My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 29 and 30 and in support of Amendment 28, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I thank the Minister for all the meetings with him and his officials and for the meeting today on guidance. I look forward to continuing to meet to make sure that we do what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, described and make sure that the Bill is beautifully polished before it receives Royal Assent.
Amendment 27 would cap the change of sharer charge to £50 and Amendment 29 would avoid exorbitant charges to end a tenancy. Amendment 30 would avoid what I hope is an unintended consequence, which is that paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 allows landlords to insist on all the rent for the remainder of the fixed term. It aims to make the provision a little more tenant friendly by limiting the tenant’s liability for the rent to the point at which the property is relet.
Regarding a change of tenant, if a sharer moves out, it is normally their and the remaining housemates’ responsibility to find a replacement. The alternatives are for the remaining housemates to pay rent on an empty bedroom or for them all to move out, with the associated costs. Currently the fees associated with changing a tenant are comparable to those of starting a new tenancy. Indeed, Generation Rent recorded an average of £248 in its research. This reflects the limited options available to tenants rather than the actual costs involved. As the tenants tend to do all the marketing though sites such as Gumtree and SpareRoom, the landlord’s costs are limited to the referencing process. Even then, the existing tenants have an incentive to find a new housemate who will pass the referencing process and whom they can rely on to pay a regular rent.
If there is to be a fee, it should reflect the landlord’s or the agent’s reduced cost in that circumstance. The Bill as drafted says that the charge is capped at £50, but it still allows landlords to charge more than that—so it is not really a cap but more of a floor. The possibility remains that landlords would charge as much as they could. A true cap would not permit fees above a specified sum.
I turn to Amendments 29 and 30. People will always need to move unexpectedly in circumstances where their personal or professional life changes. The Government have recognised this through their proposed longer-tenancies model, which we welcome, giving tenants the flexibility to exit the tenancy without penalty before the fixed period ends. However, paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 allows landlords to insist on all the rent for the rest of the fixed term, which is unnecessary if they are able to relet the property, has the potential to create financial hardship for tenants and could even see some people trapped in difficult relationships. The amendments would limit the tenant’s liability for the rent until the point when the property was relet, which should take place within a reasonable timeframe. I very much appreciate that there is a little more clarity in terms of the draft guidance at the moment, but that is of course draft guidance and I am seeking to probe what can be in the Bill regarding this issue.
Regarding costs at the end of a tenancy, no one makes the decision to move lightly. To end your tenancy early would mean that you face significant changes in your personal or professional life. The Bill should therefore limit the cost of this where possible. As it currently stands, my understanding is that it would appear to make a tenant leaving a tenancy liable for the rent for the remainder of the fixed term, plus the costs of remarketing the property. A tenant moving out could pay all of this and the landlord could still get a new tenant within a month of the tenancy. The landlord therefore could possibly receive several months of double rent through sheer luck. To make it more of a level playing field and limit the departing tenant’s liability, the Bill should apply a reasonableness test. As soon as the property has a new tenant, the former tenant’s liability should end, and the landlord should have an obligation to deal reasonably with any request to leave. I beg to move.
My Lords, as this is my first contribution to the proceedings, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
This group of amendments covers Schedule 1 to the Bill, specifically around issues of changing or terminating the tenancy agreement. Amendment 28 is in my name and I have also put my name to Amendments 29 and 30, while I support the intention behind Amendment 27 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Grender and Lady Thornhill. Amendment 27 would cap the amount that could be charged for a change in tenancy to £50, and that seems very reasonable. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said, otherwise the £50 becomes a floor rather than a ceiling. The problem with the clause as worded is that it leaves the way open for a large amount to be charged. I think that that is unfair and not reasonable.
My Amendment 28 seeks to ensure that in a situation where the only change is that of a tenant, a charge cannot be made. I hope that the Government will agree that there is no loss of rental income if you are just replacing one name with another, and to allow a charge to be made in that situation seems very unfair.
Amendment 29 would require the landlord to react reasonably to any request for an early exit, including when taking steps to relet the property. If they do not do so, this payment would be a prohibited payment, for all the reasons that we have heard in this short debate. Amendment 30 seeks to provide better clarification than is provided by the schedule as presently worded.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 29. I entirely understand the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. A number of individuals collectively forming “tenant” particularly occurs in London and other metropolitan areas. Those of us who inhabit the countryside tend to have single tenants in a building, rather than a system of sharing.
