Clause 1 - Assured tenancies to be periodic with rent period not exceeding a month

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 21 November 2023.

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

Government new clause 2—Repayment of rent paid in advance.

Government new clause 6—Liability of tenants under assured tenancies for council tax.

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

May I join you, Mr Gray, in thanking members of the Committee for their engagement with the Bill so far?

My view is that the Bill delivers a better deal for renters and for landlords. As hon. Members are aware, however, we must tread lightly. This is a fine balancing act. Go too far one way, and good landlords will find it harder to operate and exit the market; go too far the other way, and the Bill will not give renters the protections we all seek against bad actors in the private rented sector. As we delve into the Bill, I ask all hon. Members to consider the impact of proposed amendments on that delicate balance.

Everyone has the right to a secure and decent home, whether they own it or are among the 11 million people living in the private rented sector; that is the guiding principle of the entire Bill. Clause 1 will remove fixed terms. It provides that tenancies will be periodic in future: under the clause, the tenancy will roll from period to period. Any term in a contract that includes a fixed term will not be enforceable.

The clause also has limits on how long a rental period can be. That is to prevent unscrupulous landlords from emulating fixed terms by introducing longer periods to contracts. Fixed terms lock tenants into contracts, meaning that they may not be able to end their tenancy before the end of the term and move to another property when they need to, for example to take a new job or when a landlord fails to maintain basic standards or repair a property. The changes will also give landlords more flexibility: they may end the tenancy when they need to, under specified grounds that are covered in later clauses, rather than waiting for the end of the fixed term.

Government new clause 2 will require landlords to refund rent in advance where the tenancy has ended earlier than the duration already paid for. That applies regardless of how the tenancy came to an end. It will ensure that rogue landlords do not try to lock tenants in with large up-front payments.

Government new clause 6 will deliver a technical change to council tax rules in the light of the abolition of fixed-term assured tenancies. It will ensure that tenants who hold assured tenancies are liable for council tax until the end of their tenancy agreement. In particular, tenants will remain liable for council tax when they have served notice to end their tenancy but leave the property before the notice period has ended. That will ensure that liability for council tax does not pass back to the landlord until the tenancy has formally ended. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is a real pleasure to begin our line-by-line consideration with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. It is a genuine privilege to serve on a Committee with such evident expertise in the subject matter. It is my sincere hope that we can draw constructively on it all in the days ahead to improve this long-overdue but welcome piece of legislation.

As the Opposition argued on Second Reading, the case for fundamentally reforming the private rented sector—including by making all assured tenancies periodic in future, as clause 1 seeks to do—is watertight. As the Minister implied, regardless of whether someone is a homeowner, a leaseholder or a tenant, everyone has a basic right to a decent, safe, secure and affordable home. However, millions of people presently renting privately live day in, day out with the knowledge that they could be uprooted with little notice and minimal justification, if any. The lack of certainty and security inherent in renting privately today results not only in an ever-present anxiety about the prospect of losing one’s home and often one’s community, but—for those at the lower end of the private rented market, who have little or no purchasing power and who all the evidence suggests are increasingly concentrated geographically—in a willingness to put up with often appalling conditions for fear that a complaint will lead to an instant retaliatory eviction.

This House last legislated to fundamentally alter the relationship between landlords and tenants in 1988, when I was just six years old. The Minister may have been even younger.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Well, that just makes my point that the sector should have been overhauled a long time ago. The fact that it has changed beyond recognition over recent decades and now houses not just the young and the mobile, but many older people and families with children, for whom having greater security and certainty is essential to a flourishing life, renders urgent the need to transform how it is regulated and to level decisively the playing field between landlords and tenants.

This Bill is a good starting point to that end. We are glad that after a very long wait, it is finally progressing. However, we are determined to see it strengthened in a number of areas so that it truly delivers for tenants. In this Committee and the remaining stages, we will seek to work constructively with the Government to see this legislation enacted, but we also expect Ministers to give serious and thoughtful consideration to the arguments we intend to make about how its defects and deficiencies might be addressed.

Part 1 of the Bill seeks to amend the assured tenancy regime introduced by the Housing Act 1988. In the nearly 35 years since that Act came into force in January 1989, with some limited exceptions, all new private sector tenancies in England and Wales have been either assured or assured shorthold tenancies, with the latter becoming the default PRS tenancy following the implementation of the Housing Act 1996. As the Committee will know, assured tenancies can be either periodic or fixed, but the vast majority of ASTs are fixed.

Clause 1 will insert a new section 4A before section 5 of the 1988 Act, thereby providing, as the Minister made clear, that all future assured tenancies will be periodic and open-ended, and that they can no longer have fixed terms. That change will empower tenants by giving them more flexibility to end tenancies where and when they want or need to, including when landlords are not meeting their responsibilities and obligations or in instances in which the property that they have moved into is not as advertised. We support it.

We take no issue with Government new clause 2. Although we are not convinced that it is strictly necessary, given how the Apportionment Act 1870 applies to rent paid in advance, we believe that it is a worthwhile amendment none the less, to the extent that it makes express provision for that.

