It is a pleasure to follow Bob Blackman. Some Members may be wondering why I, a Welsh Member, am speaking in this debate, because housing is devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, and the Welsh Government will be bringing their own Bill before the Assembly this year to ban letting fees in the private rented sector. The Welsh Government consulted widely and the consultation’s findings have added to the ample evidence, a lot of which we have heard this evening, that action is needed to address the fees currently charged to tenants.
To highlight a few of the consultation’s findings, 56% of all respondents agreed with an outright ban on unnecessary fees, 62% of tenants said that fees had affected their ability to move into a rented property, 86% said that fees had affected their decision to use a letting agency and, astonishingly, 61% of landlords did not know what their tenants were being charged by their letting agent. I doubt that the experiences of tenants in Wales differ greatly from those in England, so I welcome the Welsh Bill and am pleased that introductory fees will be banned—hopefully throughout the UK.
My constituency has the fifth-highest proportion of privately rented accommodation of any constituency. That is largely, although not exclusively, because it has the third-highest proportion of full-time students of any constituency. Nearly 37% of my constituents live in private rented homes, and much of that number is made up of families. Like many Members, I see constituents in my advice surgery every single week who are living in expensive, cramped accommodation and for whom fees are a constant worry. Such fees are yet another worry to add to insecure employment, low pay, cuts to social security and housing benefits, a publicly funded legal advice desert—when rent arrears get to the point where eviction is imminent, no help is available—and, obviously, eye-watering levels of student debt. Banning letting agency and landlord fees is very welcome. It is a cash cow that has gone on for too long. Some agents are using it as a scam, and it needs to stop.
Other Members with university constituencies will no doubt recognise the picture I am about to paint. Some of the larger streets in my constituency are almost entirely made up of family homes that have been converted into student lets—streets of about 200 properties, each with eight or more students living in it. When I go down those streets and knock on doors to speak to constituents, I add up in my head the total paid every single year in letting agency fees by those residents. On one street in the Cathays ward of my constituency each resident will pay, on average, £200 in letting agency fees. Between them, on that one street, letting agencies are making a minimum of £320,000 every single year. Never mind Ponzi schemes or payment protection insurance scandals, this is a scandal that has lined the pockets of letting agents, some of whom are parasitic, greedy and unscrupulous, and it has gone on for far too long.
As we have heard, these fees, like so many other things, are based on an imbalance of power. Student tenants and low-income families have no power in this relationship. This is what one constituent wrote to me, having had a dreadful experience with a Cardiff letting agency:
“They are LEECHING people for all that they can, and there is nothing to stop them. They are brazen. They know they’re screwing you over, and they know that you know that they’re screwing you over, and THEY DON’T CARE. Because there are no consequences and they hold all the power.”
My experience of representing constituents living in the private rented sector is that the fees charged are almost always completely arbitrary and unjustifiable.
Here is another view from a constituent:
“Students and low earners are bled dry by these lizards, to the tune of hundreds of pounds a year all to live in rotting accommodation which can be dangerous to live in.”
As another example, one student said to me:
“In the small print of our contract it said the letting agency will take 65 pounds from each of us in our student house for ‘professional cleaning…regardless of the condition the house is left in.’ So I was then quite annoyed to find they hadn’t bothered with this ‘professional cleaning’ for us when we moved in. The kitchen was leaking and rotting. A ceiling collapsed within a week due to an upstairs leak. The bathrooms reeked and were mouldy. A microwave nearly caught fire and…exploded but we were told” by the letting agency that
“it wasn’t their problem.”
The truth is that many of these fees are completely arbitrary. They mean nothing. At most, they constitute a few minutes of basic administration using tenancy agreement templates and the ability to cut and paste, yet at the moment agencies and landlords can just name their price, so I welcome the Bill.
This racket needs to end, all of it, and fast.