I am pleased to open the debate and to move the motion in my name.
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its detailed consideration of the bill, which was informed by evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. I appreciate the time that was taken by the committee to seek the views of key stakeholders. The bill has benefited from the debate in committee and the chamber, and from on-going dialogue with stakeholders.
I thank the clerks to the committee for their help and co-operation throughout the passage of the bill. I also particularly thank the bill team in the Scottish Government, who have been extremely helpful to me in progressing a fairly complex and complicated bill.
The Scottish Government sees a modern, thriving, high-quality Scottish private rented sector as an essential part of housing provision in Scotland. In our document, “Housing: Fresh Thinking, New Ideas”, we outlined our wish to strengthen the private rented sector. We also want to do what we can, within our limited power and resources, to make that happen. We have made submissions both to the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, and to the current chancellor, George Osborne, asking them to extend the tax advantages that exist for investment in commercial property to investment in the housing sector. If the chancellor were prepared to do so in his budget, on 23 March, that would act as a major spur to investment in housing—in particular, in the private housing sector.
It is incumbent on us to recognise that the vast majority of landlords are good landlords. That was shown in the PRS survey that was conducted two years ago by the Scottish Government. The people whom we have to tackle are the small minority, who are often geographically concentrated, who give landlordism a bad name. Those are the people at whom the bill is targeted. At the same time, we want to ensure that the regulation that is being put in place is proportionate while protecting the rights of tenants and landlords. We also want to develop a longer-term strategy for the sector’s growth. I believe that the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill will play its part in that by giving local authorities greater powers to tackle bad practice and penalise unlawful operators, as well as by improving tenants’ and landlords’ awareness of their rights and responsibilities.
The bill is the result of a collaborative process in which evidence was taken over many months prior to the bill’s introduction and during the committee stages.
Will the minister assure the chamber that the powers that the bill establishes will force local authorities to act when private landlords do not live up to the expectations of the rest of us and that local authorities will have sufficient powers to deal with those private landlords, so that we will have an end of local authorities telling members of the Scottish Parliament that there is nothing they can do?
I agree with Tricia Marwick that enforcement is crucial. The powers are now well in place and I believe that the local authorities have the tools to do the job. As Tricia Marwick and others know, we are currently undertaking a review of enforcement practice throughout the country, which will report fairly soon. We will seek to make practical proposals and implement further practical, non-legislative proposals to ensure that there is more effective implementation of both the existing legislation and the additional legislation in the bill.
The bill process has involved the local authorities, as well as representatives of the private rented sector. I pay tribute to the work of the private rented sector strategy group, which advised me on these matters and will continue to do so. Members of the group are the expert stakeholders, including tenant and landlord representatives and local authorities, and their recommendations formed the basis of the public consultation leading up to the bill. As part of the process, I established a sounding board that brought together all those with an interest in the bill so that the Government could benefit from their views on how the bill could be enhanced and developed as it moved through its parliamentary stages. Members of all parties will recognise that we have taken on board their concerns and, I hope, accommodated them at least partially in some of the amendments that have been agreed to this afternoon.
The bill strengthens the system of landlord registration, including by expanding the fit-and-proper person test and by making it clear to local authorities that issues such as antisocial behaviour must be taken into account. It gives local authorities new powers to obtain information to crack down on unregistered landlords, including an ability to require managing agents to provide a list of properties that they manage. It improves and enhances the system of the licensing of houses in multiple occupation that comes into force this autumn by giving local authorities powers to consider whether requisite planning permission has been obtained. That will help local authorities to strike the right balance between providing safe, decent accommodation for students and other tenants and considering the impacts on communities of concentrations of HMOs.
The bill gets tough on the worst offenders by increasing the maximum fines for HMO-licensing and landlord-registration offences to £50,000. That sends a clear message that we recognise the seriousness of such offences and that they will not be tolerated.
The bill will not only help local authorities to crack down on poor landlord practice, but help to protect tenants by improving their understanding of their and their landlords’ rights and responsibilities through the mandatory tenant information pack, and by strengthening local authorities’ powers to deal with overcrowding. By clarifying the position and enabling the Government to specify what reasonable fees can be charged, it will prevent unscrupulous agents from charging unreasonable premiums. Further, it will help landlords to meet their responsibilities with regard to the repairing standard by enabling them to access the private rented housing panel for assistance.
Amendments at stage 2 strengthened the bill’s provisions on overcrowding, taking account of concerns that were raised by the committee about the impact on vulnerable tenants and potential homelessness. As a result, the bill now requires local authorities to perform a range of additional checks and balances; that includes considering the impacts of serving the notice on the people living in the house, particularly with regard to homelessness. It also places on local authorities a duty to provide information and advice to occupants of the house when serving a notice.
David McLetchie’s amendment to the 20-year rules will assist our overall approach to helping the PRS grow by unblocking barriers to new innovative funding approaches—it is a pity that Mr McLetchie is not here to hear my praise. That follows on from the powers for the social rented sector that were introduced in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010.
I look forward to a final constructive debate on the bill, which I am confident will make an impact in areas where it is needed most.
With great pleasure, I move,
That the Parliament agrees that the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill be passed.
I am sure that I am not the only one who feels a sense of achievement when we reach stage 3 of a bill, and that is especially true when one has been particularly involved through all stages of the bill. Therefore, I am extremely pleased to have reached stage 3 of the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill.
Although I welcome the measures in the bill, it is also right to point out areas in which we might have gone further and work that still needs to be done—not necessarily through legislation but perhaps, as the minister said earlier, through guidance.
