Prohibitions applying to landlords

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 7 June 2018.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I welcome all Committee members to the first of our line-by-line sessions. I hope that we make constructive and speedy progress through the various amendments and clauses.

The purpose of clause 1 is to ban landlords from charging any letting fees to tenants or other relevant people in connection with a residential tenancy in England, which very much achieves the overall aim of the Bill. In addition, the clause provides that landlords must not require a tenant to take out a loan in connection with a tenancy. Our approach to implementing this policy is to ban all fees, with the exception of certain permitted payments outlined in schedule 1, which we will no doubt discuss later.

The clause also provides that a landlord must not require a tenant to procure and pay for insurance or the services of a third party in connection with a tenancy, with the exception of utilities and communications services. That prevents landlords from circumventing the ban and charging fees by other means.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

What does the Minister think about the terms of utilities and communications contracts that tenants may be entered into?

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Relatively straightforwardly, if a landlord has a utility arrangement in his or her name, as is common, it may be more sensible for the contract to stay in the name of the landlord but for the payments to be made by the tenant. That is what the clause refers to. That is reasonably common—indeed, it is accepted practice—and it is important that the Bill allows for it, as it is often cheaper and easier for all parties concerned for that to happen than for the name of the owner of the contract to be changed.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

As I am sure Committee members know, it is common for there to be hassle, time and cost involved in changing providers between people. I have personal experience of doing so for a satellite service and of adding my wife’s name to something. Those things can sometimes take time, and it is easier for all parties if they stay in the name of the landlord, with an agreement between parties that the tenant pays for the services as they are incurred. Indeed, it is common, generally accepted practice for the tenant to be obliged to pay for their use of such utilities as electricity or gas, as measured by inspection of the gas meters. That is what is allowed for under the clause.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

May I ask the Minister about a situation in which a tenant wants to change supplier? If the contract is in the landlord’s name, how would the tenant be able to enforce a change of gas or electricity provider?

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a separate question between a landlord and tenant in any rental contract. The clause deals with the question of payment. It is important, if the Government are attempting to ban payments being charged to tenants, to note that there are certain exceptions. The clause captures the fact that, on occasion, tenants will continue to pay for the utilities they consume, and that that should not be captured by a ban on fees. It would obviously not be right for tenants to use electricity and gas without the landlord being able to make an appropriate charge for them, if that was how things were arranged.

In the Bill, the phrase

“in connection with a tenancy” is defined deliberately widely. Requirements in consideration of the

“grant, renewal, continuance, variation, assignment, novation or termination” of a tenancy that are included in the terms of the tenancy are all covered. That is to ensure that fees cannot be charged at any point during the tenancy, including upon exit. That addresses the concerns raised during pre-legislative scrutiny that the previous drafting, banning fees that were a condition of a grant in renewing or continuing a tenancy, might still allow fees to be charged at the end of a tenancy. That would have been contrary to the policy intention.

Landlords also cannot require outgoing tenants to pay for a reference, in the same way as employers do not charge their employees for a reference today. The clause also applies to a person acting on behalf of a tenant, and a person guaranteeing a tenant’s rent. Tenants and such persons are referred to as “relevant persons”. The clause is one of the principal clauses in the Bill, and as such I beg to move that it stands part of the Bill.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma, and to join the Minister in debating a Bill in our present roles for the first time. I am sure that it will be a suitably memorable occasion.

The private rented sector is the fastest growing sector of the housing market. The number of private renters is predicted to grow by 24% by 2021, which means that one in four households will be renting rather than in owner occupation in three years, according to a report on the PropertyWire website last June. PropertyWire says that property rental

“has doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it is expected to continue to grow to 5.79 million households while 68% of renters still expect to be living in the rental sector in three years’ time, according to the latest tenant survey from real estate firm Knight Frank.”

PropertyWire also says:

“The report says that growth of the PRS has been spurred by conditions both in the housing and labour markets. Younger workers especially are taking advantage of the increased flexibility of renting as a tenure which allows moving between locations without any of the costs associated with buying or selling a property.”

It is clear, therefore, that far from being a nation of homeowners, we are shifting towards being a nation of renters, with about 4.7 million people renting their homes—some by choice, and some because there is no other choice. We must make absolutely sure that regulation of the sector is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. The future that my hon. Friend describes has already come to pass in many parts of the country. At least a quarter of properties in Cambridge are now in the private rented sector. The Bill is welcome in many ways, but I worry that it will not necessarily keep up with the changing business models emerging in many places. There is a tendency for landlords to find new and imaginative solutions. Does my hon. Friend worry, as I do, that some internet platforms and so on could provide avenues for people to get around the Bill?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

That is an important point in considering the sector, which I will deal with later in my comments.

