Clause 58 - Enforcement by local housing authorities: general duty

Part of Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 28 November 2023.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:45, 28 November 2023

Part 3 of the Bill concerns the enforcement authorities, and clause 58 is the key clause. It imposes a new duty on local authorities to enforce, by means of financial penalties or by instituting offence proceedings, prohibitions of the landlord legislation in their areas. Subsection (4) sets out the definition of “landlord legislation”, referring to sections 1 and 1A of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 and chapter 1 of part 1 of the Housing Act 1988. Neither of those are new, obviously, but local authorities have never had a duty to enforce them before, and the 1977 Act will require a different approach from the police to unlawful evictions. It also refers to the whole of part 2 of the Bill—all the prohibitions relating to the ombudsman and the property portal. By any definition, that constitutes a significant array of new regulatory and enforcement responsibilities for local authorities to meet.

Various proposals in the Bill could, if they work well, make local authority enforcement of prohibitions of the landlord legislation in their areas easier. The new ombudsman has the potential, for example, to provide an alternative route for dispute resolution and a distinct and effective route to redress when it comes to breaches of prohibitions relating to the misuse of possession grounds and for not providing a written statement of terms, thus ensuring that local authorities are not the only enforcement body for such contraventions. Similarly, the new private rented sector database has the potential, for example, to allow local authorities to far more easily identify poor-quality and non-compliant properties and who owns them, thus addressing a key barrier for local authorities when it comes to enforcing standards.

However, there is a circular reasoning fallacy at work here, because the new ombudsman and the new private rented sector database will work effectively only if all landlords, including the more unscrupulous, feel compelled to become members of the former and register with the latter. Yet the only means of compulsion that the Bill provides for are discretionary financial penalties that we believe—as we have already debated at great length—are not only capped at levels that many unscrupulous landlords will judge are sufficiently low to make a breach worth the risk, but are enforced by local authorities themselves. As a result, the extent to which the totality of provisions in this legislation will be effectively enforced ultimately depends on whether local authorities can, in practice, meet the array of new regulatory and enforcement responsibilities the Bill has conferred upon them. There is very good reason to believe that, as things stand, they may struggle to do so.

I want therefore to take the opportunity to raise two distinct issues of concern with the Minister, and the first concerns oversight. Current levels of local authority enforcement are generally far too low, and within that there are huge disparities in activity levels between different local authorities. Local authorities are also making little use of their power to issue civil penalties, with a small number of proactive councils responsible for the bulk of those issued. Yet there are no provisions in the Bill to ensure that the Government will be able to monitor which councils are prioritising enforcement and using the full range of tools and legal powers at their disposal, and which are not.

I will be grateful if the Minister can tell the Committee why the commitment made in the White Paper to

“bolster national oversight of local councils’ enforcement, including by exploring requirements for councils to report on their housing enforcement activity”,

seemingly has not been taken forward in the Bill, and whether the Government plan to take any non-legislative steps to boost oversight of local authority enforcement strategies. I would also be grateful if he could let us know whether we can expect the Department to issue future guidance to local authorities on how the relevant provisions in the Bill can be most effectively enforced.