Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 7th June 2018.
This morning we will hear first from the Local Government Association and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. Questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and we must stick to the timings in the programme motion that the Committee has agreed to. We must finish this first session by 12.15 pm, and our second session will finish no later than 1 pm. I welcome our witnesses, and I would be grateful if they would introduce themselves and perhaps make a small opening statement.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I am Councillor Simon Blackburn. I chair the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board. However, in my day job as leader of Blackpool Council I have a significant interest in the private rented sector and its impact on the housing market in general. I am here to support the proposals in the Bill, and just to add a few notes of caution, fundamentally around the capacity of trading standards in local authorities, and to suggest some ways forward.
I am Alex McKeown, joint lead officer for property and lettings for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. I am also an enforcement officer for Westminster Council trading standards, so I enforce the current legislation in relation to letting agents. I am not here to say whether we support the Bill or not. The fact is, the tenant fee ban is going to come in, so it is more about enforcement—the issues we have with the current enforcement of legislation, and how enforcement will be rolled out for this Bill. Some things in the Bill really need to be addressed before it becomes an Act of Parliament.
Members will now ask you questions. I should point out that this is a very unusual Committee, in that the Minister gets to have some fun and ask you questions, which will probably happen towards the end.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to be with us this morning. Alex, you touched on some of the challenges that trading standards currently faces within the tenant sector and with the regime. Will you expand on that a littleQ 56, please?
One of the biggest issues is funding—I am sure that has been said many times, and Councillor Blackburn will say the same. There is a lack of expertise within trading standards when it comes to legislation that relates to letting agents. At the moment, not many boroughs or authorities are enforcing the legislation.
I watched Isobel Thomson and David Cox give evidence on Tuesday. Isobel did a survey last year of 42 boroughs to see who had issued financial penalties, and only 7% had done so—and I have worked for four of those. I am the person issuing them, so I know the pitfalls and issues with the current legislation. I have made the mistakes, but I have also achieved quite a lot in what I have done. My knowledge is very different because I do this every day. This is what I do 100% of the time—dealing with this legislation—whereas most trading standards authorities have more than 250 pieces of legislation that they have to deal with. So there needs to be more expertise; there needs to be more funding in order to train trading standards to enforce this legislation.
Q Explicitly in terms of what could be done to improve the Bill, you have mentioned funding and training. Is there anything else?
Something that I have picked up on is that, at the moment under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and the redress scheme legislation, the burden of proof is on the balance of probabilities, in terms of issuing these financial penalties. What you are trying to say is that this is going to be self-funding, and at the moment with the Consumer Rights Act 2015 that has the ability to be self-funding, because all we have to do is look at a website and we can see whether it is displaying the correct information or not. It is easy—we have to prove it on the balance of probabilities, we download the website and we have the proof.
In this Bill, you are asking for a criminal burden of proof for a civil financial penalty, and that is going to scare people off; that is going to scare trading standards off. They are not going to want to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a tenant has been charged a fee. Then, you are also relying on the complaints to trading standards. We do not get that level of complaints to trading standards in relation to tenancies. Then you have to tell the tenant, “You have to give a witness statement on the fact that you’ve been charged a fee”, and they are going to say, “But we might get thrown out of our house. We don’t want to give you a witness statement.” To have it beyond all reasonable doubt, we are going to be up against it, and it will not be self-funding.
Q Councillor Blackburn, in terms of the specifics in the Bill, what do you think could be strengthened or improved that would actually assist in delivering the Bill and doing what it sets out to do?
We need to be clear that national trading standards is responsible for appointing a lead authority in terms of enforcement, because that is very important in directing and co-ordinating action. Their current partner—their current lead agency—is a Welsh local authority in relation to housing matters and, of course, because this Bill affects only England, it will not be possible simply to ask that authority to absorb that.
However, finance is also an issue. At the moment, £500,000 is promised to assist in the up-front costs of setting these schemes up. The average local authority trading standards budget is £671,000 a year, so that £500,000 spread across 340 local authorities is unlikely to fill the gap that exists. That is extremely important.