The Minister must be alive to ensuring that the Bill is future-proofed. We have heard evidence this week about online providers of landlord services who offer a much more flexible service to their clients—very different from that provided by the traditional estate agent and letting agent sector. The Bill must be right for the future, because the sector is fast-moving and swelling to meet housing needs that the state is currently not providing for in either type or scale. The needs of tenants must have a stronger role than in the past.

It is right that the clause sets out everything that a landlord must not do in relation to tenants, but it is sad that we have to be here prescribing rules to deal with those landlords who have not treated their tenants well. The Government have sought to limit the potential for a loophole where landlords simply require prohibited payments to be made to a third party. The clause sets the expectations that the Government have of landlords and attempts to deal with the relative position of power that landlords have held over tenants, whether that has always been fully recognised or not, to bring about an overdue rebalancing.

The Opposition recognise that the Government have previously taken steps to ensure that bad landlords have nowhere to hide. There will be a record of landlords who continue to flout rules on the quality of housing or overcrowding and of those who have certain criminal convictions. While it is slightly off topic, I cannot miss the opportunity to ask the Government to take steps to make that register more widely available so that tenants’ choice is made part of the country’s housing availability process.

As we heard in evidence this morning, an increasing number of tenants have for too long found themselves with the smallest of bargaining chips in their relationship with their landlord. On Second Reading, I talked about the inherent difficulty of the situation, with landlords, often seeing their property as an asset on which to secure returns, set against the needs of tenants who, in the absence of being able to secure ownership, wish to make their house their home.

The Government have made an exception to prohibition, including contracts for utilities and communications services, which is why I asked the Minister the questions I did with some interest. I understand that utility and communication services may be in place at the start of a tenancy. Indeed, some purpose-built to-let properties have all amenities covered, with free wi-fi provided to entire blocks, as an incentive or assistance to tenants, and as one less thing to worry about, with landlords not wanting to have their tenants wait around for engineers to arrive—or not, as the case may be—and deal with installations. However, is it not the case that the contracts that landlords have adopted for their properties may sometimes not provide the best value—for example, where prepayment meters are used or the tariff is at a general level—resulting in excessively high bills? That could come as a surprise to some tenants.

Prepayment meters are particularly common at the lower end of the housing market, and they bring their own problems. Once the equipment is in place, it is difficult to change provider. There can be charges for removals—no longer, I accept, from the big six—and if the account is in deficit, customers cannot swap between providers, let alone move to a billing system for their energy needs. That is important because, as the PropertyWire report goes on to explain, there is growth in the private rented sector at the more economic end of the housing scale at a time when the sector as a whole is changing.

With prepayment meters, it is not the tenant but the landlord who is the customer, but the tenant is tethered to the landlord’s choice of how their energy will be supplied, and those on low incomes or benefits are stuck with the most expensive method of energy bill payment. The Bill says—I paraphrase—that a landlord must not require a person to enter into a contract with a third party in connection with their tenancy, but that does not apply if the contract is for the provision of a utility to the tenant, or for the provision of communication services. For prepayment meters, the tenant is not required to enter into a contract—they have absolutely no choice in the matter. Worse than that, they are unlikely to ever have a choice in the matter so long as they reside in that property. They will remain tied into something that has been paternalistically decided for them.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 2:15, 7 June 2018

Is it not the case in many cases that there being a key meter or a prepayment meter in the property is due to the actions of a previous tenant, for whom the meter had to be installed because of an unpaid bill? It is then very difficult for either the landlord or the new tenant to change that situation.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. It is certainly the case that landlords often find themselves feeling that they have no other option but to put a prepayment meter in to avoid ending up as the recipient of all the bad debt that may well have been run up. However, I think it has become a bit of a choice for some in the sector, particularly at the lower end of the market, and by doing so they devolve themselves of any more responsibility in relation to their tenants. That is a shame, because it means that a good relationship is then not built up between tenant and landlord and there is not the element of trust, or of being treated like an adult, that one might hope for in that situation.

Landlords come in all shapes and sizes and are at variance across the country in the type and number of properties that they hold. There are landlords who are not resident in this country; entrepreneurial, buy-to-let landlords with small portfolios; those who inherit a family home on the death of a loved one; those who find themselves with an additional property after meeting a new partner; professional landlord companies that purpose-build to cater for particular groups, such as students or young professionals; speculative landlords who devolve all responsibility to agents; and those who live in the next street and keep a very close eye on things. Subsection (4), which relates to utilities and communications, needs to be clear to all those different types of landlords. Does the Minister think that that is the case?

That clarity is especially important because there is continuing growth of large-scale investment in build-to-let or multi-housing, which is professionally managed rental accommodation, usually at scale, in purpose-built blocks. That market, which only emerged in force in the UK in very recent years, is now worth an estimated £25 billion. Will tenants be protected against being required by these large corporations to enter into a contract that may not be the most economical, and that may take away their ability to choose between providers?

