get backing from the Residential Landlords Association despite the nature of my bill because they understood that good landlords were being undermined by the bad and the irresponsible.

I’ve said getting a Private Member’s Bill through is something you do alone, as an individual MP, with your name and only your name attached, but of course that is never strictly true. It is always a team effort, so choose your team well.

The concept for the Homes Act came from, and the drafting was done by, two brilliant housing lawyers Giles Peaker and Justin Bates, and the quality of their work was integral to our eventual success. Once we won government backing, departmental officials worked with them (and me) incredibly well and constructively.

The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act came into force in March 2019 for new tenancies, and will extend to existing tenancies this spring. Success will be measured more by how landlords improve their properties than by the number of cases that go to court.

However, the critical fact is that tenants in the near-1 million homes which present a hazard to their health and their safety have a protection they did not have before, and that makes me very proud indeed. Good luck with yours.

Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North

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