The bill will strengthen landlord registration by expanding the fit-and-proper person test and increasing the level of fine for non-registration. In the stage 1 debate, I asked the minister how those measures would make it more likely that local authorities would actively pursue unregistered landlords. Unfortunately, the minister did not actually answer the question. However, he went on to ask me whether I would be willing to place a duty on councils to make them more active. I hope that whoever is the housing minister after the election will sit down with councils’ housing conveners and stress to them the importance of landlord registration. If that does not improve regulation, the Parliament will need to consider whether it needs to further strengthen the legislation.
Similar action will be required in relation to the judiciary, to ensure that it completely understands the importance of the legislation around issues such as landlord registration. If the new Government after May is a Labour Government, such discussions might be part of discussions on establishing a housing court or tribunal.
I recognise what Ted Brocklebank was trying to do with his amendment 15, which was on HMOs, and I am pleased that members supported it. I heard the witnesses who raised concerns in the committee about the overprovision of HMOs in their locality and I have frequently heard my colleagues Pauline McNeill and Patricia Ferguson raising similar concerns on behalf of their constituents. I have doubts about whether amendment 15 will deliver but, on balance, I was happy to support the intention. However, the minister must respond to the concerns of Shelter and the National Union of Students Scotland, which Patrick Harvie raised. They have pointed out that there is likely to be increased demand for HMOs, due to changes in the housing benefit rules—perhaps up to 7,500 more properties will be needed. How will we respond to that demand?
As I did in the stage 1 debate, I support NUS Scotland’s call for a strategy to address young people’s housing needs. Whether they are students or young adults, all young people face barriers to accessing appropriate housing at this time and we owe it to them to give the issue serious consideration.
The bill will give councils powers to issue overcrowding statutory notices. I welcome that but think that fellow committee members would agree that, during the passage of the bill, we were all made aware that overcrowding is a complicated issue. I accept that parts of the legislation that we have introduced go some way towards addressing the matter, but I suspect that we cannot think that we have resolved the issue yet. I am pleased that members agreed to my amendment 2 so that there will be a review of the overcrowding measures after three years. That will allow members to be reassured that the measures in the bill are having the correct effect.
Other issues in the bill have perhaps not received quite as much attention as the issues that I have mentioned. The minister referred to one of them in his opening statement: reasonable charges. Reasonable charges are important if we are to have a responsive private rented sector that delivers housing at rates that can be afforded.
The other issue that we did not spend a lot of time considering, partly because there was a lot of agreement about it, was the provision of the tenant information pack. Again, that will benefit people. At stage 2, I moved an amendment on carbon monoxide testers, and other issues relating to gas and electricity have been raised. I look forward to the future committee working with the minister on developing the guidance that will go with the tenant information pack.
I am happy to support the bill, but there is more to do in private rented housing. Some elements will need to be legislated on and others will not, but members should be reassured that Labour will be happy to support the future housing minister in his or her efforts.
The Conservatives support and will vote for the bill.
Going through the process has been interesting and certain aspects of today’s procedures have been particularly interesting. We have before us legislation that has been arrived at through a particular route. Of course, the Conservatives opposed the last-minute introduction of landlord registration schemes in the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill in 2004, because we believed that there had been no proper consultation at that time, and the provisions focused on creating good tenants rather than on improving the landlord-tenant relationship. However, we believe that progress has been made by the means that have been used. We need to ensure that the landlord registration scheme does not simply become a tax on landlords who provide good accommodation and service, but eliminates bad practice from the sector. Again, we have made significant progress on that today.
As the minister said, at stage 2 David McLetchie took the opportunity to lodge amendments that amended the Land Tenure Reform (Scotland) Act 1974 in relation to the 20-year rule—that is, the restriction on residential leases of more than 20 years and the right to redeem heritable securities after 20 years. The approach will allow ministers, by order, to prescribe bodies for whom the rules are relaxed, which is a vital step forward in the provision of effective housing.
HMO licensing became central to our consideration at stage 2, as it was at stage 3. I apologise for frightening a few horses at stage 2. In a discussion with Ted Brocklebank, I had agreed to ensure that HMO density was properly discussed at stage 2, so I lodged an amendment that was designed to ensure that the matter was discussed. My objective was not to require planning permission for all HMOs but to get the issue on the agenda. I apologise to anyone whom I frightened—I replied to their e-mails.
The objective was achieved. I withdrew the amendment that I had lodged at stage 2 and, after negotiation, Ted Brocklebank was able to lodge amendment 15 at stage 3. The amendment’s being agreed to has resulted in a change to the bill that I hope will deal with the problem that Ted Brocklebank identified in St Andrews, which I know exists and requires to be addressed in other areas of Scotland.
Today’s proceedings have been particularly interesting. During the past few days, the Parliament has considered a number of bills at stage 3 and very few amendments have come to a vote. We voted on an amendment today only to discover that it had been agreed to with 119 votes for and none against. I congratulate Pauline McNeill, who moved the unopposed amendment 1, and Ted Brocklebank, on their clever and astute political activity in recent days. The outcome demonstrates that if a person has experience of parliamentary procedure and works the system to their advantage, they can get their way—even if many members were surprised at just how close to the wire the voting went.
I pay tribute to Ted Brocklebank and hope that amendment 15 will serve as a memorial to his time in the Parliament. It will not be the only one; he has contributed a great deal during his time here, particularly on fisheries, his knowledge of which was valuable to us.
I say to all members who, like me, have dragged themselves around various housing organisations in recent weeks to do pre-election hustings, that many people out there think that we spend all our time fighting and arguing. My experience in the Local Government and Communities Committee, my experience during the passage of several bills in recent months and my experience of working with the minister indicate to me that, although we might have different ideas, we have the same objective. I hope that that will continue in the next session of the Parliament.