I have absolutely no problem with the idea of ensuring that landlords are not overcharging beyond reasonable cost. My concern is that this is beginning to look like micromanagement of the letting process. The question is, “reasonable” by whose standards? For instance, a group of tenants—perhaps four of them—decides to take on a property on a two-year term. Let us suppose they collectively decide that they want to finish the tenancy after one year and want to move out in the run-up to Christmas, which is known to be a difficult time for the letting market because things tend not to get going again until into the new year. By whose standards would “reasonableness” be measured? Would it be by reference to the tenants, who, after all, have agreed to take on the property on a two-year basis and wish to terminate after one year; or by reference to the reasonable costs the landlord would run up in that process? All sorts of things hang on that—for example, rent voids and running costs such as heating and security while the place is unoccupied, were that to happen.
I appreciate that things get more difficult when you have a number of tenants and one wants to go, because that creates a dynamic which, as the noble Baroness rightly said—and has said previously—affects the other occupants. It would be really undesirable if landlords responded by simply deciding not to agree to early termination. That would be the worst of all possible worlds. As a private sector landlord, I have never used that other than when someone wants to terminate at short notice and before the property can reasonably be re-let. That tends not to happen in the high-pressure circumstances of inner-London shared residential, but with a freestanding property in the countryside, where things are quite different. The Bill will apply across the nation.
I counsel a little caution here, and perhaps the Minister would care to comment. If the culture creeps in whereby no early termination of a lease is possible or will be agreed, we will be back here later with another measure to say that landlords must provide that facility. I do not see this as necessarily being the endpoint, and I should like to tease out that issue to give some closure on what we are doing with residential landlord and tenant. Hopefully, the situation can stabilise so that everyone will know where they are for, at any rate, the reasonably foreseeable future.
My Lords, it is worth underlining that this part of the Bill is an important measure to prevent what is a pretty common abuse, which is, when there is a change of tenancy, at little or no cost to the landlord, the agents involved making serious amounts of money, which the Bill would prevent them doing in future.
At Second Reading, I cited an illustration from my last intern, whose sister was taking her place in a flat share of three. Each of them, on entering the flat, needed to pay the agent a fee of £275 for the privilege of signing up. When one of the occupiers left and was replaced by her sister, the outgoing one was charged £250 for termination of the tenancy agreement and her sister, who was moving in on the same day with her packed suitcase, was charged £275 as a new tenant. The agents got £525 for this transfer from one sister to another. The landlord received exactly the same amount of rent, because there was no discontinuity in the rent paid.
In such circumstances, paying £50 as a takeover fee for the privilege of signing a photocopied document when one person moves in in place of another sounds quite enough. The guidance may be the best place to put this, but the test must be whether the landlord has suffered a loss of rent. If there is no such loss, surely the £50 should kick in as the maximum which the agents can take. One can understand the need to compensate if there has been a loss of rent because of a gap when one tenant has moved out and no new one has arrived. Otherwise, £50 sounds like a maximum not a floor.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate relating to the charges that can be imposed for variation, assignment, novation or termination of a tenancy where these are requested by the tenant. We have previously set out that it is not fair to ask landlords and agents to pay reasonable fees where these arise from the action or request of a tenant. Following pre-legislative scrutiny, we clarified that both early termination and change of sharer costs were permitted, so long as these were fair. As a result, the Bill provides that a landlord or agent can charge a tenant in these circumstances, but such fees are capped at £50—one-tenth of the fee charged in the case cited by the noble Lord, Lord Best—or reasonably incurred costs if higher.
Amendments 27 and 28 seek to impose a hard cap on the amount that can be charged and to prohibit this charge in relation to a change of sharer. When considering how to manage these amendments, we share the caution mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. We want to ensure that landlords and tenants can agree reasonable requests to vary a tenancy. Although we do not expect this charge to exceed £50, it is only fair that, where it does so, landlords and agents are able to recover their reasonably incurred costs. For example, if a landlord is required to undertake a search, conduct reference checks and amend tenancy deposit protection arrangements for a new tenant with no help whatever from the outgoing tenant, those costs may be higher than normal. Landlords and agents will need to be able to demonstrate, if challenged, that their costs are reasonable. They will have to justify them and, if they cannot do so, trading standards officers may have a case to investigate.