There is also a capacity-building issue within the trading standards profession. As it is, 64% of trading standards authorities are reporting that they have difficulties in recruiting and retaining people, and that issue needs to be looked at nationally. The LGA stands ready to assist in that process and will work with the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, but there is a demographic time bomb in there as well, about the average age of trading standards officers. As councils have cut back on trading standards because of the overall financial pressures on local authorities, it is not seen as a long-term, safe career, if I can put it that way.
Q Thank you, Mr Bone. And thank you very much, both of you, not only for being here this morning, but for the time that I know both of your institutions have spent engaging with the Department in formulating the legislation. I very much appreciate you sharing your thoughts and insights to help us get to where we are today.
May I just start with a broad question as to the role of trading standards? Simon, you have touched on this. Do you think that we have got it right, in the sense that trading standards are the obvious and correct body to enforce this Bill? That was obviously the overwhelming view of the correspondence to the consultation, but I wanted to check with both of you whether you think that is appropriate.
I definitely think it is appropriate, because at trading standards we have the power and we are used to dealing with businesses. With the redress scheme legislation, it was the local borough or district council. Having worked in London on that sort of project, I know that the private sector housing departments are used to dealing with landlords and with the Housing Act 2004, but they are not used to going into letting agents and issuing those fines; we are, and we are the best people to deal with it. But the officers need proper training so we can get more officers up to speed to continue that work and encourage more boroughs to carry out this work. That is down to funding again; a lot of the chiefs are saying, “We haven’t got the funding, so we have other priorities at the moment.”
It should be either trading standards or private sector housing teams that deal with this, particularly in relation to small district councils, which are not weights and measures authorities. It may make sense in some areas for the private sector housing enforcement team, which would probably be one individual, to lead on it, because they will be most familiar. There needs to be flexibility, but in most primary authorities, it would be trading standards.
One of my colleagues has a follow-up to that question.
I live in North Yorkshire, so the trading standards authority is North Yorkshire County Council, but Q Scarborough Borough Council is our borough, which is a long way from Northallerton and from some of the trading standards officers. Will the boroughs and districts be able to step up to the mark? Should a disproportionate amount of the £500,000 be made available to the districts and boroughs where we do not have unitary authorities, or will it be difficult for those authorities that are not already trading standards authorities to step up to the mark? They are well involved in housing—we have one of those areas where the housing has to be brought up to standard. Will that work?
Some of the difficulty with the legislation that is already there with regard to letting agents is that you have to have knowledge of housing and of trading standards, so you almost need a trading standards and housing officer hybrid person. I have worked in authorities where I was a trading standards enforcement officer but I sat with private sector housing, and that worked quite well.
It is difficult to know, because there are also different problems in different areas of the country. In London, there is a much bigger problem than in the leafy counties. You will not get the same issues. In London, there are more vulnerable tenants who are being exploited, and you get the rogue agent element, but I cannot really speak for how it will work outside London, because I have worked in London for so long.
I wanted to ask a couple of questions on the enforcement side. Do you have any numbers for how many enforcement officers—trading standards officers—we have now compared with five years ago? How much have the numbers gone down by?Q
Q On your point about London having more rogue landlords and abuse, can you talk us through some of what you actually see?
Because a lot of students come to London, a lot of foreign students come to London, and a lot of people come from all around the world to work in London, they often go to letting agents that take quite substantial up-front fees. They cannot afford very much so they end up in properties—some boroughs in London have selective or additional licensing—such as a house of multiple occupation, where the house is unsafe, the agreement that they have been given is what we would call a sham licence, and the letting agent does not actually understand the legislation that relates to what they are doing.
I have found in the past four and half years that you can talk to a lot of the lettings industry about certain things, such as whether they have an EPC, and they will ask what an EPC is. They think that, because they do not have a job, they will set up a letting agency. Obviously, there are the big ones that are members the Association of Residential Letting Agents or the National Association of Estate Agents Propertymark, and they get the training, but there are also a huge amount of agents who are under the radar. A lot have virtual offices, and a lot cannot be tangibly found. That is some of the difficulty.
