Clause 10 - Financial penalties

Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 7th December 2021.

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

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 11 and 12 stand part.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The Bill will allow enforcement authorities to act on unfair practices against leaseholders. Clause 10 enables an enforcement authority to impose a financial penalty on a landlord who has required a leaseholder to pay a prohibited rent. There is a separate power under clause 11 to make a recovery order to repay the prohibited rent.

It is important to note at this point that a conscious decision has been made for former landlords to be subject to penalties for breaches of the ground rent restrictions and to remain accountable for their actions at the commencement of the legislation. I am sure that the Committee will agree that we would not wish to see the development of the poor practice of landlords selling their leases in order to avoid financial penalties.

Clause 10 sets clear parameters for enforcement authorities to work within, but we must of course ensure adequate checks and balances so that those in breach are not unfairly treated. Before imposing a financial penalty, enforcement authorities must be “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt” that a breach has occurred. Where an enforcement authority is satisfied, subsection (2) clearly defines the parameters of the financial penalty that may be imposed. The Government’s decision to increase the maximum penalty from £5,000 to £30,000 shows that we have listened to parliamentary stakeholders, who felt that a stronger deterrent was needed.

Subsection (3) permits only one financial penalty to be issued where multiple breaches have occurred on a single lease. However, where enforcement action has been taken against a landlord, and that landlord is found to have breached clause 3(1) again, they may be subject to a further financial penalty after their initial fine. I am sure that the Committee will agree that that is the right thing to do.

In a case in which a landlord has committed breaches in relation to multiple leases, an enforcement authority may impose a single financial penalty to cover all breaches. In that scenario, the minimum or maximum amount of the financial penalty is the sum of the minimum and maximum penalties that could have been imposed if each breach had been dealt with separately. If a landlord has breached clause 3 on two of their leases, for example, the enforcement authority could not decide to issue a single penalty of £600 as that total would mean that the landlord had paid a penalty below the minimum amount of £500 per breach. The enforcement authority will be required to consider issuing a penalty of at least £1,000.

Importantly, clause 10 ensures that landlords are protected from being charged twice for the same breach by two separate enforcement authorities. Should the minimum and maximum penalty thresholds need updating, the Secretary of State has the power to change them through regulations for England, and Welsh Ministers can do so for premises in Wales. Subsection (10) makes it clear that this may be done only to reflect changes in the value of money. Financial penalties are an important deterrent, but they must be managed appropriately. The clause sets out a clear framework for enforcement authorities to work within and provides a balanced and fair approach towards those in breach.

Clause 11 forms an important part of the Bill’s deterrent measures to discourage landlords from including an inappropriate monetary ground rent in a regulated lease. Subsection (1) enables an enforcement authority to order the repayment of a prohibited rent where they are satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the leaseholder has made such a payment and the landlord has not already refunded it.

Subsection (2) sets out who the enforcement authority may order to repay the prohibited rent, including the landlord at the time when the payment was made, and the current landlord. That means, for example, that if it is not possible to trace a previous landlord, a leaseholder will still be able to recover the ground rent that they were wrongly charged. That is fair; a new landlord must take responsibility for the leases that he has taken over. Subsection (2)(c) makes it clear that an agent acting on behalf of the landlord may also be ordered to repay any prohibited rent that the leaseholder paid to them. That is important, as we know that there may be cases where the landlord is absent or unresponsive. A responsible managing agent would wish to ensure that leases, and their own practices, comply with the law.

There are protections in the clause to prevent duplication of recovery orders. Where the tenant has applied to the appropriate tribunal for a recovery order, the enforcement authority may not make such an order. If an enforcement authority has already made an order in respect of that payment, no further order may be made in respect of it.

Subsection (4) enables some administrative ease to assist enforcement authorities. It enables an enforcement authority to make a single order in respect of a number of prohibited rent payments, provided that they all relate to the same lease. The clause is vital to ensuring that an enforcement authority can act where a prohibited rent has been charged and order the landlord to repay it so that the leaseholder is not out of pocket.