I thank my colleagues on the Local Government and Communities Committee, the committee clerks, the bill team and the minister for their hard work and dedication in bringing forward this important housing bill, which the Liberal Democrats will support at decision time.
The bill will prove to be an important piece of housing legislation, which will protect many vulnerable people while ensuring that private landlords can function in a profitable and good-quality market. The amendments to which we agreed today, the vast majority of which were uncontentious and technical in nature, tidy things up, but given the problems that can arise from subdivision of HMOs and the friction that sometimes exists between permanent residents and students in HMO areas, it was never going to be plain sailing.
Liberal Democrats had sympathy with Ted Brocklebank’s amendment 15, on overprovision of HMOs, although we were concerned that it could restrict the availability and raise the price of student accommodation in our university towns and cities. The amendment seems to block further HMOs, but in fact it gives local authorities an option to restrict the number of HMOs, to suit local needs. As Ted Brocklebank said, the provision is not retrospective, which is important.
The Liberal Democrats hope that amendment 15 will not be used to restrict student accommodation unnecessarily and to drive up costs for those least able to afford it. We have some concerns about the possible adverse effect on our student populations, but that must be balanced against the needs of permanent residents in our towns and cities. On balance, we agreed with amendment 15, and we hope that it will be used wisely by our local authority colleagues to ensure a good balance of accommodation needs for all residents.
Pauline McNeill’s amendment 1 proved just as controversial—and Alex Johnstone has just referred to the oddness of the vote. On first reading, amendment 1 seemed to be a bit all over the place. It seemed to provide more questions than answers. However, we examined it more closely and again, on balance, we felt that it provided important protection not just to the residents of subdivided accommodation but to other residents outwith subdivided properties. A lot of this bill’s aim is about discouraging landlords from practices such as subdivision and ensuring that they are able to operate in a fair and profitable market.
There has also been some disagreement over Mary Mulligan’s amendment 2. Mary, never one to court controversy—much—has upset the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities over her subsections (2)(c) and (2)(d), which COSLA claims will
“place unrealistic expectations on local government.”
In the Local Government and Communities Committee, through a number of bills and Scottish statutory instruments, I have highlighted similar concerns on a number of occasions. However, with a number of possible uses of parts of this bill, we feel that a reporting mechanism is essential to ensure that the bill is used wisely once enacted.
This bill has been one of the more difficult to work through for a whole host of reasons. Amendments at both stage 2 and stage 3 have been controversial but, on balance, we feel that it will lead to a very worthwhile piece of legislation. The Liberal Democrats will be happy to support the bill at decision time.
Sometimes it might seem to people as if we in this Parliament are navel gazing or talking only to ourselves, but nothing could be further from the truth. This bill is an example of that. We have consulted widely and have received a tremendous response from tenants and landlords—and even from groups of people who are neither. We might wonder why those latter groups would have an interest, but in a moment I will give members the example of the Croftfoot housing action group, none of whom is a tenant and none of whom is a landlord. Despite that, the action group has played its part in the development of the bill.
Far from navel gazing, we are today considering the final stage of a bill that will make a significant difference to the lives of real people. Let me give members just two examples. I will start with the Croftfoot housing action group—a force to be reckoned with in the south-east of Glasgow. It was formed because local people were fed up with rogue landlords who were not taking responsibility for the minority of antisocial tenants, for communal property or for the community from which they profit. When this bill is passed, Marilyn and Anne Marie from the action group, who are in the public gallery today, will be able to go back to Croftfoot and tell their community that things are changing—and changing for the better. Now when they come across landlords who refuse to take responsibility, who refuse to play their part in maintaining the property and who refuse to acknowledge their social responsibilities, they will know that action will be taken—action that can include the imposition of fines of up to £50,000 for registration offences. They will also finally be able to track those landlords down.
I welcome the fact that part of the fit-and-proper person test will be a consideration of how landlords deal with antisocial behaviour by their tenants. That represents the practical support that Croftfoot housing action group has been looking for. I am pleased that it will be delivered under an SNP Government with consensus across the Parliament.
The new legislation will protect some of the families I met in Govanhill who are new to Scotland—many of whom have been trafficked, which, of course, is a wider issue. Sometimes, 20 people are living in a two-bedroom flat. Their exploitation will be curtailed because the bill will make it easier for the authorities to find and stop rogue landlords whose only interest—whose raison d’être—is to make a profit at all costs.
Shared information is the way forward. For example, if a property is not registered, no housing benefit will be paid. Some local authorities already apply that rule. However, now that I feel reassured that we are doing what we can to protect tenants and local communities, I want to say something about the good landlords on the other side of the housing benefit argument—and I know that the minister has acknowledged that there are good landlords. I am talking about the landlords who register, who provide decent, safe and warm homes at a reasonable price, but who do not get their rent because housing benefit has been paid directly to the tenant who has not passed it on. I spoke to someone just last night to whom that had happened, and she was told by people at housing benefit that it was not their problem.
We must remember that not every landlord is a millionaire property developer. Often, someone rents out their home because they have had to move away for work, although they hope to return one day. It should be the housing benefit department’s problem. I realise that that will be another bill for another day, but it is worth mentioning. It is also worth saying again that we are talking about a minority of landlords.
I was approached recently by a woman who rents out a number of flats and seems to be fulfilling the functions of a social landlord in many ways. She has a real interest in mental health and, working with other agencies, has offered tenancies to people who are recovering from mental illness and addiction issues. Incidentally, she told me that she had only once had a problem with a tenant and she has dozens of properties. Of course, letting is a commercial transaction, but many landlords are also motivated by providing decent homes.