Q Do you have any sense of the scale of the problem and what you are able to do about it? In terms of what you are able to do, how many of those rogue landlords and letting agents have not been tackled?
If I may, because this also speaks to Mr Goodwill’s question from a few moments ago, I would not agree that this issue is specific to London. Other parts of the country suffer very much from this, not least seaside towns, where there has been a proliferation of former guesthouses and hotels that have been badly converted into bedsits and one-bedroom flats. We know that local authorities that have implemented selective licensing and additional licensing in those areas have found horrendous living conditions, and a considerable number of properties have been shut down.
To briefly return to Mr Goodwill’s question, giving district councils the ability to work with unitary and county councils to jointly enforce, where appropriate, and to fund that model, would make absolute sense. The issues in Scarborough will be very different from the issues in Harrogate or Northallerton, so there needs to be a strong element of localism in this. However tempted I might be to directly answer your question, the LGA does not get involved in issues of resource allocation, because we represent district, county and unitary councils.
Q For my final question I just want to change the subject. We will look today at the deposit element of this proposed legislation. There has been quite a debate on what level of deposit is fair, in terms of what people can afford and what is fair for the landlord to be able to hold. Do you have any views on what that level should be, whether it should be three, four, five or six weeks’ rent, or something else?
I certainly think the maximum should be six weeks, which it is at the moment. That has been the norm within the industry. I know that Citizens Advice—the CAB—and others that have given evidence want it brought down to at least five weeks. I understand some of their arguments for that, but to be honest with you, that has not been my main focus.
I want to touch on the point you made about the requirement in the Bill of proof to a criminal standard and how difficult that will be. Do you have any suggestions for how the Bill could be formed to allow enforcement to happen relatively easily and effectively?Q
I think it needs to be more similar to the redress scheme for letting agents and property managers in the Consumer Rights Act, because that is a fairly simple process. You get the evidence, you issue the notice of intent, they make representations, you then issue a final notice and it goes to the tribunal. That process has worked very well. We obviously get some random judgments coming out of the tribunals, but that is a better way of doing it.
The only issue we have found is that you will get a large fine against a company—such as the £30,000 fine—and they will then fold their company and phoenix. That is where we may need to look at holding the directors themselves liable. That will assist trading standards in getting the money back.
Q That is very helpful. In terms of the bands having clear and unambiguous definitions, particularly around the default fees, are you saying that in the Bill itself and its schedules, there is not enough detail to be able to uphold that?
Q As a trading standards officer, as the Bill stands would that be difficult to—
I want to pick up on the point in the evidence from the CTSI about the rise of alternative business models—certainly in my city, and I also did some work with myQ hon. Friend Gordon Marsden in Blackpool on this issue. I just wonder whether you feel that the Bill as it is currently framed would deal with some of those issues, or whether there is a danger that people might move to using some of those platforms to evade the focus of the Bill.
The alternative business model is often rogue agents trying to avoid protecting deposits, to avoid giving legal agreements and, in time, to charge the tenant fees. That is also why I feel the burden of proof needs to be back down to the civil burden of proof. It will be difficult to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that somebody is a letting agent and not a membership club. You can see the evidence we need to prove it from the legislation that relates to the membership clubs, and from some of the legal precedents about what constitutes an assured shorthold tenancy.
To give an example, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets took a letting agent to court that said, “We don’t have to join a redress scheme, because we’re not a letting agent, because we only issue a licence to occupy.” The London Borough of Tower Hamlets then had to go into housing law and ask, “Is this tenancy a licence to occupy or an assured shorthold tenancy?” The judge in that tribunal case said, “On the balance of probability, you are a letting agent and should be a member of a scheme.”
That is what we need for the alternative business models. We need to able to prove that, on the balance of probability, they are not membership clubs, the agreements they are giving out are tenancies, and the fees they are charging will be prohibited fees.
