Tenant Fees Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:08 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 5:08 pm, 10th October 2018

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I let rooms in my home in London, motivated mainly by the fact that accommodation in London is very expensive and I think it is unfair of those of us who have extra space not to use it. However, I have never used an agency and hope never to have to do so.

On top of increasing rents, tenants often face an arcane list of fees: administrative fees, credit check fees, tenancy renewal fees, referencing costs—and the list goes on. Therefore, I support the Bill in its intention to make renting fairer, more transparent and perhaps even more affordable for tenants. Getting this right will improve life for millions of people, including many young people from what is sometimes termed Generation Rent.

However, even well-framed legislation can risk unintended consequences, and it is the Bill’s potential impact on the home share sector to which I draw your Lordships’ attention. Home share is a global movement, but it has for many years remained stubbornly small in the UK. With an investment of more than £2 million from the Big Lottery Fund and the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, this has finally started to change. The growing number of small home share agencies in the UK are at a crossroads, with the opportunity to become a major force to reduce loneliness among both older and younger people, as well as to provide affordable housing and a good start in life to young people and others. It is an arrangement which involves housing, but whose primary purpose is to set up a mutually supportive relationship across the generational divide.

Home share is a system whereby someone who needs help or companionship to continue to live independently in their own home is matched with someone who has a housing need and can provide a little support. Householders are often older people who have a few support needs or have become isolated or anxious about living alone. Home sharers are often younger people—students or key public service workers—who cannot afford housing where they work but are happy to provide an agreed low level of help or companionship. One thing which motivates me is finding a resource which meets a need and putting the two together, which is why I am such a fan of home share. Home sharers help out and pay no rent. There is a national network for the UK’s home share schemes, supported by the charity, Shared Lives Plus.

Home share is a widely supported concept. A short film produced by the BBC to mark Tracey Crouch’s new role as the world’s first Minister for Loneliness showed how Florence, 95, and Alexandra, 27, support each other by living together in Florence’s home. In the film, Florence talks about the crushing effect of loneliness after the death of her husband, the fear of something happening to her and no one knowing, or of being “bored to tears” and the emptiness in a life which had previously been active. Alexandra also talked about loneliness and said of living with Florence: “I have a new friend and somewhere that is really homely. I can feel safe and not isolated in a big city”.

This film has been watched 25 million times on social media. Councils are now investing in home share, with others exploring how to support independent home share organisations to support more older people. Paul Ellis, the cabinet member for adult care and health at Wandsworth Council said:

“This is a common-sense approach that tackled two problems at once in a creative way. Loneliness is a hidden problem in our communities, and as well as providing more homes, this scheme will provide companionship and bring different generations together”.

Parliament clearly does not intend to create red tape or financial challenge for such a valuable model, but there is a risk that home share schemes will be captured by the definition of letting agent used in the Bill, because the younger home sharer has a licence to occupy provided by the older person. The home share agency carefully selects older participants who need support, sometimes because they have the very early stages of dementia, but sometimes just because they are isolated and worried about living alone. Younger participants are also carefully selected, and there is time and financial cost to this: the young person is interviewed, references are taken up and an enhanced DBS police check is usually required before they can carry out a support role for a vulnerable older person, which can include shopping and therefore handling money. Home share is comparable to a befriending scheme for older people, where an enhanced DBS check is considered standard. Most schemes need to charge for these services.

Home share is based on a matching process. Both parties are introduced to each other, they then decide whether they are compatible and are supported to draw up an informal home sharing agreement, which outlines the expectations on both sides and usually includes the young person providing about 10 hours a week of practical help and often being in the house for a number of nights. Home share matches typically last about a year, but there is no formal contract stipulating the length of an arrangement, nor enforceable periods of notice. Home share has had a remarkably good safeguarding track record in the decades during which it has existed in the UK, based on careful selection and matching participants, clear expectations and building trusting relationships in which both parties take responsibility for the arrangement’s success, rather than resorting to law. Its relational nature makes it feel valuable and fulfilling to its participants, and marks it out from a more formal commercial arrangement. The young person has a licence to occupy their room, and the right which that implies, but they pay no rent to the older person. They usually contribute to the older person’s household bills.