What will happen if there are difficulties in the contract that tenants have been required to sign up to? How easy will it be for the tenant to extract themselves from that contract—or could they prohibited from doing so if it is connected to their tenancy? For example, if they want to live in a building, will they have to go with Virgin for broadband or Npower for gas and electricity—other good broadband providers and power and energy suppliers are available—as the landlord gets a special tariff when those are supplied to the whole building? That would be entirely outwith the tenant’s control. What are the Minister’s thoughts on that?

Young professionals aged 25 to 34 make up the largest proportion of households living in the private rented sector. That is expected to remain the same in 2021, with their stay in the sector further lengthening, as the affordability issues surrounding home ownership—particularly gaining access to a deposit—remaining a challenge. Why should those people be limited in their ability to make a choice on their provider?

Among professionals living in the private rented sector, it is expected that there will be slightly faster growth in the number of under-25 households during the next five years, as well as an increase in older households—especially baby boomers. We must have consideration for those when it comes to the affordability of bills.

Under-25s receive a lower rate of minimum wage than other workers, so their disposable income will be much more restricted. Younger workers are usually paid less commensurate with their post and experience, which of course does not make them any less professional, and their ability to access things like housing benefit, the limits on local housing allowance and the shared occupancy rate all have an impact on their securing housing in the first place. How much they are required to top up from their own funds will have a severe impact on what utilities they can afford.

Hon. Members present must have had numerous constituents come to see them about the challenges of utility bills. The Minister has mentioned the difficulties of trying to change provider. Such difficulties are encountered particularly when prepayment meters are involved and perhaps when there are multiple occupants. Getting bills straightened out when there is confusion about meters is a lengthy process that, in my experience, results in carrier bags full of contradictory letters from those providers. Older renters on fixed incomes may also face financial restrictions, and I ask the Minister to consider that in his response too.

On the definition of a landlord, I outlined some of the common understandings of the types of landlords that we might all recognise, but I would like assurances from the Minister about who will be covered by the Bill. We cannot have a situation where Parliament takes all reasonable steps to further protect renters from the precipitous situations that they currently find themselves in, only to discover that organisations are deliberately seeking to absolve themselves of the responsibilities that all other landlords are subject to under the Bill.

In particular, I think about the case of Lifestyle Club London that I brought up on Second Reading. At the moment, that company can forgo many of the protections that are considered standard in a usual tenancy. By defining itself as a membership club, it can enter a property with absolutely no warning, it can levy huge fines to tenants for small things such as dirty dishes, and it can even give just seven days’ notice before terminating a contract and forcing the occupying person to move out.

Of course, that goes against many of the things that should be guaranteed for any renter, but companies such as Lifestyle Club London can justify that behaviour by saying that their residents are licensees and not tenants on assured shorthold tenancies. Residents pay a membership fee rather than a deposit, a monthly contribution rather than rent, and have terms and conditions rather than a tenancy agreement. That type of practice is completely unacceptable and unfair to residents, who often do not realise they are being exploited by companies that act in that way.

The Bill is the place to end that practice once and for all, by ensuring that licensees are covered by the same protections against fees as assured tenants and by prohibiting membership fees, monthly contributions and terms and conditions fines. The fact that a loophole exists to allow that type of agreement suggests that licensees of that nature have been left out of protections brought in by similar legislation to prevent landlords from acting in certain ways towards tenants.

I do not intend to move an amendment today because I await the Government’s response with interest. The Government have an opportunity to be explicit in their intentions and perhaps to table their own amendments in future to make it absolutely clear that companies such as Lifestyle Club London are covered by the Bill. Is it the Minister’s understanding that such clubs will be considered to be landlords under the terms of the Bill?

I would also like reassurance from the Minister that there are no loopholes around how tenancies and tenancy agreements can be defined that would allow de facto tenants to be afforded less protection from prohibited fees, and that if it turned out that a landlord could use alternative definitions to charge prohibited fees, the Government would return to the House to make the necessary changes to close that loophole as soon as it became apparent.

What type of loan is the Minister thinking of in subsections (5), (6) and (7)? I have spent a long time trying to conjure the purpose of such a loan from tenant to landlord, how that might come about and on what evidence the terminology is based, but it remains altogether unclear. I hope the Minister will provide some reassurance on those points.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a great pleasure to embark on my first Bill Committee with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I look forward to going through it with her. I will try to keep this on point and address the specific issues that she raised.

