I remind the House that the Bill has been certified as relating exclusively to England and within devolved legislative competence. Any Divisions will be subject to double majority voting, whole House and Members representing constituencies in England.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 2 to 35.
Lords amendment 36, and amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendment 37, and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.
Lords amendments 38 to 47.
Lords amendment 48, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 49 to 60.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the List of Ministers’ Interests.
I am delighted that today we have a final opportunity to scrutinise the Tenant Fees Bill. I am grateful for the considered contributions from hon. Members to date. In particular, I thank the members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, chaired by Mr Betts, for their pre-legislative scrutiny. I also thank the Opposition Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for their constructive engagement.
It has been clear throughout that the Bill is one that we all support and that will deliver important changes in the private rented sector, improving the lives of millions of tenants. Letting fees can impose a significant burden on tenants, who often have little choice but to pay them time and again. The Bill will put a stop to such practices by banning unfair and hidden charges, making it easier for tenants to find a property at a price they are willing to pay, and saving renters an estimated £240 million in the first year alone. I know the changes may worry some in the lettings market, but agents who offer good value and high-quality services to landlords will continue to be in demand and play an important role in the sector.
Before I speak to the Government amendments made in the other place, I want to put on the record my thanks to my noble Friend and ministerial colleague Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, who ably steered the Bill through the House of Lords, and to my noble Friend Lord Young of Cookham, who assisted. I also thank all peers who contributed positively to the debate. The Bill has benefited from their constructive engagement and scrutiny. Finally, I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
I believe the Lords amendments strengthen the Bill and respond to many concerns raised during the debate in this House. Lords amendments 1, 2, 5 to 12, 15 to 18, 28 to 35, 49 and 55 are minor and technical inclusions that ensure consistency in the Bill and that the Bill best delivers on the policy intent. Lords amendment 5 clarifies that letting agents are prohibited from requiring a tenant or relevant person to enter into a contract with themselves—for example, for additional services such as providing an inventory. Lords amendment 1, 2, 6 to 12 and 28 to 35 replace references to “tenant” with references to “relevant person”. Amendment 55 changes a reference to “incorrect and misleading information” to “false and misleading information”, to align with other references in schedule 2. Amendment 15 to 18 ensure that the language around “day” and “date” in clause 11 is consistent, and amendment 49 makes it clear that the definition of a television licence in paragraph 9 of schedule 1 applies to the entire Bill.
I know that many hon. Members feel passionately about capping tenancy deposits. The issue has been discussed in great detail in both Houses, and we have listened carefully to the arguments made. That is why we tabled Lords amendments 36 and 37 to lower the cap on deposits to five weeks’ rent for properties where the annual rent is less than £50,000; where the annual rent is £50,000 or more, the deposit cap will remain at six weeks’ rent. The vast majority of tenants will be subject to a deposit cap of up to five weeks’ rent. The higher six-week deposit cap will apply only to properties where the monthly rent is £4,167 or more. Valuation Office Agency data show that across England the median monthly rent is significantly less than that. The upper quartile monthly rent for properties with four or more bedrooms in London is £3,142. The higher deposit cap is intended to apply not to the bulk of the private rented sector, but to high-end rentals—a niche area of renting where the costs involved are greater, making a deposit cap of six weeks’ rent more appropriate.
The Government took a balanced view. We wanted to ensure that landlords had sufficient financial security and flexibility for their properties, but recognised concerns that a six-week cap for all tenants might not best deliver the changes to affordability that are needed at the lower end of the market. Importantly, a cap of five weeks’ rent for properties with an annual rent of less than £50,000 extends the benefits of the deposit cap to an estimated one in three tenants. I am sure hon. Members agree that that is a laudable outcome. Also importantly, a cap at five weeks’ rent also aligns with a recommendation made by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby would lower the tenancy deposit cap to three weeks’ rent for all tenancies. Above all, the amendment would not help tenants and it risks distorting the market and causing behavioural change. Using data from deposit protection schemes, we estimate that some 93% of deposits now exceed three weeks’ rent. A cap of three weeks’ rent would greatly increase the risk of the deposit not fully covering damage to the landlord’s property or any unpaid rent.
As a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I am delighted that the Government have adopted the recommendation of five weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that having a three-week cap is a rather peculiar notion? I do not recall a single piece of evidence from any expert citing that cap. Does she agree that the evidence for such an amendment needs to be produced?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The evidence to the Select Committee showed that there was no reason to have a three-week cap and that five weeks was better.
The Minister is absolutely right: the Select Committee was clear in its recommendation, and when the matter was discussed in the Public Bill Committee, a lot of evidence was produced to demonstrate that five weeks was a good compromise, which landlords could accept and which would benefit most tenants. The Opposition’s object in proposing three weeks is purely political, enabling them to say to tenants, “We tried to get it much lower,” when in fact the result would surely be many fewer properties available in the market for renting, which would hurt our constituents.
I could not have put it better myself. We do not want to create a situation that encourages landlords to withdraw from the market or ask tenants for more rent in advance, thus decreasing the overall net benefit of the ban on unfair charges. Also, we do not want to legislate in a way that would disadvantage certain groups, including pet owners and those who have lived abroad or have a poor financial history.
The real risk, as we have heard throughout the parliamentary process, is that a cap of four or three weeks’ rent could encourage tenants to forgo their final month’s rent payment. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and peers in all parts of the other House recognised that risk and agreed that a deposit of five weeks’ rent was the right compromise. Lords amendments 36 and 37 are the result of cross-party discussion and agreement. It is worth noting that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby publicly welcomed the five-week deposit cap when it was announced. With that in mind, I hope hon. Members recognise that the Government have already proposed the best solution to the tenancy deposit cap.