We all say it in passing, but I will say it again: most landlords will have no difficulty with the bill because they are decent people who provide a decent service and, indeed, have been significant in the bill’s development. To those landlords who are not decent, the bill says that everyone has the right to live in peace, comfort and safety and that, if they are putting that at risk, we are on to them. The powers that be will come to get them and no longer will they be able to stick up two fingers safe in the knowledge that nothing will happen, because it will.
The bill will make sure of that, as will people such as the fearsome—some would say scary—campaigners from Croftfoot housing action group. Given the amount of time that those campaigners have spent on the bill, they must know it inside out by now. They care about their community and I say to unscrupulous landlords that if they do not care about it too, they should steer clear.
Wherever such landlords go, they will find that tenants and communities throughout the country are protected by the bill. We must now ensure that those people know about it so that they can safeguard their homes and communities.
I commend the bill and look forward to its implementation.
Although the bill is one of the last that we shall consider in this session of the Parliament, its gestation has been fairly long. Most of its provisions were originally contained within the most recent Housing (Scotland) Bill and, therefore, have perhaps received more than their fair share of scrutiny.
Nevertheless, the bill that we will pass today contains provisions that will help to strengthen existing legislation on landlord registration and houses in multiple occupation. It also attempts to offer some protection to people who may live in overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector.
I do not have time to discuss all the bill’s provisions, so I will concentrate on the two that are of most interest to my constituents: landlord registration and the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.
We all recognise the need to protect people from unscrupulous landlords, but it is also necessary to do that without putting undue pressure on the decent landlords who provide good-quality accommodation, register their properties as required and fulfil their obligations.
The bill broadly delivers on that aim, which is welcome. However, I am not sure that an increase in the level of fine that can be given for offences under the legislation will have the deterrent effect for which the minister hopes. I and others made that point during the passage of the bill and I would be grateful if the minister would indicate whether he has had an opportunity to discuss with the law officers how the courts could be persuaded to take breaches of the legislation seriously, to impose fines that we think are proper on those who are convicted and, thereby, to provide a real deterrent.
The Parliament passed HMO legislation in an earlier session because it recognised that young people and vulnerable people needed protection from unscrupulous landlords who exposed them to unsafe and sometimes downright dangerous situations. The issue came to a head when two young students died tragically in a fire in my constituency because they could not escape through the barred windows of the basement flat that they were renting.
HMO legislation has helped to make conditions safer for people who rent, but the time has come for us to look at the bigger picture and consider the effect that multiple occupation has on the fabric of properties and on the communities where those properties are located.
It is in no one’s interest for entire areas of our towns and cities to be swamped by properties that are rented out in this way. We must surely all desire vibrant, diverse communities that people want to live in. I hope that a strategy for young people’s housing will be developed and that those issues will be considered when that is done.
For those reasons, I very much welcome the amendments in the names of Pauline McNeill and Ted Brocklebank. I congratulate the minister on his Damascene conversion. It reminded me that, many years ago, a former colleague of mine said that Alex Neil could cause a fight in an empty house. I am happy that Mr Neil did not live up to that description this afternoon and that he showed that he has many qualities that are perhaps more desirable to the rest of us.
The amendments that Pauline McNeill and Ted Brocklebank lodged are important, because they address the central issue of inappropriate conversions that damage the fabric of buildings, cause nuisance—and, often, inconvenience—to neighbours and often mean that young people and vulnerable people live in properties whose standards would in all other circumstances be deemed intolerable. My only worry about Ted Brocklebank’s amendment 15 is that it leaves much of the responsibility with local authorities. However, on balance, it is probably best to allow local authorities that flexibility, so I accept the rationale that is at play.
Questions still remain in my mind about the bill’s efficacy. Will it deliver the deterrent effect that it promises? Does it put in place the right measures to deal with overcrowding, without imposing a greater burden on social landlords? Does it go far enough in controlling HMOs appropriately? I suppose that time will tell. In the meantime, I thank all those who have been involved in the bill’s passage—particularly the witnesses, whose evidence genuinely helped to shape the bill.
It was a privilege to be a member of the committee that examined the bill. It was clear that not all local authorities have taken a vigorous approach to landlord registration. I know that discussions have taken place with legal authorities about prioritising prosecutions in relation to registration, where the law has been flouted.
Members are only too aware of their own experiences of private rented housing and of their constituents’ experiences. The Local Government and Communities Committee generally agreed on the principles in the bill, but that was not achieved without clarification of the proposals as outlined.
The bill’s fundamental aim is to provide detailed regulation of the private rented housing sector, which will secure tenants’ rights in that increasingly important sector of the housing market. As I said in the stage 1 debate, the committee recognised that
“overcrowding is a significant and serious issue”.
In practical terms, concerns have been raised about the implications of how the bill tackles overcrowding and about the obligations on local authorities. In its stage 1 report, the committee detailed the concern about whether local authorities will have the financial resources to make the bill work in practice.
At stage 2, the bulk of the examination of the bill related to overcrowding statutory notices. The Government allayed the concerns that were noted at stage 1, and two non-Government amendments were agreed to.
In considering the mechanics of a bill’s progress, it is always necessary to remember the hard-fought campaigns that people and organisations have undertaken to shine a light on the problems that they deal with daily. As part of the Public Petitions Committee’s work, I—along with Frank McAveety and Anne McLaughlin—made a visit to Govanhill that showed us that people and communities still face landlord blight and that communities are prepared to call time on shameful and, to be frank, unpleasant landlord practices.
The Local Government and Communities Committee was presented with clear evidence of the scale of disputes between landlords and tenants in the private sector. Illegal evictions and repairs that had not been undertaken were only a few of the problems that were highlighted in evidence sessions.