Crucially—this point was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton—we do not want to create a situation where landlords are reluctant to agree to a change of sharer because they do not believe they can recover their reasonable, justifiable costs. This would not help tenants, who would be required to break their contract if they wanted to leave, nor would it help those hoping to move in to replace the sharer moving out. This matter was discussed during pre-legislative scrutiny and tenant representative bodies recognised the need for the ability to charge in such circumstances, provided that the risk of abuse was mitigated, which we have done by imposing a cap of £50 and requiring any additional costs to be reasonable. In its report, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said that:
“We welcome the Government’s intention to clarify the legislation and to permit charges related to a change of sharer where these are requested by the tenant”.
Amendments 29 and 30 would place an obligation on the landlord to take reasonable steps to re-let the property where they have agreed to terminate a tenancy early. These amendments would also limit the loss a landlord can recover to the period reasonably required to find a new tenant, even if he was unable to find one.
An assured shorthold tenancy is a contract where a tenant commits to pay the landlord rent for a given period of time, the fixed term. The landlord is entitled to the rent for the entirety of that term. If the tenant seeks to leave the tenancy before the end of it, then they would need to seek agreement of the landlord to do so. Where possible, landlords should agree to this, and can ask the existing tenant to find a suitable replacement. We encourage them to do so through our guidance.
“But if the amount of the payment exceeds the loss suffered by the landlord as a result of the termination of the tenancy, the amount of the excess is a prohibited payment”.
In other words, the landlord can only recover any loss they incur in permitting a tenant to leave early. They cannot double-charge for the same period of time. They are only entitled to recover the sum of any rental payments which would not be met by the start of a new tenancy. If a replacement tenant is found and there are no void periods, we would expect no early termination charge to be levied to the outgoing tenant. This has been reiterated in the consumer guidance for tenants and landlords, and we welcome the constructive comments made by the noble Baroness on our draft guidance.
However, looking at the amendment, we cannot necessarily expect landlords to know how long would reasonably be required to find a replacement tenant. This depends on several factors, including the rental market in the local area. Therefore, we expect landlords and tenants to consider on a case-by-case basis the likely void period and any reasonable charge for early termination. Again, we do not want to harm tenants by disincentivising landlords agreeing to a reasonable request to end a tenancy early or to a variation of a tenancy. That is not what this Bill is seeking to achieve, but there is a real risk of this if the amendments are agreed to. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken about these amendments. When the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, talks about how one defines “reasonable”, a good look through the guidance will drive him in the direction of asking that question quite a lot, because quite a lot hinges on “reasonable” on both sides of the argument. The idea that we do not expect landlords to charge more than £50, rather than that they should not charge more than £50, is the issue here. I am trying to ensure a proper balance between tenant and landlord when a tenancy ends. I will seek to discover if there is a better way of drafting my amendment for Report or if there is a better way of clarifying this in guidance, and with that in mind I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 27 withdrawn.
Amendments 28 to 30 not moved.
Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark
31: Schedule 1, page 26, line 3, at end insert—“( ) In the case of a payment to a landlord, such a payment is a permitted payment only if the landlord is required by the tenancy agreement to review the contract or contracts annually and make arrangements to switch tariffs or suppliers if this would be beneficial to the tenant.”
My Lords, Amendments 31 and 32 in my name seek to add two new sub-paragraphs to paragraph 8 of Schedule 1. The schedule is concerned with permitted payments and paragraph 8 is concerned with payments in respect of utilities. Amendment 31 seeks to place a requirement on the landlord to review the various utility contracts and switch tariffs or suppliers to one that would be the most beneficial to the tenant.
We are all aware that the utility market is competitive and that there is a whole range of offers and deals. If the landlord or letting agent is able to make a charge for utilities, it is not unreasonable to require them to do something about getting the best deal and the best value for the benefit of their tenant. Looking at the market to see what is available is not too onerous a task and a reasonable obligation.