Is my hon. Friend aware of anywhere in the world, and certainly any part of the United Kingdom, where deposits are capped at three weeks’ rent? Indeed, as she knows, the cap in Scotland is eight weeks’ rent.
I thank my hon. Friend. He has great knowledge of these matters and it is always helpful to hear that. In Scotland, it is eight weeks. We are putting forward five weeks. No, I am not aware of a cap at three weeks.
With this in mind, I hope that hon. Members can see that the Government have already brought forward the best solution to the tenancy deposit cap—one that works both for tenants and landlords and does not risk distorting the market. I therefore hope that the hon. Lady sees fit not to press her amendment.
Lords amendments 42 to 47 deal with default fees. The provision permitting landlords and agents to charge default fees was another area of concern for many hon. Members. We amended the Bill in this House to be clear that landlords and agents can only charge default fees that reflect reasonably incurred costs that are evidenced in writing. Many hon. Members thought that this still did not go far enough to mitigate the risk of abuse by rogue landlords and agents. We have listened carefully to the evidence and arguments made. Although we believe that a landlord or agent should be allowed to charge fees where costs arise from the fault of the tenant, we do not want inadvertently to create a back door to other charges.
That is why Lords amendments 42 to 47 limit the default fees that can be charged to late rent, or a lost key or another security device giving access to the housing. This makes it clear where a default fee can be charged. For a late payment of rent, that payment needs to have been outstanding for 14 days or more. Where applicable, landlords or agents will be permitted to charge interest at no more than an annual percentage rate of 3% above the Bank of England’s base rate for each day that the payment is outstanding. Any fee charged in respect of replacing a lost key or other security device must not exceed the landlord’s or agent’s reasonable costs, and must also be evidenced in writing to the person who is liable for the payment. I hope we can all agree that this approach gives landlords and agents the assurance they require while giving tenants enough certainty over what can be charged.
The Minister will recall that, during the pre-legislative scrutiny in the Select Committee, one of the issues raised was about enforcement of rights. Does she agree that it is necessary to properly fund local authorities so that they can challenge landlords who seek to charge unfair fees?
Yes, indeed. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will get on to that point later in my speech, so she will have to stay and listen to the end, I am afraid.
I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on this matter. The Minister talks about agents and landlords having reassurance about being able to make reasonable charges where their action or work is required through the fault of the tenant. The Bill does make provision for this in a situation with the loss of keys, but it makes no provision for the costs of chasing late rent, despite the fact that it may take several attempts to collect it. In effect, that means that charges would be increased on the landlord at the expense of good tenants, on the basis that some bad tenants who do not pay their rent on time create a lot more work for the agent or the landlord.
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is so deeply imbued with knowledge of these issues that I take note of it. I think he will find that later in the Bill there is a clause that might be helpful to him.
There is also a power in clause 3 to amend the list of permitted payments, including the level of the deposit cap and types of default fees that can be charged, should this be required.
Lords amendment 48 clarifies that landlords and agents will still be able to charge for any damages for contractual breaches as they do now. On this point, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has tabled an amendment seeking to ensure that, where a landlord or agent wishes to charge a payment for damages, they must provide evidence in writing to demonstrate that their costs are reasonable. I would like to reassure her, and other hon. Members, that that amendment is not necessary. It has never been the intention that the Bill affects a landlord or an agent’s right to recover damages for breach of contract under common law. That is why we brought forward Lords amendment 48 to clarify the position and to ensure that such payments will not be outlawed under the ban. I want to reassure hon. Members that this does not create a back door to charging fees. I repeat: it does not create a back door to charging fees. Damages are generally not meant to do anything more than put the innocent party back in the position they would have been in had the contract not been breached. No reasonableness test is therefore needed. There are already large amounts of case law that deal with what is appropriate in a damages case. If an agent or a landlord attempts to insert a clause that requires a payment—for example, saying, “If you do X, you must make a payment”—this will be prohibited under clause 1(6)(b) or clause 2(5)(b). Further, landlords or agents are required to go to court if they want to enforce a damages claim, or they could seek to recover them from the tenancy deposit. In both cases, they would need to provide evidence to substantiate any claim, and they would only be awarded any fair costs.
As such, the hon. Lady’s amendment is unnecessary. It would also not be appropriate for this Bill to start tweaking years of existing case law regarding damages payments. We are more likely to confuse the landscape than to clarify it. We are committed, on this matter, to working with Citizens Advice, Shelter and other industry groups to ensure that tenants fully understand their existing rights with regard to paying and challenging contractual damages. We have already taken steps to update our guidance to make this point clear. I hope that, with those reassurances, the hon. Lady feels able to withdraw her amendment.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Bill introduces a clear set of rules around holding deposits. This will improve transparency and provide assurances from both tenant and landlord around the commitment to entering into a tenancy agreement. To minimise the risk of abuse, Lords amendment 54 introduces a formal requirement for landlords and agents to set out in writing why they are retaining a deposit. This will empower tenants to challenge decisions that they believe to be unfair. It will also ensure that tenants do not continue to apply for properties and risk losing their holding deposit time and again without understanding why.
We also agree that it is not right that landlords and agents accept multiple holding deposits for the same property. That is why Lords amendment 41 ensures that a landlord or an agent can only take one holding deposit at any one time for a property, unless permitted to retain the earlier deposit. Lords amendment 50 will ensure that a tenant receives their holding deposit back when the tenancy agreement is entered into. Previously, it could have been the case that a landlord might have had grounds to retain the holding deposit, and done so but entered into the tenancy anyway. Further, Lords amendment 59 clarifies that a holding deposit must be refunded where a landlord or an agent imposes a requirement that breaches the ban or behaves in such a manner that it would be unreasonable to expect the tenant or relevant person to enter the tenancy. This will, for example, give tenants greater power to object where a landlord or agent has asked them to pay an unlawful fee or to enter into an agreement with unfair terms.
