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It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Betts. For part of his absence, I had to chair the Committee as we carried out some of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and agreed the final report that the Committee published. I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to adopt many of our recommendations, which were agreed on a unanimous all-party basis. This is one of the areas that the Government should learn from, across the Departments. Submitting draft Bills to Select Committees and asking them to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny improves the legislation before it comes before the House, and many other Departments could learn from this and use the same method to improve their legislation. I should also like to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and I have a small portfolio of properties that are rented out.
A key area is the need to strike a balance between landlords and tenants and the agents that they utilise between them. I agree with other Members that it cannot be right for an agent to work for both the landlord and the tenant, and for fees to be charged in both directions. The principle has to be that the letting agent acts on behalf of the landlord and that the landlord therefore pays the costs of the agent. Tenants should not be charged for the purposes of identifying a tenancy. As we in this country increase our dependency on the private rented sector, this is becoming an ever greater problem and it needs to be addressed.
I warmly welcome the Government’s decision to bring forward this legislation, and I am delighted that they have accepted so many of the Committee’s recommendations. However, I want to deal with some of the recommendations that they did not accept, as they are the ones that form the nub of the debate. First, I should like to be just a bit critical about the process of deciding whether there should be an assessment of impact or an impact assessment. The Committee thought that the Government should have carried out a proper impact assessment on publication of the draft Bill before it came to us for pre-legislative scrutiny. They chose not to do that, and instead decided to carry out an assessment of impact and subsequently do an impact assessment. I will not go into all the technicalities involved, but this was one of our key concerns.
We also considered in some detail the question of whether a deposit should be based on four, five or six weeks’ rent. Clearly, landlords would like as large a deposit as possible and tenants would like to pay as little as possible. Our concern over limiting the deposit to four weeks’ rent was that most tenancies involve paying rent monthly and that at the end of a tenancy, the tenant might simply skip without paying the last month’s rent. At that point, the landlord would have to enforce and retain the deposit. Similarly, we felt that six weeks would be too long, and that it would be a barrier to many tenants seeking to rent. We therefore struck a balance and recommended five weeks, on the basis that both parties would have something to lose if the deposit had to be relied upon. That is why we arrived at that compromise arrangement, and I am disappointed that the Government did not accept our strong arguments in favour of that compromise. I believe that once a maximum figure is set, it is almost inevitable that all landlords and letting agents will go straight to that maximum level. That has a severe impact and would be an unfair charge for people on relatively low incomes.
The Government have partly accepted the Select Committee’s position on whether fees such as holding deposits can be considered reasonable. If someone goes into a letting agency wanting a tenancy, appropriate fees for reference checks, which are of the order of £20 to £50, are reasonable costs for them to incur, but it is unreasonable for the landlord to pay if someone fails a reference check. The Committee also recommended that if a prospective tenant gives deliberately misleading information, they should lose the holding deposit, which should be retained by the landlord. That suggestion has not been in accepted in full by the Government, and it needs to be considered in detail again.
Another of the Committee’s concerns was that if the first month’s rent is artificially high and then the rent decreases over time, that hidden fee is unfair on the tenant. However, we want it recognised that rents can go down as well as up. The Bill essentially presumes that the cost of a tenancy will always increase and that the rent will increase when a tenancy is renewed. However, the market could determine that rents will come down, so there should be a provision that allows for rents to fall, particularly over the course of a longer tenancy.
I completely agree with what the Chair of the Select Committee had to say about retaliatory evictions, and we must review the whole process in law. We cannot necessarily do all that in this legislation, but the position could be corrected through provisions in this Bill. Tenants must feel able to complain to trading standards, the housing court or whatever organisation we choose, without running the risk of being evicted. Such evictions cannot be right, and we must draw a firm line under them.
In conclusion, I agree with the current draft of the Bill, but there are some changes that would improve the legislation for all concerned and strike a much better balance between tenants and landlords.