Renters’ Rights Bill [HL] - Committee

– in the House of Lords at 12:56 pm on 18th November 2016.

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Relevant documents: 5th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: Ending of certain lettings fees for tenants

Amendment 1

Moved by Baroness Grender

1: Clause 2, page 1, leave out lines 11 to 18 and insert—“(1) A letting agent who, in connection with the grant, renewal or continuance of a residential tenancy, requires from the tenant the payment of any premium shall be guilty of an offence under this section.(2) In subsection (1), “premium” means any fine, sum or pecuniary consideration, other than the rent or deposit, and includes any service or administration fee or agency charge.(3) In subsection (2), “deposit”, in relation to a residential tenancy, means any money intended to be held (by the landlord or otherwise) as security for—(a) the performance of any obligations of the tenant, or(b) the discharge of any liability of the tenant, arising under, or in connection with, the tenancy.(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations specify the categories of sum which are not to be treated as a premium for the purposes of this section; and the maximum amount which tenants may be asked to pay in respect of such a sum.”

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I let your Lordships know that I am registered as a vice-chair of the All-Party Group for the Private Rented Sector.

In England, one-quarter of all families with children now live in a private rented home. In the UK, £48 billion is spent each year on rent for privately rented homes, double the figure for 10 years ago. Government data released yesterday show that the median monthly rent in London is now £1,473, a rise of 13% over the last two years. Salaries, as we are all aware, have come nowhere near to matching those rent rises. The number of renters is soaring, monthly rents are soaring and up-front costs are soaring. The sector is changing at a rapid and unsustainable pace and pushing many on low and average wages to crisis point. Ending of a private tenancy is now a leading cause of homelessness, and that does not include the hidden homeless who do not show up in any of the data. One in four renters now say that their last move strained their finances and more than one in three took on some form of debt to pay for it.

This amendment goes to the heart of one of the key issues for renters: high up-front costs, which are a barrier to moving into a home. Ironically, these are even higher for those on low incomes, who are seen as more of a risk to a landlord. Of course, those tenants should be in social housing—we have debated this a great deal and will continue to do so. According to Shelter, one in four renters moved home in 2013-14 and 29% of renters have moved three times or more in the last five years. That rises to 37% if they live in London. Shelter estimates that the median cost of moving for a private renter is £1,500 but we need to ask: how often will that be paid? As I have just explained, it could be paid as many as three times in a five-year period. That is the median cost; for many, it is much higher, with two or three months’ rent demanded up front along with the deposit, as well as letting fees.

Shelter’s research shows that average letting fees are £355 per move, with one in seven people paying £500. On rare occasions, renters have been forced to pay fees of £900 or more to a letting agent, simply for the privilege of moving into a home. Reference checks, credit checks, administration fees, inventory fees—the list goes on. Invariably, the fees charged are extortionate compared to the cost actually incurred by the agent and they are not necessary. Furthermore, any cost actually incurred should be covered by the lettings agent’s client—the landlord—not by the tenant. Far too often these high up-front costs are proving a barrier to tenants, who simply cannot afford to move.

This week Radio 4 broadcast a documentary, presented by Sarah Montague, called “After Cathy”, 50 years on from Ken Loach’s “Cathy Come Home”. It featured the audio diaries of three homeless people over the course of a year. One of them, Zara—not her real name —from London, a teacher and mum of a three year-old and an 11 year-old, had lived in the same private rented home for six years when her landlord put up her rent. She could not afford to move to cheaper accommodation because she could not afford the up-front costs of moving. This teacher is now homeless and has been living in emergency accommodation with her children for a year—a teacher. Does anyone in this Chamber really believe that this teacher, who could not afford the up-front costs to move to cheaper accommodation, would have been helped by a nice clear and transparent breakdown of the additional costs of the credit check, the inventory check, the administration charge and the cleaning costs, on a nice large poster in the lettings agency’s office that complied fully with the Consumer Rights Act, with clear guidance about who she could complain to if the fees were not sufficiently transparent? Does anyone genuinely believe that at that critical moment when she could not afford the up-front costs to move somewhere cheaper, transparency would have made the difference? It would not.

So the critical question in this key amendment and this part of the Bill is what to do about up-front costs—nothing else. I suspect the Minister will tell us that if we take away lettings agency fees from tenants so that only landlords pay them, as in Scotland, rents will rise. But Shelter’s research surveying 120 landlords found only one who had noticed an increase in agency fees and had passed this on to tenants. Of the 50 Scottish letting agency managers it surveyed, 76% either were positive about the change or said it had had no impact. If the Minister is going to say that he is not convinced by Shelter’s research on rents and lettings agencies in Scotland, will he please demonstrate that there is alternative research or a study that the Government have conducted which counter that claim? If there is no such research, I am sure he will tell us.