If I may venture a view, however beautifully crafted and drafted the Bill is, the sector is already trying to, and will, find ways around it. We need to be careful about not disappearing down the enforcement rabbit hole. The most effective way of protecting tenants is for the Government to lead a high-profile campaign to remind tenants of their rights, and to remind the sector that such fees are outlawed. That will be the single most useful thing that we can do to inform tenants of their rights and to ensure that they do not engage with companies that are trying to extract fees from them.
Enforcement can do only so much. Even with all the resources in the world, the risk of companies just folding to avoid paying the fine, and our not being able to trace those responsible, will always be there. The most useful thing that the Government can do is to lead a national campaign and make it very clear to tenants that from date X such fees are outlawed. That is probably the most helpful thing that we can do, because alternative business models will spring up left, right and centre as a way of trying to get around it.
As the Bill stands, how will you even learn if a landlord or letting agent is charging a non-permitted feeQ ?
It will be through the complaints. That is one of the problems in trading standards. When a tenant goes to make a complaint to their local citizens advice bureau, they will be referred to Shelter. Our first-tier advisory service is the citizens advice consumer service, and again they get referred to Shelter.
We would have to trawl the databases to try to find the complaints. The one thing the chiefs say is that we do not get the complaints from tenants, because they do not know to complain to us. The information that Shelter takes from tenants is not good enough to pass on. There is no memorandum of understanding between Shelter and trading standards, so we do not get a clear idea of the problems. Historically, when I have had meetings with Shelter and said, “We need the information you have,” they have said, “But we don’t take trader details.” I need trader details; I need to have that information. If we had access to the information that Shelter holds, the big problem would be shown.
Q Simon, you have talked about the need to inform tenants about their rights better.
Absolutely. To answer your question very directly, we are talking about very vulnerable people who do not complain and do not go to their local trading standards—first, because they do not understand the law, and secondly, because the rogue trader involved has groomed them to make them think they are very lucky to be allowed to live in the property, and they are very fearful that if they complain they will become homeless. They will not come to us.
To return to the additional and selective licensing programmes, that is what tenants have told council officers time and time again. They say, “I know it is not supposed to be like this, but I didn’t want to make a fuss because I didn’t want to get thrown out.” That is the issue. To return to my previous point, enforcement can do only so much because we are heavily reliant on very vulnerable people taking the bold and brave step of complaining.
Q Is there anything the legislation could do, or that we could introduce, that would further protect those very vulnerable people?
There are already rules about not evicting tenants as an act of spite, but we are dealing with rogue traders, so the notion that they would comply with one bit of the law when they would not comply with another bit of the law is quite difficult. That is why I return to the issue of up-front funding to allow authorities to set this scheme up comprehensively from day one, and a Government-led awareness campaign.
Q Are you suggesting that local authorities and trading standards would go out proactively and ask people whether they have been subjected to non-permitted payments?
I think that would be difficult, because the only way you could ask people is by working closely with housing teams to see when they have visited something like a house in multiple occupation and find found there are six tenants in there who have all got sham licences. If we work closely with our housing teams, we could go and ask them, “Were you charged a prohibited payment?” We are an intelligence-led body, so we need the intelligence to come to us. Otherwise, where do we start looking for it? If they were displaying tenant fees on their website or in their offices, we could issue a fine.
But they are not going to do that, which is why, as I said earlier, in some places it will make sense for private housing enforcement teams, rather than trading standards, to be the lead on this. It is in the renewal of an HMO licence, or as part of a selective licensing visit, that we will have an opportunity to get behind the front door, speak directly to tenants and persuade them to trust us with the information they provide.
Having worked in authorities where they have selective licensing, and having gone into properties at 7 o’clock in the morning with the Border Force and the police, I know that they are still too scared to give information to trading standards and the authorities, because they will lose their home. Councillor Blackburn mentioned the Deregulation Act and retaliatory evictions. The fact is that the tenancy relations officers in the councils are so under-resourced that I have heard them say, “We haven’t got the capacity to enforce on retaliatory evictions.” The process is such that it becomes almost impossible to enforce it, anyway.