On clause 12, it is only fair that where a prohibited rent has been wrongly paid, it should be possible for the leaseholder to recover interest on the amount that they are out of pocket. The clause makes provision for that. Interest is payable from the date of a payment of a prohibited rent until the date that it is repaid. The interest rate, as is standard practice for such matters, is the rate specified in section 17 of the Judgments Act 1838.

To ensure that the amount of interest to be paid is not disproportionate, subsection (5) places a cap on that amount. It must not exceed the original amount of prohibited rent that the landlord is required to repay. It is only fair that a leaseholder should not only be recompensed for the amount that they are out of pocket, but recover the interest on that amount.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to welcome you to your place, Ms Elliott. I welcome the Minister’s and the Government’s response to some of the debates on the Bill in the other place about the maximum level of fine. Given that a number of landlords and freeholders have deep pockets, it will act as a more effective deterrent.

On multiple breaches, I am making an assumption that an element of sense will be applied, so that someone with multiple breaches would be looking at the maximum fine. I know that that will be a judgment call for the enforcement authorities and trading standards, which will be well resourced—we have had the assurance from the Minister today.

The clause picks up on several earlier points made on both sides of the Committee. It is essential that people are informed from the outset of the duties that will be not only implied but overt as a result of the Bill. Residents and leaseholders will be particularly keen to ensure that where they have been wrongly charged and levied—essentially, ground rent should never have happened in the first place—they will be able to retrieve that quickly. I welcome the clauses but there are still a number of questions for the Minister.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I have a couple of points for the Minister. There are extensive provisions on the recovery of prohibited rent, which I generally welcome. I notice that on page 14 of the explanatory notes, under the heading “Financial implications of the Bill”, it says:

“An Impact Assessment has been prepared for the Bill and covers the implications on private sector bodies and home purchasers… The Impact Assessment illustrates a de minimis impact of less than £5m.”

It then says that there is an assumption

“that the number of enforcement cases will be very small.”

One would hope that that would be the case, because one would hope that landlords will not seek to charge and benefit from ground rent in the interim between the Bill coming in and peppercorn becoming payable, when it becomes commenced, by putting provisions into new leases that charge ground rent. One hopes that that is a correct interpretation. The explanatory notes then say:

“Over and above the use of the proceeds arising from the enforcement action, a further amount of expenditure will be required to provide additional capacity within the National Trading Standards function to support local weights and measures authorities. Leasehold law is a complex area, and it is felt that a central support function will aid the effective introduction of the provisions of this Bill. The cost estimate of this support function is £29,000 per annum”,

which is very precise. It is sort of a round figure, but it is quite a small sum. I wonder whether the Minister could explain the assumptions underlying the explanatory notes.

I also notice from the clauses that we are debating that there is no provision for costs. While I understand that there is a hope that a small number of enforcement cases will be necessary, and that there is provision for enforcement authorities to retain whatever the fine ends up being, I wonder upon what assumptions the Department has concluded that there will not be costs to the enforcement authorities that may not be recoverable. As we have been discussing all day, this kind of land law is very complex and tends to require a specialist understanding. Although it may be a small point, and for a short period, and one hopes that it will not happen, if there needs to be enforcement it could be quite complex for the officers of the enforcement authority to get their head around what needs to be done in a particular case. Landlords may well seek to evade their responsibility and to find loopholes of some kind to get around the Bill. I wonder to what extent the Minister is clear that there is unlikely to be extensive costs, and whether he can explain further the figures in the impact assessment, referred to in the explanatory notes.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 2:15 pm, 7th December 2021

I have two points. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale and I will be aligned in hoping that people decide to fine those who commit multiple breaches at the higher rather than the lower end of the spectrum. That would be our hope. We will have to see. It is not for he and I to decide those things; we need to leave that to others, and hopefully they will base that on their experience.

On the figure of £29,000 and the impact assessment, my understanding is that, given that we expect there to be a small number of cases, we would not necessarily expect all local authorities to need to stand up some sort of specialism. In the natural development of things, one local authority may develop some expertise and be able to act on behalf of others, and it will therefore be contained and concentrated in one place. This is obviously a developing theme. Until the law is enacted, we do not know exactly how it will work and how landlords might behave. It is something that we will need to return to and be mindful of. We must ensure that we keep an eye on it to see where the burden falls and then resource appropriately.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 11 and 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.