This is a very stressful time for tenants; I have had a case raised with me very recently. That is particularly so for those who are forced, for one reason or another, to move frequently, which seems to happen more often in London than elsewhere, including Taunton Deane. Does the Minister agree that these amendments and this Bill are going to make a real difference to their security, particularly the fact that they have redress over the deposit issue, which is incredibly stressful if they have to try to claim it back?
My hon. Friend is quite right. It does seem to be a bit more of a thing in the south-east than anywhere else. Nevertheless, this Bill, which we hope to get through tonight with no ping-pong, will apply across the whole of England, and it will help tenants going forward, so I thank her for her question.
Lords amendments 13, 14, 19, 20, 38 to 40, 51 to 53 and 56 to 58 are consequential to those on holding deposits that I have just described.
I would like to discuss some amendments made to ensure that the Bill does not adversely affect organisations that were never intended to be in scope. We have taken local housing authorities and the Greater London Authority, or any organisation acting on their behalf, out of the definition of “relevant person”. Lords amendments 3 and 4 ensure that those authorities and those acting on their behalf will be able to make payments in connection with a tenancy when acting on behalf of a tenant or guaranteeing their rent.
Local authorities have a duty to help the homeless find accommodation. We recognise that, as part of this, councils may need to provide assistance to applicants—financial or otherwise—to access private rented accommodation. We do not want inadvertently to prevent a local authority from carrying out that vital work.
Further, Lords amendments 24 to 26 exclude certain licences to occupy where advice or assistance is provided in connection with the grant, renewal or continuation of the licence by charities or community interest companies. The types of licence that will be excluded are those that have been granted primarily for the provision of companionship or companionship combined with care or assistance where no rent is paid. This ensures that the important work of schemes such as Homeshare can continue. Homeshare matches a person in housing need—often a young person—with a householder, who is often elderly and needs companionship, sometimes combined with low-level care or assistance. I am sure we all agree that that is a worthy cause that was never intended to be in scope of the ban on letting fees.
Lords amendments 21 to 23 and 27 ensure that the forthcoming client money protection provisions work as intended. We want to give landlords and tenants financial security, but not in such a way as to impose disproportionate and unnecessary burdens on industry, which might adversely impact tenants and landlords. We have clarified that money that has already been protected through a Government-approved tenancy deposit scheme is not required to be doubly protected by a client money protection scheme. That was never the policy intention.
We will also not require schemes to pay out where certain risks are excluded by insurers. Those policy exclusions typically refer to events such as war, terrorism or confiscation by the state. Neither can we expect schemes to hold insurance for every penny held by agents. Our amendments ensure that the level of insurance held by schemes is proportionate to the risk of client money being lost. We are permitting schemes to impose limits per individual claimant and aggregate limits, where they are at least equivalent to the scheme’s maximum probable loss. That is an accepted industry practice, and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme imposes such limits.
The amendments on client money protection also provide for a transitional period of 12 months after the requirement to belong to a scheme comes into force, permitting agents to join a scheme where they are making all efforts to apply for a client account but have not yet obtained one. We want to give agents sufficient time to find a bank that offers a pooled client account. Schemes will be able to work with agents to find an appropriate banking provider where they are having difficulty. I would like to be clear that the 12-month transitional period only applies in relation to applying for a pooled client account and not the requirement to belong to a client money protection scheme more broadly. That is intended to come into force on
Lords amendment 27 clarifies that the lead enforcement authority set up under the Bill can also enforce the client money protection regulations, and Lords amendment 60 is a consequential amendment to the title of the Bill. These amendments will ensure that client money protection gives tenants and landlords the financial security that they want and deserve, without imposing unreasonable and disproportionate costs on industry, which could increase costs for tenants and landlords.
Above all, these amendments improve affordability, strengthen protection for tenants and minimise the risk of abuse by the minority of rogue landlords and agents. They ensure that the Bill’s key provisions are clear and transparent on the face of the Bill, offering tenants the certainty and security that they deserve. I hope that Members will welcome the changes that have been made, which I firmly believe address the key concerns raised in this House. I am confident that the measures in the Bill will help to deliver the fairer and more affordable private rented sector that we all want to see for tenants, but also for decent, professional landlords and agents who are providing a vital service.
It is in all our interests to see this crucial legislation become law as quickly as possible and avoid any delay that ping-pong would inevitably cause. We need to allow a short period following Royal Assent to enable agents and landlords to become compliant with the new legislation. We therefore intend the provisions in the Bill to come into force on
Always gallant. The Bill will help enormously to ensure landlords’ safety, while financially benefiting tenants.
I think my hon. Friend is coming to the conclusion of her contribution. She mentioned when these measures will come into force for new tenancies. Could she clarify that the Bill will apply to not only brand new tenancies, where a tenant moves into a property, but also existing tenancies that are renewed by being rolled over or where the tenant remains in situ and enters into a new tenancy agreement?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been assiduous in his time on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. The intention is for the Bill to apply to all new tenancies signed after
The exception to the
I am pleased that the Government want to act quickly on this. Given how hard-pressed local authorities are, what will the Government do to help them manage this situation?
Like my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, the hon. Gentleman is prescient about what I am about to say. We are working with National Trading Standards to appoint the lead enforcement authority under the Bill. That will be a local trading standards authority appointed by the Secretary of State, and we intend the body to be in place ahead of implementation.
