Lead enforcement authority

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 12th June 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Clause 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 Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Labour, Croydon Central

It is a relief to come back and see that the Minister has not resigned and followed the advice of his colleagues. I am reassured that he is still here.

As I was saying this morning, new clause 1 sets out that both the lead enforcement agency and local enforcement agencies will be reimbursed by the Government for costs incurred in enforcing the Bill. That is necessary because the Bill as it stands does not, in our view, provide adequate resource for enforcement.

We talked this morning about the scale of the challenge, with 56% of enforcement officers lost since 2009. In our evidence session, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute emphasised the scale of the problem that exists with enforcement, pointing out that more than 50% of the landlords and letting agents that it works with in London are still non-compliant with the rules. Shelter has highlighted the extreme difficulty in assessing the true number of rogue landlords, saying that the number is still underestimated. Another challenge for enforcement is collecting sufficient evidence to secure convictions. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby cited the Chartered Trading Standards Institute among others, which has worries about the burden of proof and said that it will scare people off, including trading standards.

The Minister might point to the provisions to stop retaliatory measures that were included in the Deregulation Act 2015, but the lack of progress on enforcing those provisions serves only to reinforce the point. Following scrutiny by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, the Government were forced to admit that overstretched local authorities were not even collecting the data that would allow them to see whether the retaliatory eviction provisions in the 2015 Act have been used. The Government wrote:

“We are currently unable to provide this data as local authorities are not specifically obliged to provide it and the Department does not routinely collect it. However, we recognise that this is an area of concern and we are writing to request this information from local authorities to inform our understanding about the effectiveness of the provisions.”

On that topic, Shelter’s most recent survey of tenants found that a quarter of renters who had a problem serious enough to report failed to report it because they were worried about retaliatory measures from their landlord or letting agent. That clearly demonstrates a failure to give tenants confidence in the policy, and backs up the point that tenants may be too scared to engage properly with the enforcement process to build a strong enough case.

The challenges to enforcing the Bill will come from all directions. We know from evidence that was provided that local trading standards authorities may not have the capabilities or expertise. For example, Shelter has raised concerns about how effectively trading standards will be able to police the use of default payments. Shelter has asked the Committee to explore whether local authorities will have sufficient powers and resources to evaluate whether a default fee genuinely represents a landlord loss, and the kind of guidance that the Government propose to provide to assist authorities in making such determinations. The Residential Landlords Association has argued that trading standards should not enforce the Bill at all, and that the responsibility should rest with environmental health departments.

Three concerns have caused us to table the new clause. The first is about getting the numbers right. We have serious concerns about the numbers being thrown around by the Government about how much it will cost to enforce this at a local and national level, as well as the confusion over how financial penalties will be calculated by enforcement authorities.

We have significant doubts about the Government’s argument that the cost of enforcement will be fiscally neutral for local authorities by year 2. The Government have been forced to admit that that will not be the case for year one. The £500,000 allocated by the Government for enforcement in the first year feels as if it was plucked from the air, with similarly little thought. It is unclear whether that figure will change if authorities’ costs are higher than estimated.

The very thin detail on enforcement costs first provided to the Select Committee in November as part of an impact assessment argued that the cost to local enforcement authorities would be £150,000 per annum. The Government’s assumption that the enforcement would be self-funded from year one was rightly questioned by the Select Committee, and the Government duly committed to providing additional funding to local authorities. In the full impact assessment published last month, the Government amended their assessment of expected costs to local authorities in the first year to £300,000. That is a significant jump from their assessment in December. The impact assessment also states that the Government assume £200,000 in set-up costs for the court system, thus reaching the £500,000 figure. However, they appear to contradict themselves in the explanatory notes to the Bill:

“We estimate that local authorities will incur a new burden in respect of enforcement costs in year one of the policy only and we estimate this to be no more than £500,000.”

Assuming that the £200,000 earmarked for the courts in the impact assessment actually goes to the courts, will the Minister confirm whether local enforcement authorities will be getting £300,000 as indicated in the impact assessment, or £500,000, as indicated in the explanatory notes? There is also confusion over whether that money is the maximum authorities will receive or whether the Government will fund the actual costs, and we note the use of the word “estimate” in the explanatory notes.