We believe that Government new clause 6 is a necessary change to how council tax works, given that the Bill abolishes fixed-term tenancies. However, in the sense that its effect will be to render a tenancy that

“is or was previously an assured tenancy within the meaning of the Housing Act 1988” a “material interest” for the purposes of this Bill, we would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarification. Could he tell us the effect of the proposed change in circumstances in which a tenant used to have an assured tenancy but, after this part of the Bill comes into force, now does not because of circumstances that are out of their control? Let us say, to take an extreme example, that a tenant died prior to the end of their assured tenancy, and the relevant provisions came into force. Would their estate be forced to pay the council tax liability as a consequence of the new clause?

We understand the Government’s intention with regard to the new clause, which is to manage the transition between the two tenancy regimes when it comes to council tax. However, we are a little concerned that, as drafted, the new clause may be unnecessarily broad and may create some problematic outcomes. The explanatory statement accompanying the new clause suggests that it may have another purpose altogether—namely, to make people liable if they leave a tenancy without giving notice—but that raises the obvious question of how the Valuation Office Agency and the relevant local authority are meant to know that, and how the local authority might ever hope to find the tenant who is liable. Could the Minister tell us whether the Government have discussed the matter at all with either the Valuation Office Agency or the Local Government Association?

Lastly in connection with this new clause, is there not a risk that unscrupulous landlords may game this provision by claiming that there is still a tenant in situ who should settle the council tax liability, rather than the landlord doing so? Our concern is that the provision could be abused along those lines and that local authority revenue would suffer as a result. I would appreciate some reassurance and clarification on those points in the Minister’s response.

With or without the incorporation of Government new clause 2 and new clause 6—after clause 6 and before clause 20 respectively—huge uncertainty now surrounds the implementation of clause 1, and the rest of chapter 1 of part 1, as a result of the Government’s recent decision to tie implementation of the new system directly to court improvements. Whatever the motivation behind that—renters will no doubt have reached their own conclusions—the decision has significant implications for when clause 1 and the other clauses in this chapter become operational. We need answers today, so that those whose lives stand to be affected are clear as to what they are.

Clause 67, “Commencement and application”, gives the Secretary of State the power by regulations to appoint a day when chapter 1 of part 1, including clause 1, comes into force. In other words, the Bill has always given Ministers discretion as to precisely when the new system becomes operational—a matter that we will debate more extensively in a future sitting when we come to clause 67 itself and our amendment 169 to it.

The Government were previously clear that there would be a two-stage transition to the new tenancy system, with precise starting dates for new and existing tenancies to be determined by the Secretary of State, and that a package of wide-ranging court reforms was to accompany the legislation, but at no point prior to the response issued on 20 October this year to the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities did the Government indicate that the new system’s implementation was directly dependent on such reforms. As things stand, because of the Government’s last-minute change of approach, not only do tenants have no idea when the new tenancy system will come into force, but they do not even know what constitutes the requisite progress in respect of court reform that Ministers now deem is necessary before it does.

There are three distinct questions to which the Government have so far failed to provide adequate answers. First, is the county court system for resolving most disputes between landlords and tenants performing so badly that reform is a necessary precondition of bringing this clause and others in this chapter into force?

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

We heard from many representations on the county court part of the process that the county court system was performing adequately. Does that not make one suspicious that there are other motivations for kicking this into the long grass?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will come on to our view of precisely how the county court system is operating, but I think it would be fair to say that we do not necessarily buy the Government’s argument that it is performing so badly that we need to tie implementation of this clause and others in this chapter to it. It could certainly do with improvement, but if it needs improvement, we need to know what that improvement is. That is an argument that I will come on to make in due course.

The second of my three questions to the Government relates to the point that my hon. Friend has just raised: if the court system requires improvement to ensure that landlords can quickly regain possession of their property if a tenant refuses to move out, what is the precise nature of the improvements that are required? Thirdly, how can we measure progress on delivering those improvements so that tenants have certainty about when the new system might come into force?

I will start with my first question. With apologies, Mr Gray, I intend to spend some considerable time on this point, because it is central to when the clause and the rest of the chapter come into force.

If one examines the evidence, it is clear that the possession claims system is one of the faster and better-administered parts of the civil justice system. As housing expert Giles Peaker put it when giving evidence to the Committee on Thursday, it is “well honed”. As Simon Mullings, co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, stated in the same session:

“What we have at the moment is an extremely good network of county courts, with a very evolved set of civil procedure rules that deal with possession claims very well.” ––[Official Report, Renters (Reform) Public Bill Committee, 16 November 2023; c. 111, Q141.]

The data seems to bear that out. It makes it clear that the various stages of possession and litigation are back to where they were pre-pandemic, and that non-accelerated possessions are not taking significantly longer than the relevant guidelines stipulate. As Giles Peaker argued,

“the current time from issue to a possession order under the accelerated possession proceedings—an ‘on the papers’ process, without a hearing—is roughly the same as under the section 8 process with an initial hearing. There is no great time lag for the section 8 process as opposed to accelerated possession proceedings.”––[Official Report, Renters (Reform) Public Bill Committee, 16 November 2023; c. 111, Q141.]