At Second Reading, the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, also said that tenants would still end up paying, but through higher rents. If the Minister makes that argument today, could he please tell us where the evidence comes from for it? The evidence from Scotland suggests that this is not the case. But even if it is, tenants would be better able to absorb a smaller rise over a 12-month period than having to pay the up-front costs in advance, with lettings agency fees on top. It is the up-front costs that this amendment and Bill seek to remove. I apologise for labouring the point but I want the Minister to answer specifically about up-front costs.

I am moving Amendment 1 having reached the conclusion that the list of potential fees in the Bill, as drafted, would leave too many options for newly named fees to be charged to get round the list outlined in Clause 2(2). The proposed new section originally specified registration fees, administration fees, an inventory check and reference, extension, renewal and exit fees. This amendment therefore bans all fees from the tenant to the lettings agency and specifies that charging a fee to a tenant would be an offence under that section. Subsection (2) of the amendment clarifies that this refers to anything other than the deposit and rent.

Subsection (4) would enable the Secretary of State to make exemptions through regulations, so that if evidence emerges of services in respect of which there is value to the tenant in charging a particular fee, this can be done. I do not anticipate any such fees but my new amendment allows for the possibility, if concrete evidence was indeed found that a fee for a specific service would be in the best interest of the tenant in some way. Such an approach would ensure that all interested parties can be consulted and allowed to have proper discussions about services where there is value. It also enables the Secretary of State to set through regulations a maximum amount for those exemptions.

While I have made it clear—if not somewhat laboured the point—that the central proposal is about taking away unnecessary up-front costs to the tenant and that transparency, while welcome, is not the solution, I would like to pursue one more matter about transparency. At Second Reading the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, said that,

“the Government have committed to reviewing the impact of letting agent fee transparency later this year ”.—[Official Report, 10/6/16; col. 987.]

I believe that November is a later part of the year and would like the Minister to tell us what progress has been made on that review.

If, when it comes to up-front letting fees charges to tenants, the Government are waiting, as many suspect, for some industry-led solution to come forward, I believe that they will be disappointed. The Government will have to choose whether to back the “just about managing” tenants, to use the current terminology, who now constitute 25% of the population, or to back an industry which, according to the evidence available, is able to weather the proposed change in this Bill with ease.

I conclude at this stage with what I believe is the significant challenge before us in the Bill. Is there a way to reduce up-front costs for tenants in the private sector when they move? I believe that there is. Do not allow this Government to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of transparency, however welcome that is. There is one central question in this section of the Bill: can up-front costs be transferred to landlords? Shelter’s evidence from Scotland—in the absence of any other—has shown us the way. There is no counterevidence. This amendment provides a positive yes and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I extend strong support to my noble friend Lady Grender for this amendment and for her Bill as a whole. This amendment really matters, given the current state of housing supply. It was reported this week that in the last five years, local government spent £3.5 billion on temporary accommodation for homeless people. I declare my interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association. The main reason for that spending is the cost of accommodation. One of the contributors to it for individuals is the up-front costs they have to pay, which in very many cases have become too high. This creates a barrier to people moving into a home.

As my noble friend pointed out, because tenants in the private rented sector tend to move more frequently than in the public social housing sector, the costs can be more frequent and become increasingly unaffordable. Removing the up-front cost from the tenant is the right thing to do and I hope that whatever happens to this Private Member’s Bill, the Government will take on board how serious this issue has become. I understand there is to be a housing supply White Paper some time after the Autumn Statement next week. Whether that comes in December or January—perhaps the Minister can help us with that—who funds what in the private rented sector has to be addressed, and for that reason my noble friend Lady Grender has our full support.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for her work on the Bill, which highlights a number of key issues affecting the private rented sector. She introduced her amendment with one or two rather broader points about the private rented sector, which enables me as well to say something of a slightly broader nature.

At present, there is a real fear that as shorthold assured tenancies within the private rented sector, to which the noble Baroness referred, gradually terminate, tenants in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit will be rejected by landlords who will find a gap between the amount the tenant can pay using their housing benefit or universal credit and the market rent which the landlord can easily obtain. While that gap exists, landlords will want to see tenants currently in receipt of housing benefit or who in future will be on universal credit out of their accommodation. This is not simply cruelty; this is the market. It will be unwise for a landlord to continue to let to people who have a big shortfall between the amount they receive to pay their rent and the actual rent they are being asked to pay. Even generous landlords who are prepared to go half way will still find that they are in a very uncomfortable position if they know that the people from whom they are asking the rent do not have the money to pay it. They know that there will be trouble over time, so how much better to take a couple, both working, who can afford the rent?

I see a position in which, gradually over a period, virtually all those in high-pressure areas such as London who are currently letting to tenants on housing benefit will wish to see those assured shorthold tenancies terminated, so those tenants will be outside the private rented sector. Sadly, I fear that the social housing sector will find it very difficult to cope with the pressure that that will bring as all those tenants are shed. We are sure to see homelessness grow. I am indulging in some broader comments before addressing some aspects of Amendment 1.

I declare my interest as chair of the Property Ombudsman Council as well as my other interests as set out in the register. I fear that chairing the ombudsman service, which looks after complaints about agents and therefore about fees and the transparency issue that is being debated, prohibits me from using this platform to comment today.

I shall draw attention to one way in which this issue may be taken forward, if the Government feel unable to accept Amendment 1 today. I am leaning on the precedent created by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who, during the passage of the Housing and Planning Bill pressed for an amendment that would place a requirement on managing and letting agents to take out client money protection insurance—this being a proxy for being a respectable body in many cases. Her amendment to place a requirement on agents was not accepted in the context of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, but the Government agreed to take the issue away and create a working group to look in depth at the issue. I suggest that if the Government feel unable to accept Amendment 1, they might think that that excellent precedent, which has now been brought to fruition with DCLG civil servants hard at work looking at these issues under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, might be repeated in this context—in which case I hope very much that the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, could play a leading role in such a working group and I ask the Minister to consider it.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 1:15 pm, 18th November 2016

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who has rented out property for a long time. I believe I raised this point at Second Reading, and I certainly did on the Housing and Planning Bill last year. What concerns me about all this is where the money is going to come from. If the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, believes that people will simply reduce their rents, it is unrealistic. When she talks about how much rents have gone up, that is nothing compared to how much property has gone up.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

To clarify the question, is the noble Baroness asking where the money that the lettings agencies currently charge would come from?

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative

I am raising the point because, as I have discussed in the past—not during the last Bill, but previously—the inventory cost has to be borne by someone. If the inventory cost is paid only once, by the person who has the benefit of it, it is not then built into the rent in the way it would be if the landlord paid it, when it would be included in the rent, and every time there was a rent increase, there would be an increase in the inventory cost. It would already have been paid and would be a one-off and out of the way. I am very half-hearted about these suggested changes here.

People are overlooking the situation where, particularly in London, landlords are giving up ordinary residential lettings. There is quite a desperate shortage of lettings for ordinary people wishing to rent, because landlords can make so much more money out of Airbnb, which is totally uncontrolled. I opposed the practice when it came up last year during passage of the Deregulation Act, but no one else did. Now, sure enough, Berlin is bringing in controls. New York, Vancouver—all these places—are finding themselves in the same position. The Mayor of London has acknowledged the problem. It is only capital cities that have ever had that limitation on short lets. Whether it is in the tenancy agreement or not, people are totally ignoring that and simply letting them, because they can earn as much in four months as an ordinary landlord would in the whole year. It is much more complicated

Again, we have talked about references. The Government expect you now to know that your tenant, whoever they are, is entitled to be in the country. As for the days when people could employ someone who was not legitimately here, all that changed, if your Lordships remember, with the situation that came up with the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland. This is much more complicated than people appreciate. This amendment sounds very good and sweeping but the whole thing has not been thought through in enough detail. There might be limits on what you could charge, but as I have said before, I remember letting a property in the days when the Wilson Government just froze rents. They were frozen for about two years, and then they absolutely escalated when the freeze was lifted.

You cannot really find a very easy answer to this, but I am very much in favour of an answer. I thoroughly approve of the idea that you should have access to a register of rogue landlords and all that, but it is unrealistic to imagine that this list of things which the noble Baroness has set out in detail will suddenly become inexpensive or vanish or something. Where is it going to vanish to? This is what I would like to know. I am convinced it will just be built into rents. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, spoke about this recently, as a landlord or someone who had been one way back in history. He said that people had to realise that people who were landlords were doing it as a business, which is true. It is most unfortunate that the supply of housing, both social and ordinary commercial, has vanished, because people need homes and they need them desperately. We all hope that that housing Act will produce more homes for people at affordable prices but the press on it has not been very encouraging. I wait to hear what is said about it.

Photo of Lord Thurlow Lord Thurlow Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for tabling the Bill. I declare my property holdings as set out in the register of interests. As personal background, I have spent over 35 years working in the property market as a chartered surveyor, most of it on the commercial side, specifically in development letting, investment and funding. There is a close relationship between commercial and residential when dealt with in bulk.

Who is principally affected by the clauses of the Bill? It is the lowest earners—the most vulnerable, in that sense. It is no coincidence that Shelter has briefed on this, and I think it is tragic that that was necessary. It is students in higher education who have to go to their place of education. It is students who become jobseekers and have to move again. It is a transient group. It is immigrant labour that goes to wherever the work is; there is no shortage of that, apparently. And it is my daughter; in fact, this week both my daughters have applied to rent residential accommodation, and they are learning all about the bumps in the road that we are discussing.

This is the era of social mobility. The world has moved on and the working population is much more mobile. People may move several times, particularly in the early steps of their working lives. They are unlikely to buy, we know that; they rent, and the housing provision must respond. I am afraid the evidence suggests that dishonest or at the very least questionable practices are rife. I thoroughly endorse the list of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and in fact I think the list is considerably longer than we were given. Only regulation would prevent this.

The problem is that, as we have just heard, it is difficult to identify what might be fair and what is spurious. The list is growing. In fact, I have with me the small print from one of my daughters’ contracts with a national firm of estate agents. The small print, which is smaller than I can read with these new glasses of mine, identifies seven different specific items, several of which I as a practitioner in the marketplace think are spurious. It is shocking, with non-refundable payments and refundable payments that, as we know, are sometimes not refunded. The people affected by this have very little recourse—they do not have the wherewithal or the experience, and they are dealing with an institution. Every time they move, we have heard, they pay again: £1,500, a month’s gross salary for many people. For the dishonest agents, if I may be so bold, it is low-hanging fruit. It is an important revenue source. I am sorry to say that, but I am afraid it is probably true. Rents are not going to rise because these costs are transferred to landlords; that is not how economics works. Rent rises because of supply and demand. If there are not enough flats to go around, the rent goes up, and if there is a surplus, the rent comes down.

I am not one-sided on this. The list of fees is not all bad, as we have also heard. Landlords need deposits and references. However, the clever instrument in the Bill is that the Secretary of State is given the right to approve those fees that are considered fair. An adequate supply of housing would stifle spiralling costs, and competition for tenants would trim the fees. However, the shortage of government support for new rental development, particularly in the social housing sector, means that the private sector fills the gap. There is a new product in the parlance of property, the private rented sector. It does not sound very new but it is new in that context, and it refers specifically to the bulk development of residential property that is exclusively built to rent. It is designed to rent, not for sale. It is not for sale after two or three rental periods; it is designed for long-term renting. Services are engineered into the architecture.

This is a new product which some other countries already enjoy and have done for a long time, but our market has never embraced it in the private sector. There are tens of billions of pounds now looking at this market in the UK. It is happening. Sites have been acquired, developments are being processed and planning is being obtained. They are being built in bulk and they will deliver tens of thousands, at least, of new residential units.

I have spoken to Legal & General, a well-known and respected investment manager. It has allocated more than £100 million for this sector. It will finance and own it itself and wants to completely re-engineer the whole rental model. It wants it to be tenant-friendly, and thinks it can be done to provide it with a worthwhile return. It is possible, and the Government should applaud it.

Existing legislation is just not fit for purpose. It is creaking and, with the scale of new development on the horizon, must be updated. There is design of the highest standards, with the quality services I referred to and everything there for the tenant, but who will find the tenants? The letting agent, unless the organisation owning the property is big enough to run that in-house. It is tragic that this product, for want of a better description, could be brought to its knees in reputational terms by spurious fees and up-front costs frustrating the mobility of labour. The scale of this new prospect deserves our attention, and the Bill is a vital step in preparing for it.

To conclude, the Government have a choice: ignore it and play to the unscrupulous—I fear it is as simple as that—or support this initiative, update the law, give it teeth, stamp out unacceptable practices and protect the most vulnerable. Any Bill improving the lot of those in need is to be welcomed; this is one.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I should first declare that I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I fully support Amendment 1, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. It replaces what is presently in the Bill with a more detailed provision to further protect tenants and, we hope, avoid a rogue letting agent getting around the Bill. I am particularly pleased to see the reference to deposits in subsection (3). As the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, the amendment also gives flexibility on what should or should not be treated as a premium by giving the Secretary of State power to make regulations to set that out. Importantly, it also allows the Secretary of State to set by regulation the maximum amounts that tenants may be asked to pay; a welcome flexibility here.