We had concerns about how the Government arrived at the year one figure before the Committee sittings began. They increased during the evidence sessions last week, when the Minister asked outright for any analysis that the Local Government Association had done on how much funding should be allocated for year one. It then emerged that the LGA had been asked for that information, but had been given just one week to provide the figure. I have a great deal of respect for the ability of the LGA, so if it cannot turn that request around in a week, I doubt that many others could.

It seems astonishing that the Government could still be unclear as to how much this crucial part of the Bill is likely to cost, and I worry that they are pulling numbers out of the air. If the Minister will not accept our new clause, will he explain how the Government arrived at this figure—and, indeed, what the correct figure is? If he cannot share the evidence now, will he write to the Committee? The key point is that, whether it is £300,000 or £500,000, it is simply not enough. As the LGA has rightly pointed out, that amount split over 340 local authorities is a laughable sum of money when we consider that the average budget for one council trading standards team is more than £650,000.

The confusion over costs extends to what enforcement authorities can charge as penalties. As we discussed earlier, the Government have so far left that open, suggesting that local authorities can take into account the need to cover the costs of their enforcement functions when setting the level of the financial penalty. As the Select Committee pointed out, that is a departure from the usual principle that penalties should relate principally to the gravity of the wrongdoing. The decision to fund enforcement from year two solely by fines risks creating a bizarre situation where enforcement areas with a lower level of offences require higher fines to cover their authority’s costs. The same logic goes for areas where the most successful preventive enforcement is happening.

Our second concern is about the pressures on local trading standards authorities. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute rightly pointed out:

“Resource is, without question, the pervasive issue which will determine the efficacy of the Tenant Fees Bill.”

However, as we have already emphasised, the pressures on local enforcement authorities are increasing at a time when budgets are stretched to an unprecedented degree. Some of the new burdens taken on by trading standards include enforcement around, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby mentioned, the sale of knives, as well as the use of wood burners, which is related to the Government’s clean air strategy. The effect of that pressure is being seen in the private rented sector. It was pointed out on Second Reading and since then by many organisations that there is already legislation that requires letting agents to advertise their fees, but it is simply not enforced.

The fact of the matter is that after the first year, and probably during that year too, the money recouped by fines will be completely insufficient to pay for any semblance of an effective enforcement system for the Bill. Trading standards authorities will be in a vicious circle, with an inability to enforce due to inadequate resources that then leads to the funding stream getting even worse that then leads to the enforcement getting thinner, and so on and so forth until nobody is bothering to enforce the measures at all.

There is much evidence from across the sector that that will be the case, and the Government are simply ignoring it. The London Borough of Newham says that it does not consider that moneys recovered through the civil penalties will adequately cover local authorities’ enforcement costs. The Chartered Institute of Housing points out the danger of a funding gap, as well as the risk that councils will need to invest in additional resources without being able to guarantee a particular level of financial return. The Association of Residential Letting Agents argues:

“Unless specific funding is set aside for the sole purpose of enforcing these new laws, we will see the same lack of effective enforcement of the ban on tenant fees as has been demonstrated on the transparency rules under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.”

Citizens Advice says:

“The legislation in its current form is reliant on Trading Standards, which we believe risks rogue agents continuing to charge fees. The lack of capacity facing local Trading Standards means many will struggle to take on additional enforcement duties without support.”

We ask the Minister the same thing on fiscal neutrality as we did on the figure for first-year costs: he must provide evidence, either today or in writing, on how the Government arrived at that assumption, or accept our new clause for the Government to reimburse the costs. To force local authorities to pick up the bill for something his Department has not costed properly would be unacceptable.

Thirdly, we are concerned about lead enforcement authority and the pressures around information. The Bill rightly allocates a lead enforcement authority to help streamline and co-ordinate enforcement work—something that has been pretty much universally supported. However, the same questions remain about the resourcing of that body. The Select Committee recommended that the lead enforcement authority should be tasked—and, importantly, given funding—to launch a nationwide awareness-raising campaign, to promote the legislation to tenants. In its oral evidence last week, the Local Government Association again pointed out the need for a high-profile, national campaign to remind tenants of their rights and remind the sector that fees are outlawed. The need for that is made much more pertinent by the fact that Shelter’s tenant survey, which I discussed earlier, found that more than 20% of renters who had a problem that was serious enough to report failed to do so because they were not aware that they could raise it with their local council.