In conclusion, I very much hope that Members will support the amendments made by the Government and look forward to seeing the legislation implemented. I also hope that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, having heard and accepted my assurances, will withdraw her amendments.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I would like to thank the Minister for her approach and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government,
I shall speak in support of amendment (a) to Lords amendment 36; amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 37; and amendment (a) to Lords amendment 48. I shall also pay tribute to the work that has been done in Committee, where there was a lot of fruitful conversation and consideration, and in the other place, which has resulted in the Bill arriving back in the Commons in a far better state. It is not just my hard work or the Minister’s hard work that has gone into the Bill. We are backed up by an enormous number of people, including charities, members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, who are listening keenly to our debate, and civil servants, who have put in many hours to make sure that the Bill is fit for purpose. I am very grateful to all those people who have participated.
In Committee and on Report, we discussed at length the default fee clause. Originally, the Government fought very hard against opposition from Labour and charities such as Shelter to remove a gaping loophole, which would have left the definition of a default to the discretion of those drafting tenancy agreements. It is interesting that Lords amendment 47 bears a striking resemblance to amendment 3, which I pressed on Report. Back then, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government,
“We believe it is for the tenant and the landlord to determine what it is necessary and fair to include as default charges, on a case-by-case basis. There are other potential default charges besides those for late payment of rent and lost keys.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 646, c. 208.]
It is welcome that the Government have rowed back on that, despite being so bullish about it during the Bill’s passage through the Commons. I do hope that they bear that in mind when considering amendments to future housing Bills, in which I hope to play a role, and are more thoughtful. If amendments are tabled in good faith, I hope that Government Members would accept that, and if they are worth adopting, do so at an early stage, so that we do not appear conflicted on measures that are positive overall, particularly in this case for people in the private rented sector who are seeking a home and trying to access one.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Mrs Wheeler, pointed out, Labour always welcomes Government acceptance of the principles and details of our ideas, and we welcomed their acceptance of a Labour proposal in Lords amendment 47 to enshrine what counts as a default fee in the Bill. We believe that that will close a significant loophole in the Bill, moving it far closer to the type of tenant fees Bill that Labour has been proposing since 2013.
We have a number of concerns about the Lords amendments, as the Bill still does not reach its full potential to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords who want to charge unfair fees. We are very keen to point that this is about the unscrupulous few, not the fair-minded, reasonable and proper many who exist out there. First, Lords amendment 48 adds a new permitted payment of damages to the Bill. The Minister touched on that, so I may have to revise what I am going to say—I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. We tabled an amendment because we are concerned about Lords amendment 48, but that does not extend to a belief that damages in principle are fundamentally wrong. Landlords should not have to pay for repairs when tenants cause damage to their properties, but we do not understand why the Lords amendment is necessary, and why it seemingly misses out a number of protections that are present in other parts of the Bill.
When we discussed this matter in Committee the hon. Lady was very reasonable, and seemed perfectly happy with the five-week proposal that the Government have made in the Lords amendment. It would be much easier if the hon. Lady did not press her amendment, so that we may secure confirmation across the House that this is the best way forward, especially given that there is not a single Labour Back Bencher present to support the hon. Lady’s amendment
It is a busy day in other parts of the Palace of Westminster; we should give colleagues credit for the fact that they have other work to do. I shall come on to the detail of my amendment and the issue of five weeks. I think that the hon. Gentleman has misremembered the extent of my acceptance of the five-week period. It was a reluctant acceptance at the time, with a view to tabling a further amendment if we thought that necessary. Having heard the Minister’s explanation, I think that it is still necessary to press that point, and I shall address it further in my speech.
I am discussing the damages that landlords can claim if a tenancy agreement is breached, rather than the issue of deposits. I urge the hon. Gentleman to bear with me and allow me to finish making that point. The fact that this is the first reference in the Bill to claiming damages shows that the Government were confident until recently that the Bill as originally drafted would not interfere with the current system. Indeed, the Government’s draft guidance, which we received from the Minister on
“The Act does not affect any entitlement to recover damages for breach of contract…If a tenancy agreement does not permit a landlord or agent to charge default fees, the landlord or agent may still be able to recover damages.”
“What is the difference between a default fee and damages? A default fee is a payment that can be required by a landlord or agent under an express provision in the tenancy agreement and would therefore be permitted under the Tenant Fees Act.”
Finally, it said:
“Can a landlord or agent recover costs for damages if they didn’t write them into the tenancy agreement? Yes. The Act does not affect the landlord’s entitlement to recover damages”.
The draft guidance that we received from the Minister’s Department only two months ago indicated on multiple occasions that the Bill would not impact on a landlord’s ability to claim damages, and it spelt out the difference between a default and a deposit. There is therefore a concern, because what was seemingly settled has become unsettled as the result of an addition which, to all intents and purposes, and given the explanation that we received, does not need to be made. What is the purpose of that? However, the Minister’s assurance on the intention to reassure landlords and innocent parties that they are simply going to be in the position that they were in before any such harm was caused perhaps gives me reason to reconsider.
I think it is absolutely right that if a landlord experiences a breach of tenancy, those tenants are considered responsible for the situation. It should not rest on others who adhere to the tenancy agreement that they signed, so I concur with the hon. Gentleman.
