Committee (1st Day)

Part of Housing and Planning Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:00 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 16 in my name in relation to Clause 38. Amendment 16 would mean that for the purposes of paragraph 17 of Schedule 23 to the Finance Act 2011, the database will be treated as being maintained by the Secretary of State, although Clause 27 sets out that local authorities have responsibility for maintaining its content. This will ensure that HMRC is able to access the database, using its powers under the Finance Act 2011, so that it can use the data in discharge of its tax functions when dealing with rogue landlords and property agents.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for speaking to Amendment 9. While appeals, and not just appeals about entries on the database, should be dealt with without undue delay, it is not appropriate to set out in primary legislation strict time limits for doing so, because it may not be practical or reasonable to do so. The tribunal has a wide range of powers to ensure that cases are dealt with fairly and justly. It can award costs against vexatious litigants whose only purpose in appealing is, for example, to delay their entry on the database or to cause further expense to the local housing authority. It can also prioritise cases that it considers urgent and refuse adjournments when there is no good reason for the request. In general, however, when the appeal is not vexatious in nature, how quickly it can be disposed of will ultimately depend on its complexity and other factors, such as the representations that the parties intend to make. Indeed, other factors can lead to delay, such as the illness of a party or a representative. It would be manifestly unfair if representations could not be accepted outside 28 days when there is genuine and good reason for doing so because the law has said that the appeal must be heard within that timeframe, regardless of circumstances.

I turn to Amendment 10. Landlords and property agents included on the database will have either been convicted of a banning order offence or received two or more civil penalties, as an alternative to prosecution, for serious breaches of housing legislation. I appreciate the feelings of noble Lords on this issue. It is not intended that all those included on the database should be banned from operating their business, but banning orders would be sought for the very worst or repeat offenders. Banning order offences will be defined in secondary legislation but are likely to include a serious offence. This is where an offender has been convicted in the Crown Court of an offence involving fraud, drugs, sexual assault or violence that is committed in, or in relation to, a property that is owned or managed by the offender or which involves, or was perpetrated against, persons occupying such a property. It would also include any serious offence involving violence against the tenant by the landlord or property agent, and serious breaches of housing legislation.

Amendment 11 would allow tenants and prospective tenants to petition their local housing authority to gain access to the database of rogue landlords and property agents. Doing so would effectively blacklist those landlords and agents on the database and put them out of business. This is not the intention of our legislation. The database aims to enable local authorities to keep track of rogue landlords and agents and target their enforcement action more effectively. Where a local authority believes a landlord or agent should be prevented from renting out or managing property, it should seek a banning order.

Noble Lords, and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether the public or tenants will have access to the database. The database will hold details of landlords and property agents who have been convicted of certain offences. Just because a landlord or property agent is on a database does not mean that they are banned from letting out a property—that would require a banning order. Making the database publicly available could raise data protection issues. However, the Secretary of State can give information held on the database in an anonymised form for research, statistical or monitoring purposes. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked about tenants’ details. These will never be disclosed. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, also asked about the effect of putting a landlord or property agent on the database. A database will enable a local authority to keep track of the landlords or property agents who have been convicted of a relevant offence and who may seek to move to a new area to avoid detection and attract new tenants. It will also enable them to obtain details about other rental properties owned by the landlord. In some cases, a local authority may decide to monitor a landlord or property agent on the database before deciding whether to apply for a banning order.

Information on the database will be made more widely available in an anonymised form. In addition, where tenants raise concerns about their landlords failing to take action over property conditions, local authorities can carry out an inspection, using the housing health and safety rating system introduced in the Housing Act 2004, and take appropriate enforcement action.

Where a local authority believes that a landlord or property agent should be banned from being involved in renting out or managing property, it should apply to the First-tier Tribunal for a banning order. Banning orders are intended to be used for those landlords and property agents who are particularly serious or prolific offenders, and who represent a real risk to the health and safety of prospective tenants. Local authorities have been provided with strong enforcement tools to ensure that, once a banning order has been made, it is not breached by the offender.

Amendments 12, 13 and 14 would require the Secretary of State to make information on the database of rogue landlords and property agents accessible to everyone and provide that the purposes to which the data may be put include the protection of tenants. As I have said, making the database publicly accessible would effectively drive anyone on the list out of business—which is not the purpose of the database.

Finally, Amendment 15 would require local authorities to automatically bar landlords on the database of rogue landlords from holding an HMO licence. As I have said previously, the purpose of the database is not to ban landlords and property agents from operating. The idea is to enable local authorities to monitor rogue landlord activity and effectively target enforcement action. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentioned retaliatory eviction. We legislated through the Deregulation Act 2015 to stop the practice of retaliatory eviction, a move that has been much welcomed by Shelter.

I hope I have explained enough to enable the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment—