Restriction on terminating tenancy

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 12th June 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 11:00 am, 12th June 2018

I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 17, page 12, line 3, at end insert—

“(5A) No section 21 notice may be given in relation to the tenancy until the end of a period six months from:

(a) the day after the day on which the final notice in respect of the penalty for the breach was served; or

(b) the day after the day on which any appeal against the final notice is determined or withdrawn.”

This amendment would protect tenants against the issue of a section 21 notice when a penalty has been applied in relation to a breach under Clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill.

I believe the amendment would strengthen the provisions in the clause. As the Bill stands, landlords are unable to serve section 21 notices while there is still an outstanding balance of a prohibited payment or holding deposit to be repaid to the relevant person. The principle behind the clause is welcome. It would be wrong for a tenant to be served a section 21 notice while a landlord has failed to serve their obligations in terms of repaying money that was taken incorrectly. The same principle guides the inability of landlords to serve section 21 notices if they do not properly protect a tenant’s deposit, and more recently if they do not carry out their obligation to undertake any necessary improvements.

Such extra protections should improve a tenant’s rights and mean that rogue landlords cannot get away with retaliatory evictions if a tenant challenges bad practice. However, too often the principle is not matched in practice. This can be seen in the enforcement of the Deregulation Act 2015, which led to the banning of revenge evictions if a landlord was ordered to carry out repairs by a local council. A 2014 study by Shelter estimated that 200,000 private renters had been served with an eviction notice after complaining to their landlord about a problem with their home. The legislation should have led to significant action, given how widespread the problem of retaliatory evictions is, yet more than half of councils in the UK did not use the new powers in the Act a single time within a year of enactment. There is clearly a disconnect between what leaves this place as law and the reality of what is actually enforced.

Protection against section 21 evictions is vital for tenants who fear that standing up to a landlord could lead them to be evicted. It is worth remembering what landlords have to do to be exempt from serving a section 21 notice. These are landlords who do not protect tenants’ deposits, do not provide repairs in a timely manner, and who will charge prohibited fees under this new Bill. So these landlords have, at best, already shown a lack of knowledge as to their rights and responsibilities, and at worst are rogue and exploitative to the point where they will cross legal lines to avoid their obligations. This comes to the heart of why enforcement in this area is so important and needs to be done far better under current housing regulations, and needs to be enhanced in the Bill as it stands.

We know that the vast majority of landlords comply with regulations and discharge their obligations in a timely and professional manner. Those landlords would never threaten retaliatory evictions and would ensure that they followed the rules regarding serving a section 21 notice if needs be, but there are too many rogue landlords who look to shirk their responsibilities and exploit tenants at every opportunity. If a rogue landlord is willing to take a chance on a tenant’s not picking up on and reporting a prohibited fee, or to threaten a tenant with eviction when they ask for repairs, why would they suddenly act in a fit and proper manner when it comes to serving a section 21 notice?

During the evidence sessions, the NUS representative made the point that students often do not know their rights. They are often first-time renters and many will not have the experience of looking over a contract or challenging actions that are unlawful, which means that they may not be comfortable taking action against activities such as charging a prohibited fee or serving a section 21 notice. That could be particularly true if the Act required a tenant to take a landlord to court to prove that a section 21 notice was invalid, so tenants may end up leaving under an invalid section 21 notice when there is no reason for them to do so.

Too many rogue landlords get away with outlawed acts because there is not enough enforcement of the current laws that prohibit bad practice. The Government should consider carefully the evidence we heard in last week’s evidence sessions. It is fair to say there was a general feeling that there is not enough enforcement power in the Bill for it to do all the good it could do.

Enforcement could come through several different channels, such as increasing fines to increase the deterrent that rule breakers face, reimbursing a lead enforcement authority or reducing the barriers that tenants face if they report a landlord. Amendment 15 would mean that tenants were safe from retaliatory evictions that could result from reporting a landlord who charged a prohibited fee, for six months after the final notice of the penalty for the breach is served or the appeal is determined or withdrawn.

The amendment arises from what should be a guiding principle of good law making: in introducing new laws and regulations, we should learn from the mistakes of similar legislation and build a Bill that counters those flaws and pitfalls. To ensure that this Bill hits the ground running, it is important to look at other pieces of legislation that govern landlords to see where they have failed in the past.

