Clause 27 - Offences

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 28 November 2023.

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Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 9:45, 28 November 2023

I beg to move amendment 65, in clause 27, page 38, line 23, leave out subsection (9).

This amendment removes provision that is no longer needed as a result of NC19.

Government new clause 19—Rent repayment orders for offences under sections 27 and 48.

New clause 57—Extension of rent repayment orders—

“(1) In Section 40(3) of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, at end of table insert—

8

Housing Act 1988

Section 16D, 16E

Duties on landlords and agents as regards information provision and prohibition on reletting

9

Renters (Reform) Act 2024

Sections 24

Landlord redress provisions

10

Renters (Reform) Act 2024

Section 39 (3)

Active landlord database entry”

This new clause would ensure that rent repayment orders can be made to the landlord under the relevant tenancy in any instance where a financial penalty or offence is made relating to clauses 9, 10, 24 or 27 of the Bill.

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

Clause 27 sets out when a person will be liable for a criminal offence under the redress clauses. The provisions cover landlords who repeatedly fail to sign up with the ombudsman and persons of business who repeatedly market the property of an unregistered landlord. They will specifically include those who breach the same regulations after a previous conviction or who have received a financial penalty for breaching the regulations within the previous five years. These offences will not carry a custodial sentence, but can be subject to an unlimited fine.

Government amendments 65 and 68 and Government new clause 19 will amend existing housing regulations in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 so that, in the most extreme cases, local councils can ban landlords who have been successfully prosecuted under the redress provisions. Tenants and councils will be able to apply to the first-tier tribunal for rent repayment orders against landlords convicted of failing to join the ombudsman. Landlords who refuse to join cannot be legally bound by its decisions. Allowing rent repayment orders will make sure that tenants are entitled to some recompense, regardless of whether a landlord follows the rules or not.

I thank the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for tabling new clause 57, which would allow rent repayment orders to be made against landlords for less serious, non-criminal breaches of the Bill and for some of the new tenancy reform offences. We tabled new clause 21 to increase the maximum amount that a landlord may have to pay under a rent repayment order from 12 months to two years of the rent paid by tenants. New clause 57 would therefore mean that, for example, a landlord who failed to be a member of a redress scheme could be ordered to pay up to two years-worth of rent. We think that would be disproportionate. We will debate new clause 21 fully when we reach clause 67. I therefore ask the hon. Member not to press his new clause.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:00, 28 November 2023

I will speak to new clause 57. I will state up front that we welcome the Government amendments to clause 27 and in this area to toughen the sanctions on landlords who display the types of behaviour the Minister has just set out. As I indicated last week when we debated amendments 163 and 164 and the financial penalties that local authorities could levy for breaches and offences under clauses 9 and 10, we believe that rent repayment orders should be a more significant feature of the Bill as a means to aid enforcement of the new tenancy system; to ensure compliance with the requirements to be a member of the ombudsman and maintain an active landlord database entry; and to fairly compensate tenants for losses incurred due to a failure on the part of landlords to comply with the duties and obligations provided for in the Bill.

As the Committee will know, rent repayment orders were introduced by the Housing Act 2004, and were hugely expanded via section 40 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016. They allow the occupier of a property—usually a tenant—and local authorities to apply to the first-tier tribunal for an order that a landlord or his or her agent should repay rent of up to a maximum of 12 months—although the Minister has just made it clear that, in certain circumstances, the Government propose to lengthen that period to 24 months. Rent repayment orders are an accessible, informal and relatively straightforward means by which tenants can obtain redress in the form of financial compensation without having to rely on another body in instances where a landlord or his or her agent has committed, beyond reasonable doubt, an offence that relates to the occupation or letting of a property.

As Simon Mullings, the co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, argued in the evidence he gave to the Committee on 16 November:

“Rent repayment orders create, as I have said before to officials in DLUHC, an army of motivated enforcers, because you have tenants who are motivated to enforce housing standards to do with houses in multiple occupancy, conditions and all sorts of things.”––[Official Report, Renters (Reform) Public Bill Committee, 16 November 2023; c. 114, Q146.]

We know that rent repayment orders are already being utilised on a scale the dwarfs the use of other enforcement tools. In London, for example, the available data suggests that more properties were subject to a rent repayment order in the years 2020, 2021 and 2022 than civil penalties and criminal convictions relating to licensing in the same period.

The Bill as originally drafted allowed for rent repayment orders to be made only where a landlord had committed an offence under clause 27(9) relating to continuing or repeat breaches after a penalty had been imposed. As the Minister has made clear, Government new clause 19 adds a series of offences under clause 48 concerning the provision of false or misleading information to the private rented sector database and continuing or repeat breaches. We welcome that.