One of the strengths of home share is that, unusually among preventive services which councils under the Care Act 2014 have a duty to develop, it does not require ongoing charitable or state funding. It is funded through both participants paying the home share agency to enable that agency to employ co-ordinators who find, recruit, prepare and match participants, and then continue to provide ongoing support and advice for them, stepping in if something goes wrong and also arranging new matches where a match comes to an end, such as when a young person moves on or an older person needs more formal care. Typically, the young person will pay an upfront fee to cover the costs of ascertaining that they will be able to support an older person. Then the older person will pay a monthly fee, with the younger person paying a larger monthly fee; £30 a week for an older person and £40 for a younger person is typical. The older person pays far less than they would for more formal support, and the younger person far less than if they were renting housing in the normal way. Some home share schemes are formally constituted as charities or community interest companies. All in the Shared Lives Plus Homeshare UK network have signed up to work within a good practice framework and continually evaluate themselves against a self-regulatory quality assurance programme, with Shared Lives Plus staff providing support and a community of practice.

Of the 23 home share schemes which are part of the Shared Lives Plus network, six now report that they are financially sustainable through this model, and the number of older people supported has risen from 250 in 2017 to 350 in 2018. In other European countries the figure is already in the thousands, and 17 other countries have home share programmes globally.

If home share schemes are considered to be letting agencies under the definition of the Bill, and if the fees they charge younger people are considered to be banned under its provisions, the home share model as it stands would have to alter in ways its practitioners consider would make it unsustainable. It is considered essential to the model that the younger person does not pay rent. This is not only because the model selects young people who want to support an older person, and older people who want companionship and help, but because it selects young people to give them a start in life, rather than people who want to engage in a commercial boarding arrangement. Often, older people do not have the confidence to let a room commercially. Younger people too report that they would not be able to provide the support an older person requires, especially those with early signs of dementia, without the specialised support of a home share agency.

For the home share sector to continue with its laudable aim of being self-sustaining, rather than reliant on charitable or council funding, the Bill could require the older person to begin charging rent to the younger person. Furthermore, this rent would then need to be collected in increased fees to the older person by the home share agency. This would be confusing to the older person in particular, and could require them to submit complex information about their income and outgoings to HMRC for taxation purposes, and could impact on their benefits status. This would add to the challenges of the sector’s aim of bringing home share to lower-income older people. It would lose its simplicity.

Home share is a no brainer. In the words of Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund:

“Homeshare offers a new and sustainable model for people to live more independently and take control of their lives through supporting one another”.

I am sure none of us would wish to place barriers to its growth at a time when our health and care systems, and the older people they support, desperately need innovative solutions to the scourge of loneliness and to the shortage of good social support many older people experience. Low-level support and companionship at an early stage can reduce or delay the need for more formal and expensive crisis support later on. Home share clearly does not financially exploit younger people. It provides them with a valuable role, companionship at a time when younger people’s loneliness is also in the spotlight, and accommodation at lower cost than the traditional alternatives.

Obviously, it is important not to create any loopholes through which commercial letting agents could jump. However, could not genuine home share programmes be excluded from the provisions of the Bill by virtue of the fact that they act in a way that no commercial letting agents could imitate? In a genuine home share, the “landlord” is paid nothing for accommodation by the tenant or the co-ordinating organisation. No commercial letting agent could operate on the basis that a landlord would be paid nothing by either it or the tenants.

Furthermore, although home share involves accommodation, it is based around the provision of support and companionship, and its charges are primarily for arranging that support for a vulnerable adult safely and effectively. If the younger person ceased to pay the home share agency, they would not lose their accommodation, which is in the gift of the older person and not the home share organisation. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that fees charged by a home share organisation to set up and facilitate the support provided by the younger person to the older person would not fall foul of the provisions of the Bill, providing it is clear in any agreement between the young person and the home share agency that their accommodation is not contingent on any such fees.

Good befriending schemes for older people always involve similar selection processes, interviews and enhanced DBS checks. Does my noble friend agree that home share schemes should also be able to carry out these processes and to pass on the costs of those as they need to, as the processes are required by virtue of the support offered to a vulnerable older person and not in order to arrange the accommodation?

Further, given the issues raised by the Bill for the nascent home share sector, might this not be an opportunity to define “home share” in law? This would help its growth as an invaluable source of support and companionship for older people and avoid any risk of unscrupulous commercial organisations misleading older people. I very much hope it will be possible for this admirable Bill to achieve its purpose without penalising the thousands of older and younger people who could benefit from home share if we create an enabling legislative framework.