I really do not see why Lords amendment 47 on default fees necessitates change, as the Government clearly defined damages as separate from defaults. I therefore wonder why Lords amendment 48 is necessary in the first place. Without it, would the Bill impede the current system? Would it prevent landlords from claiming damages through deposits or the courts? Can the Government reassure me—I would say that perhaps they have done so to some extent—that Lords amendment 48 will not create powers for landlords to bypass current systems and charge as they see fit? I certainly hope that the Minister believes that to be the case. If Lords amendment 48 is not necessary, perhaps it is in the Minister’s gift to reconsider the position and remove the provision, rather than adding confusion, as it is not necessary, and previous statements have made it clear that it is not necessary.
My amendment (a) to Lords amendment 48 would bring that into symmetry with powers in the Bill and add a requirement for charges brought under the amendment to be reasonable, and to be evidenced by invoices. That is just to ensure that no loophole is sought. Throughout the debate we have discussed the need for permitted payments in the Bill to be subject to rigorous checks and balances, to ensure that unscrupulous landlords and letting agents cannot continue to charge unjustified amounts for things such as a lost key. Thanks to the hard work in both Houses, we have closed a number of loopholes that could have been exploited to allow some landlords to profit from tenants by unfair and unjustified means.
Lords amendment 48 does not contain those protections and seemingly could allow for open-ended charges without mind to the cost to the landlord, and to whether the charges could be backed up by evidence. I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division, but I would welcome additional reassurances from the Government that the principles discussed throughout the Bill will not be undermined by the Lords amendment, and that it is not a new loophole that landlords and letting agents can exploit for profit.
I am always willing to give the hon. Lady greater reassurance. Lords amendments 42 and 47 ensure that landlords and agents can charge default fees only in specified circumstances, which are listed in the Bill. Lords amendment 48 permits landlords and agents to recover costs for damages only in breach of contract.
I thank the Minister for that very helpful further explanation.
Another Opposition concern about the Lords amendments is that the Bill still does not go far enough to remove the barriers that high deposits pose to millions of renters across the country. Our amendments seek to address two points. The Minister says that reducing the deposit cap from five weeks to three would not help tenants, but I believe it would. A reduction of two weeks’ advance payment will of course help tenants to access properties. It would reduce barriers for private renters and enable them to access the rental markets, including for the first time. Turning that into a negative takes some extraordinary creative gymnastics, on which I congratulate the Minister.
The Select Committee looked at the Bill in detail in pre-legislative scrutiny. We all signed up to five weeks, including six distinguished Labour Members, including the Chairman, Mr Betts, who knows the subject well. Why does the hon. Lady believe they are wrong?
Having served on that Committee with the hon. Gentleman previously, I absolutely support its work and congratulate it, but it is always in the interests of a Select Committee to achieve consensus whenever possible and to try to agree a report that has unanimous support. That is the purpose and intention, and this case is a demonstration of excellent chairmanship and co-operation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on playing his part in that, but it is the Opposition’s role to speak up for tenants. If we can make the process better, and if there is an opportunity for the Government to go further in assisting tenants—tenants are hard-pressed and this is a very expensive period of their lives—it is right that we speak up for them. We should try to encourage the Government to accept that they can reduce the barrier of high deposits to assist people directly. I just cannot support the view that charging more will assist renters in any way.
The Minister mentioned that I welcomed the Government’s reduction. I am delighted that they have listened to common sense and reasonableness, and that they have reduced the cap to five weeks from six, which was far too high, but it is not enough. If the Government can go further, I believe they always should.
I will move on because I am absolutely convinced that hon. Members will want to address these points in their speeches—they are committed to the subject and have taken a close interest, whether in the Bill Committee or in Select Committees. I look forward to hearing their comments in the remainder of the debate, but I will move on if that is okay.
I have already given way generously.
The first point that our amendments seek to address is the financial staggering for the cap level that landlords are allowed to impose. I have sympathy with the Government’s aim of prioritising a reduction of the deposit burden on those at the cheaper end of the market, but the specific provisions in Lords amendment 36 could mean that those in joint tenancies end up being subject to the higher cap, despite individually paying significantly less in rent than is used as a threshold in the amendment. It is counterintuitive to create a cap that allows deposits to be relatively higher for someone paying £5,000 a year in rent in a 10-bed large house in multiple occupation than for someone paying £45,000 in an individual rent, so I would welcome reassurance that joint tenants will not be short-changed by the differential cap. If they will be, I would welcome an explanation of the logic behind the decision to allow those in joint tenancies to be charged relatively more.
Regardless of the functioning of the differential cap, the Lords amendment will do little for the majority of tenants in this country. The cap will have a negligible effect on the majority of deposits in the country and will allow the current system to function virtually unchanged. For the graduate who cannot afford the up-front costs to move to a city for a new job, or for the family given just two months to save enough money to find a new flat and avoid homelessness following a section 21 notice, the system is simply not fit for purpose and needs urgent change.
According to the English housing survey, a five-week rental deposit will set new tenants back an average of almost £1,000 across the country, and over a staggering £1,500 in London. For many in society who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, saving that sort of money would take an enormous amount of time, and certainly far longer than the two months that tenants are given when they are served with section 21 notices. That means that many struggle to access the flexibility that renting should offer. They fear being served notice to vacate because that could result in homelessness. That is simply not how the private rented sector should function.
Our amendments would change that. Lords amendment 36 introduces an ill-thought-through staggering system. Amendment (a) in lieu would reduce the cap on deposits from five or six weeks to three, and our amendments together will reduce deposits to three weeks for all, closing the loophole that could be opened by Lords amendment 36.