Amendment 32 proposes that the amount charged to the tenant must be the reasonable costs incurred, and any excess would be a prohibited payment. This amendment seeks to close a potential loophole by restricting what can be charged to reasonable costs incurred. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in these two amendments, which would help to tighten up the Bill. As he said, paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 is very open-ended, and he referred to a loophole potentially lying within it as it is worded. I think his amendment will tighten it and will do so partly because it is in the interests of the tenant, who may secure a cash saving in the amount they pay for a utility even though they may have to pay a fee to achieve it. I therefore hope the Minister might be willing to look at that carefully. As paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 is currently drafted, it simply refers to the fact that the tenancy agreement may require the payment to be made, but it does not define why it would have to be made. That is why the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is so helpful.
My Lords, I have great sympathy with this amendment but I would have more were it possible to ensure that utility providers themselves acted reasonably. While I will not name any names, one particular well-known supplier of electricity, with what is generally regarded as an extremely cheap and competitive tariff, has gained for itself an extremely poor reputation because of what happens when one wants to change to another supplier. Indeed, so tortuous are its processes—of which I have had direct experience—that many landlords specify in their agreements that the tenant may not change to that supplier, and with good reason.
I had a situation myself concerning the commercial supply of electricity to an agricultural building. My wife and I were faced with a demand from this company for over £30,000 for a period of some 15 months, when the only thing that happens in this shed is that for a period of about three weeks a series of low-wattage lights are used to assist with lambing, and for a period of about 10 days in another part of the year they are used for a sheep-shearing operation. By no stretch of the imagination could the fee have totalled that amount. When, finally, the company rang up my wife and said, “We’re going to take you to court”, her answer was, “Make my day”. It was not until the matter was referred to its lawyers that it became apparent that there had been a complete muck-up. It had simply not got an initial reading and was trying to steamroller that payment through in the hope that we would crack and pay it. I know that other landlords in the private rented sector are sometimes faced with the same situation.
These people run up the most appalling costs. While I have great sympathy that this should not be laid solely at the door of tenants, it is none the less an occupational hazard that afflicts both parties to this arrangement. That is the only reason why I have a reservation about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy—because there is another dimension to this, where certain suppliers are acting utterly unreasonably and unconscionably.
My Lords, the Countess of Lytton is clearly even more formidable than the noble Earl.
I too have a lot of sympathy with these amendments, but I believe there are already sufficient existing protections—not in this Bill but in other legislation—which address the concerns raised by noble Lords. Landlords who resell energy to their tenants for domestic use are governed by maximum resale price provisions set by Ofgem under Section 44 of the Electricity Act 1989 and Section 37 of the Gas Act 1986. This prevents landlords from overcharging tenants; they cannot charge the tenant more than the landlord has paid. If the landlord does overcharge, the tenant is entitled to have the charge lowered and overpayments refunded. The tenant can also bring a claim against their landlord to the small claims court for the amount that has been overcharged plus interest. In addition, on other utilities, landlords are prohibited from overcharging tenants for the resale of water under the maximum resale price provisions set out in the Water Resale Order 2006. If the landlord does overcharge, the tenant can take legal action through the small claims court to recover any overpayment and the tenant is eligible to recover interest at a rate of twice the average base interest rate of the Bank of England for the period they have been overcharged.
Amendment 31 would specifically require landlords to review any contract held for the provision of utilities and to consider switching provider if this would be beneficial to the tenant. In the majority of cases, tenants will be responsible for paying their own energy bills; they will pay them direct to the supplier and not to the landlord. So in most cases, tenants will already have the right to choose their own supplier. The tenancy agreement will set out who is responsible for paying these charges. Where the landlord is responsible for paying the bills, they may seek to recover these costs through the rent or directly from the tenant but, as I have already explained, they are already prevented from overcharging for this for energy and water.
Through, for example, the How to Rent guide, we encourage tenants to speak to their landlord or agent if they think their utilities payments are too high or if they want to request a change of supplier. In many cases, it may be in the interest of the landlord to move to a more competitive supplier as that may help to market their property in the future.
