I am delighted to speak in the debate. Let me say at the outset that I welcome any moves by the Government to put money back into renters’ pockets. I recognise that the Bill is not wholly relevant to Scotland, but I feel that some comparisons can be made with actions that we have taken there.
As someone who was on a low wage and who rented in the private sector for a number of years, I understand the difficulties faced by people in those circumstances. While the demand for social housing outstrips supply, the need for privately rented accommodation will only increase, and, as we have heard repeatedly this evening, when the demand for private rented accommodation is high, those looking at the market can be put at a financial disadvantage. We need to get to the root of the problem. There are a number of ways in which we could seek to solve it. For instance, we could increase the social housing supply, end the sale of council homes under the right to buy, and give renters the protection that they require. Those are just a few of the ways in which we have been able to mitigate some of the worst impacts in Scotland.
Over the last parliamentary term, the SNP Government invested more than £1.7 billion in affordable housing. We exceeded our target of building 30,000 affordable homes, and by the end of the parliamentary term we had delivered more than 33,000. Only six council homes were completed during Labour’s last term of office in Scotland. We have also taken steps to safeguard social housing for the future by abolishing the right to buy, thus protecting 15,500 homes in the social rented sector. In the current Parliament, we have set the target of building at least 50,000 new affordable homes.
Tenant fees were abolished in Scotland in 2011, and the evidence suggests that those renting property have more money as a result. Renters themselves were no more likely to report a rent increase than those in other parts of the UK. However, protecting renters’ rights extends beyond scrapping tenant fees. If the Government are to make real progress on protecting tenants in their homes, they must go further than the Bill suggests.
The Bill contains a number of loopholes, which I hope the Government will try to address. They have amended the definition of a default fee, providing that it should not exceed the loss suffered by the landlord, and have said that they plan to issue guidance on the type and reasonableness of fees. However, more protections are needed to limit what can be charged for and ensure that any loss is reasonable, and there must be a definition of “reasonable”. Agents have already admitted in evidence to the Select Committee that they will try to charge disproportionate default fees to make up for lost revenue.
There is currently a lack of clarity about the circumstances in which landlords or agents can or cannot retain a holding deposit. A holding deposit can be retained if a tenant has provided false or misleading information that materially affects his or her ability to rent a property, but it is unclear what will be considered false or misleading information, and the rule is therefore open to abuse.
I welcome the Government’s intention, but more must be done in the Bill to protect renters, and more must be done generally to protect those in the private rented sector.