Tenant Fees Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:15 pm, 20th November 2018

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.