I presented a petition to the House on behalf of my constituents back in June 2016, calling on the Government to take action to curb letting agent fees. In responding to the petition, the Government gave no indication that they were considering any action on fees other than requiring letting agents to publish a full tariff of their fees. That response was very disappointing.
The publication of tariffs in my constituency has simply confirmed what private renters have always known: that fees are enormously variable and that in many cases a combination of fees, holding deposit and tenancy deposit can run into hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds each time a tenant moves. Letting agent fees are no small matter financially, whether someone is trying to save for a deposit to buy their own home or simply trying to keep their head above water and make ends meet. The instability that many private renters face means that they are not only paying high fees, but can be forced to pay them every six to 12 months, so they face the utterly dispiriting experience of seeing what little savings they manage to accumulate being wiped out again and again each time a tenancy comes to an end.
Fees, combined with spiralling rents, are one of the reasons why many renters cannot afford to buy. They are also one of the reasons why many of my constituents who are in the greatest housing need and on long waiting lists for genuinely affordable social housing increasingly fear the private rented sector, if they are able to access it at all. So I welcome the Government’s change of heart on letting agent fees. I welcome the adoption of a Labour policy, and I welcome the Bill.
The Bill seeks to iron out a significant confusion in the letting agency market, which is the question of who the client is. Since landlords procure the services of letting agents and have a choice about which letting agent to choose, and letting agents provide a service to landlords in finding them tenants, the landlord is the client. Tenants do not have a choice about which letting agent to go to in order to access the type of home they require. They cannot decide that they like a particular property but would prefer to rent it via a different agent. As such, they are not the client. Any services the letting agent provides that involve the tenant, such as obtaining references and credit checks, are simply part of the process of securing that tenant for the landlord who is their client. It is therefore not fair or reasonable for two different parties in a letting transaction to be charged for the provision of services. No other part of the estate agency industry operates in that way, and there is no justification for it to continue.
While I welcome the Bill, there are some important ways in which it can and must be improved. The first and most significant relates to default fees. The Bill allows for default fees to be charged by landlords and agents of tenants but does not specify any parameters for that. Great concern has been expressed by many witnesses to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny inquiry on the Bill and others that the provisions relating to default fees are simply a loophole that will allow arbitrary sums to be claimed from tenants by the back door.
Although default fees have to be specified in the tenancy agreement, there is in practice no way for a tenant to identify and challenge unfair fees at the point at which a new tenancy begins—and by the time they are being charged, it is too late. Letting agents’ representatives admitted in evidence to the Select Committee that they would try to charge disproportionate default fees to make up for a reduction in other fees. This would be completely unacceptable, and while I welcome the Government’s intention to provide further clarification, it is vital that this is absolutely watertight if the Bill is to succeed in its main objective of reducing cost to tenants.
Secondly, I am concerned that the Bill is insufficiently clear on the circumstances in which an agent can retain a holding deposit. In circumstances where a tenant has wilfully provided false information, it may be acceptable for an agent to retain the costs of undertaking checks, but we know that there are many circumstances in which incorrect information can be provided where this is not the fault of the tenant. For example, the tenant may be unaware that their credit rating has dipped, or an employer may hold out-of-date salary information, and there are many other such circumstances. The Bill must ensure that tenants are protected against incorrect information being provided by someone else. The failure to do so could result in tenants who have lost a proportion of their savings being prevented from accessing another home, with dire consequences. I urge the Government to ensure that the Bill is sufficiently robust on this matter.
Finally, I must emphasise that although the Bill is a welcome step, there is still much more to do to reform the private rented sector and to redress the imbalance of power that exists between landlords and tenants. The Government have shown a willingness to adopt Labour policy with regard to banning letting agents’ fees. May I urge the Minister to go further and legislate for longer and more secure tenancies, intervene to address the spiralling rents that cause hardship for so many of my constituents and act to stop revenge evictions because the current legislation simply is not working? We need comprehensive reform of the private rented sector to give security and stability to the increasing numbers of my constituents who are reliant on it, and in particular for the growing numbers of children living in private rented accommodation on whom the need to move frequently can have a particularly harmful impact. While I welcome the Bill, there is much more to do, and I urge the Government to go further.