Part 4 of the bill enables a private landlord to apply to the private rented housing panel for assistance in accessing property to comply with the repairing standard. That is welcome. Part 4 also requires private landlords to provide tenants with a tenant information pack, which is a welcome measure and will help tenants to understand their rights and landlords’ obligations under tenancies.
Mary Mulligan referred to private landlords and obligations in relation to carbon monoxide testers, as well as monitors for gas and electrical equipment. I, too, make a plea for any future Government that comes in to look at the installation of hard-wired fire alarms. A Strathclyde Fire and Rescue report states that the majority of fatal fires in 2009-10 occurred in flats and that there were a total of 23 preventable deaths in house fires in the local authority areas that constitute the Strathclyde area. That is an obligation that should be put on private landlords and other landlords.
In terms of making communities safer, I hope that the bill will make landlords aware of their responsibilities.
Although the bill will address some of the concerns that have been identified about what can be described, at best, as a level of consumer dissatisfaction with private sector landlords, extra diligence by local authorities is required.
I welcome the stage 3 debate and the bill’s key principles. I look forward to the bill coming into force, as I believe that it will have a positive effect in reducing the number of rogue landlords. It is important to understand that the bill is aimed at rogue landlords; it is not aimed at the vast majority of landlords who carry out their duties, work with tenants in a meaningful way and provide a useful service to Scotland.
I thank all those who provided both written and oral evidence during the various stages of the bill. I also thank the committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre, the minister and his civil servants, and my colleagues on the Local Government and Communities Committee, who have made this a worthwhile bill. I hope that it will be passed at decision time.
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution. In the stage 1 debate I spoke exclusively on the rogue landlord aspects of the bill, given the antisocial behaviour of the tenants of rogue landlords in my constituency. I make no apology for reiterating my concerns, because the problems are on-going.
A new case that landed on my desk the other day made me reconsider my previous definition of a rogue landlord. Hitherto, all my casework involved complaints about the antisocial behaviour of the tenants of landlords who are unregistered under current legislation and who are therefore, by definition, rogue landlords. In this new case, the landlord is registered, but he has told the exasperated neighbours of his antisocial tenants that he is just an investor and that they should talk to his managing agent.
I have written to the landlord in question at his home in a leafy suburb outside Glasgow, to ask him not to act like a rogue landlord and to restore my constituents’ quality of life.
I would have hoped for more effective enforcement of the existing legislation in such cases, but the enforcement authorities in Glasgow have been adamant that the legislation needed strengthening. As the minister says, after today they will have the full set of tools for the job and I, for one, intend to ensure that they do their job with those tools.
When the bill is enacted, it should spell the beginning of the end for rogue landlords. It should also be a big setback for unregulated, irresponsible letting agents. That is a good thing, as they currently do little or nothing to vet the suitability of potential tenants.
When some aspects of the bill were removed from the recent Housing (Scotland) Bill, I expressed fears in the chamber that we would run out of parliamentary time to deal with those important matters. I am delighted to have been proven wrong, but it was a close-run thing.
I start by saying something that I think that we all agree on: the private rented sector must become increasingly important in the provision of good-quality, affordable housing. Given the significant cuts of £800 million that have been made to Scotland’s capital budget in the coming financial year alone by the United Kingdom Government, it will be ever more difficult to meet housing need within the public sector alone.
We do not want it to be that way, but we have to acknowledge that it is. Therefore, we need the private sector and we have to work in partnership with it. As has been pointed out, most private sector landlords are excellent. Our discussions with the Scottish Association of Landlords show that those at the top of their game in the private sector can be a power for good in meeting housing need. That is why the bill must ensure that we regulate effectively to achieve the highest standards. Regulation under the bill will allow us to move a significant way towards doing that.
The lack of prosecution of unregistered landlords has concerned us all for a while. The only prosecution that we have had of an unregistered landlord resulted in a derisory fine being handed out. The issue has been mentioned, but it is important to reinforce the point that there is a need for better and more effective prosecution and more significant fines. I therefore welcome the increase in the maximum fine for unregistered landlords to £50,000, which I hope will drive change, although time will tell on that. I look forward to seeing the guidelines that the minister has talked about on best practice in securing prosecutions and engaging in enforcement.
Fines that are given to unregistered landlords should be retained in Scotland and used to pay for enforcement and the regulation of the private rented sector. The money should not simply flow to the London Exchequer, as currently happens. To put it bluntly, why should Scotland’s local authorities have to pay to enforce regulation while any profit—if I can use that terminology—from court fines travels south? Perhaps that is an argument for another day, but if prosecutions become increasingly successful, as we all hope that they will, that situation would surely stick in the craw of Scottish councils. Regulating the sector is hardly inexpensive, but local authorities get no cash benefit to reinvest in that area. I draw the distinction that the cash benefit would not cross-subsidise anything else; the money would come back to pay for effective regulation of the sector.
I welcome the introduction of landlord registration numbers, which should be a driver for consumer change, as I have said previously. I would hope that no one would buy a car that was not MOT’d, so why do people move into houses that are unregistered and do not have all the safety features that they should? We must drive that consumer change and ensure that there is consumer responsibility.
I would like to know more about how the tenancy deposit scheme, which would secure deposits for tenants should they leave a landlord, will work. I am interested in whether registered landlords will be the only people who will be able to opt into that scheme. I would also like to know how the benefits system will interact with landlord registration. The minister has spoken about considering greater tenancy security for social tenants in the private sector to meet affordable housing need. There is a lot of work to do as we move forward. I cannot say whether the housing minister in the next Scottish Government will be male or female, but I am content with the one that we have. Of course, I suspect that appointing the next housing minister will be Alex Salmond’s job as First Minister.