One of the more robust defences of the adequacies of the present system that I have heard came from the sixth of the seven housing and planning Ministers that I have shadowed in my two years in this role. On Second Reading, Rachel Maclean argued:

“It is important to note at this point that the vast majority of possession claims do not end up in the courts—only something like 1% of claims go through the courts... The courts have already made huge improvements. It is worth saying that over 95% of hearings are listed within four to eight weeks of receipt, and of course the ombudsman will encourage the early dispute resolution process, taking a lot of claims out of the courts and freeing up court time for more complex processes.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2023; Vol. 738, c. 695.]

We also heard expert testimony last week that called into question the suggested impact of the Bill on the courts. For example, it was disputed whether the reforms in the Bill would increase the number of contested cases. Giles Peaker persuasively argued that there was likely to be an increase in the number of initial hearings, but that we are unlikely to see an increase in the number of contested hearings.

To the extent that concern was raised about capacity within the system, several witnesses argued that it still did not justify postponing the enactment of chapter 1 of part 1. Indeed, the head of justice at the Law Society, Richard Miller, argued in relation to plans for digitisation that it would be sensible to see the new tenancy system put in place first so that we can properly understand what a new digital system needs to achieve in respect of the Bill.

Every part of the civil justice system would benefit from improvement, but we would argue that, to date, the Government have failed to demonstrate that the county court system for resolving landlord and tenant disputes is failing to the degree that it is imperative to further delay the long-overdue reforms to tenancies in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister set out very clearly why the Government believe the possession of claims system is so woefully inadequate that the enactment of clause 1 and the other clauses in chapter 1 must be postponed.

I turn to the second of my questions. If we accept that the county court system as it relates to housing cases could be improved—probably no one here would dispute that, even if we might debate the extent of the improvement required—how are the Government defining improvement? To put it another way, what is the precise nature of the improvements that Ministers believe are required before we finally abolish section 21 of the 1988 Act and reform the tenancy system, as clause 1 and other clauses in chapter 1 will do?

Let us examine and interrogate what the Government have said about this. Their 20 October response to the Select Committee stated:

“We will align the abolition of section 21 and new possession grounds with court improvements, including end-to-end digitisation of the process.”

Will the Minister tell us precisely what is meant by end-to-end digitisation of the process? Precisely what process did that statement refer to? Was it a reference to just the court possession action process, or to civil and family court and tribunal processes more generally? Further detail was seemingly provided in the briefing notes that accompanied the King’s Speech on 7 November:

“We will align the abolition of section 21 with reform of the courts. We are starting work on this now, with an initial commitment of £1.2 million to begin designing a new digital system for possessions. As work progresses, we will engage landlords and tenants to ensure the new system supports an efficient and straightforward possession system for all parties.”

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 9:45, 21 November 2023

Did we not hear in evidence that the key for this to work was the property portal? Delaying the implementation of these measures until after court reform would therefore seem to be the wrong way around. Surely the property portal and ombudsman need to be up and running, and then we can see what pressure is on the courts, and we can also integrate the property portal into the digitalisation of the process.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is a point well made, and I think the same point was made by Richard Miller of the Law Society. If this Bill works as intended, there are a number of provisions in it that should relieve the burden on the courts. We all want to see that happen. However, to the extent that the courts do need to act in possession cases, we need to know precisely what the Government mean by the “improvements” that they have been referring to over recent months.

That King’s Speech briefing note would suggest that the required improvements relate only to the court possession action process. However, it is not clear whether the proposed new digital system for possessions is the only improvement that Ministers believe needs to be delivered before the new tenancy system can be introduced, and if so—this is crucial—by what date that new system will be operational.

Can the Minister tell us more about the new digital system for possessions that the King’s Speech briefing note referred to? Specifically, can he tell us whether its introduction is the sole determinant of when the new tenancy system can come into force? Can he also outline when the Government expect work on that new digital system to be completed by the Government and rolled out for use by landlords, given that it appears—on the basis of the King’s Speech briefing note—to have only just commenced?

The White Paper “A fairer private rented sector”, which the Government published in June 2022, set out the Government’s intention, working in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service, to

“introduce a package of wide-ranging court reforms”.

Those went beyond purely the court possession action process that I have just been speaking to. It was suggested in the White Paper that the package would include steps to address county court bailiff capacity, a lack of adequate advice about court and tribunal processes, a lack of prioritisation of cases and the strengthening and embedding of mediation services for landlords and renters—issues that many of our witnesses in last week’s evidence sessions referred to.

Many of those issues were also identified in the Government’s response to the Select Committee as “target areas for improvement”. What is not clear is whether the implementation of the new tenancy system, and this clause, is dependent on Ministers judging that sufficient progress has been made in relation to each of those target areas for improvement, or whether it is dependent, as I have suggested, solely on improvements in the court possession process.

