Committee (1st Day)

Part of Housing and Planning Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Chair, Communications Committee 6:30 pm, 9th February 2016

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chair of the council of the Property Ombudsman, and so I am on familiar ground. As chairman of an ombudsman scheme, I am very much in favour of the principle of having ombudsman services. They save having to go to court, spending a lot of money and being at loggerheads for longer. If one can resolve matters through the mediation services that, in effect, an ombudsman provides, it can be beneficial to everyone. I am also familiar with the Housing Ombudsman scheme because it is the body to which people take their complaints if they are tenants of housing associations and local authorities. I have had responsibility for housing associations and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I have had judgments against my organisation for, hopefully, rather trivial matters. The Housing Ombudsman has a very good reputation and is doing a very good job. It is sorting out many complaints and provides a good model for ombudsman-ery.

However, in the circumstances of both the Property Ombudsman, who looks after complaints from estate agents, letting and managing agents and corporate bodies, and the current Housing Ombudsman scheme, which looks after the mostly responsible local authorities and housing associations, one is in completely different territory to the 1.8 million individual private landlords. I see severe practical difficulties in applying the principles of ombudsman-ery—which require you to deal with a corporate entity, a body whose reputation needs protecting and who has a great deal to lose from the process—to the 1.8 million individual landlords, which, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, is perhaps the current figure, 72% of whom have just one property.

It is extremely expensive if one gets bogged down in an individual dispute. Cases which involve the Property Ombudsman in dealing with disputes between agents and tenants who complain to us can sometimes go on for a very long time. However, the agents will try to get matters sorted: they will have their own complaints procedures and will work things through. They will show a willingness to go with this and, at the end of it, when we make an award—if we do make an award—against the agent, then the agent will pay up. We have sanctions if they do not.

When dealing with individual landlords, who sometimes do not have an office or an address and do not reply, these disputes can run and run and be extremely expensive to administer. This, I am afraid, is a criticism of having a system which has 1.8 million landlords looking after the properties. The practical difficulties of simply applying the ombudsman system to all private landlords are enormous. I suggest that if one were to have a pilot scheme to test out whether one can apply ombudsman principles to this sector, it would be a good idea to go with the corporate entities first. These landlords are private companies and have status. There is therefore an opportunity for legal processes to be brought into play if they do not pay up on awards and so on.

Forget the great mass of individuals for the moment because they could be expensive. I am afraid 96p per landlord will not do it because if tenants and landlords get into a dispute it can be ongoing. Even when one is half-way through trying to fix a dispute the landlord/tenant relationship can break down again on a new issue and the case could run and run. It is a big undertaking. So, to start with, I would stick with the corporate entities.

The Housing Ombudsman scheme is able to take on board corporate players. Some of the good landlords we have are already in membership of the Housing Ombudsman scheme on a voluntary basis. If one was seeking to extend the principles of ombudsman services, the first step would be to make this compulsory, as it is for housing associations and local authorities. Corporate bodies which are landlords should have somewhere to go. As with when we complain about our electricity, telephones or anything else, there should be a service. I suggest a pilot should start there, but it should be a little less ambitious than the scheme suggested in the amendment which, in many ways, is going in the right direction.