Financial penalties

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 12th June 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 9:45 am, 12th June 2018

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 8, page 5, line 13, leave out “£5,000” and insert “£30,000”.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 3, in clause 8, page 5, line 16, leave out from “exceed” to the end of line 17 and insert “£30,000”.

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

We welcome the spirit of clause 8. We must seek to hit landlords and letting agents who act badly where it hurts if we are to change realities for tenants. However, the need to strengthen the financial penalties in the clause is twofold. First, we must always ensure that the penalty fits the seriousness of the breach and acts as a deterrent. Secondly, we need to recognise that, if the Government’s plan is for the regulation to become self-funding, fines need to be able to fund the enforcement of the legislation.

To make my point on this, I draw the Committee’s attention to the evidence given by the experts last week. Isobel Thomson from the National Approved Letting Scheme said:

“We carried out a survey of 42 local authorities in June last year, looking at the enforcement of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Of those 42 local authorities, 93% had failed to issue a single financial penalty against a letting agent in the previous two years.

What are we going to be faced with with the fee ban? Enforcement really needs to come to the fore. The Government have mentioned that there will be a lead enforcement authority. We need to know who that is, how they are going to gear up and how they are going to be resourced. That is what I would like to see.”—[Official Report, Tenant Fees Public Bill Committee, 5 June 2018; c. 4, Q1.]

The NALS evidence is absolutely clear: without the resources for enforcement, there are concerns that the letting fees ban could have very little impact. That surely cannot be what the Government want to see.

There are others who fear that the lack of resources could prove a real impediment to the legislation functioning as intended. When I asked the LGA’s Councillor Blackburn what he felt could be done to strengthen the Bill so that it achieves its aims, he was quite clear. He detailed how the financing of the Bill was 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…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.”—[Official Report, Tenant Fees Public Bill Committee, 7 June 2018; c. 34-35, Q58.]

Councillor Blackburn’s evidence should encourage the Government to look again at the funding structures, as well as the broader issue of how this will be enforced. Chronic local government underfunding is all part of the problem. He also clearly pointed to the issue of a brain drain in the sector, with a 56% drop in the number of skilled trading standards enforcement officers since 2009.

Alex McKeown from the CTSI said similarly clearly at the evidence session that that was the case:

“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.”—[Official Report, Tenant Fees Public Bill Committee, 7 June 2018; c. 33-34, Q56.]

She openly said she was primarily operating in the London boroughs, which is where we expect much of the enforcement will be required. If that is the situation in the biggest hotbed of lettings problems, what will it be like in future?

Ms McKeown went on to say there was a key problem in clause 8:

“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.”—[Official Report, Tenant Fees Public Bill Committee, 7 June 2018; c. 34, Q57.]

That last point, about whether this legislation can ever be self-funding, crops up time and again. No part of the sector or none of the witnesses, whose expertise is most relevant to the question, is not concerned by the proposed funding model, particularly given the context of ongoing cuts and drops in skilled enforcement workers.

Ms McKeown raised another point, on clause 8(3), which says:

“If the enforcement authority is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the person has committed an offence under section 12, the financial penalty—

(a) may exceed £5,000, but

(b) must not exceed £30,000.”

The phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” has connotations of criminal responsibility, and experts tell us—as they did at last week’s evidence sessions—that it can put off both tenants and enforcement officers at different stages of the process.

I fear that this matter has been under-examined by the Government, and the potential consequences underestimated. Will the Minister please reassure me of his logic on this point? The concept of “beyond reasonable doubt” is a real issue, and one that has been expressed by the industry. It would be right for the Minister to take the matter rather more seriously than he has done to this point.

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:00 am, 12th June 2018

After careful consideration of all the feedback received during the consultation and engagement process, the Government are of the view that the level of financial penalties provided in the Bill is the right one. Furthermore, the approach to financial penalties aligns with that in other housing legislation. Most would agree that a £30,000 fine for an initial breach of the ban, as the amendment suggests, is excessive and could cause significant devastation.

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

Can the Minister explain the circumstances in which he anticipates a £30,000 fine will be imposed against an initial offence?