In addition, the Government’s Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill received Royal Assent on
Against that background, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendments.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for his very helpful response. I will withdraw my amendment shortly, but I would like to check something. He helpfully set out the legislation which will prevent people from being overcharged by landlords, but I cannot recall off the top of my head whether this will be clearly laid out in the guidance so that people will be very much aware of their rights and obligations. That would go some way to allaying the fears that are behind these amendments.
Before the noble Lord sits down I would like to say that that is a very helpful suggestion. We will indeed look at the guidance to see whether that suggestion can be incorporated.
In that case, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 31 withdrawn.
Amendment 32 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Gardner of Parkes
32A: Schedule 1, page 26, line 29, at end insert—“Payment in respect of identity and immigration status checks11 (1) A payment for or in connection with the costs associated with carrying out identity and immigration status checks on the tenant is a permitted payment.(2) But, in the case of a payment to a landlord, if the amount of the payment exceeds the reasonable costs incurred by the landlord for or in connection with the provision of the identity and immigration status checks, the amount of excess is a prohibited payment.(3) In sub-paragraph (1), a check on the immigration status of the tenant means the conduct of checks by the landlord pursuant to ensuring compliance with section 22 of the Immigration Act 2014.”
My Lords, I have moved this amendment simply because it is essential for people to know what they can be charged and what they cannot. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, commented at the end of his speech on just that fact: that people need to know. If something was in the guidance that would indeed be very valuable, but at the present time people have no idea what they will be charged.
A lot of people have no idea that they have to prove they have a right to be in this country. I am sure most of us remember the embarrassing start of this whole problem, when a very impressive member of the Government at the time found that she had not checked on someone she employed. That is where all this started. As I understand the situation, there is now a fixed amount that people would be asked to pay for such an official designation of their nationality and the rights they have here. People are often totally unaware of this.
I understand that overcharging should not take place—I am not for a minute suggesting that—but people will need to know that, to rent a property, they have to prove that they are an ordinary person entitled to live here and not limited in what tenancy they can undertake. That is the purpose of this amendment. I claim no expertise in the wording of it, as the Public Bill Office very kindly helped me. I would be interested if people have comments on that. The principle behind it is to enable people to know what is and is not legitimate. Whether it is the agent, the prospective tenant or anyone else who provides that necessary information, it costs. You do not get it for nothing; that is the problem. I feel that the Bill is rather restrictive at the moment. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has made a valid point. I recall some years ago having to check the identity of an applicant for a business tenancy, who produced a passport from a Commonwealth country which was in date but did not contain the crucial words in the out-of-date one, also presented, which described the bearer as having the right to remain in the United Kingdom. I have always felt very nervous about trying to sift through this, because of the penalties that can be visited on one professionally—in this case, it would have been on a client landlord—in connection with letting. Getting these things right and carrying out identity and immigration status checks cannot be left to the tea boy. They need to be done by somebody who knows what they are doing and can take responsibility.
This takes us back to the question of where the two-way street between landlord and prospective tenant should lie and whether it is right that the landlord provides a property that he has warranted as clean and tidy, fit for purpose, not unsafe and so on, and the tenant is responsible for the cost of verifying their bona fides, as the noble Baroness says in her amendment. It seems that that is fairly unarguable, particularly in London where there are people of so many different nationalities. A further issue that needs to be addressed, assuming that eventually this country will leave the European Union, is European citizens’ right to remain here. The noble Baroness raises a valuable point, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says.
My Lords, I take an opposing view. I am sad to do so on the noble Baroness’s amendment, since she does so much good work in this sector. I declare my interest as a co-chair of the Home Office’s right to rent consultative panel, which looks at the right to rent that people require before taking up a letting.
For sure, somebody has to pay for the identity and immigration status check which now has to happen. The question is whether tenants should pay the agent for this—they would do so whether British citizens or not—or whether the landlord should ultimately expect to pay, getting their agent to do it on their behalf. It is one of the functions of an agent to check whether the tenant is an illegal immigrant or has the right to be in this country. That task is for an agent to perform, just as they need to make sure that the landlord’s property has a gas safety certificate or an energy performance certificate. This is part of the process that an agent is paid for. There is a fundamental principle that the landlord is ultimately responsible for the letting, along with the agent who acts for that landlord, and they and not the tenant should be the ones who pay. In the same way, the tenant does not have to pay for their own reference—that is something that the agent takes up. This is part of the process taken on by an agent and it justifies the fees that agents charge their landlords. What else do we want agents to do but look after the landlord’s interests in cases of this kind?
