Tenant Fees Bill

Part of Gaza: Un Human Rights Council Vote – in the House of Commons at 9:28 pm on 21st May 2018.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 9:28 pm, 21st May 2018

This has been an important debate, which has seen excellent contributions from across the House. I want to highlight in particular those made by my hon. Friend Mr Betts as Chair of the Select Committee and my hon. Friend Jo Stevens, who painted such a powerful picture of a student city and the arbitrary and unjustifiable fees to which those students are subjected.

As has already been said, it is always flattering for the Opposition when a Government steal our good ideas, but the serious point that all of us on the Opposition Benches want to make tonight is that we welcome the Bill, we welcome its intent and we want to work with the Government to get it right. Introducing an outright ban on up-front letting fees is absolutely right and, as John Stevenson said, it is right and proper that the Government should intervene.

As we know, the Bill has been some time coming. The Government voted down a private Member’s Bill on this topic in 2013. As my hon. Friend Matt Rodda said, the proposals to ban letting fees were put to the House in 2014 and the Conservative party, including the prime Minister, voted them down. In 2016, my constituency predecessor and then Housing Minister dismissed this policy as a bad idea, just eight weeks before his Government briefed the policy as part of their autumn statement. That is all in the past, however, and we are delighted we won the argument in the end.

We welcome the Bill, but we think it could go further and give private renters the rights they need. The Government have backtracked on their original plans to cap deposits at rates tenants want. They have put a major loophole in the Bill for a minority of unscrupulous landlords to exploit, they have kept costs for holding deposits at an unreasonable level and they have passed potentially high fees beyond year one for enforcing the Bill on to local councils.

It is right that we challenge the Government to go further, while welcoming the Bill’s overall aims. As Mark Pawsey said, 21% of the market is now privately rented. It is no longer just young single people and students: England’s private rented sector is home to 1.6 million families with children. Average rents are now almost £1,500 a year higher than they were in 2010. As my hon. Friend Dr Williams said, there is a link between paying more than a third of income on rent and one’s mental health. As my hon. Friend Helen Hayes said, in her constituency people are increasingly fearful of the private rented sector, if they are able to access it at all. Wera Hobhouse and my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle painted a picture of the wider reforms that are needed if we are to really tackle the private rented sector. There is certainly much more to be done, but we welcome the Bill.

I want to press the Minister on a few small points. Security deposits are a barrier to entry for many people trying to access the private rented sector. The proposal to cap deposits is welcome and a long overdue admission by the Government that the current market price is just too high. The Department’s own consultation found that more than nine out of 10 tenants want to see a cap, but we do not believe that the proposals in their current form are fit for purpose, because the cap is above what the market has already settled on and will not make any difference to the majority of tenants. Shelter’s most recent private landlord survey found that 55% of landlords ask for four weeks’ rent as a deposit, while only 6% ask for more than six weeks.

Citizens Advice also found that the most common amount is four weeks. It argues that a six-week cap will just help 8% of private renters. The Government’s own consultation on the policy found that two thirds of tenants wanted a cap of four weeks or less. Instead of listening to tenants and experts, the Government have risked making a deposit of six weeks’ rent the norm, rather than the maximum. This is a particular concern in high-cost areas such as London, where a six weeks’ rent deposit will see tenants paying £2,000 based on medium rents.

The Mayor of London is calling for a three-week cap. Experts such as Shelter and Citizens Advice are saying it should be no higher than four weeks. As set out by Bob Blackman, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee is calling for a five-week cap. Clearly, there are some different views. It is a shame that the Government have bowed to pressure from trade associations and backtracked on their original plans to cap deposits at four weeks’ rent. I really hope the Minister will be open to discussing this in more detail in Committee. We on the Labour Benches will thank the Government for that if they do so.

On default fees, although the majority of landlords and many agencies operate fairly and responsibly, excessive fees imposed on tenants for minuscule breaches are still far too common. Some examples highlighted by Shelter include: a £40 administration fee for every phone call or letter to chase overdue rent; a £40 charge for a late rent payment; and mystery shopper evidence that appears to show agents making up fees for things on the spot. The Government have allowed a potentially serious loophole in the Bill by not banning default fees.

There are several issues that we do not have time to go into tonight, but there are big question marks over the effectiveness of statutory guidance in such areas. In the energy sector, the continued use of back-billing by companies in defiance of Ofgem’s guidance meant a licence requirement was eventually needed.

It is important that we get this right and do not leave a loophole for unscrupulous landlords and letting agents at the heart of the Bill. As Angela Crawley said, the lettings industry admitted in evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that some agents may seek to charge disproportionate default fees in order to recoup revenue that is lost as a result of the legislation.

Turning to the enforcement duties in clauses 6 to 8, as with any legislation of this sort, effective enforcement is key to its success. As we have heard today, the suggestion that the Bill should be completely funded through civil penalties jeopardises its chances of working effectively. Serious concerns have been raised about the ability of trading standards to enforce the measures properly, as no extra funding is earmarked beyond year one for enforcement—of course, we very much welcome the announcement of £500,000 in Government support in year one. Trading standards are under-resourced and overstretched to an unprecedented degree, and therefore, this proposal seems misguided. I hope that the Minister can offer us something during the Bill Committee to deal with that issue.

In conclusion, unlike other sectors in which consumers can expect certain standards with clear redress, repair and replace provisions, in practice they have fewer consumer rights in renting a family home than they do in buying a fridge-freezer. Today’s Bill is a step in the right direction, but it is not yet perfect. Although it will give comfort to renters, it will not tackle their wider problems. The Conservatives have so far turned a blind eye to the pressures that England’s rapidly growing number of private renters are facing. We hope that the new Secretary of State will continue on his course of coming in and changing things that are not right and will work with us to make the Bill work. My hon. Friend Melanie Onn called for a gold standard for renters and landlords and for us to take the Bill from good to great. I am sure that that is something the Government would support.