I also endorse the general comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. As she said, housing is an issue that we have debated many times and will continue to do so: the cost of housing, up-front costs, fees, the lack of social housing, the cost of rent in the private sector, et cetera. The noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Best and Lord Thurlow, all made contributions that I endorse. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, expressed some concerns and reservations about the clause and the amendment in particular. I do not agree with her: these fees and charges can be abused and tenants taken advantage of; the amendment seeks to address that. I particularly endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who spoke about the effect that supply and demand has on the housing market. As he also said, at present, the legislation is not fit for purpose. I fully endorse the amendment and hope that we get a positive response from the Minister.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on this amendment, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for so ably moving it and making some very significant points in relation to this. The Government are clear that the majority of letting agents provide a good service to tenants and landlords—that is our starting point. The Government also know how important housing affordability is and the challenges faced by some tenants, in terms of consumer protection. We have introduced a number of measures to help to tackle this issue. Since 1 October 2014, for example, it has been a legal requirement for letting and managing agents in England to belong to one of the three government-approved redress schemes. Those schemes offer a clear route for landlords and tenants to pursue complaints, weed out the cowboys and cowgirls who give agents a bad name, and drive up standards.

While landlords and letting agents are free to set their own charges, they are prohibited from setting unfair terms or fees under existing consumer protection legislation. We have gone further; in May 2015, under the Consumer Protection Act, we introduced transparency measures that require letting agents to publicise a full tariff of their fees, whether or not they are a member of a client money protection scheme or which redress scheme they are a member of, prominently in their offices and on their website. For the first time, a fine of up to £5,000 has been introduced for agents that fail to do this.

We are working with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who has already been mentioned, and correctly so, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, on a review of client money protection. They are looking at how client money protection is working and whether to use the powers in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 —the powers are obviously already there—to make it mandatory. They are supported by expert representatives from across the private rented sector; there are five members in all on this review, as I understand it. The experts include local authorities and the insurance sector as well as the private rented sector. The group has actively sought views in the call for evidence from all relevant interests, including organisations such as Shelter. I thank the noble Baroness for all the work that she has done for Shelter in the past and to say that it is a very valued partner in this regard. The working group members were invited to bring a range of expertise and perspectives and were expected to deliver their report to Ministers in the new year.

We have also established a private rented sector affordability and security working group, bringing together landlord groups, letting agents and housing charities. The group is exploring, among other issues, options to reduce up-front costs for tenants when accessing and moving within the sector and increasing security. Its report is expected close to the end of the financial year—that is, during the first half of 2017. I think that that answers the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on reporting dates; they are the best evidence that we have at the moment, and they are likely dates.

The Government have always been clear that any regulation in the sector must be appropriate. The Minister for Housing, Planning and London in another place has also been clear that we must be mindful of the potential impact on rents from banning fees paid by tenants—something raised by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. I express some reservations on the clause, but I have listened very carefully to what the noble Baroness has said, as well as to the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Thurlow, Lord Best and Lord Kennedy. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said that there was value in looking at this, but we have to be careful about unforeseen issues in terms of the effect on rents. This is not as straightforward as it might at first seem.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat 1:30 pm, 18th November 2016

If the Minister believes that there will be an impact on rents, can he cite evidence of any research done by the Government into the changes in Scotland, given that at the moment we have one piece of research that says—and I say it again—120 landlords were surveyed and only one had put up costs as a result of the change in Scotland? Does he have some alternative research to present?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The noble Baroness will have heard me say very clearly that we are awaiting the outcome of both the working groups looking at the issue. They will provide important evidence and will have looked at this issue in far greater detail than I have, so I anticipate looking at that when we have the report. I want to take this away and consider it further. I am not opposing the amendment; I am expressing reservations. The noble Baroness and other noble Lords have raised some important issues. I will take this away: we really do need to see the evidence. I hope noble Lords will understand that this is an evidence-based approach that I want to be pragmatic about.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is the Minister going to address the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, about supply and demand and rent levels? All noble Lords accept that we have a major housing crisis in the country now. I live in Lewisham and when I look in estate agents’ windows I am always shocked at the level of rents now charged in that part of south-east London. Very modest houses can now command extortionate rents and people are just driven out of the area.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The noble Lord will have previously heard me and the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. There is an issue of housing supply across the board. There is no question of that: it has been a problem for successive Governments and we have to address it. It is not as simple as addressing a particular part of the problem: it is across the board. There are challenges in all the sectors: private rented, social rented and owner occupied. This is not a straightforward issue and we have to be careful that any changes that we make do not have impacts elsewhere. I therefore want to reflect on this in a positive way and consider all the evidence.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that, as the promoter of the Bill, I am minded to accept my own amendment. There is no doubt that there are good lettings agents out there who are members of government-accredited redress schemes and pursue best practice. They should continue to charge a fee for the work that they do but the fee should be from the landlord, who can shop around and choose which lettings agency to use. Landlords can decide to use the decent, regulated ones. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, for bringing the Committee the perspective from the private sector, which is critically important. I again praise Dorrington Residential, one of London’s leading private sector residential landlords. It has announced that it will work only with lettings agencies which agree not to charge renters any fees. In its own words, it cannot see why other landlords and the Government do not follow suit. There is evidence that it can work and does not impact adversely on the private sector. It is advocated by some private sector landlords, which I praise for doing so.

