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.