Recovery by relevant person of amount paid

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 12th June 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 10:45 am, 12th June 2018

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 15, page 10, line 36, after “that” insert

“, with the consent of the relevant person,”

This amendment provides that the consent of a tenant or the person acting on their behalf or who has guaranteed to pay their rent must consent to the use of a prohibited payment for rent payments or tenancy deposit payments.

Under amendment 13, the tenant would have to consent to their holding deposit or a prohibited payment being used to cover rent or deposit costs. We do not object to the principle of subsection (6), which the amendment seeks to change. The payment of a tenancy deposit or a prohibited payment into a deposit or as part of rent is entirely sensible and in many cases will be an optimal arrangement for both the tenant and the landlord. In the case of the holding deposit, this can be an important agreement between the tenant and the landlord that reduces the burden of paying a deposit, rent in advance and holding deposit all at the same time. Allowing a tenant to put that money towards a deposit can make it easier to pay what for many is a high fee and a significant amount, and prevent the holding deposit being held for as much as a week after an agreement has been made, when the tenant is likely to be short of money. We are therefore glad to see the principle in the Bill.

However, as the Bill stands, the landlord will have discretion as to whether to apply that payment. Although that does not seem to be a significant problem at first, and in many circumstances may not cause a problem, allowing landlords to do so indiscriminately could lead to difficulties for tenants in certain circumstances. The first problem arises from the fact that many people pay their rent on a monthly basis, through a fixed-sum standing order. Although standing orders are amendable, that can be a time-consuming process for the tenant. To deduct the prohibitive fee from a month’s rent, they must amend the standing order twice to account for the change. Government Members might feel that that is quite a trivial point, as making changes to bank payments is part of daily life, but we believe it will result in the tenant having to go out of their way for something that is not their fault. We must remember that when considering this amendment. It would be wrong for tenants to end up doing time-consuming work to receive their money in a timely and orderly fashion, given that they are not the ones who charged the fee.

A second problem that we seek to address with the amendment is how subsection (6) would apply to people with a joint tenancy. Taking the example of a joint tenancy in which the tenants pool the rent in one account and pay it to the landlord as a lump sum, if one tenant loses their key and is required to pay a default fee, which is later deemed to be prohibited, would the landlord be able to deduct that from the rent? In that scenario, taking the prohibited fee from the rent would not be a simple way of paying back the tenant. They paid the fee from their own pocket, but the rent deduction comes out of a pool for which all tenants are jointly responsible. Given that the deduction would not automatically be tied to the person who is entitled to it, the process could be abused by other people who are part of the pool. Although in most cases such agreements are set up by families or a close group of friends, it should not automatically be assumed that it is an easy or preferred way for the relevant person to receive their money.

It is their money. I have set out several scenarios, but a significant rationale for this amendment is the principle. Put simply, it is the tenant’s money, and they should have the final say about what happens with it. As it stands, subsection (6) allows landlords to do what they want with the tenant’s money that they have been required to give back and ought not to have had in the first place. I hope that Committee members will recognise that this is a practical and fair amendment. If someone has been wronged, it should be made as easy as possible for them to receive the repayment to which they are entitled.

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

An important principle of the Bill is that any unlawful payment can be recovered in full by the tenant, as it is their money. Tenants can do that either by seeking direct recovery from the landlord or agent, or by going to the local authority or applying to the first-tier tribunal. It is important to note that they can also go to their agent’s redress scheme if they are seeking the recovery of a prohibited payment from an agent. Offsetting the prohibited payment against the rent or deposit will ensure the tenant is not left out of pocket. It is best practice for a landlord or agent to ask the tenant, or any person guaranteeing their rent, whether they are happy for any unlawfully paid fee to contribute towards a future rent or tenancy deposit payment. We are planning to encourage that through guidance, and we expect that most landlords and agents will do that. We do not currently see the need for specific provision to that effect in legislation.