Going back to one of my earlier points, when it comes to the fines, one way of trying to get businesses to be fearful of those fines rather than phoenixing their companies is to say that directors will be personally liable. If they are personally liable and they reoffend, and there is a £30,000 fine, we are already met with, “We can’t afford it.” “Okay, fine. We will put a charge on your property so that when you sell your property we will get that £30,000.”
Numerous Members want to catch my eye. Does the Minister want to come in on this point?
I can wait until the end.
I would like to come in.
Q What you said about the fines is timely. I had just written down a note to ask about the limits of the £5,000 fine. We are concentrating quite a lot on the enforcement side, but there is also the element that it is intended to be a deterrent. You clearly do not think that £5,000 is a deterrent.
No. At the moment the rogue agents just fold their companies and re-phoenix, or they simply do not pay. There was a case in Redbridge a few years ago. A rogue letting agent was issued with a £5,000 fine by the local authority three times and they carried on trading. They said, “We are not going to pay it and there is nothing you can do.” Obviously, there are criminal sanctions under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, but when it comes to the fines, the agent continued to trade. They were featured on the Channel 5 programme, but they continued to trade. So the fine is not enough of a deterrent because, ultimately, they just folded their company and the directors walked away.
I want to revisit the issue of confidence and how protection can be given to tenants to come forward. When the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, we had evidence of the very low expectations of tenants. The quality of accommodation in certain parts of the sector is poor. They are often very vulnerable people and they are proactively told, “This is as good as you can expect and this is what the standard is,” which is combined with the vulnerability inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship and people’s fear of losing their homes. That was reinforced when we went out with Newham Council to do enforcement visits under its selective licensing scheme, and we met tenants who were living in properties that were clearly not fit for purpose and in breach of regulations, but they were told that was fine.Q
The Bill mentions the need for effective communication with tenants about their rights. We know that the retaliatory eviction legislation is not working and not functioning. How do we get to a framework of protection for tenants that ensures people are sufficiently aware of their rights and also confident enough to come forward and report breaches so that the agents and landlords responsible for those breaches can be put out of business?
That is quite a difficult one. The tenants are always going to be scared of being thrown out because so many letting agents do not care about illegal evictions. Again, the housing teams are under so much pressure that they cannot take action when there is an illegal eviction and someone is locked out of their house and loses everything. I go back to having fines against directors as a deterrent and then the criminal sanctions further down the line. Money is always a deterrent to people. They prefer not to pay. They would prefer to have a company criminal record than pay out £30,000. As my colleague says, criminal prosecutions are expensive. It is down to resources, again. What we have often found with the criminal prosecutions is that even with some of the safety aspects, the fine will be £2,000, so we might as well go for the civil penalty—but it is difficult protecting those vulnerable tenants.
Perhaps I may briefly reflect on our experience in Blackpool of having a very high-profile scheme of selective and additional licensing, working with the local media, and using our own communications channels to get across to people exactly what the council are doing—taking journalists and other interested parties out with us, as has clearly been done in Newham, to see exactly what happens. That has had twin effects. It has raised awareness among tenants that the council is involved and is on their side rather than the side of the landlord. It has also had the effect of some of the worst landlords and letting agents deciding that it is easier for them to go and do business elsewhere. Again, on the awareness-raising side, I think there is a great deal we can do to communicate the fact that “The Government and your local council are on your side here, but you need to take us into your confidence and trust us.”
I will just add this: we have all mentioned HMO licensing, selective licensing and additional licensing. I started dealing with letting agents in Newham, so I am well versed in licensing, and I think it works very well in areas with a high percentage of rogue agents, because they will not get the licence, and there is that way forward.
The other thing I will mention is clause 12, which says that trading standards will assist tenants to get their prohibited fees back. As to the likelihood of that happening—it just is not likely. That is one of the problems. However, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report refers in paragraph 99 to tenants being able to go to the first-tier tribunal. What I think would encourage tenants to complain to trading standards and give us statements would be if we could serve our penalty charge notices and, a bit like in a criminal prosecution, add the compensation order for the tenant to our case in the tribunal, rather than saying, “We are going to go to the tribunal with our penalty charges”—and then we have to start a new action in the county court.