I was interested to hear the Minister’s announcement of the enactment date. A written statement is due today, which I look forward to reading. I was also interested to hear her comments in response to my hon. Friend Jeff Smith, who is no longer in his place, on enforcement and trading standards. She said that the consumer money protection measures in the Bill would be in place before enactment. I would appreciate clarity on whether she meant enactment on
Labour’s amendments would give private rented sector tenants a very welcome helping hand at a very expensive time. If passed, the amendments would reduce the deposit barrier by almost £400 across the country, and by over £600 in London, offering significant change to tenants from all backgrounds and building a better private rented sector for the many.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a pleasure to follow Melanie Onn. I had the opportunity to chair—and the challenge of chairing—the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny in the absence of the elected Chairman of the Committee, Mr Betts, who unfortunately was undergoing health treatment at the time. I take absolutely the praise that the hon. Lady pours on me for reaching the judgment of Solomon—[Interruption.] It was possibly unintended at the time. From the outset of our pre-legislative scrutiny, on an all-party basis, we sought to balance good landlords and tenants, who are the overwhelming majority, with the small minority who are rogue landlords and rogue tenants. The risk here is the balance that is struck.
I do not intend to go over all aspects of the Bill but, clearly, I am absolutely delighted that the Government have seen fit to endorse all the Select Committee’s recommendations, especially the reduction of deposits from six to five weeks’ rent. I will again set out why we came to that conclusion. As Members might recall, we had a long discussion about it in Committee. Some promoted the concept of a six-week deposit and some a four-week deposit. No one but no one on the Select Committee promoted less than four weeks, for very good reasons.
Our view was that a six-week deposit was clearly too onerous for tenants. I accept what the hon. Member for Great Grimsby says about the cost to tenants of a six-week contribution, but there is also a clear risk with only a four-week deposit—or, worse still, her proposed three-week deposit—because we might get to a position in which, in the last month before the end of a six-month assured shorthold tenancy, a tenant has no incentive whatever to pay their last month’s rent. Tenants could just skip, and the landlord would then have to pursue them through the courts, bearing incredible costs unreasonably.
The issue for us was that four weeks would lead to a position whereby the tenant had an incentive to say, “Okay, I won’t pay the last month’s rent—just take it out of the deposit,” and then if the landlord could reasonably wish to claim money from the deposit because of damage or other reasons, they would have to pursue court action to recover it. That would be grossly unfair on good landlords, who are the vast majority in this country. Other members of the Committee promoted six weeks, so we ended up with the view that five weeks struck a balance between giving tenants an incentive to pay their last month’s rent, in the knowledge that they would get back their deposit had they been good tenants, and landlords being forced to go through a proper claim process to recover moneys as a result of damage by a tenant.
I am afraid that the Opposition spokesperson, Melanie Onn, will not give way on this matter because she is making a purely political point by wishing to appear to be helping tenants more, but the interesting silence in the debate so far has been from Scottish National party Members, because of course there is an eight-week deposit in Scotland. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
Clearly we are not talking about the position in Scotland, but I suspect—I might be wrong—that rental levels in Scotland are very much lower than elsewhere in our urban conurbations, and certainly in London. Scotland also perhaps has a lot more social housing than England—
I see the hon. Lady nodding about that point. Those two things are equally important.
Another consideration, which has not yet come out in the debate, is the economic impact of what happens with deposits. If we lowered deposits, I suggest that landlords would likely increase the rent over the period and—this is the key point—tenants would end up far worse off as a direct result, because landlords would have inflated the rent in order to recover the moneys due.
Let me clarify something about the ban applying to all new tenancies from
It is reasonable to set a position whereby we are abundantly clear in the Bill—I hope it will soon become an Act—that letting agents, estate agents or whoever are working on behalf of landlords, not tenants. I therefore warmly welcome the Lords amendment on holding deposits that was wisely tabled by the Government. What happens at the moment is an absolute outrage: some unscrupulous letting agents take a variety of competing holding deposits to inflate rents by almost having an auction for rental properties. That is grossly unfair on prospective tenants who are just looking for a property, so I warmly welcome that decision. It will be a welcome change for tenants throughout the country.
I am glad about the clarity of the Lords amendments that ensure that we are clear about the charges a landlord can make, what their purposes are and what the standards of evidence must be so that tenants do not bear a ridiculous price for, say, a lost key. Any charge will have to be evidence-based—the cost of replacing keys or other such security devices will be set out—and any cost will be reasonable, not inflated. One of the problems has been that certain unscrupulous individuals have been getting away with ripping off tenants with such charges in a grossly unfair way.
I warmly welcome the Lords amendments. The whole Select Committee welcomes the fact that the Government have finally got to where we were in the first place on deposits. I trust that we will reject the spurious Opposition amendments and ensure that the Bill, which has been warmly welcomed throughout the country, rapidly becomes law so that we can implement a process that is fair for tenants.
One thing that we desperately need to introduce is a national rental deposit scheme. My hon. Friend Will Quince and I managed to convince the Chancellor to do that at the time of not the most recent Budget, but the one before, and money was allocated to the Department to make that happen. When the Minister sums up, I would welcome her assuring us that we will speed up the process of introducing such a scheme so that those for whom the deposit is the key issue in getting a tenancy can be funded by public money, thus protecting them and giving them the opportunity to get a tenancy and a home of their own.
As the lonely Member on the SNP Benches, and given that the Bill applies solely to England, I will endeavour to keep my comments brief. The Government’s Bill is, however, welcome.
This Government are playing catch-up with the Scottish Government, who abolished tenant fees in 2011. The Scottish reforms gave tenants longer notice periods, indefinite security of tenure and limited rent rises, so it is most welcome that this Government are making changes here now. In Scotland, in many instances, money has gone back into the pockets of Scottish renters, but renters in England are currently losing out due to this Government’s inaction and failure to offer the same protections.
