The clause is straightforward and contains a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations amending the amount of financial penalty that a local authority can change. This is purely to reflect changes in the value of money.
Permitting local authorities to levy financial penalties of up to £30,000 for breaches of the regulations on fees is intended to serve as a significant deterrent to agents and landlords. Including a power to amend the maximum penalty ensures that the Government can address any issue where the deterrent effect has not kept pace with inflation. We consider that regulations by negative procedure are appropriate in this case, since the changes are intended only to reflect the value of money, not to alter the intent or effect of the legislation.
Subsection (3) enables the Government to make transitional, transitory or saving provisions in relation to the uprating, in order to ensure that there is a smooth transition from one upper limit to another. In summary, the clause will enable the legislation to remain relevant over time.
It is crucial for this policy and for the hopes within it to be impactful that the fines are sufficient to act as a deterrent. Opposition Members have raised concerns throughout Committee stage that they might not be.
Any punishments for wrongdoing by rogue landlords and letting agencies must be sufficient to be seen as more than simply the cost of doing business. That is not simply my opinion but that of a landlord advocacy group. Indeed, Richard Lambert, chief executive of the National Landlords Association, said earlier this year:
“The NLA supports making the punishment fit the crime because too many of the criminals who operate in the private rented sector”— it is somebody within that sector who said this—
“see the current level of fines as little more than a cost of doing business and we would welcome greater consistency between civil and criminal penalties.”
As is clear from the amendments we have tabled, we have concerns that the Bill will not go far enough in ensuring that its aims can be fulfilled. The fines are a clear example of where the tension between aims and the probable reality of any impact is at its greatest. If fines can be as little as £5,000, as with the penalties for the display of tenants’ fees, that seems to act as a minimal deterrent to landlords. Surely the best that we should hope for is that those fines encourage the sector to operate well within that framework, and that they do not have to be levied. In the more lucrative markets, that is a very small sum. For larger landlords, it is small fry.
To add to that hypothetical, trading standards and local government up and down the country have had their budgets decimated. As we heard at the evidence session last week from Councillor Blackburn of the Local Government Association, as I have mentioned, there has been a 56% drop in trading standards enforcement officers since 2009—more than half of them have been lost. It is a vital sector, which will enforce the Bill, but without good trading standards officers, there is a real risk that the legislation, for all its good intentions, could lack impact on the ground.
There is a lack of expertise and resources, and those problems seem likely to get worse. Rogue landlords and agencies are likely to factor the likelihood of any claims being made against them into their business calculations, as Richard Lambert of the NLA suggested. As things stand, their calculations might suggest that taking a risk is worth it, particularly in areas where tenants are not as clued up, or where local authority services and budgets have been really affected.
Any changes need to be made by means of new primary legislation, but perhaps that is not the ideal approach; perhaps the Minister or the Secretary of State should be able to look at the matter again in conjunction with evidence about how the enforcement process has been going, and whether the fines are sufficient sticks to encourage that good practice across the board. It is clear that the Government want the policy to be part of transforming letting to make the tenant’s life much fairer than it is under the status quo, but for that to be done, there needs to be some real, critical engagement with the facts on the ground from the Government in future. For the legislation to have its proposed impacts, it is key that the Minister has an open mind about how it is best put into practice. The punishments have to fit the crime, and they need to be responsive to the realities of the letting market, which means that there must be space for rethinking that which is required.