Therefore, I think that the Government have this right. This is not an area where the tenant should be asked to make a supplementary payment to the agent, and the agent may well charge the landlord a good deal already. As the Bill spells out, it is a matter on which no fee should be payable by the tenant.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Best. It is important that we are able to discuss this matter through the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, but there is an issue of principle here, which is that it should be a charge not on the tenant but on the landlord and the letting agent, who is not mentioned in the amendment.
The principle is that, if a service is contracted for formally between a tenant and a landlord, a payment can be required. However, that should not be required for either reference checks or identity checks, where the responsibility lies with the landlord or the letting agent. The basic problem here is that the Bill attempts to eliminate up-front tenants’ fees but the amendment might reinstate some tenants’ fees that would not be justified as a charge on the tenant.
I thank noble Lords very much and particularly my noble friend Lady Gardner for bringing forward this amendment. She does much work in this area.
I cannot accept the amendment because, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has just indicated, it would fundamentally undermine the policy intention of the Bill, which is to ban letting fees paid by tenants and to ensure that the party that contracts a service pays for that service.
This issue was dealt with under Section 22 of the Immigration Act 2014. It was very clear then that this was to be a liability for the landlord, not the tenant, to discharge. Therefore, the amendment would effectively drive a coach and horses through the intention of that legislation. I am not sure what the collective term for a coach and horses would be. It would probably be a stampede or possibly a cavalcade of coaches and horses, but it is clearly not the intention.
Despite the very good arguments put forward by my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, on this point, I very much agree with the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Shipley. A landlord should be responsible for the costs associated with these checks. As I have indicated, they are required under the Immigration Act to undertake these checks to verify that a tenant has the legal right to reside in the United Kingdom before progressing with any tenancy agreement.
The Home Office produces detailed guidance for landlords and agents carrying out these checks, and I will certainly ensure that it is circulated to my noble friend and the noble Earl, and indeed to everybody who has participated in the debate.
Although the onus is on the landlord to verify a tenant’s right to rent, we have made provision in the Bill that, where a holding deposit is sought and a tenant fails a right-to-rent check, landlords and agents will not be unfairly penalised if the tenant is at fault. I hope that that gives some comfort to my noble friend and the noble Earl. With those assurances, I respectfully ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I was very interested in the comments that were made and I will certainly take them on board. I heard people talking about how easy it is to get the right of abode and that is exactly what I have had here for 40 years. Every time my passport comes up for renewal, I have to send in the original documents, which after 40 years are beginning to disintegrate. Why can the Home Office not keep a record of these things? I have only one marriage certificate; it is turning into a bit of old rubbish now because it is getting so worn out although I have always valued it.
I am sure noble Lords know about the Member of your Lordships’ House who made the mistake of employing someone who had no right to be in this country. It is not a light remark to say, “They will just produce that”. You have to reproduce things every time you get a new passport and, as I said, the original documents are insisted on. It is a pretty major thing and I will face it again next year.
The position in this House is that you can be here provided that you are deemed domiciled; you have to prove that you are paying full taxes, which is one of the big factors. But a lot of people may not be aware that you have to have any proof of who you are at all in anything. If the time comes when people want to rent a place and are asked, “How can you prove that you are entitled to be here?”, they will not have the documentation, whereas they would if that requirement were set out in the guidance.
The Minister said that this issue is included in immigration law, but it needs to be mentioned in some way in this legislation, which affects people’s lives on an everyday basis. When they want somewhere to live and find a place they like, they do not suddenly want to lose it because it takes so long to get the correct papers. That should be in a guidance document prior to wishing to rent something. It should not be part of the rental process.