One principal element of the bill is the measures on the registration of private landlords. Alex Neil said that the bill is targeted at a minority of landlords who give the industry a bad name. The bill targets the worst offenders, which was the point that I made during the stage 1 debate when I suggested that good landlords have “nothing whatever to fear” from the bill. Let us hope and pray that that means the majority of landlords. Other landlords will have to either shape up or ship out. There will be no room for poor landlords in the future.
“the beginning of the end for rogue landlords.”
As is often the case, he hit the nail on the head quite well.
Mary Mulligan sought to expand the fit-and-proper person test that is in the bill and I welcome that. She also talked about impressing the proposed changes on local authorities and the judiciary, which is also key. There is no point in our raising the level of fines or making sure that local authorities do the checks if there is no enforcement. The carrot and the stick are often required in legislation, and that is no less true than for the bill we are discussing today.
Overcrowding was another key area for me while I worked through the stages of the bill in committee and in the Parliament. Mary Mulligan said that it is a complicated issue. I certainly found some of the amendments—including those on overcrowding in particular—very complicated, because of their potential outcomes. We had to make sure that we got things as right as possible, which is why, at the end of the day, the Liberal Democrats were happy to support the amendments on overcrowding.
Alex Johnstone mentioned the stage 2 amendment that he lodged so that HMO density would be discussed. Although that discussion was certainly welcome, I have also discussed the issue with permanent residents in St Andrews, who, like people in other places in the country, have deep and long-held concerns that must be listened to. In agreeing to Ted Brocklebank’s amendment today, the Liberal Democrats feel that the bill now strikes a reasonable balance between the needs of all residents in areas where there are HMOs.
The bill has meant a significant amount of work for the committee, and I paid tribute earlier to all those who were involved. We had extensive and sometimes testing committee sessions on the bill. We had concerns about some of the stage 2 amendments, although the evidence from and on behalf of students and permanent residents was clear for all to see. We have agreed to amendments today that should, in time, provide solutions for both sides and help them to live in harmony in their communities.
I am glad that John Wilson mentioned hard-wired smoke alarms. I promoted them as part of the Scottish housing quality standards while I was on Fife Council. As a homeowner who once had a fire—fortunately, I was not at home at the time—I know that the smoke alarm allowed the fire service to take quicker action. I personally welcome any action that ensures that hard-wired smoke alarms are provided.
The Liberal Democrats believe that private rented accommodation plays an essential part in meeting our housing needs and we support the benefits and improvements that the bill will bring.
In winding up for the Conservatives today, I begin what will possibly be my final contribution in this place by saying how grateful I am for the kind words of my friend and colleague Alex Johnstone, the minister, Margo MacDonald and others who referred to my impending departure.
Enoch Powell said:
“All political lives ... end in failure.”
Although I do not place myself on quite the same pedestal as the sainted Enoch, today’s events at least give the lie to his gloomy prognosis of the careers of folk who devote themselves to the dark art of politics. Here I am, in my final contribution in this chamber, with a genuine achievement to boast about. Okay, it has taken me nearly eight years, but better late than never.
To those who have some fears about the amendment that I lodged, I should say that, as a landlord, I know that there are excellent and responsible landlords. I know that there are also splendid tenants, and I have had few problems with my tenants over the years.
Absolutely, as the minister will discover if he checks the register of landlords.
However, there have been problems. Pauline McNeill and Patricia Ferguson alluded to some of them, and I mentioned particular problems in relation to the overconcentration of HMOs in some areas and the apparent lack of courage of certain local authorities to use existing legislation to resolve those problems. At least as a result of today’s business—and we leave it very much up to the local authorities—there will be no excuse that they didnae ken: it is there in the text of the bill.
Following the housing minister’s personal endorsement, I firmly believe that new section 131A of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006, which comes into effect in August and will give local authorities the power to end ghettos of HMOs in our towns and cities, will be referred to by future generations as the Brocklebank amendment, much as John Sewel gave his name to Sewel motions and Joel Barnett gave his to his famous formula, with its consequentials et al. For once, if only in my home town, I may at last be regarded as not a total waste of space.
I crave your indulgence, Presiding Officer, and wonder if I might make a few valedictory remarks. I offer genuine thanks to colleagues from all parties who supported my amendment today, and who have made my time in this place such a genuinely pleasurable experience.
Dammit, I’ve enjoyed learning about public transport in Lower Westphalia from Chris Harvie; Stewart Stevenson has enthralled me with the load of learned lumber contained in that remarkable head of his; and when it comes to plucking on the heartstrings, nobody does it better than the coal miner’s daughter, Helen Eadie. But there are also some fairly impressive performers in this place—mostly, I have to say, on the benches around me, as members would imagine, but also from other parties. They know who they are, and I am going to miss them.
As a born poacher rather than a gamekeeper, it will be good to shake off the shackles and the whips and speak my mind again, not least on such subjects as the common fisheries policy, on which my views have changed not one iota in eight years, the future of the media in Scotland and—particularly close to my heart these days—that warmest of sub-Saharan African countries, Malawi.
Since he believes that I never give him the credit that he is due, I pay a final and public tribute to my loyal chief of staff—that is his chosen job title—Dominic Heslop. His name will appear in the Official Report at long last.
In what is likely to be my final utterance in this place, I venture the hope—to paraphrase Fu Manchu—that the wider world of Scottish politics may not yet have heard the last of me. But that is for another day. In whatever capacity I find myself after next Tuesday, I will continue to take a very close and personal interest in this place.
Thanks for the memories—it’s been a ball. [Applause.]
I offer my best wishes to Ted Brocklebank for all that he has done, particularly today. He said that his closing speech will probably be his last contribution; we should all remember that this could be our last contribution. I am glad to hear that he is a registered landlord.