Citizens Advice produced a report entitled Still Let Down, which found that 18% of letting agents were still not members of a redress scheme, despite this being required since October 2014. Only 4% of renters knew the name of the scheme of which their agent was a member. Generation Rent researched 720 agency websites, of which 96 had no fees published and 240 did not list, as they should, which redress scheme they belong to. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, whom I thank for his support, about the spurious and unreadable small print. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best. The critical issue, which is not covered in the Bill, is housing benefit and universal credit and the attitude of private sector landlords to it. This is, of course, why we need a healthy, burgeoning social rented sector and we need to build more social housing. I expect with a heavy heart a White Paper which is coming in two weeks. According to an exclusive which I read in the Sun yesterday, this will tell us to build higher and higher—a new whizzo wheeze. I still say that we should give the money to local authorities, or remove the cap, and let them build. We all hold our hands up; there is a 30-year legacy which all of us in government have owned, but building social housing is now critical and we have to get on with it.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, for her support and long years of campaigning in this area. I am sure that all tenants are grateful for this and her pursuit of trying to sort through the complicated issue of leaseholds. The purpose of Amendment 1 is to simplify: it takes away all the lists and bans all lettings fees, but allows the Secretary of State to specify exemptions through regulations. I think that is a better and tidier way of doing it. However, if the Government were to kindly indulge me with a Report stage, I would be happy to work with the noble Baroness and look at any tidying up that could be done to accommodate that issue.

The noble Baroness said that the money has to come from somewhere. I again refer to the experience so far in Scotland. I am very happy to look at alternative evidence on this but so far the evidence is that rents did not go up. However, let us assume that the noble Baroness is correct and rents go up. If they did so, they would be eased out over a 12-year period. I have another example publicised by the BBC yesterday of a lady, Lucy Surridge, who has spent nine weeks living in a hostel in Dagenham, east London, with her 11 year-old daughter and six year-old son. She is a full-time school chef and was made homeless when her landlady sold the property. She is 29 and has approached several agencies, which have told her that she needs to earn £38,500 before they would consider renting to her, and she would need £3,500 in deposit fees. I challenge most noble Lords, bar the obviously extremely wealthy ones, to find that kind of ready cash immediately. That is the critical question we are addressing, that of up-front cash in such cases. I have an 11 year-old who is applying to secondary schools, but I have a fixed and permanent address. However, the two ladies I have described are applying for places in secondary school for their children from an unclear and unfixed address. I know that everyone is up in arms about Brexit, but why we are not rioting on the streets about this is frankly beyond me.

I pay tribute to the Debrief organisation, which has campaigned to make renting fairer and has many examples of people who have experienced exorbitant tenancy fees. A lady called Emily has talked to me. She has moved four times in four years, only once out of choice. Her most recent moving fee was £1,850. She has had to pay that sum up front four times. When this Bill was initiated, most people who contacted me were young professionals living in London. However, as the Bill has been publicised, a striking number of older people have contacted me with similar issues. Whatever we think of the private rented sector and its suitability for tenants on low incomes, we are stuck with that form of tenure for a while. Government data released yesterday show that the affordable housing stock is growing at the lowest rate since 1992—52% lower than last year. Lack of affordable homes is forcing more and more people into the private rented sector, so we are stuck with the private rented sector as an immediate stop-gap solution, even if we could all wave our magic wands and instantly start building social housing at a very fast pace. Therefore, we have to make the private rented sector suitable for people on low incomes.

For all those reasons, I particularly thank the Minister for saying that this is not the end of the journey on this amendment, and that he will consider it. I very much like the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, which I will call the Hayter/Palmer precedent. I see that as a very valuable way to move forward on this. I am aware, of course, that there is a working group and people are holding meetings to discuss this. However, at some point people will be at loggerheads and the Government will have to make a decision. I beg the Government to make a decision in favour of the tenants I have described.

Finally, I thank my noble friends on these Benches—and my noble friend Lord Shipley, in particular—for their support for this area of the Bill.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed.

Clause 3: Mandatory electrical safety checks

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord Tope

2: Clause 3, page 2, line 1, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert—“(2) In subsection (1), for “may by regulations impose duties on a private landlord of residential premises in England” substitute “must lay before each House of Parliament a draft of regulations which impose duties on a private landlord of residential premises in England or the landlord’s agent (or both)”.(3) In subsection (3), leave out “may” and insert “or the landlord’s agent (or both) in the draft regulations must”.”

