Tenant Fees Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:30 pm, 20th November 2018

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.

Turning to the amendment introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, paragraph 6(2) of Schedule 1 says:

“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.