The debate has been very consensual—or at least that is what I was going to say until I heard Bob Doris. His speech was probably fairly light for him, but I realised when he got to his final sentence that he was not serious after all, so I will not comment further.
I must say how grateful I am to fellow committee members for the way in which we have been able to progress not only this piece of legislation but others that have gone before. I thank the committee clerks, who have been ever helpful, and the minister and his officials for the way in which they have supported us through the bill process. We have had two gos at getting to this stage, as other members have mentioned, but I hope that what we have finally arrived at will deliver on our intentions. Finally, I thank those who provided oral and written evidence to the committee, as it was thorough and clearly guided us as to how we should act.
The minister and others, such as Anne McLaughlin and Patricia Ferguson, referred to the very many good landlords who operate throughout Scotland, and I associate myself with those remarks. It is true that the majority of landlords act responsibly but, unfortunately, as we know from our casework and from the examples that we heard about in evidence, there are others who do not. That is why the bill was necessary.
The minister’s establishment of the private rented sector strategy group was welcome, and I think that it was the right thing to do to ensure that we got a broad range of opinions on how we could further improve the private rented sector. I notice that he said that he intended to continue with the group, and I approve of that, but I wonder whether he might also want to support some of the suggestions that Shelter made in its briefing. It suggested that there should be a review of the short assured tenancy regime, and I have some sympathy with that; I wonder whether the minister and others do, too. It is important that we have a scheme that delivers for tenants and for landlords, and it may be that there is a need for an assessment of short assured tenancies.
I support Shelter’s proposal for the development of a new approach to providing tenants with information and advice. Earlier, I mentioned the information pack that will be available. It is important that tenants and landlords are fully informed of their roles, and the rights and responsibilities that they have in playing those roles. More work could be done on that.
Alex Johnstone was in repentant mood. He willingly confessed that the Conservatives had opposed landlord registration in the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, but he can rest assured that there is much rejoicing in heaven for every repentant sinner who sees the error of their ways. I am pleased that he thinks that the bill before us provides a better way of ensuring that registration for landlords is enacted appropriately.
Alex Johnstone also confessed that he thought that he might have scared us with his amendments at stage 2, but it takes much more than that to scare Labour members. I think that those amendments led to today’s amendment 15, in the name of Mr Brocklebank, which the Parliament agreed to unanimously, so Mr Johnstone was headed in the right direction.
Patricia Ferguson reminded us that it has taken us a while to get here. The Housing (Scotland) Bill originally contained an attempt to tackle the private rented sector. At the time, I was quite critical of the minister for withdrawing the relevant provisions from that bill, because I was concerned that we would not get to the stage that we have reached today. I shared Charlie Gordon’s concerns, so I am pleased that we have got to this stage.
John Wilson mentioned the campaigns that led to the Parliament considering some of the difficulties that people have to live with. We should all recognise the benefits of the Public Petitions Committee, which introduced us to issues such as overcrowding, in particular, and I hope that the measures that will be agreed to at decision time will make a difference. It is to the Parliament’s credit that we have responded to the petition on that. John Wilson suggested that there needs to be guidance on hard-wired fire alarms, and I support that suggestion.
Charlie Gordon mentioned the issue of letting agents, which we may need to come back to in the future. I hope that the minister agrees that further work needs to be done on that. I heard recently about work that is being done on letting agents south of the border and, as someone who is always willing to learn a lesson, wherever it comes from, I think that we should consider the measures that are proposed there.
I believe that the bill will move us on and that the measures that it proposes are good. I suspect that further measures may still need to be taken, but I am sure that the Parliament will return to those in good time. My final request to the minister is to ensure that the measures that the bill contains are implemented quickly. We referred today to measures from the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006, which are not due to come into effect until August of this year—five years later, which is an awfully long time. People within the private rented sector deserve to have the bits of legislation that we are agreeing to today enacted more quickly.
I am pleased that we accepted all today’s amendments, particularly those in the name of Pauline McNeill. I was accused yesterday of doing U-turns. I say to the minister that his was the fastest U-turn that I have seen in a long time, but it is much appreciated. On that consensual note, I welcome the bill.
Given Patricia Ferguson’s earlier warning about what Alex Neil is capable of doing in an empty house, I am a little bit loth to let him loose on a fairly empty chamber. Nonetheless, as Mary Mulligan has just said, we are on fairly consensual ground, so I am happy to call the minister to wind up the debate.
Earlier, when we were discussing the amendments, I rightly paid tribute to Ted Brocklebank. I say to him that, given his on-going interest in fishing and the policy position that he has taken, with which we agree but his party leader does not, there is a membership card awaiting him at any time. [Interruption.] I hear that Mr Russell disagrees with that.
This has been a consensual debate, with good contributions from throughout the chamber. It is appropriate that it has been consensual, because the issue that we are tackling should not be one on which there is major ideological difference between the parties; it is about what we do for tenants who find themselves in a position where their landlord is not delivering the services that they should be providing and what we do about the fact that, in too many of our communities, groups of landlords give the industry a bad name. One of those areas, but certainly not the only one, is Govanhill in Glasgow. We have made substantial progress there, in which we were helped—again—by the work of the Public Petitions Committee and others.
It is not just Govanhill where there is a problem. Because the problem has been allowed to fester for so long, it has started to spread out geographically. That is why the people of Croftfoot in Glasgow are now, as Anne McLaughlin rightly said, facing similar problems, which we have a duty to try to address. On Monday, I was in Clune Park in Inverclyde, which is another area where there is a major landlord problem. The bill is part—only part—of the answer there, too.
As members from all parties have said, it is important to get a strong message out to every local authority in Scotland that we have equipped them with the tools to do the job and that we expect them to deliver and robustly enforce both the existing legislation and the new legislation.