That said, I have been considering this broad area for a while, and I want to ensure that what we have in place works. I hear what the hon. Lady said. The clause was designed to ensure that the repayment process is relatively automatic. We did not want to put extra steps, which might delay things, into the process. We are looking at some of the areas that she mentioned. With that in mind, if she will bear with me as I look through those things, I ask her to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am glad the Minister is listening. He said that the automatic expectation is that, to seek redress, tenants will go through a first-tier tribunal or go to a local authority just to get back what is theirs, which is in the hands of the landlords, despite the fact that the Minister clearly thinks it is best practice for landlords to have a good relationship with tenants. It is not inconceivable that the relationship has broken down if it is deemed that a prohibited payment has been made.

I was going to press the amendment to a vote, but given that the Minister has requested that we bear with him, I will not do so. I will hold him to his word. I will withdraw the amendment, but I reserve the right to table it again if we are not satisfied with what he comes back with. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 15, page 11, line 4, leave out

“all or any part of”, and insert—

“a sum of money not less than and not more than three times”.

This amendment would enable tenants to claim back prohibited payments without assistance from the local authority, along with compensation from the landlord or letting agent worth up to three times the fee paid.

The amendment would entitle tenants who seek to claim back prohibited payments without assistance from the local authority to compensation from the landlord or letting agent worth up to three times the fee paid. During the evidence sessions, we heard often how the Bill needs more resources to enforce the new provisions that it will bring in and to fully achieve its aims. One thing necessary to improve the enforcement of the Bill is to provide further encouragement to tenants to self-report and to call out the use of prohibited fees by their landlords.

Trading standards will face practical difficulties in enforcing the Bill. They face a lack of resources across the country, which has meant their losing, as we have said, 56% of enforcement officers since 2009 and therefore lacking the expertise with letting agents that they would like. There is therefore a need to look at self-reporting as an addition to trading standards, and the addition of clause 15 to the Bill shows an acknowledgment of that by the Government. The amendment would strengthen that by providing tenants with compensation, when making a claim, for three times the initial sum charged.

A three times figure is already used to enforce deposit protection regulations, so both the three times figure and the idea of compensation for mistreated tenants has a basis in current property law. The amendment would act as an extra deterrent to landlords’ and letting agents’ breaking the law, by increasing the level of punishment, and would provide sufficient motivation and compensation for tenants to go through what could be a stressful and time-consuming tribunal process. As the amendment would help to enact the purpose of a Bill that both Government and Opposition want to be effective, I hope that both will accept it and thereby increase the enforcement power of the Bill.

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

Tenants absolutely should get back any unlawful payments in full, whether direct from the landlord or agent, via the enforcement authority or through an order of the first-tier tribunal. However, we do not think it appropriate for the tenant to receive further compensation, given that the landlord or agent is liable for a significant financial penalty in addition to reimbursing the tenant.

It is also worth noting that the Bill provides further protection to tenants by preventing landlords from recovering their property, via the procedure set out in section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, until they have repaid any unlawfully charged fees. To add in compensation, as the amendment suggests, risks penalising agents and landlords multiple times for the same breach, which is not fair. We believe that our existing approach strikes the right balance and offers a serious deterrent to non-compliance. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

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

Unfortunately, I will not withdraw the amendment. I do not feel entirely satisfied by the Minister’s comments on this and I do not think that he has addressed the issues around the negative position that tenants find themselves in compared with landlords, so I will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 6 Caledonian Pinewood Forest — Recovery by relevant person of amount paid

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:00 am, 12th June 2018

Clause 15 works with clause 10 to establish multiple routes for tenants to be able to recover any prohibited payments. It enables a tenant or other relevant person to apply to the first-tier tribunal for compensation where they have been required to make a prohibited payment or where a holding deposit has been unlawfully retained. We have listened to the Select Committee on this point and acknowledge that the first-tier tribunal is generally more accessible for tenants as it is less formal and costly than the county court. If a landlord or agent refuses to abide by an order of the first-tier tribunal, a tenant would be required to go to the county court to have the decision enforced and to recover their fees. We have made provision in clause 16 for a local authority to help the tenant with that. I ask hon. Members to agree that clause 15 stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 15 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 16