Can the Minister tell us clearly which one it is? Will the new tenancy system be introduced only when improvements have been made in all the target areas specified, or is the implementation date linked solely to improvements in the court possession process? If it is the former, what are the criteria by which the Government will determine when sufficient improvements have been made in each of the listed target areas for improvement? Those of us on the Opposition side of the Committee, and many of the millions of tenants following our proceedings, need answers to those questions. As we debate the Bill today, we do not know precisely what reform of the courts is required for the new tenancy system to be enacted.

I turn to my third question. Because we have no real sense of precisely what the Government mean by court improvements, and therefore no metrics by which they might be measured, we have no idea whether and when they might be achieved. The concern in that regard should be obvious. Having been assured repeatedly by Ministers that the passage of this Bill will see a new tenancy system introduced and the threat of section 21 evictions finally removed, tenants have no assurances, let alone a guarantee, that the Government have not, in effect, given themselves the means to defer—perhaps indefinitely—the implementation of these long-promised changes.

As I referenced in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, we accept that the court system needs to be improved so that, when landlords or tenants escalate a dispute, they can have confidence that it will be determined in an efficient and timely manner. However, since they committed themselves to abolishing section 21 evictions, the Government have had more than four and a half years to make significant improvements to the system to support tenants and good-faith landlords, and they have not succeeded in doing so.

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

On that four-and-a-half-years point, can my hon. Friend clarify how many people have been evicted through no-fault eviction since 2019, when abolition was originally promised?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

That is a very good point. Every month that the Government delayed tabling the Bill, many thousands of tenants were put at risk of homelessness by a section 21 eviction. I cannot remember the precise figure, but I think the last Government data release showed that just under 80,000 tenants had been put at risk of homelessness as the result of a section 21 notice since the Government first committed to abolishing section 21. And we are talking not just about those 80,000, but about however many tens of thousands more will be put at risk of eviction while the Government delay the enactment of the provisions on the basis of court reforms.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is putting huge strains on local authorities, which are being forced to pick up so many homeless families at a time when social housing unit availability is at its lowest and it is difficult to find any form of temporary accommodation that is half-decent?

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for that well-made point. A related and incredibly important issue is the supply of genuinely affordable housing, and the Government have failed woefully to build enough social rented homes in this country to meet housing need. She is absolutely right that local authorities are picking up the burden for this failure and the failure in the courts. My local authority—like hers, I am sure—is now sending people in need of temporary accommodation as far as Dartford or north Kent, and even further in some cases. Those people are struggling to retain a foothold in the community they live in and value, and in the schools that their children go to. Frankly, that is unacceptable. We need an end to section 21 as soon as possible.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

My hon. Friend talked about the insecurity for tenants if the measure is not implemented in time, but does he also think that if it is not clear when it will be implemented, there could be adverse effects on the wider rented sector market? We know that people game the system; if it is not clear when the measure will be implemented, the danger is that people can run rings around both tenants and the public sector.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend is right: a protracted delay in implementing this clause and the others in chapter 1 could lead landlords to look at how they can best abuse the system before the new one is introduced. Equally importantly, it could provide a real problem for good-faith landlords who are trying to do the right thing. If a landlord who is affected by high interest rates and section 24 tax changes is wondering whether they can stay in the market and continue to provide private lets, how does it help to have hanging over their head an undetermined date, based on an unspecified set of metrics, for when a new system will come into force?

As I was saying, the Government have had more than four and a half years to improve the court system. They have not succeeded. If they had, then, as the former Housing Minister—the hon. Member for Redditch—claimed, they would have had no justification for delaying the enactment of this clause and the others on the grounds that the system is failing to such an extent that landlords have no confidence in it. The truth is that the Government’s record on court reforms is as woeful as their record on social rented housing. In a damning report published this summer, the Public Accounts Committee made it clear that, seven years into the courts and tribunals reform programme, HMCTS

“is once again behind on delivering critical reforms to its services. Overall, despite an increase in budget, the programme is set to deliver less than originally planned, at a time when the reforms are even more vital to help reduce extensive court backlogs.”

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Order. I indicated to the hon. Gentleman that I was content with a reasonably wide-ranging, Second Reading-type debate on clause 1 stand part, but we are now going well beyond the scope of the clause. Perhaps he might like to return to it.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am bringing my remarks to a close. The degree of progress in improving the courts is pertinent to the debate, given that the Government have linked the implementation of the clause directly to it. When it comes to digitisation, which the Government have flagged as one of the target areas for improvement and on which the implementation of this clause relies, the Government have made agonisingly slow progress. As Mr Miller from the Law Society argued in his evidence to the Committee last week, the project to digitise private family law was announced in 2020 and was scheduled to be completed in December 2022. Yet the issue is ongoing and the roll-out has not yet been completed.

Given the Government’s record on court reform, how can tenants, looking for clause 1 and other clauses in chapter 1 to be enacted as soon as possible, have any confidence that sufficient progress will now be made in even the limited number of areas identified by the Government? As I have remarked, the inefficiency of the court system is a huge problem and action must be taken to address its lack of capacity so that possession claims can be expedited. The end of no-fault evictions cannot be made dependent on an unspecified degree of future progress subjectively determined by Ministers.