We must learn from the effect that a lack of protection from eviction had on the repair of properties that were not in a fit or liveable state. As a result of that, tenants ended up living in houses with no protection from draughts, large damp problems and faulty electrics. No one should live in those conditions in this country, but tenants feared that if they complained about those problems, their landlord would serve them with a section 21 notice rather than carry out the repairs. Tenants were left with a choice between putting up with uncomfortable, unsafe and uninhabitable conditions and pressing their landlord to fix those issues when the landlord held the power to kick them out. No one should have to make that choice, because no one should be penalised for wanting a house that is habitable. Similarly, no one should have to make the choice between flagging a prohibited payment and keeping their landlord happy so that they do not get served with a section 21 notice.

To prevent tenants from retaliatory evictions when repairs are necessary, the Deregulation Act 2015 prevents landlords from serving a section 21 notice for six months after the council orders repairs to be made. Although there are problems with the enforcement of that Act, the principle of it acts to prevent retaliatory evictions. In particular, it prevents the serving of a section 21 notice for six months after the serving of an improvement notice, which gives tenants the same protection as they would have at the start of any tenancy. That is an extremely important addition to tenants’ rights, which helps to remove a barrier to self-reporting. There is too little extra protection for self-reporting tenants if the law simply states that the landlord can serve a section 21 notice the second they have managed to fulfil the obligation that they were reported for. That also covers self-reporting tenants who could be subject to retaliatory evictions if they report a landlord.

Just as it was sensible to extend the provisions concerning revenge evictions for repairs in the 2015 Act, it is sensible to learn from the past situation around repairs now and get the Bill right at the first time of asking, by bringing it into line with the thinking of that previous legislation and adding a six-month period in which landlords cannot serve a section 21 notice after a breach of the Bill.

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

The Bill already protects tenants by preventing landlords from recovering their property via section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 until they have repaid any unlawfully charged fees. This approach is in line with legislation that already applies where the “How to rent” guide has not been provided or a landlord has not secured the required licence for a house in multiple occupation, so there is good precedence for our approach.

Further, clause 4 ensures that any clause in a tenancy seeking to charge tenants a prohibited fee is not binding on the tenant, so we do not consider that further provision is needed. The wording of this amendment would specifically mean that if a landlord appealed against the imposition of a financial penalty and this was upheld, that landlord would be restricted from using the no-fault eviction process for six months after the appeal was determined. That clearly is not fair. I therefore ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

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

I thank the Minister for that response. It is unfortunate that he is not prepared to accept the amendment. It may well be the case that landlords will happily give people back the money they owe them and then still decide that they are troublemakers and seek to serve an eviction notice against them. While I accept the Minister’s comments regarding a landlord’s appeal, I think this is something that he should look at. If the Bill is about increasing and protecting tenants’ rights, this is a prime opportunity to do so. Despite that, I am happy not to press the amendment, but I reserve the right to discuss this issue further on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the 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)

Clause 17 has been included following a recommendation specifically from the Select Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, and I therefore hope that it commands broad support. It ensures that a landlord cannot evict an assured shorthold tenant via the section 21 no-fault eviction procedure if the landlord has previously required a tenant to make a prohibited payment and failed to repay this payment or apply it to the rent or deposit. We agree with members of the Select Committee that this affords tenants additional protection and serves as a further deterrent to non-compliance for agents and landlords.

Similarly, a landlord cannot use a section 21 procedure if they have breached the requirement to repay a holding deposit. This clause is intended to establish a further layer of protection and security for tenants and to act as a deterrent to landlords. The approach mirrors that used to promote compliance with other housing legislation, such as licensing for houses in multiple occupation and the requirements to give tenants a copy of the “How to rent” guide and valid gas safety certificates. I beg to move that the clause stands part of the Bill.

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

We have made our concerns around this clause quite clear, and we reserve the right to come back and discuss it on Report. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s intention does work in practice. I think he is applying some of the principles to landlords who would never wish to be in breach of any of this legislation, and he is not considering fully the issue of rogue landlords, who are the ones we are trying to tackle.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18