Lead enforcement authority

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 12th June 2018.

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

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 23 and 24 stand part.

New clause 1—Enforcement: costs—

“The Secretary of State shall reimburse—

(a) a lead enforcement authority, where this is not the Secretary of State, for any costs incurred by the authority in the exercise of its duties under section 23 or section 24 of this Act, and

(b) an enforcement authority for any additional costs incurred by that authority in the exercise of its duties under section 1 or section 2 of this Act

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

Clause 22 establishes a lead enforcement authority in the lettings sector to oversee enforcement of the Bill and associated letting agent legislation, including the transparency requirements in the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the requirement for letting agents to belong to a redress scheme and the forthcoming requirement for letting agents to belong to a client money protection scheme. Although, in the first instance, this responsibility lies with the Secretary of State, the clause gives the Secretary of State the power to designate a local trading standards authority as the lead enforcement authority. The clause also enables the Secretary of State to make provision, via regulations, to smooth the transition if there is a change in the lead enforcement authority.

In the Government consultation, there was strong agreement from respondents across the sector to the introduction of a lead enforcement authority; 86% of respondents were in favour, stating that this would lead to more consistent operation of the regulatory framework. We consider that trading standards authorities are best placed to act as the enforcers, given their other responsibilities for enforcing requirements on letting agents and consumer protection laws.

We recognise the overlap between the lettings and estate agent sectors and will work with National Trading Standards to ensure that the new lead enforcement authority works effectively alongside the existing arrangements in the estate agent sector. We intend to provide funding to support the setting up and workings of a lead enforcement authority.

Clause 23 describes the duties of the lead enforcement authority. Broadly, those duties are to provide guidance and support to local authorities in England with regard to their enforcement responsibilities in respect of relevant letting agent legislation. The lead enforcement authority will help to develop best practice in enforcement and ensure consistent application of the legislation.

The clause also enables the lead enforcement authority to disclose information to a relevant local authority to enable that authority to determine whether there has been a breach of, or offence under, relevant letting agency legislation. That power will, in particular, enable the lead enforcement authority to disclose information as to whether a financial penalty has been issued against a landlord or agent and thus whether an offence has been committed under the Bill.

We have taken into account feedback from the Select Committee, so the clause now places a duty on the lead enforcement authority to issue guidance to enforcement authorities about the exercise of their functions under the Bill. As discussed earlier, enforcement authorities must have regard to that guidance.

Clause 23 also provides a power for the Secretary of State to direct the lead enforcement authority to produce guidance about the operation of other relevant letting agency legislation and about the content of such guidance. The lead enforcement authority will be able to provide information and advice to tenants, landlords and letting agents to help them to understand the impact of the Bill and other relevant legislation.

The lead enforcement authority’s position as a central point of contact for local authorities will facilitate its duty to monitor developments in the lettings sector and, as necessary, to advise the Secretary of State. That includes the effectiveness and operation of the Bill and associated relevant letting agency legislation and related social and commercial developments.

Clause 24 makes provision for the lead enforcement authority to enforce the provisions of the Bill and other relevant letting agent legislation. We want the lead enforcement authority to play a proactive role in enforcement and to exercise best practice and provide support when it is appropriate and necessary for it to do so.

Individual trading standards authorities will remain primarily responsible for enforcing breaches of the fee ban. However, they may want to ask the lead enforcement authority for support. Alternatively, a local trading standards authority may not be taking enforcement action in line with its duties under the Bill, leaving tenants at risk of unfair loss. The clause gives the lead enforcement authority the power to take enforcement action in such situations.

Where the lead enforcement authority steps in and proposes to take action in respect of a breach, it must provide notice to the relevant local authority. The latter is then relieved of its duty to take enforcement action in relation to the breach, but the lead enforcement authority may require it to provide assistance. Relevant enforcement authorities will be required to report on their enforcement of the legislation and other relevant lettings legislation.

The lead enforcement authority will have a number of investigatory powers at its disposal to enforce the relevant letting agency legislation. As we discussed previously, those powers are laid out in schedule 5 to the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which this clause amends. That includes the power to require information where it reasonably expects that a breach has been committed.

I hope that clauses 22 to 24 stand part of the Bill and, with your permission, Mr Sharma, I will reserve the right to respond after the hon. Member for Croydon Central speaks to new clause 1.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Labour, Croydon Central

New clause 1 sets out that both the lead enforcement authority and local enforcement authorities will be reimbursed by the Government for costs incurred in enforcing the Bill. That is necessary because the Bill as it stands will simply not provide adequate resources for proper enforcement. That view is backed up by experts from across the sector. We have already talked about the scale of the challenge, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby has talked about the cut in enforcement officers and the—

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.