Report on operation of Tenant Fees Act

Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 12th June 2018.

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“The Secretary of State shall within a period of 12 months from the date of commencement of this Act and annually for the four years thereafter lay before Parliament a report on the operation of this Act, setting out the number of breaches of sections 1 and 2, the number and amounts of financial penalties levied by enforcement authorities, and the number of criminal prosecutions commenced and concluded in each 12-month period”.

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report annually for five years on the effect of the Act

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is quite clear that it intends the Act to be reviewed and closely monitored by the Minister. There has not been a great deal of discussion around the monitoring of the implementation of this legislation so far. Assessing the effectiveness of the legislation is incredibly important, and I hope the Minister will be able to support it. We know from the experience in Scotland that legislation, even when well intended, may not be effective if the wording is not clear enough, the rights are not precisely defined, the impact is not fully, properly and regularly communicated to those who need it, and the enforcement mechanisms are inadequate. I do not want to let the Minister leave here without allowing for future Ministers and Governments to recognise early the elements of the Bill that are not quite working as intended. From the discussions we have had, it seems that the Bill will probably not come into force for 18 months, which is quite some time away. How it actually pans out in practice will perhaps be well out of our hands.

It is inevitable that there will be clauses of the Bill that, once in action, do not work quite as anticipated. To rectify that, the Government could accept this new clause, which would ensure regular assessments are undertaken of the number of breaches of sections 1 and 2, as well as providing details around the fines—how many have been issued, what revenue has been generated and whether there have been any prosecutions. It would enable the Government to show their demonstrable concern for tenants by making it clear that they were keeping a beady eye on the practicalities of the measures and not simply leaving matters to chance.

No doubt there would be a Select Committee inquiry without these changes. What do the Government anticipate that they might wish to hide? By being proactive, they would be ahead of the curve and would save the Select Committee a great deal of time that it might spend on other inquiries.

I anticipate that the Minister will say he is confident that local authorities will maintain such records. That might be suitable for him, but it would not compel him to collate such data to gain regional perspectives on the implementation. Given the failure on the display of tenants fees rules so far—so much so that they now have to be beefed up through the Bill’s enforcement powers—accepting the new clause would be an honest recognition that legislation does not always work well.

The new clause would provide for an ongoing evidence base from which future improvements could be made. It would show landlords, letting agents, councils and tenants that the Government were taking a responsible approach to a significant piece of new law and showing a keen interest in its future application.

Were it to be found that the funding for new burdens was insufficient, the Government could deal with that rapidly, rather than facing the worst-case scenario of the laws not being used and being completely useless. They could check where the laws were being best utilised, identify why and assist in the sharing of best practice around the country. They could check that the legislative process was quick and that the remedy was proportionate to the breach.

In housing, timing is often of the essence. Those who would be charged prohibited fees are most likely to be those who can ill afford them—those who are forced towards bad landlords or letting agents. Should resolution of the process take too long, a tenant may be two or three properties along since the original complaint was submitted. I urge the Minister to consider this sensible step.

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

I rise for potentially the last time, to discuss new clause 3. I am pleased to tell the Committee that we do plan to monitor the implementation of the Tenant Fees Bill through continued engagement with key stakeholder groups representing landlords, agents and tenants, as well as through wider intelligence from agencies such as the lead enforcement authority and trading standards, which will enforce the requirements of the Bill. Unfortunately, however, we believe the new clause is unworkable.

We would not be able to identify all breaches of sections 1 and 2, as the new clause suggests, as we will be encouraging tenants to challenge their landlords and agents directly in the first instance if they have been charged prohibited fees. Indeed, we want landlords and agents to rectify breaches first, without the need for an enforcement authority, and it would of course not be possible or practical to record every time that that type of informal enforcement and rectification happened.

With regard to the number of financial penalties and criminal convictions under the ban, that information will, owing to the reporting requirement that already exists in the Bill, be captured by the lead enforcement authority anyway. Those agents and landlords who are banned from operating will also be captured on the rogue landlord database. Local housing authorities also have powers to include persons convicted of a breach of the fees ban on that database, as well as people who receive two or more financial penalties within a year for any banning order offence.

I hope that that reassures hon. Members that we will be tracking and reviewing the effectiveness and enforcement of the ban. We do not think it is necessary to prescribe further reporting requirements on the face of the Bill, but we will consider how to make the information available, especially regarding the lead enforcement authority. We will review the legislation within five years, in line with normal parliamentary and scrutiny practices.

We also do not intend to review the Bill in isolation. There have recently been a number of welcome legislative changes to the lettings industry, with more planned—notably the regulation of letting agents. Those changes, with this Bill, support and deliver our commitment to rebalance the relationship between tenants and landlords and to make renting fairer. It is important that any future evaluation consider all those important and transformative measures in the round, so I ask hon. Members not to press their new clause.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 3:00 pm, 12th June 2018

The Minister says that the Department will monitor the process and the progress of the enforcement of this legislation. He also says it plans to review in five years. That raises the question of why that should not be included in the Bill. The Minister has diligently described to us all the varying places where that information is kept; the new clause simply seeks to ensure that it will be kept centrally by Ministers so that they do not have to go to various different organisations to retrieve it and will have it centrally, at their fingertips, so that reports and responses are full and accurate. Therefore, we will not withdraw the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 8 Caledonian Pinewood Forest — Report on operation of Tenant Fees Act

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

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

I gather that we are bringing proceedings to a conclusion, so if I may, Mr Sharma, I will briefly put on record my thanks to you and Mr Bone for your distinguished chairmanship of the Committee; to your team of Clerks for keeping us all on track and ensuring we followed due procedure; to the Whips for ensuring that we were all here on time and did what we were told; and to my fantastic team of officials, including those who are giving up valuable swimming and cocktail time to be with us today, which I very much appreciate. Indeed, I put on record my thanks to all hon. Members for their valuable and insightful contributions, and especially to Opposition Members for the constructive and good-natured way in which they have engaged with the topic. I look forward to continuing those debates in subsequent stages of the Bill. I make one final apology to the daughter of the hon. Member for Stockton South for depriving her party of her father’s presence.

Lastly, I put on the record my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler, who of course could not be with us to take the Bill through the Committee, but who put in an extraordinary amount of work in the months leading up to this point to ensure that we were discussing what I am sure we all agree—whatever our individual differences on certain points—is an important piece of legislation addressing a very important topic. She deserves enormous credit for her diligence and hard work in getting us to this point. I know we wish her well, not just at home but with all the other work she is doing to ensure that we bring fairness to the private rented sector, and we look forward to seeing her back soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.