It seems disjointed. If we can say to the tenants, “We will get your money back. We are going to deal with this. We will put it into our case, so it all goes into the same tribunal hearing,” I think that will work better. I think that will assist vulnerable tenants a lot more.
Q I will be brief. I wanted to ask about holding deposits and whether you think that the phrase “reasonably entitled” is sufficient to make it possible to enforce the provision. Do you think that removing the criminal offence from the original draft Bill, following the Government’s response to the Select Committee, was the right decision? Finally, under clause 21, what will be the effect of moving the enforcement of client money protection schemes in non-unitary areas from district to county council level?
Yes, in terms of moving enforcement of client money protection schemes from district councils to county councils—it is probably a question for Councillor Blackburn.
There needs to be substantial flexibility in there. As Mr Goodwill commented before, in large counties, the number of cases that will be dealt with in one small district council could hugely outweigh all the other cases that are dealt with across the rest of the county council. There need to be options for local authorities to work together, if they so wish, or to appoint one lead authority—perhaps one district council in a county council, or the county council itself. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, because the way in which local authorities operate and the amount of expertise differ so much.
I am sorry; it is very frustrating that we have such little time, but the Minister has been very patient.
Q Thank you, Mr Bone. Alex, you gave an example of people receiving multiple fines and your view that that did not act as a deterrent. Are you aware of what happens and the potential penalties in this legislation for a repeated offence?
Q But in terms of the deterrent effect, the ultimate penalty for a landlord who breaches the legislation is an unlimited fine and a lifetime ban. Do you agree that that has a pretty significant deterrent effect?
Q Thank you. You also talked about phoenix companies, and the idea, which I completely agree with, that people should not be able to circumvent legislation by setting up as a phoenix company. Have you read clause 13 of the Bill?
Q In the interests of time, clause 13 specifically addresses the point you raised and makes it clear than an officer or member of a corporate body can also be held liable for a breach of the ban, both for unlimited fines and for banning orders. Does that deal with your concern?
Q Given that it is a very significant sanction, that seems appropriate. But do you think that the principle that an individual cannot avoid prosecution is dealt with?
Q Councillor Blackburn, you talked about training for trading standards and local authorities; are you aware that the Department is planning a series of roadshows, over the summer in particular, to address all these issues and to talk to local authorities about the enforcement of private rental sector legislation and regulation? Would you welcome that engagement with the sector?
I would have welcomed some earlier engagement to tell me that that was happening so that we could have co-designed it, but yes of course, Minister, I welcome that new development.
Q It is not so much new, but perhaps new for you. I appreciate that you welcome it, and that is good.
You talked a little about funding—I hope you welcome the £500,000 that has been indicated. Have you done any bottom-up analysis that you can give us today that suggests that the figure should be different and that provides the figure that you would be comfortable with?
I anticipated that question and spoke to my officials on the way over. I said, “So when he asks me what we think it ought to be, do we not have a figure?” The answer was that we do not have a figure, but we are doing that bottom-up research. We were consulted about how much we thought it might cost, but we were given about a week to turn that around, which was not enough time to get sufficient data from our members about how much it might cost. That is work is ongoing. As soon as we have a figure, we will come back to you with it.
Q I look forward to that. Lastly, on the lead enforcement authority, which we have not had the chance to discuss much today, I understand that the sector has previously welcomed the role of the lead enforcement authority. It is being funded with a few hundred thousand pounds as well. I would like your thoughts on whether that is a valuable addition to the enforcement landscape and whether it can play a role in helping both trading standards and district councils to enforce the legislation.
Q Is there anything in particular you would like to see from that body, to help you do your jobs?
I am reasonably confident that they will want to work with the LGA to help us disseminate best practice and to advise our members. That is certainly what has happened in the past.
Q Do you think that model works well?
Brilliant. Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much to both of you; you have been excellent and informative witnesses, but we have been beaten by time. Thank you very much for your attendance.