Separately, Government new clause 21 provides that a rent repayment order can be made against a superior landlord, thereby overriding the judgment made in the recent case of Rakusen v. Jepsen and others, which was heard by the Supreme Court. We welcome its incorporation into the Bill. We take the Government’s decision to table it as a clear indication that they view rent repayment orders as a practical and accessible means of enforcement by tenants or occupiers.

However, we want the Government to go further and extend the tribunal’s ability to make rent repayment orders for the following: first, a breach of new sections 16D and 16E of the Housing Act 1988, relating to the duty on landlords and contractors to give a statement of terms and other information, and the no-let prohibition in respect of grounds 1 and 1A; secondly, a failure to register with the ombudsman, as required by clause 24 of the Bill; and thirdly, a failure to keep an entry on the database up to date and to comply with all the relevant requirements of clause 39.

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

Despite my reservations about having three different deposit schemes, one of the reasons that the deposit scheme compliance is so high is because it comes with an element of rent repayment orders. The likelihood of local authorities being able to chase that up is next to zero. The likelihood of tenants being able to do that is extremely high.

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

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which pre-empts one that I am about to make. We think that rent repayment orders can and do provide an incentive for landlords in these areas.

We believe, specifically when it comes to new clause 57, that allowing the tribunal to make rent repayment orders for these additional specific breaches would provide an additional incentive for landlords to comply with the relevant duties, requirements and prohibitions, and enable wronged tenants to be compensated for any losses incurred. Extending rent repayment orders to the relevant requirements of clause 39, for example, would be a powerful stimulus for landlord portal registration, because it would become the norm for tenants to check whether their landlord or prospective landlord was compliant.

Conversely, if the entitlement to apply for a rent repayment order were to apply to the relevant requirements of clause 39, it would provide tenants with a compelling reason to visit the portal, to learn about their rights and access information and resources they might not otherwise come across until the point they had a serious complaint or were engaged in a dispute with a landlord. This example also illustrates how an extension of rent repayment orders could alleviate some of the burdens that would otherwise fall on local authorities as the only mechanism to enforce, by means of financial penalties and criminal offences, a number of the breaches in the Bill to which they currently do not apply.

In the scenario I have outlined, tenants incentivised by the potential to apply an RRO to a landlord who was not compliant would act as an intelligence-gathering mechanism for local authorities, helping them to identify unregistered properties that they might otherwise struggle to locate and register. Put simply, as Dr Henry Dawson said to the Committee in the evidence session on 14 November:

“Using rent repayment orders incentivises tenants to keep an eye on landlords.”––[Official Report, Renters (Reform) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2023; c. 60, Q74.]

The Minister may assure me that the regulations to come may provide for rent repayment orders in relation to clauses 24 and 39(3). If that is the case, we would welcome it, but I would much prefer him to accept the new clause and expand the use of rent repayment orders in the Bill to encourage compliance and give tenants the means to secure, for themselves, redress for poorly behaving landlords. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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

The purpose of rent repayment orders is to provide an effective means through which tenants can hold criminal landlords to account and receive due remedy. Extending rent repayment orders to cover non-criminal civil breaches would mean landlords could be ordered to pay up to two years’ worth of rent for a relatively minor non-compliance. We think that this would be disproportionate. We think that scarce court time should be focused on dealing with serious offences rather than more minor breaches. For first and minor non-compliance, with provisions in the Bill there will be several means of redress and enforcement, including the ombudsman and civil penalties of up to £5,000, but I am happy to continue this conversation with the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich further.

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

I welcome the Minister’s response. There may be a difference of principle here, in that we feel quite strongly, actually, that rent repayment orders should be extended to non-criminal civil breaches of requirements set out in the Bill. I take the Minister’s point about this being an excessive response to landlord non-compliance for first or minor breaches. I say to him that perhaps the Government could explore a grace period as the schemes are being introduced, where landlords are not caught within an extended rent repayment order scheme, or some sort of get-out from first or minor offences.

We are trying to address a way, once the scheme is bedded in and landlords—without committing a criminal offence—are regularly not complying with mandatory membership of the ombudsman or registering with a portal, for landlords to be further incentivised, so that tenants are aware of their rights and hold their landlords to account. This may be an issue that we will come back to, but I very much welcome the Minister’s assurance that we will continue the dialogue on this point.

Amendment 65 agreed to.

Clause 27, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.