First, on utilities and the provision thereof, some of her comments will be well directed at the energy price cap legislation that is working its way through Parliament. I am sure she will engage in that process. With regard to this Bill and this specific clause, I say to her that that process is something that any tenant would likely follow as part of their deliberations about which kind of property to rent, in the same way as I would imagine tenants decide whether a property has good mobile signal, any broadband available, what kind of energy is available, and so on. Those are all things a tenant will have awareness of in advance of making a decision with regard to the suitability of that particular property for their circumstances.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

I would ask the Minister to think a little—I have examples in my own area—not about properties at the lower end of the market, but about new properties where there are shared heating schemes. I am not as convinced as he is that people moving into those properties are fully aware of the scale of charges they may face. There are disputes going on currently around this, because people do not necessarily understand and in some cases they feel that they are not fair or reasonable. I wonder whether he would consider inserting at some point a reasonableness test, because just passing on the charges without people necessarily understanding what they are when they enter into that agreement in the beginning, as I say, has created problems, which I am aware of.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is something that we are certainly looking at exploring in the guidance that is being developed in conjunction with various consumer rights groups, particularly around the “How to rent” guide, ensuring that potential tenants are aware of the things that they should be asking, which ought to be relatively common sense. As I said, there will be explicit notice in that guidance around the things that tenants should make themselves aware of. Those are the types of questions they should be asking to ensure that they have full sight of what that particular property and tenancy will mean for them.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

We heard evidence this morning of the situation that many tenants find themselves in, having committed by way of a reservation to let a particular property, where they are unaware of many of the terms of the tenancy, including perhaps some of these contractual obligations, until it is far too late for them to back out of it, because money has already exchanged hands, they are already committed and they face consequences from pulling out at that stage. What does the Minister have to say to tenants in those circumstances?

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I would say to tenants in those circumstances that it is absolutely not a good idea to enter into an agreement without seeing the actual document that you are signing and committing yourself to. It is obviously good practice, as will be mentioned in the guidance that is to be published, that all potential people renting should seek to have a proper shorthold tenancy contract. That would be good practice that most people would aim for. There would be an obligation on them to take some responsibility for that, rather than entering into a situation where they are unaware of their obligations. I should make some progress, but if the hon. Lady wants to intervene one more time, she is welcome to do so.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again on that point. I think the Minister misunderstands the nature of the culture in much of the letting agency industry, where tenants are frequently told, “This is the only property available to you. It is the best offer at this time—you absolutely must. There is a queue of other potential tenants.” In practice, they do not have the type of choices at their disposal that the Minister seems to believe they do.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am confident that with the awareness that will be spread as a result of this Bill—we have heard a lot about the simplicity of this Bill, which will make it more effective for potential tenants to enforce and know about their rights—the circumstances in which that happens will be reduced. In case letting agents themselves are putting on the pressure, as the hon. Lady will know from being on the Select Committee, the Government are currently consulting on enforcing standards for the letting agency industry, a code of practice and potential licencing of that particular industry. Those are the kinds of tactics and behaviour that that consultation will look at.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

The Minister just said that he is very confident that what my hon. Friend suggested will not be the case. On what evidence is his confidence based? I do not share it.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

As we heard in evidence, because of this Bill’s simplicity around banning fees, which is a simple and easy to understand message, and the awareness that will come around that and the fact that it will come into force on a particular day, together with the income provided to local authorities to raise awareness of these issues, I am confident that tenants will be in a much better place to know that their rights have been dramatically improved as a result of the Bill, and will be in a position to know those rights, ensure that they avail themselves of them and ask the questions hon. Members are saying that they should ask. I am particularly confident because new guidance will be published and widely publicised, which will make these rights, and questions tenants should ask, explicit and clear to them. I therefore remain confident.

As I said, there is separate Government work going on, looking particularly at the conduct of letting agents. Plans have been mooted for codes of practice and conduct, and for licensing of that industry. Some of the behaviours that have been mentioned are exactly the kinds of things that will be captured in that forthcoming piece of work.

I will try to make some progress—I know that Members are keen to do that. Turning to the second question asked by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, about examples of insurance payments, the language in the clause was very specific. Just to review it, that clause allows a landlord to require a tenant to make a payment or enter into a contract or grant only if it is a reasonable alternative to another requirement that is not prohibited by the Bill. It must not simply be a different means of requiring a tenant to pay a prohibited payment, and landlords cannot provide a false alternative to paying fees. That allows landlords the flexibility to, for example, give tenants the option of entering into a deposit replacement agreement instead of providing an upfront deposit. It would, of course, be prohibited for the landlord to give the tenant the option of paying a fee as an alternative to filling in, for example, an onerous reference form. I hope that reassures the hon. Lady that that is in the clause for a specific reason, and is very tightly drafted.

On the hon. Lady’s last question, I can confirm that the types of landlords who will be captured by the Bill are: first, a landlord of an assured shorthold tenancy, which, as I am sure she knows, is the bulk of the industry; secondly, a person granting a licence to occupy; and thirdly, a landlord of student accommodation. Obviously, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any individual company, but hopefully those categories give her confidence that her question was answered.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2