Tenant Fees Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat 5:00 pm, 20th November 2018

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.