On Second Reading, we asked for clear commitments from the then Housing Minister on metrics and timescales that would give renters a degree of certainty about when the new tenancy system would be introduced. None was forthcoming. There is a huge amount of confusion, and genuine concern, about this issue. In the absence of any assurances to the contrary, the conclusion that has been reached by many tenants, and those who represent them and defend their interests, is that the Government have reached for a spurious excuse in order to delay the implementation of some of the most fundamental reforms in this legislation, under pressure from the landlord lobby and discontented Members on their own Back Benches.

I have spent some time on this clause stand part debate, but that is because of its importance to millions of tenants in England and Wales. We will return to this issue again when we debate clause 67, but given that the Government have made it operational on clause 1 and the rest of chapter 1 is dependent on those unspecified reports, we would appreciate it if the Minister took the opportunity in this debate to clarify precisely what the Government’s intentions are and set a clear timeline for when the new periodic tenancies provided for by this clause, as well as the rest of the new tenancy system, will come into force.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

In the interests of avoiding repetition, I will keep my remarks fairly brief. As I outlined on Second Reading, Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill. We welcome the objective of achieving a balance between landlords and tenants, increasing the supply in the private rented sector and enhancing the ability of tenants to enjoy a secure and safe home. To that end, we welcome the introduction of periodic tenancies.

I would like to touch on some of the evidence that we heard last week around the absence of any longer-term tenancy option. We heard from both tenant and landlord groups that in certain situations they would like a long-term tenancy option to be introduced. As things stand, periodic tenancies guarantee a tenant only six months’ security before a no-fault ground for eviction can be introduced. For a landlord, that period of certainty is effectively only two months, because of the notice period that the tenant has available to them. Some landlords might therefore feel that they are not secure in that market, given that they cannot guarantee their income. Equally, tenants might feel that they are unable to commit to a local school, for example, or a job, because they do not know whether they will be in that property for longer than six months.

I have not tabled an amendment, because clause 1 does away with fixed-term tenancies and is a fundamental part of the Bill, and also because we are not opposing the introduction of periodic tenancies, but will the Minister give some indication of whether a long-term alternative, where neither the landlord nor the tenant could break those terms, could be considered? That would mean that some people will have the security that they need.

I was particularly concerned about the evidence from Grainger plc that some financing is dependent on the availability of a longer-term period for the landlord. We would all hate to see withdrawal from the housing market because of a lack of financing for landlords, given that the issue of supply underpins this whole housing crisis—not just in the private rented sector, but in social housing, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has already pointed out.

That is my key concern about clause 1. I do not want to repeat the concerns about the delays in implementing clause 1, except to echo them. Landlords are running a business and need certainty about when these reforms will take place, so that they can plan for them. Uncertainty is the worst thing for a business. Even if they do not particularly like the idea that is coming in, planning for it enables them to get over the hurdles, but if there is uncertainty, that is the worst thing for any business to plan for. The Minister needs to be clear about the timescale of reform, when exactly the clause will be implemented and what the finished reform will look like. I echo the concerns around that.

My final point is about further clarity on achieving that balance: we welcome the Government new clauses, which I think are sensible, although some concerns were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. We will not oppose them, but we would like to hear clarity on them, too.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 10:00, 21 November 2023

I rise briefly to reinforce the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and I share in our borough what I think is the largest private rental market in the country, so these issues are of particular concern to us. I am sure that she, like me, deals with consequences of section 21 evictions constantly.

We are all pleased to be here finally to recognise the principle that the section 21 evictions will end. However, I must also echo the concerns about the practice being dependent on a Government decision that in itself rests on agreement on court reform. That, as we heard in evidence last week, is unspecified and imprecise, which allows for the possibility that it will be some time before tenants see the benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich was asked in an intervention how many households had lost their homes since the Government introduced the principle of the Bill. The answer to that is 23,000 households since the commitment to the principle in the Bill. Even more worryingly, if the provisions of the Bill do not come into effect until the end of 2024, we are likely to see an additional 35,000 households losing their homes.

The consequences of losing a home are catastrophic for families. Many of us rented when we were younger, when we were students or young professionals, and moving frequently is a hazard of young life, but the private rented sector has been transformed in recent decades; it is now a home to families with children in a way that it simply was not a couple of decades ago. Therefore, the consequences for those families are at a level of disruption that is quite different, in particular in the impact on young people’s education.

One of the aspects that I deal with a lot, and that causes me great concern, is the number of uprooted families who have education and care plans. Children might be in the middle of special needs education—in particular, vulnerable children with autism or various disabilities—but they are uprooted and moved to different boroughs. That is also at considerable public expense, let alone the damaging consequences for the children.

We also have a growing number of older renters. Again, that was very rare a few decades ago. Those people have put down roots over decades.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Has my hon. Friend had the same experience that I have had? I see an ever-growing number of constituents over 60 who face section 21 eviction. In the 26 years that I have been the MP for Mitcham and Morden and in the previous 18 years that I was a councillor, or when I worked for Wandsworth local authority or the Battersea Churches Housing Trust, I have never seen that. It is a very new development.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I very much agree. That is a new development, and it is extremely worrying and damaging to people’s quality of life.