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 3. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The Housing and Planning Act enables the making of regulations governing electrical safety checks, and Clause 3 of the Bill would make such checks mandatory. Amendments 2 and 3 seek to ensure that letting agents acting on behalf of landlords are compliant with regulations that are introduced. Where a letting agent was employed by a landlord to deal with the maintenance of a property, the amendments would ensure that the landlord could enlist the letting agent to ensure the upkeep of their responsibilities in relation to electrical safety checks. The amendments are intended to clarify and provide assurance to landlords and letting agencies regarding their responsibilities while seeking to ensure that electrical safety checks place no undue burdens on landlords and that they are kept in line with gas safety checks.

We have debated electrical safety checks many times in your Lordships’ House, most particularly during the passage of what is now the Housing and Planning Act and during the Second Reading of this Bill on 10 June this year. During that time we have all quoted many important figures demonstrating the priority that needs to be given to electrical safety checks. We all welcome and support the mandatory checks for gas safety, carbon monoxide and so on, but the reality is that more deaths in the home are caused by electrical fires than by gas. Therefore, it remains a mystery to us why electrical safety checks are still not mandatory. The Bill proposes that they should be.

At Second Reading on 10 June, some six months ago, the Minister, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, said:

“We plan to conclude further research as soon as possible”.—[Official Report, 10/6/16; col. 988.]

Given that six months have now elapsed, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some information about the progress of that further research. I know, for instance, that a working group has been set up, that it has been meeting to look at this matter and that it is nearing the conclusion of its work. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to say to us today that the Government intend to use the enabling provisions in the Housing and Planning Act and that they will produce draft regulations.

If the Minister is able to confirm that the Government will be producing draft regulations, I wonder whether he can give us any indication of when we might expect them. If I may say so, “shortly” would be very much more welcome than “in due course”. Over the years, some of us have learned to interpret what “in due course”, “shortly”, “in the fullness of time” and so on actually mean. So “shortly” would be very welcome but a precise indication would be even more so.

Also at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill—we should perhaps make it clear that that is the Lord Palmer to whom we have been referring in this debate—spoke, among other things, about the frequency with which electrical safety checks should be carried out, suggesting every five years. In his reply, the Minister said:

“Maybe that should be four or three”.—[Official Report, 10/6/16; col. 989.]

An average tenancy in the private rented sector has now increased slightly and is four years. Electrical Safety First, which has given excellent safety briefings in support on this issue over the years and for this debate, and most of the industry and stakeholders believe that every five years strikes the right balance with regard to all the interests concerned and given the current turnover in the private rented sector.

Checks every five years in the private rented sector would align it with HMOs in England as well as with legislation being introduced in Wales and what is already in place in Scotland. It would therefore seem sensible for England to follow suit. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the Government now accept that the appropriate frequency for mandatory checks should be five years—more frequently when desired, but mandatory for five years? We have debated this subject many times, and I suspect that this will not be the last debate on the subject. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I will be very brief, as I am conscious of the time. I fully endorse Amendments 2 and 3, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The noble Lord has a track record in campaigning for electrical safety in the private rented sector, and I pay tribute to him for that. As we have heard, the amendment seeks to ensure that letting agents acting on behalf of landlords can be enlisted to ensure that they meet their statutory responsibilities. As the noble Lord also reminded us, we have protections for gas and carbon monoxide poisoning through checks, and it is only right that we get electrical safety checks on the same statutory footing. I fully support both amendments.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for moving these amendments and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his brief contribution. If approved, these amendments would require the Secretary of State to introduce regulations requiring landlords and/or their agents to ensure that electrical safety standards are met in their rental properties. I am conscious that many noble Lords, rightly, feel strongly about electrical safety—I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for his campaigning role on this—and that it has raised considerable debate. I also know that Shelter has campaigned on this; I pay tribute to its role.

Yet again, the Government are taking a measured and pragmatic approach. As noble Lords have appreciated, we have taken an enabling power in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 that allows us to introduce requirements on regular electrical safety checks in rented properties at a future date. It has also been stated, correctly, that we have established an electrical safety working group and are working with experts from across the sector to fully assess whether regulations are needed and, if so, to determine the detailed options for regulation. It would therefore not be appropriate for me to say, “These are the regulations that we will bring forward” or to give a date when we will bring them forward, because we are awaiting the report. The working group has met twice, is due to meet again in the coming weeks, and it is due to present its reports to Ministers by the end of this calendar year.