Over the past three or four months, we have had three housing bills: the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 was signed by the Queen just before Christmas; we had the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill; and we now have the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill, which I hope will become an act after tonight. Taken together, those three pieces of legislation represent a major advance in all those sectors of housing. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 reforms the right to buy, on which there is some disagreement. The Property Factors (Scotland) Bill brings more control into the property factors industry. The Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill will, I hope, bring more sanity and common sense into the private rented sector.
I just want to add to the list the Home Owner and Debtor Protection (Scotland) Act 2010, under which all evictions for mortgage arrears must call in court, which is another powerful success.
That is a good point from Mr Doris. I am always one to undersell our achievements. [Laughter.]
The legislation is extremely important, but it is also important that we move forward on other fronts, particularly on investment. Whether we are talking about Govanhill and Clune Park or the wider housing sector—both the social and private housing sectors—investment and development are essential. I have charged the private rented sector strategy group with preparing, in consultation, a long-term development plan for the private rented sector in Scotland.
Bob Doris was right: given the challenges that we face in the housing sector—the waiting lists, the difficulty that first-time buyers have in putting together a deposit to get a mortgage, an ageing population and a rising population—the demand for housing will rise exponentially in the years ahead. We require a major contribution from every sector—the owner-occupied sector, the social housing sector, the intermediate market sector, the private rented sector, the shared equity sector and every variation of those different sectors—to meet the demands and need for housing that will be placed on us in the years ahead.
I want to update members on some of the specific issues that were raised during the debate and which require some answer. Patricia Ferguson rightly raised the role of the courts and in particular their taking a more robust approach to the issues that are referred to them, not only in relation to the private rented sector but more widely in housing issues. Mary Mulligan and others also mentioned that.
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a need for a more robust approach. As I promised I would, I have written to the Lord Advocate about how judgments in sheriff courts are not as robust as many believe that they should be. I will continue the dialogue with both this Lord Advocate and the new one to ensure that the issue is properly addressed without interfering in any way with the right of a sheriff to make an appropriate decision.
Like Mary Mulligan and others, I think that whoever wins the election on 5 May will have to take up the issue of the future jurisdiction of housing issues in the courts. At the moment, matters are settled in a range of different ways. For example, evictions for antisocial behaviour and disputes in relation to private landlords often end up in the sheriff court, while other matters are decided by the housing panel or referred to ombudsmen of different types. I believe, particularly in the light of Lord Gill’s report last year, that, whoever forms the new Government, it will be a matter of priority attention to get a more streamlined approach to the jurisdiction of housing disputes across the sector.
Does the minister accept that the issue is not just the location of the judgment but the courts having an understanding of the effects that behaviour can have on a wider community? I cite the example that I have raised before of people who have been convicted of drug dealing—it may be impossible to secure an eviction even though there has been a conviction. Does the minister agree with that summary?
Absolutely. My view is that some kind of tribunal system may be more appropriate, certainly in some circumstances, than a case immediately going to the sheriff court. Obviously, that is a matter for wide discussion and, I believe, for action in the new session of Parliament. As Patricia Ferguson will know, Lord Gill recommended a dedicated housing court. The Government’s position—and mine personally—is that going that far is not necessarily the right way to approach the situation, but we are open to suggestions. It is important to get agreement on the issue, and we all agree that reform is required.
Bob Doris raised the issue of the recycling of revenue from fines back into Scotland. As he and others know, I have taken that issue up with the Treasury on more than one occasion. The most recent response that I received was from Justine Greening MP, deputy to Mr Shapps, the minister with responsibility for housing, who did not agree to review the position or to recycle the fine money into Scotland, so I am afraid that that will have to wait for another day.
Some other important points were made in the course of the debate. Many points were made about enforcement. I can tell the chamber—as I have informed the Local Government and Communities Committee—that there are, at present, three areas in which there is close physical joint working between the land registration teams in local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions teams, especially those dealing with housing benefit. We have found that, through sharing data, working together and taking a joint approach in those areas, our effectiveness in catching those who are engaged in housing benefit scams and in identifying unregistered landlords has been greatly enhanced. Indeed, there is a correlation between those two groups. I would like to see that joint working between the landlord registration teams and the Department for Work and Pensions being rolled out across all local authority areas in Scotland, as it is achieving an effective implementation of landlord registration as well as dealing with those who are engaged—sometimes on a large scale—in benefit fraud. That would be a welcome development.
Mary Mulligan asked specifically about Shelter’s proposals on the short assured tenancy and on the provision of information and advice. In relation to the provision of information and advice, we are all agreed that the provision on a statutory basis of a tenants information pack containing basic information about a range of issues including fire and safety will be a major step forward both for tenants and for landlords. It is right that, once that is up and running, we should consider whether further developments are required in the provision of information and advice both in the private rented sector and more generally. We would certainly approach Shelter’s ideas with an open mind.
I will make two points on short assured tenancies. As Shelter has proposed, there is a need to consider the situation and review it. However, I emphasise that the Scottish Government will not go down the same road as the UK Government by imposing rules under which tenancies will have a possible maximum life of two years before people have to move out of their homes. We believe that that is a recipe for disaster and for social unrest and that it would be extremely damaging to family life. Therefore, although there is a need to consider reform, that must be kept within the clear parameter that the Scottish secure tenancy is safe with all of us in the Parliament.
I have enjoyed the past 15 minutes—the longest that I have ever spoken in the Scottish Parliament. I hope that I have enlightened proceedings. I thank everybody for their help in this consensual debate and look forward to passing, in the next few minutes, the fourth piece of housing legislation in the past five or six months—an achievement of which not only the Government but the Parliament can be proud. We look forward to continuing our programme of reform after the election.