The Government have maintained the right-to-buy policy, but they must recognise that to give people the greatest choice and flexibility, they have to ensure that the opportunity of the right to buy is matched with an increase in home building and access to socially affordable housing. I am afraid the Government have not quite hit the mark on that yet, and people are simply being driven into the private rented sector, which limits their options and opportunities.
The Bill is very welcome. As we heard from Conservative Members, there remains the fear that this policy will mean that the costs of the abolished fees will be passed on to tenants in an underhand way, but that concern is unfounded. It has not happened in Scotland, where there has not been a significant spike in rents since the ban on fees, so I hope that the Government will take heed of that fact. Independent research commissioned by Shelter found that since 2012 landlords in Scotland had been no more likely to increase rents than landlords in other parts of the UK. Between 2012 and 2016, rents increased by 5% in Scotland, compared with 9% in England, so the abolition of tenant fees does not appear to have had a significant impact on costs.
That said, although such a policy has been shown to work in tenants’ favour, we must be vigilant about rent prices, so I hope that the Minister will outline how the Government will ensure that their policy puts tenants first. Landlords in Scotland can only increase rents with three months’ notice and no more than once a year, and tenants can contact a rent officer if they think that a rent increase is too high. I would be interested to know whether the Minister envisages similar protections and criteria for the policy in England. In Scotland, other than rent and a refundable deposit, which is capped at no more than two months’ rent, landlords cannot levy any additional charges, which means no holding deposits, administration fees, premiums or additional charges, whether refundable or not.
Tenants are secure when landlords can end a tenancy only on strict eviction grounds. The Scottish National party commends the work of charities and campaigners who secured additional renters’ rights from the Government in the House of Lords, and both Shelter UK and Generation Rent are happy for the Bill to pass with the Lords amendments. These rights include a short definitive list limiting default fees to charges for chasing late rents and for replacing lost keys or equivalent security devices. I noted the comments made by Kevin Hollinrake and I hope he is reassured that welcome mechanisms are in place. The provision closes the default fee loophole so that landlords will no longer be able to charge for a whole host of spurious defaults. It is also clear to landlords that they can continue to recover damages as they do now.
I welcomed the comments of Bob Blackman, who, when comparing the position with the cap set in Scotland, rightly mentioned the greater availability of social housing in Scotland. He observed that a five-week cap was welcome, especially given that rents in England and Wales can be two to three times higher than those in Scotland. A five-week deposit cap is reasonable and will help renters to meet the initial fees needed to secure a home. Although Shelter originally argued for a lower cap, even it has said that it is
“pleased that the government didn’t stick at 6 weeks and we believe the 5-week cap will be a big improvement”.
That takes heed of the fact that costs are substantially higher in England, meaning that a five-week cap is much more reasonable.
Holding deposits are now illegal in Scotland, and that ought to be the case in England as well. Under the Lords amendments, if a tenancy does not go ahead, landlords or letting agents will be required to set out in writing the reasons why—they will also be required to give reasons for withholding some of a deposit—and they will have to do so within seven days of the decision not to progress with the tenancy. That will give tenants some clarity on exactly what happened to their money and ensure that there is a paper trail, which will make challenging unfair practices easier. Ultimately, both the landlord and the tenant will have more protection.
The ban on tenants fees in Scotland has made the rental sector fairer and easier to access. While I congratulate the Government on taking this positive step in the interests of people in rented accommodation, I urge the Minister to consider my points about abolishing tenant fees, while balancing protections for landlords with the rights of renters. The Bill will protect renters, many of whom do not have the luxury of owning their own home, and that ultimately is what we all want.
I will try to keep my comments brief—apparently time is pressing—although there is much I would like to say about the Bill. I draw the House’s attention yet again to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am in principle and in practice very supportive of the Bill—I have been right from the start—despite my business interests and despite the extreme consternation within the industry at my support. It is absolutely right that there be a firewall around a tenant’s ability to shop around when they have found a house or flat they want to rent. We are right to believe in free and competitive markets. This was not a free and competitive market, and it is right that we act in this area. It is right that landlords pay for their own tenancy agreements, inventories and referencing. I support all those things. I also want to put on the record my support for the Minister. She has done a great job on the Bill and engaged with me and other colleagues who have had concerns about some of its provisions.
I would like to touch on two things: deposits and default fees. I will begin with Lords amendments 36 and 37. To say that three weeks would be an appropriate deposit length, as Melanie Onn has done, shows a complete misunderstanding of the issues. She is absolutely right to want to protect tenants—everyone in this place wants to protect tenants—but to do that we must be fair to landlords as well. She asked how a longer deposit period would help tenants. It would not help tenants not to be able to find properties to rent. If we deterred landlords from entering the marketplace, as a three-week cap would do, that would not help tenants.
I speak as somebody who has been in this business for 30 years. When I started, the only thing I could find in the marketplace was a shabby, damp, dark terraced house in the middle of York. It was not like today’s marketplace; tenants now have a breadth of choice, and that is because landlords have invested because they are treated fairly. The hon. Lady wants to treat tenants fairly, as I do, but we would not be treating them fairly if our policies resulted in their being refused tenancies by landlords worried about not getting their rent, not regaining possession of a property that had had significant damage done to it or not having enough deposit left for the remedial work. Her proposals would potentially put landlords in that situation, given that many tenants use their deposit as the last month’s rent, meaning there would be nothing left.
I still have concerns about restricting the deposit length to five weeks. As we know, it is eight weeks in Scotland. The average deposit in London is five and a half to six weeks, and in the rest of England it is not far below that, so the Bill will mean a change for many landlords, and we will have to keep this under review to make sure it does not have adverse consequences for tenants—that is the principle. Landlords are happy as long as they keep their properties well maintained and the rent is paid. If that is not the case, landlords will exit the market, which is not good for the tenants the hon. Lady looks to protect.