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

My understanding of the amendment tabled by the hon. Lady is that that is what it proposes—an initial breach of the ban would be £30,000.

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

In the Government’s version, it would be £5,000, and that is what we are discussing. My understanding of the hon. Lady’s amendment is that the financial penalty for an initial breach would be £30,000 rather than £5,000. We propose to leave it at £5,000. I am happy to take an intervention if she wants to clarify.

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

No—okay.

The Government’s aim has been to provide a sufficient deterrent for an initial breach of the ban that still allows landlords and letting agents who may inadvertently commit a breach not to be disproportionately penalised. We therefore resist amendments 2 and 3.

As hon. Members have noted, breaches of legislation related to letting agents, such as the requirements to belong to a redress scheme and to be transparent about letting fees, are subject to a fine of up to £5,000. However, we have listened to concerns that a £5,000 fine may not be enough of a deterrent for some agents and landlords, so clause 8 proposes a financial penalty of up to £30,000 for a further breach of the ban.

Importantly, that upper limit is consistent with the higher rate of civil penalties introduced in April 2017 under the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Given that the repeated charging of fees is a banning order offence, we firmly believe that the level of penalty needs to be consistent with the legislation under that Act, which brought banning orders into force.

It is too early to argue that the higher level of financial penalty at £30,000 has not been successful in offering a more significant deterrent to non-compliance. In the evidence that Alex McKeown of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute gave last week, she said that she believed that £30,000 would act as a “significant deterrent”.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

There is a slight note in the debate of some who see landlords and agents as villains and enemies to be bashed at every conceivable opportunity. For many of us, however, the issue is about how we construct a partnership that gives tenants more rights and that provides a better sense of fairness in the relationship, but which ensures that there is a strong and functioning market and that we do not go back to the 1970s when the Opposition created a situation in which there was very little provision of private sector housing, of which we know that we will need a great deal more.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for another thoughtful and measured comment. He is absolutely right: we are not in the business of demonising particular groups of people; we are interested in having a fair and functioning market. The balance that that requires has been a focus throughout all the deliberations on the Bill.

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

Would the Minister accept that the principle of the fines is not to demonise anybody, but to act as a successful deterrent?

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

Indeed, I was quoting the evidence from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute that said that £30,000 was a significant deterrent.

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

If the CTSI says that £30,000 is a suitable deterrent, does the Minister think that that should be the minimum?

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

Again, I fear that I have been too generous in giving way. I was about to make the point that it should not be forgotten that an agent or landlord convicted of an offence under the ban is liable for an unlimited fine, if that is the route of enforcement that the enforcement agency wants to go down; £30,000 is the alternative to a criminal prosecution where fines can be unlimited and people can be subject to banning orders, which I am sure all hon. Members agree are extremely serious and significant deterrents. The guidance that we will produce will support local authorities in determining the level of the penalty in any given case. I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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

We have aimed to be ambitious and tough in our enforcement approach to provide a sufficient deterrent to the continued charging of fees. Clause 8 sets out the fact that a breach of the fees ban will be a civil offence with a financial penalty of up to £5,000. However, if a further breach is committed within five years, that will amount to a criminal offence. In such a case, local authorities will have discretion on whether to prosecute or impose a financial penalty. Clause 8 provides that enforcement authorities may impose a financial penalty of up to £30,000 as an alternative to prosecution, as we have discussed. The level of fine reflects the feedback that we received during the consultation period. I will not rehash the arguments for why we think that is an appropriate level.

A financial penalty cannot be imposed if the landlord or agent has failed to return the holding deposit because they have received incorrect information about the tenant’s right to rent property in the UK. That reflects a recommendation from the Select Committee on this particular point. Before imposing a financial penalty, enforcement authorities must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the landlord or agent has breached the ban on charging tenant fees. Only one financial penalty may be imposed per breach and an enforcement authority can impose a penalty for a breach outside its area. This clause should be read with schedule 3, which sets out the procedure to be followed by an enforcement authority after it imposes a financial penalty. Financial penalties, I believe, will act as a serious deterrent to non-compliance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3