Unlike their other financial estimates, the Government have at least been consistent in expecting the costs of the lead enforcement authority, in line with similar lead bodies, to be between £200,000 and £300,000 a year. It is unlikely, however, that that will be enough to ensure that any significant awareness campaign is run. There is a big question mark over the ability of the lead enforcement agency to do sufficient work to spread awareness of the changes made by the Bill—and awareness is crucial to its success. As with my previous points, I ask the Minister either to support our new clause or provide details about how such an awareness campaign would be funded, perhaps through his Department.

My final point is about the pervasive disincentive that the Bill as currently proposed would create. As I have set out in detail, experts from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, the LGA and various local authorities agreed that funding through fines will not cover the cost of enforcement if it is done properly. One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bill is that that will ruin any chances of good preventive work being done. Initial fines of up to £5,000 will not give authorities the resources or incentive to do proper work to prevent breaches. As authorities themselves point out, if trading standards enforcement activities are effective, civil penalties will rarely be charged. That is because most intensive activities of council officers concern monitoring practices and working with letting agents to comply with the law. That creates what the Select Committee called a

“pervasive disincentive for authorities to engage proactively”.

I hope that the Minister can offer us something constructive on that point. He will admit that nobody wants this important piece of legislation not to deliver what we want it to deliver. If he will not support the new clause, will he agree to look at ways to finance activity where authorities can demonstrate that good preventive work is keeping convictions down, and come back to us with a proposal to that effect on Report?

I re-emphasise the scale of criticism about the provisions in the Bill for enforcement. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute said:

“The central concept that enforcement of the ban will be self-funded from the proceeds of civil penalties recovered by trading standards is completely erroneous.”

I urge the Minister to look again at this core part of the Bill and, if he will not support new clause 1, will he agree, at the very least, to provide the information we request and consider what else he could introduce on Report to improve the situation?

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

We believe that the new clause, which essentially provides a blank cheque to local authorities, is not the right approach. Given that my day job is Local Government Minister, of course I am minded to ensure that local authorities have the resources that they need to carry out their various functions adequately. That is what I spend most of my time doing. The provisions in the Bill are intended to be self-financing. Local authorities will be able to retain any moneys recovered through financial penalties for future housing enforcement. That ensures that they are better incentivised to undertake enforcement activity. We believe that that incentive impact and behavioural change is important and helpful.

I draw Committee members’ attention to the consultation, where it was generally agreed that ongoing costs would be met from enforcement. We heard from landlord and agent representatives last Tuesday that they, too, thought that would be sufficient, but that some initial funding as seed money is needed in year one for familiarisation and adjustment with the new regime. Indeed, the Government agree about that, which is why we intend to provide additional funding of up to £500,000 in year one of the policy, to support implementation and education. That figure has been arrived at through consultation and analysis together with several local authorities and officials in the Department to arrive at a bottom-up estimate of what overall costs might be. We are also committed to providing funding for the lead enforcement authority of up to £300,000 a year to support its important role of providing guidance and support to local enforcement authorities.

More broadly, since April 2017, local authorities have been able to retain money from financial penalties for offences under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the Housing Act 2004 for future housing enforcement. That has been welcomed. It is too early to say whether or not the approach has been effective. We have discussed the example of Torbay as one council that has used such proceeds to invest in new enforcement personnel. We are working with local authorities to understand any additional resource needs across the breadth of their responsibilities in the private rented sector, including offering a series of roadshows in the summer. I look forward to engaging with local authorities on those.

Finally, I point out the comments of the panellist from OpenRent last week, who made it clear that as a result of the Bill and the simplicity of the ban that we propose self-enforcement will be considerably easier, which will lower the burden on all enforcement agencies and is a welcome approach. I also point out that there are other avenues for tenants to receive redress, namely their client redress schemes. As we have touched on, the Government are expanding the remit of those schemes and, more broadly, looking at redress in the round. In totality, we feel that we are in a good place, so I urge hon. Members not to press the new clause.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Labour, Croydon Central 2:15 pm, 12th June 2018

I have listened to the arguments and we will not press the new clause, although we reserve the right to return to this matter on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 23 and 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25