Tenant Fees Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 23rd January 2019.

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Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:30 pm, 23rd January 2019

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.