The whole area of enforced mobility and frequent moves is an under-researched area of social policy, but it has massive implications. There is unfortunately far too little quality research, but from anecdotal evidence we know the negative impacts that frequent moves have on children’s education—I mentioned special needs, but there is an impact on children’s educational opportunities generally. I and, I am sure, other Members who represent areas with large renting populations have heard of children being uprooted in the weeks before they take public examinations, and being forced to commute to their schools, sometimes travelling an hour or more each way. We know that this is bad for educational prospects, we know it is bad for health, and we know that it correlates with low birth rates, infant mortality and serious mental health consequences.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

The guidance code on dealing with homeless families suggests that priority for local temporary accommodation should be given to children in their exam years. That is a great aspiration, but it is not being realised on the ground because local authorities cannot find accommodation, particularly for larger families.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Order. Before the hon. Member for Westminster North replies, I must point out that although these are important matters, they are consequences of what we are discussing but not of the precise clause. We ought to return to the group of amendments before us.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Thank you, Mr Gray. I was merely making the point that agreeing the principle in the Bill but not setting a date, or making the date consequential on an unmeasurable set of objectives, will have serious real-life consequences for individuals and public services.

Regarding court reform, the evidence we heard last week from the Law Society, the Housing Law Practitioners Association and other expert lawyers is that it is simply not a prerequisite for abolishing section 21. I hope the Minister will respond specifically to the evidence we heard that the median time between claim and possession has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, meaning the courts are performing better than in recent years, so the assertion that they are incapable of dealing with the consequences of the abolition of section 21 is not a valid argument. As Shelter told us, the pressure is overstated, in part because most evictions are concluded with tenants vacating before court proceedings; demands on the courts are therefore not as presented. In addition, many possession cases under section 21 would not be legitimate claims under section 8.

We also heard evidence that court digitisation is, if anything, adding to the delays affecting the civil court system. The speed of transformation, the scale of change and the multiplicity of changes happening simultaneously may place an additional burden on the courts system, rather than facilitating speed over the next couple of years. The National Audit Office and PAC reports made much the same points. I argue that the Bill is being delayed because of a flawed and rushed digitisation processes, and unwillingness to recognise that the civil courts as they stand are perfectly capable of dealing with the consequences of the abolition of section 21.

I hope the Minister will respond specifically to those points. The Opposition are desperately anxious to get on with the abolition of section 21. We want families to have security and stability and the pressure on local authorities of homelessness to be reduced. We do not believe that the arguments advanced by the Government for failing to speed ahead with implementation are valid.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I rise to support clause 1, while raising concerns similar to those expressed by my good colleagues about the delay to its implementation. I will first explain why it is important that we abolish fixed-term tenancies and do not provide loopholes whereby such tenancies can be brought back in, despite the well-meaning efforts of colleagues on this Committee.

When the original Act that introduced assured tenancies and assured shorthold tenancies was being discussed, assured tenancies were initially expected to be the dominant form of tenancy. Members can see from the debate at the time that assured shorthold tenancies were meant to be there because some tenants might want the security of a specified period. What happened over the slightly less than 10 years until the 1996 Act was that they dominated and took over the market as the only recourse for people. The reality is that tenants do not have a choice: they must choose what is available—what the landlord offers. If there is an option for any form of fixed period, the landlord might well offer it for that property. That then limits the tenants who can apply for that property to people who are willing to have fixed-term periods only, and eventually those are the only tenancies offered in the market. Effectively, we get to the same situation that we have at the moment.

I applaud the Government for not relenting and giving into having fixed-term periods, even for longer periods. Although the argument might sound appealing, it is a slippery slope. It is also true that none of our future conditions can be predicted. I might sign a tenancy and the landlord’s situation or mine might change; the inability to get out of that situation, or the requirement to go to the courts to get out of it, would bung up the courts and slow the process down. It is, then, the right call to make.

I worry that the link relates to the courts. I heard that the problem was getting bailiffs in at the final stage of the final part for, let us be clear, a very small number. Most people leave when a section 21 notice is issued—in cases under the Bill, that will be when the new grounds are issued—and they leave quickly. They often leave before their time limit is up, because they have found a place, or when it is up. The very few who do not leave and are required to go to court will usually leave as soon as the court has given notice. There is of course a tiny minority who need to be dealt with efficiently—they need forceful eviction via bailiffs and are required to leave.

I think we all agree that reform of the bailiff system needs to happen. It needs to happen on many fronts to make sure that it is sensitive, targets the right people and is efficient for all sides. That does not seem the same as needing to wait for the advanced digitisation of the court system. We all agree that the court system needs digitisation, but they are two different things. The digitising of the bailiff system does not seem to be the problem we have heard about bailiffs: the problem we have heard about bailiffs is the supply chain. It is about the pay and conditions of bailiffs, the equipment they need and procuring the right number of bailiffs in certain areas, with London being particularly problematic. If the Minister is talking about bailiff reform in respect of the delay, it would be useful if he could be clear about what exactly the Government will do to increase the number of bailiffs in the sector. If this is not about bailiff reform, the Minister needs to give clear indicators of what the court reform he talks about actually is.

