Clause 2 - Abolition of assured shorthold tenancies

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 21 November 2023.

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

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

With this it will be convenient to consider Government new clause 18—Abandoned premises under assured shorthold tenancies.

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

Clause 2 removes the assured shorthold tenancy regime entirely, including section 21 evictions, meaning that in future all tenancies will be assured. Ending these section 21 no-fault evictions will provide tenants with more security and the knowledge that their home is theirs until they choose to leave, or the landlord has a valid reason for possession. It will allow tenants and their families to put down roots, providing them with the stability that we know is a prerequisite for achievement.

Government new clause 18 deals with property abandonment. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 introduced provisions that would allow a landlord of an assured shorthold tenancy to recover possession without a court order if the tenant had abandoned the property, owes more than two months’ rent and the landlord has served three warning notices. Those provisions were never brought into force and we consider they are inconsistent with the intentions of the Bill to provide greater security. Removal of the provisions will help prevent landlords from ending a tenancy without a court order where a property appears to have been empty for a long period. It is possible that, on occasion, a property may appear to have been abandoned, but the tenant is in hospital or caring for relatives. Instead, landlords will need to use one of the specified grounds.

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

Let me start by making it clear that the Opposition welcome Government new clause 18. Although I have not been in Parliament long compared with other Members, I have been here long enough to remember sitting on the Bill Committee for the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Part 3 of that Act, which this new clause repeals, was always a foolish provision, and has rightly never been brought into force. We believe it is right that we rid ourselves of what might be termed statutory dead wood.

Clause 2 will remove section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 and, as the Minister made clear, will abolish assured shorthold tenancies and remove mechanisms by which assured social housing tenants can currently be offered ASTs—for example, as starter tenancies—or be downgraded to an AST as a result of antisocial behaviour. The provisions in this clause, as well as those in clause 1, will be brought into force on a date specified by regulations made by the Secretary of State under clause 67. It is appropriate to raise a very specific issue on this clause. We have just discussed court improvements at length. I know that is not the Minister’s brief, and that this is his first Bill, but I have to say to him that his answers on court reform were not adequate. At some point, the Government will have to explain specifically what improvements they wish to see enacted and on what timeline they will be brought into force. Leaving that aside, can the Minister provide further details on precisely how the Government intend to phase in the provisions in this clause? What consideration, if any, has been given to preventing unintended consequences arising from the proposed staged implementation?

The guidance on tenancy reform that the Government published alongside the Bill on 17 May said:

“We will provide at least six months’ notice of our first implementation date after which all new tenancies will be periodic and governed by the new rules”— that is when they will introduce Part 1, Chapter 1. It continued:

“The date of this will be dependent on when Royal Assent is received”.

I take that to mean that, at some point in the future, a Government Minister will hopefully determine that the court system is, in the their eyes, finally ready to implement the new system—although there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that will happen. He or she would then presumably announce that the first implementation date—that is, the date when all new periodic tenancies come into force—will be six months hence.

I would like the Minister to confirm whether my understanding of how the Government expect the process to develop is correct. If so, can he respond to the concern—the flip side of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden’s point on a rush to section 21 evictions—that this may create a clear incentive for landlords to offer new tenants a lengthy fixed-term assured tenancy before the new system comes into effect?

If the safeguard in the Government’s mind is that all existing tenancies will transition to the new system on the second implementation date, can the Minister provide any reassurance that the period between the first and second implementation dates will not be overly long? I raise the point because the guidance makes explicit reference to a minimum period between the first and second dates, but does not specify a maximum period after which the second date would have to come into effect. As the Bill stands, it could enable a scenario where all new tenancies become periodic, but there is an extensive period of time where all existing fixed tenancies remain as such. It could be an indefinite period, there is nothing in this Bill to put any time limit on it at all. I look forward to hearing whether the Minister can provide any reassurances in relation to that concern. If he cannot, we may look to table another amendment to account for this loophole, whether it is intended or unintended.

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

I thank the hon. Member for his support. He asked about the first and second dates. He is entirely right on the first date—it is six months. The second date is 12 months. I hope that gives him reassurance.

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

Just to clarify: as I understand it, 12 months is the minimum. Is the Minister saying that there is a maximum? If not, will the Government consider introducing a maximum? I see the officials shaking their heads. There is no maximum in the Bill. We could have a system where, six months after Royal Assent, all new tenancies become periodic and all existing tenancies could remain fixed indefinitely. What is there in the Bill to prevent an incentive for landlords to rush before the first implementation date to hand out fixed tenancies across the board for very extended periods of time to circumvent the measures in the law?

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

Ultimately, we want to bring in these measures as quickly as we can. The system will be in place soon. What I will do to give the hon. Gentleman the assurances he desires is to write to him further. We can agree on that principle and if changes are needed to the Bill, I am happy to consider them.

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

I want us to give the Minister an opportunity to elaborate on court reform, because it is also relevant to this clause, in terms of when it will be implemented and the indicators as to when it will be implemented. Will he be able to write to us, or publish after the Bill receives Royal Assent, what those clear indicator thresholds are regarding when court reform will be completed, so that it will be clear for everyone? It does not need to be set out in the Bill, but a commitment that the Government will do that, so that everyone will know when that threshold has been met, would be useful.

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

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about this point. As I mentioned earlier, I think we will discuss this issue when we debate clause 67, so we can have that debate then.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.