Amendment 41

Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 20th July 2021.

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Lord Greenhalgh:

Moved by Lord Greenhalgh

41: Clause 22, page 13, line 29, at end insert—“(2A) A sum expressed to be payable in respect of rates, council tax, services, repairs, maintenance, insurance or other ancillary matters is not rent for the purposes of this Act merely because it is reserved as rent in the lease.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment clarifies that service charges and similar payments are not to be treated as rent only because they are reserved as rent in the lease.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, before coming to the detail of this amendment, I want to stress the importance of the broad definition of “rent” as it appears in the Bill. Your Lordships are aware of the Government’s position. We believe it is vital for the effectiveness of the Bill that the definition of ground rent is drawn up in such a way as to head off the potential for avoidance measures by the small proportion of landlords who are intent on abusing the leasehold sector for their own financial gain. Any attempts to change this approach would do little more than provide a fixed obstacle around which a nimble landlord may divert with relative ease, certainty and confidence.

Alternative versions for the definition of a rent that stray away from this approach have been considered but they all reached the same conclusion and were found to be lacking. It is precisely because of the broad definition of rent in the Bill that any landlords and their investors seeking to charge what is in essence a ground rent by any other name will need to think very carefully if they believe the definition provided in the Bill offers an easy workaround—it does not. That is to say, if a landlord were to attempt to charge a ground rent by any other name and that charge provided no meaningful benefit or service to the leaseholder, that charge may be considered within the nature of a rent for the purposes of the Bill, and a tribunal or enforcement authority could consider the case for enforcement against that landlord.

I believe that Amendment 41 will provide further clarity regarding the meaning of a “rent” for the purposes of the Bill. Noble Lords will recall that there was a good deal of debate over that definition in the Bill in Committee. My noble friend Lord Young made reference to the Law Society and raised his concerns that the wide definition of rent contained in the Bill could give rise to unnecessary litigation as the lawfulness of certain charges being able to continue as being “reserved as rent” was not wholly clear.

I have listened carefully to the arguments made by my noble friend and others and am not unsympathetic to the views expressed that tighter wording of what is considered a rent would provide even greater clarity for both leaseholders and landlords. The amendment therefore provides that valid charges, even if they are “reserved as rent” in a lease, are not intended to be captured by the provisions in the Bill just because they are “reserved as rent” within a lease.

It is not our intention for valid charges, such as the charging of insurance or service charges, to be adversely affected by the Bill. Neither is it the purpose of the Bill to address the practice of reserving as a rent charges that are not in fact rent. The amendment simply clarifies that, just because a charge is reserved as a rent, it does not automatically follow that it is a prohibited rent for the purposes of the Bill.

I reassure noble Lords that the amendment does not give a green light for landlords seeking to avoid the measures of the Bill to merely reserve any charge as a “rent”. As I have described, the definition of a rent is drawn deliberately as widely as possible and will capture any charge that is in fact in the nature of a rent, whatever it is called. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I always welcome efforts by Ministers to clarify the law, although I sometimes struggle to understand exactly how the law has been clarified. It has been suggested that this is, if you like, a step of relaxation or at least inclusion that will permit landlords to get away with—I think that is the technical term—bad practice. I am sure the Minister will reassure me that that is absolutely not the case and, far from opening a door, it is trying to make sure that the door is firmly shut.

I fear that the technicalities of this will be worked out in the law courts over time, whatever provision the Minister puts in the Bill or takes out of it. I wish him luck and I hope he has succeeded in what he hopes to succeed in. I guess we shall find out, when we do the evaluation in a year or two, how accurate that is.

Photo of Lord Lennie Lord Lennie Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, the Minister will be glad to hear that this amendment is another technical change that we on these Benches fully support. However, has the department identified whether the same drafting issue is present in any earlier legislation?

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, we could not have had more different responses to the government’s amendment. I would like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, that this is indeed a clarification around enabling landlords to continue to pass legitimate valid charges. It will not promote the practice of continuing ground rents by another name, and I made that point very clearly in outlining this in my speech. I am sorry it was quite technical; obviously, people with legal eyes helped me to formulate the syntax but I give that assurance. But the noble Lord is right: only time will tell how the legislation will work in practice.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, I have never heard anything quite so overwhelmingly positive about an amendment that I have moved—perhaps we are reaching a new era in understanding. I am not aware of this being relevant in any other part of our approach to the reform agenda that we are putting forward. However, leaseholder legislation covers many decades. Despite having studied some land law in the 1980s, I am not in a position to give a very detailed legal answer on that point.

Amendment 41 agreed.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 42. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make this clear in the debate.

Clause 23: Crown application