We heard in evidence that while we can always have improvements in the courts, we must not do it the wrong way around. We need a property portal through which eviction notices can be served to free up some of the court processes. We need an ombudsperson who can help to resolve disputes before they get to the courts, so that we can get to a situation in which things do not lead to eviction because the issue has already been resolved. We also need clearer competencies for councils to be able to fulfil their homelessness duty—there are amendments on that later in the Bill. That is what will free up the courts, so the full implementation of the Bill, not delays to sections of it, is needed to allow the courts to function more effectively.

The danger of delaying the implementation of clauses 1 and 3—on periodic tenancies and section 21—is that there will be a rush for evictions in that period or, as we have heard from Opposition Members, that landlords will be unsure about their situation, the market will slow down and people will withdraw to see what happens. I would like the private rented sector to be smaller overall in the long term, but I do not think anyone thinks that, before we get Britain building again, withdrawing or slowing down the letting market would do anyone any favours.

Let me turn to the importance of not having tenancies that end at a fixed date. We will have slight disagreements about the student market, but we heard that one of its problems is that student tenancies last a year: by the time a student gets to any enforcement mechanism, they are on their way out, so the student housing ends up in a very poor condition. Well, that is the reality of the whole private rented sector at the moment. Many people think, “I am only here for a year, so there is no need to go to my local authority, because it will take too long for enforcement to come around.” That is particularly the case when people have minor issues, such as a little bit of mould but not a lot—most people unfortunately consider that a minor issue, although we should reconsider that thinking. It might be that they have minor issues about the behaviour of their landlord or issues with their neighbours. Those things need to be dealt with, but the problem with a fixed term is that rather than sorting out the problems, tenants hold off because they think, “I will be moving in a year.” The danger with the delay in the implementation of the clause is that more people will not enforce all the other standards that the Bill is meant to provide, such as the decent homes standard.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government) 10:15, 21 November 2023

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about short fixed terms, and I absolutely agree with him. To be clear, my proposal was for a long fixed term of at least three years.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I totally take that point. I am talking specifically about the short-term problem.

On the all-party parliamentary group for renters and rental reform, we heard from Gemma Marshall, who every year has to look for a new house and has had to change her children’s school three times. She lives not in London, which is even worse, but in north Devon. This problem affects all parts of our country. We also heard from Amy Donovan, who does live in London, and equally has had to move numerous times, which has meant that she cannot commute to her job effectively and has had to move job.

This issue causes problems for the very foundations of society. On the Opposition Benches—and, I genuinely believe, on both sides of the House—we believe that strong societies are built with strong, stable families and communities from the ground up. To some extent, communities are built with bricks and mortar—with people being safe and secure where they are. That is why the clause is so important, but also why it is so important that it is implemented right now, because any delay will mean more mould on the walls for the Amys of the world and more new schools for the Gemmas and their children. Whether the wait is a year, two years or whenever the Minister has the whim to act—he has not laid out the conditions in which he will enact the clause—it is not acceptable for anyone.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I do not intend to detain the Committee for long. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown on his powerful contribution to the debate, which has inspired me to make a contribution.

I want to pick up on a point that the hon. Member made about the aims of the clause and the flexibility for tenants to leave their tenancies when they need to. That is welcome, and I welcome the clause. I also welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister is doing and congratulate him, because I have not yet had a chance to do so officially, on his elevation to his position and the work that he has done so far in this space. However, the aims of the clause need to go alongside a regulatory foundation. The Bill rightly builds that flexibility.

This has been an interesting debate; it has almost had two sides. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown spoke about the need for security, and not uprooting families from their community. I agree with that, and I think we all share the aim of building sustainable communities that enable people to put down roots. They need a home with security of tenure, but equally, a regulatory framework is needed if we are to meet the aim of enabling tenants to escape tenancies that are not working because, say, there is mould, or uninhabitable conditions.

I think quite often of the additional licensing schemes that were available to councils, particularly for houses in multiple occupation. The fights that I have had with my local authority to implement those schemes have driven me to the point of madness at times. Authorities—particularly mine, in Sandwell—have the expertise, in many ways. My authority has admitted to me that it could do that. We need a localised, driven regulatory system.

I think we would all agree that landlords are, broadly, good actors. They want to offer decent, habitable homes, and to have people in them for the long term. That benefits the landlord, because they then get emotional and moral investment in the property, and from a long-term, sustainability perspective it of course makes sense to have that. We do not want to broadbrush the sector in general. However, clearly there are bad actors. We all know about them from our postbags; I certainly see them in the area that I represent. We need a framework that deals with the issues. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have had many positive discussions on this subject, and I know that he is committed to it. The framework should be locally driven, in many respects—I know his commitment to localism—and should enable us to catch these people and drive down the problem.

