Prohibited and permitted payments

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 7th 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)

Our approach to implementing this policy is to ban all payments in connection with a tenancy, with the exception of certain permitted payments outlined in schedule 1. The clause introduces that schedule, and provides for enabling the Secretary of State, by regulations, to amend the list of payments permitted under the Bill.

Although no changes to the categories of permitted payments are currently intended, the private rented sector is expanding and has a changing demographic as well as growing technological innovation. Similarly, legislative changes or other circumstances may arise where it becomes necessary to add, modify or remove a description of a permitted payment. We do not intend for the power to be used to significantly alter the objective of the legislation, but we recognise the broad scope of the power. That is why we consider it appropriate for the power to be subject to the affirmative procedure, to allow adequate parliamentary debate and scrutiny of any changes to the payments permitted under the Bill. That will provide sufficient safeguards that the power is not used for any purposes contrary to the objectives of the legislation, or to make changes that may have negative consequences for the lettings market.

It is also worth noting that the power to amend permitted payments is qualified by subsection (3), which states that the power does not extend to removing rent from the categories of permitted payments. We consider the negative procedure to be appropriate in the case of regulations made solely to amend the £50 cap on fees that can be charged to vary a tenancy when requested by a tenant. Any changes to that cap would purely be to reflect changes in the value of money, and the power could not be used to undermine the intention of the legislation.

It is important to note that in its scrutiny of the delegated powers memorandum accompanying the draft Bill, the Regulatory Reform Committee indicated that use of the power in clause 3 is justified to deal with changes in circumstances that cannot at the moment be anticipated or predicted. Clause 3 is vital to ensure that the legislation remains relevant and, in the words of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, prepared for the future.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma—it is the first time I have done so, so it is very exciting all round.

As the Minister set out, clause 3 spells out that only permitted payments defined in schedule 1 can be charged by landlords or agents. We have heard already from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby about the pressures faced by private renters. Given the rapidly increasing number of people in the private rented sector, with only the bare minimum of consumer protections people can be exploited financially and forced into substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation. All of us in our everyday lives, as well as in our caseload, will have seen people who are either excluded from accessing the sector or charged exorbitant fees.

It is right that the Bill limits the number of things for which tenants can be charged. The most important role of the clause is to give effect to schedule 1, which restricts permitted payments to things such as rent, tenancy deposits, holding deposits, default fees, terminations and bills. I am sure we all agree that the clause is essential in making the Bill work effectively and allowing the private rented market to continue functioning.

However, Opposition Members would like to challenge several poorly defined, excessive or unnecessary permitted payments that are enabled by clause 3 and schedule 1. That includes issues with tenancy deposits, holding deposits, default fees and termination payments, and we will discuss those in more detail. There are other permitted payments enabled by clause 3 which we are not seeking to amend at this stage but, as the Minister will know, several of the permitted payments were added subsequent to the publication of the draft Bill, following Government consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill presented last year included just four permitted payments: rent, tenancy deposits, holding deposits and default fees. As the Committee will note, there are now 10 permitted payments enabled by clause 3 and outlined in schedule 1. I hope the Minister can answer that he has confidence that the addition of those new permitted payments was done with sufficient evidence, and that he can tell us which views were taken into account when they were added.

The clause also gives the Secretary of State the tools to add, remove or amend what is considered a permitted payment if it is necessary to do so in the future. That has the potential to future-proof the Bill by ensuring that the Government can easily bring forward changes to prohibited and permitted payments if it turns out that there is a need for change, either through a loophole that becomes apparent after the Bill becomes law, or through a change in style of renting that means we need additional permitted payments, or a change to permitted payments if it becomes apparent that there is a route for exploitation.

The powers in the Bill should come with the responsibility to use them wisely and in a timely manner if it becomes apparent that it is necessary to use them at all; otherwise, there is a risk that the Bill’s provisions slowly become obsolete as our renting culture evolves over the years and decades. I look for reassurance that the Minister will use that power in a proper manner, to keep the Bill up-to-date as much as feasibly possible.

A particular concern I have with the Bill in general is that there are certain maximum thresholds contained in schedule 1 that are far too high to have a real positive effect on the everyday finances of tenants. That is why we have tabled amendments to try to tip the balance away from something that looks good on paper, but achieves very little saving for tenants. The Government are consistently slow to adapt to ideas to reset the balance of power between tenants and landlords—a Labour Government would have brought this Bill forward five years ago—so I suspect that things the Conservatives may oppose today, they may see as perfectly reasonable in three or four years’ time, once the harsh reality that tenants face in the housing market becomes even clearer.

I look for reassurance from the Government that they will continue to monitor the real-life effects of the numbers they have chosen in schedule 1, and to pledge to lower the permitted thresholds if it becomes apparent that the levels in the Bill are far too high to have a meaningful effect on the ground. Overall, the Opposition support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1