Six months is an appropriate period in this regard; it is entirely right that on something of this nature we look to a working group to report in a six-month period, and that is what we are doing. The Government will then need to consider it and will of course do so—it is an important issue. I am afraid that I cannot give an undertaking about when regulations will come forward if they come forward. I will not say “in due course”, “timely” or “coming shortly”. However, the Government take this issue seriously, and I can understand the spirit in which these important amendments have been tabled. I can provide the reassurance that the Government regard this as important and will carefully consider the report of the safety group.

However, as I said, it would be premature to commit to legislation, and particularly the scope of any legislation, before the working group has concluded its research and before we have had a chance to look at it and consider what is appropriate in the light of that research.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, again it will not surprise the House to hear that I am minded to accept Amendments 2 and 3. This is a Government leaning on the rented sector for support, like leaning on a walking stick that has woodworm, damp and dry rot. We need to improve the rented sector to meet the needs of people over at least the next decade, if not two. Shelter’s research states that one-third of privately rented homes in England do not meet the Government’s decent homes standard, while almost one-fifth pose serious health and safety hazards. The lack of compulsory electrical checks plays a significant part in that.

As I conclude on the final part of this amendment, I would like to pay tribute to Electrical Safety First, which has been campaigning, along with my noble friend Lord Tope, to bring about these changes. More widely, I would like to thank Debrief and its petition, Generation Rent, Shelter, Crisis and Citizens Advice, all of which supported the Bill. I would also like to thank Hull City Council, which yesterday passed a motion at full council supporting the Bill. The motion was proposed by Liberal Democrat Councillor Charles Quinn and supported by Labour councillors. I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to hear that Conservative Councillors John Fareham and John Abbott also voted in favour in Hull, because all three parties think that renters now need a fairer deal and that getting rid of up-front costs will help.

I want to take the opportunity to say that I am pleased that the earlier clause on rogue landlords received the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. That information should be publicly available in the same way that, for instance, employers who flout the national minimum wage are made public. I see no reason why information on rogue landlords cannot similarly be made public.

In conclusion, and in the knowledge that there possibly will not be a Report stage for the Bill, I want to say that we on these Benches will not let any of the issues in the Bill rest here. My colleague Tom Brake in the Commons will take up as many of them as he can. If a White Paper is to be forthcoming, we will try to ensure that all four of the substantive clauses are continued through other legislation. In particular, we will continue to pursue, with some passion and vigour, the issue of up-front costs to tenants, which is hurting tenants every day.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Before the noble Lord, Lord Tope, decides what he will do with his amendment, I want to say that I worry that the Minister’s use of the word “measured” is another euphemism for “in due course”. Will the Minister please take back to the department the strength of feeling here? Although six months may seem a relatively short time, this issue has been around for a very long time. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, we really have to sort out the electrical safety check to prevent deaths. The Government have the power and we need to resolve this sooner rather than later.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, I fully accept that. I think the noble Lord is in danger of appearing churlish on this. I have said that we regard it as a very important issue. However, it would be premature to act before the working party has brought forward its report, which it will shortly do. As soon as it does, the Government will look at it very seriously. I do not think that that is an unreasonable approach.

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for accepting my amendments. It does not come as too much of a surprise to me, but, in my 22 years in your Lordships’ House, it is a very rare pleasure for me to have an amendment supported so willingly and with so much pleasure.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and his colleagues for their continuing support, and to the Minister for his reply. I believe that the working group to which he referred has its last meeting next Monday. I understand, therefore, why he feels it would be inappropriate to comment before it has even had its last meeting, let alone produced its report. If it produces that report by the end of the year, and I hope that it does, I hope that the Government will not take too much longer to measure it. Successive Governments have taken measured approaches to this for years—not months. Therefore, my reference to six months was perhaps a little optimistic.

The Minister has said, and I believe him, that the Government are taking this seriously and that they have a pragmatic approach. It is hard to see why, if that is so, they are not yet able to commit to at least making safety checks mandatory, even if they are not yet in a position to go into the technical detail necessary for the publication of the draft regulations.

As my noble friend Lady Grender said, I do not know how much further this particular Bill will go in its progress, but this issue and the issue raised in the previous debate will not go away. They will be pursued. We will continue to pursue them and I feel sure that the Labour Opposition will continue to pursue them. We hope that the Government will indeed take their pragmatic, not-too-long, measured view and bring forward draft regulations for debate within the foreseeable future, by which I mean the first part of next year.

Amendment 2 agreed.

Amendment 3

Moved by Lord Tope

3: Clause 3, page 2, line 4, at end insert—“(5) In subsection (5), after “landlord” insert “or the landlord’s agent (or both)”.”

Amendment 3 agreed.

Clause 3, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 4 and 5 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.