Doing this yourself, as has been suggested, presumably means meeting the costs yourself as well. This whole thing seems to be a little muddled. I do not accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Best, that we should not burden ordinary people with these things—perhaps I am wrong in asserting that—when they are burdened by them every day in their own living standards. But I appreciate the Minister has given a good answer and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 32A withdrawn.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Schedule 2: Treatment of holding deposit
My Lords, all the amendments in this group are in my name except Amendment 37, although I support that amendment as well. They seek to amend Schedule 2, which concerns holding deposits. Amendment 33 would remove from the Bill the ability for a holding deposit to be withheld if the prospective tenant is prohibited from being granted a tenancy due to the restrictions of the Immigration Act and has failed the right to rent check. It is of course a probing amendment and I look forward to the Government setting out their case to justify this part of the Bill.
Amendment 34 would strengthen paragraph 8 of Schedule 2 by adding the word “knowingly”. That is a reasonable bar to have to reach for a deposit to be lost. Otherwise, it is unfair on the prospective tenant. If you knowingly provide false and misleading information, fine, but if it is unintentional, it seems harsh that the deposit can be withheld.
Amendment 35 would allow a tenant to decide not to proceed with a tenancy by notifying the landlord or letting agent before the deadline. It gives the tenant a reasonable period in which they can change their mind and not lose the deposit. I hope the Government can respond positively to that amendment.
Amendment 36 seeks to put into the Bill a requirement, where a holding deposit is withheld, that the landlord or agent say why they are doing so; that they set out the information they believe is false or misleading and which has been relied upon to withhold the deposit; and that they explain how the tenant can challenge the decision, including how to get advice on doing so, to ensure that the decision is sound. Again, I hope that the Government can respond to this amendment because people should be able to understand why a decision has been made and be clear on whether there is anything they can do. If your deposit is withheld, it must be right that you be told why and that the reasons be set out. If you do not like the decision, you should be told where you can go to get further advice and challenge it.
The final amendment in the group, Amendment 37, has been tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Grender and Lady Thornhill. It looks sensible and I look forward to hearing the explanation behind it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly to the final amendment in this group, Amendment 37. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his remarks and I should say that we support his amendments.
If the Bill is rightly concerned with redressing the balance of power a little more towards tenants, this modest amendment would surely do that. Its purpose is to ensure that on payment of a holding deposit, which can sometimes be a significant amount of money, the tenant actually gets to see the tenancy agreement and therefore knows the terms of the contract that they will be asked to sign and abide by. The real question is whether there is a good reason for tenants not automatically and always being given this right. I am at a loss to understand this. In life, if we buy a product or a service, we see all the terms and conditions. We tick the “I agree” box online, while on paper we sign on the dotted line—although, like me, I suspect that we do not actually read all of the small print. The situation we are discussing would not arise in any other consumer transaction, so the amendment seeks to ensure that the same applies when people rent their home.
It is impossible for tenants to spot and negotiate out of the tenancy agreement any unfair terms if they have not received it before signing or moving into the property, the more so as they might ultimately incur default fees. Even if they receive the agreement in good time, they do not have much power to negotiate the terms because they stand to lose their holding deposit if they walk away. The ability of tenants to negotiate unfair terms out of a contract would be made just a little easier through the provision in this amendment.
It is equally important that the Bill makes it clear that the draft tenancy agreement must meet a certain universal standard. Thus the amendment refers to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the legislation that would form the basis for the standard. The rationale is that if the tenancy agreement contained unfair terms, the tenant could ask for those to be removed. If the landlord refused to remove them, the tenant could pull out of the tenancy and claim the holding deposit back on the basis that the draft agreement did not comply with the Consumer Rights Act.
Existing government guidelines for the Act on what are and are not “unfair terms” are quite clear. They talk about transferring risks to consumers—in this case the tenant—that cannot be controlled. The tenancy agreement might be the first time the tenant gets to see what default fees the landlord is setting, and sometimes, even more significantly—and perhaps horrifically—it does not specify the level of default fees they might subsequently wish to apply. Efforts elsewhere in the Bill to define default fees more tightly might help to address these concerns, but surely it is both fair and reasonable for tenants to have some ability to negotiate the terms of their contract before signing it.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for moving his amendment.