I fully support what clause 1 does. When a tenant needs to get out because the tenancy is frankly not working and puts them in a dangerous situation, getting out is absolutely the right thing to do.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

The hon. Member mentions selective licensing, which is important. Do we need to review the way that authorities apply for selective licensing? Should there be an assumption that they should have selective licensing for all properties, rather than their having to provide evidence for a license? Many shy away from doing that.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

To be honest, I probably want a comprehensive selective system. There are already structures and expertise that would enable us to have that. The hon. Gentleman and I have probably had similar experiences with constituency casework. Something like that could be preventive. I am not saying that the issues we have talked about would not still present themselves—let us face it: they probably always will—but if we can mitigate them, that is what we need to do.

I welcome the clause for a variety of reasons that Members from across the Committee have touched on. It is welcome that it enables tenants to leave more expeditiously, but I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we need to continue the conversation. The Bill is part of a broader conversation about how we ensure that we do not even get to the point at which the measures are needed, because we have habitable homes, people have somewhere to live safely, and they do not have to fall back on the provisions all the time just to keep themselves safe. The clause is absolutely the right way forward. My hon. Friend the Minister can see that there is support for it from across the Committee. I thank him for hearing me out.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I ask the Minister to consider the law of unintended consequences. If the Government delay implementation of the clauses that end section 21 evictions, they could find that landlords who are worried about their ability to evict tenants or have choices will rush for a clause 21 eviction, because they know that at some point section 21 evictions will be ended. The longer it takes the courts to be reformed, in whatever undisclosed way we are considering, the greater that concern will be.

As I said, I see a lot of older long-term assured shorthold tenants being evicted, their landlord rushing them toward the door because they do not want a tenant who has limited means of paying increased rent in the future, and because they are concerned about the news that it will be difficult to evict anyone. The rush for the door is distressing for the people involved, but has the knock-on effect of causing huge problems for local authorities attempting to assist people who are in priority need in terms of homelessness. We are all seeing many more people than usual being evicted via section 21. That has enormous consequences in so many ways.

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

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray. The central plank of the Bill is the abolition of section 21, as everybody in this room knows. We all experience this concern in our postbag and constituencies, yet it seems that the can has been kicked down the road. The changed narrative, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, is that the focus is now on court reform, particularly digitalisation.

Thousands of people face evictions. The local authority in my city region, Liverpool City Council, has declared a homelessness emergency. Homelessness is now on an industrial scale. To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden about potential reforms coming down the line in the Bill, including the abolition of section 21, landlords are focusing on that at the moment.

The learned lawyers Giles Peaker and Liz Davies were clear that the court system overall is working. That is certainly not the problem. Reference was made to bailiffs, particularly in the London area. Fundamental to this—I know we all agree—is to end the misery and insecurity for families and children. People increasingly use the private rented sector. The Bill will reward most landlords—good landlords. It is almost a good landlord’s charter in many ways. It needs some amendments and tidying up, but fundamental to the Bill is the abolition of section 21. That should not rely on reform of the courts, which is a red herring that has been influenced by stakeholders, many of them sitting on the Benches in the Chamber. I urge the Minister, who is relatively new in his post—I welcome him to it—to make his mark and do the right thing in the next 12 months or so, while he has the opportunity in government.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Before I ask the Minister to reply to the debate, may I make it plain that I have been relatively flexible in this first debate? I will not be so flexible and open-minded subsequently.

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

I am grateful to you, Mr Gray, and to the Committee for their consideration. As you and members of the Committee have identified, we plan to debate further a lot of the things that have been discussed already.

I say to concerned hon. Members that the Government are committed to the abolition of section 21. In fact, I am sure the Committee is committed to the abolition of section 21. I invite any hon. Member who is not to speak now or forever hold their peace. That is exactly what we are debating today. No one could expect that the implementation of a brand-new tenancy system would not require reform. Surely all hon. Members agree that we need to get this reform right.

Many hon. Members have mentioned that tenants need certainty. Surely they would also agree that abolishing section 21 without the courts having the capacity and ability to deal with the potential increase in the contested cases would give no one certainty. Some Committee Members say that we do not need to wait; others say that we do. That is exactly the point: we are trying to strike the right balance.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:30, 21 November 2023

Can the Minister tell us clearly why the two-stage transition process set out in clause 67 does not afford the Government enough time to make the necessary improvements?

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

We will come on to that point when we discuss clause 67. I want to address some of the points that have been raised, particularly the question about bailiffs. HMCTS has already begun making improvements at the bailiff stage, including automated payments for debtors, to reduce the need for doorstep visits in those cases. We are also improving guidance to increase awareness of each party’s rights and responsibilities.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire spoke about the concern raised in evidence about longer fixed-term tenancies. I completely understand the hon. Lady’s position. I understand the genuine concern that she and the people giving evidence have. Our fear, which was rightly identified by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, is that to include any fixed-term tenancies creates a loophole. We are certain about abolishing section 21, so we do not believe that having a fixed-term tenancy will provide any security to the tenant. It could, in fact, lock a tenant into a property that they would be unable to get out of, even if the property was of poor quality, because the term of their tenancy was fixed. I hope that the hon. Member for North Shropshire can accept that.

I will write to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown other Committee members specifically on the points raised by the Opposition on new clause 6. I am pleased that there is a consensus on clause 1. We all want to see this measure implemented. I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.