Does my hon. Friend recall that, during the Select Committee process, one of our considerations was that, if we set a six-week deposit limit, every landlord would rapidly move to six weeks from the current UK average of between four and a half and five and a half weeks?
No, I do not agree with that because at the moment we have some flexibility. Under the Bill, we have no flexibility above five weeks. The trouble with that is this. I could charge a tenant five weeks, but what if they have a pet or certain other circumstances that make me less likely to want to rent it to them? I, as a landlord, will be less likely to rent to that person, under this measure, whereas with six weeks I would have some flexibility. We must make sure that this does not deter landlords from renting properties to people with pets. We do not want that, but it could happen. The Minister has promised to keep this measure under review, and I am absolutely sure that she will.
I want to touch on default fees and amendments 42 to 47. I welcome the clarification from the Minister in the letter she sent me a couple of days ago. She assured me that landlords and agents would still be able to charge for things above and beyond their existing obligations, and that is absolutely right, but the Bill itself only makes a couple of provisions on default fees, and one of those is for the replacement of keys. It sounds like a simple process, but it is possible to spend hours and hours chasing the tenant, chasing the keys, and then chasing the tenant to come and collect the keys. Someone has to pay for that work. It is not a question of the keys themselves; it is a question of the time and labour involved in their delivery.
I welcome the Minister’s clarification of the fact that “reasonable charges” can be made, although I think that “reasonable charges”, on an hourly basis, should be defined in the guidance to prevent agents from exploiting that particular opportunity. This is about not making profit, but ensuring that the people doing the work—the letting agents or the landlords—are paid if tenants do not meet their obligations, or breach contracts. In particular, there is currently no provision for a landlord or agent to make reasonable charges for collecting late rent. That too may take many hours, and as a result the charges will go up across the board. As I have said before, in those circumstances, good tenants who do comply will subsidise poor tenants who do not. We often hear about the Scottish example. Deposits in Scotland amount to eight weeks’ rent, and Scottish agents can charge for chasing late rent and chasing keys that need to be replaced. I do not know whether that is covered under “breaches”; perhaps the Minister will provide clarification at some point.
The provision on “variation, assignment or novation” is very important, because it allows for a change of sharer. Someone who has taken on a tenancy agreement and wants to break it early can go to the agent or the landlord, who will consider a change of sharer because it will be possible to make a reasonable charge in connection with the change in the agreement. That is only fair, but I think that an hourly rate should be defined in the guidance.
I believe that the Lords meant well in tabling some of their amendments, but I also believe that some of them are unfair and potentially unworkable, and might have unintended consequences, particularly for tenants in adverse circumstances. I think that we should keep this under review to ensure that the rules are fair for landlords, agents and tenants, and that those who are on the margins when it comes to affordability are not disadvantaged.
I, too, draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Bill has returned to the Commons in a much better state than it was in when it left. The loophole relating to default fees has now gone. The detail on default fees will be on the face of the Bill, which will specify
“a key…or other security device”.
There is much more transparency in relation to the holding of deposits, with a fairer transaction between letting agents and tenants, and the deposit levels are better aimed at people on low incomes, having been reduced to five weeks’ rent.
I listened carefully to both sides of the argument about the length of deposits. I listened to what was said by Melanie Onn, but I also listened to the counter-arguments. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that we need to protect tenants and make the system easier for them, because there is a tough world out there for people on low incomes. I also agree that we should not inadvertently disadvantage renters. As long as we do not have the number of affordable and social homes that we need, they will always be in that tough world in which, ultimately, they are at the mercy of landlords when it comes to charges. This is only the beginning of an overall improvement for renters, and I hope very much that we will continue to make changes in the law that will make life easier for them, but I also hope that we will eventually provide the number of homes that we need in order to create an entirely fair rental market.
I pay tribute to my colleagues in the House of Lords, Lord Shipley and Baroness Grender. Lady Grender initiated these proposals in a Private Member’s Bill in 2016 and, with Lord Shipley, worked assiduously with the Government to improve the Bill. I also congratulate the groups that have long campaigned for this change in the law, including Shelter, Generation Rent and Citizens Advice.
For too long, upfront costs—often rip-off fees charged to tenants by unscrupulous lettings agencies—have pushed people into unmanageable levels of debt, and sometimes into homelessness. The current system means that people, particularly those on low incomes, must pay as much as £3,000 to move, even if they will be paying a lower rent. Some have predicted that we will see a rise in rents as a result, but evidence from Scotland suggests that that is unlikely. If rents rise, the relatively small amount per month will be manageable in comparison to the extortionate amount that it costs to move.
For too long people living in the private rented sector have been treated as second-class citizens, and the Bill goes some way towards putting that right. The Liberal Democrats welcome it, and welcome the Conservatives’ change of heart. We look forward to its introduction on
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall be very short and very pithy.
I thank Members on both sides of the House for their passionate and constructive contributions to the Bill’s passage. I also thank the civil servants who have worked so hard to bring the Bill to this successful stage. We particularly wanted that to happen quickly so that the lady who is pregnant would not give birth in the Box. I have told her that if the baby is a boy, it must be called Bill!
I hope we can all agree that improvements have been made, thanks to the work of many Members on both sides of the House, and that as a result the Bill will be even more effective in delivering its promise to protect tenants from unfair charges. I hope that the assurances I have been able to give will mean that the Commons amendments will not be pressed to the vote.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 35 agreed to.