This set of amendments deals with the treatment of holding deposits under Schedule 2 to the Bill. As I have set out on previous occasions, the purpose of a holding deposit is to enable both the landlord and the tenant to demonstrate their commitment to entering into a tenancy agreement while reference checks are undertaken. It is important that there is earnest from both parties to the agreement. As I have said on a previous occasion, it must be wrong for a landlord to have more than one agreement with a tenant; there can be only one on both sides. So that we have a case of what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, we have to be careful in looking at the amendments.
Amendments 33 to 35, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, seek to make changes to the circumstances in which landlords and agents can retain a holding deposit. From the outset of this policy, landlords and letting agents have expressed concern that tenants speculating on multiple properties might be a side-effect of the ban. That is why we are allowing a landlord to ask for a holding deposit so that tenants can demonstrate that they are sincere in their application—as I am sure they are, in the vast majority of cases. It is a pledge from the tenant to a given property. This mitigates the risk of landlords and agents being out of pocket if a tenant registers an interest, only to withdraw if something better comes along. I therefore cannot agree to Amendment 35.
We also want to ensure that landlords do not take an overly cautious approach and preselect tenants that they perceive as the most likely to pass a reference check. Permitting landlords to retain holding deposits in circumstances where a tenant fails a right-to-rent check—which I referred to in discussion on the previous amendment, moved by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes—is a key mitigation against such behaviour. I therefore cannot accept Amendment 33.
Amendment 34 suggests that a landlord or agent should refund the holding deposit only if the tenant “knowingly” provides false or misleading information. Again, I am afraid I cannot accept such an amendment, although I appreciate the spirit in which it was moved. Requiring the landlord to refund the holding deposit in these situations would be near-impossible because the landlord is unlikely to have the necessary evidence to prove whether a tenant has done something knowingly. It would simply be one party’s word against the other. Given that the landlord is liable for a significant financial fine, we believe that the inclusion of a “knowingly” test is more likely to lead to them taking a risk-averse approach, which would not help tenants. I firmly believe that the approach set out in the Bill with respect to holding deposits is the fairest to both landlords and tenants.
As I have said, I recognise the desire expressed by noble Lords for greater transparency regarding the treatment of holding deposits; I have previously indicated that I will look at that. I understand the rationale behind Amendments 36 and 37. Without a commitment on where we will end up, I am happy to look at this issue ahead of Report. I appreciate the valuable points made during the debate on these amendments and the importance for tenants of understanding how their holding deposit is handled and why it may not be returned. That seems entirely fair. I have listened to noble Lords’ concerns on these issues and will be happy to return to them at Report. I listened to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, on Amendment 37 in relation to sight of the agreement ahead of entering into it. Again, that seems to have some strength in it and I am happy to look at it.
I should say that we are making great progress; I believe that noble Lords who have looked at the guidance notes will acknowledge that. The notes, which will set out the procedures for, and the rights and obligations of, landlords and agents will provide great assistance in this area. That will support tenants in understanding how to seek appropriate redress if they are dissatisfied, including through provision of draft letters to help tenants raise concerns with their landlords and agents around the treatment of their holding deposit. As I have indicated, I am very happy that noble Lords from around the Committee should engage in this process with officials to help us to clarify points made in the guidance notes to improve them in the interests of landlords and tenants. I acknowledge that we have made some important strides in the process of making sure it is much more lucid and transparent, and less riddled with jargon.
Landlords and agents should give tenants sufficient time to understand the terms of any agreement before signing. I am clear on that. That is why the period before the deadline for agreement is there; it is intended to allow that. I will also ensure that a link to the consumer guidance on the Bill is included in the How to Rent guide. That will also help. Landlords are of course required by law to give their tenants these guides to help raise awareness. I hope those assurances enable the noble Lord and the noble Baroness not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for that thoughtful and helpful response to this short debate. I will happily withdraw my amendment shortly. Of my four amendments the most important was Amendment 36, which the noble Lord responded to in detail. I was pleased that he did so, because it is only right and fair that if your deposit is withheld you should understand why and how you can challenge that. I will certainly look at that and I hope to bring something back at Report. I thank him very much for that.
I also listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. I thought she made a very strong case for her amendment. Again, I am very pleased that the noble Lord will look at that. I hope we will have something on Report that we can all agree on. At this stage, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
Amendments 34 to 37 not moved.
Schedules 2 and 3 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.