Private Rented Sector — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 1:30 pm, 29th November 2018

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. Newham is a trailblazer—I think 50% of the prosecutions in the country happen there. We looked at two main issues in the report: the first is resources. I am sure it is not true that Newham has too much money and does not know how to spend it on other things; I am sure it has many challenges. The second is political will: is there the political will in the council to address these issues? Clearly there was, and still is, in Newham, but in more than half the councils in the country there are no prosecutions at all.

Councils will say, “We adopt a softly, softly approach and try to persuade.” Often that goes on with landlords who are in the inefficient and incompetent but reasonable category. Officers say to them, “You need to put this right,” and they do, but it does not work with the rogues and the criminals. Tougher action is needed. At the end of the day, it is about political will. Clearly, resources are under pressure; there is pressure on care services—the Committee will look at children’s services shortly—and that does mean there is less money for important things such as private sector housing enforcement.

We looked at how easy the powers were to use. I said that the rating system is complicated. Is there a case for bringing in a simpler minimum standard? By and large, the professional officers do not want to change. Landlords and tenants gave evidence that, although the rating system may be understood by most professionals working in the service, it is understood by very few landlords and virtually no tenants. Is a system that is so complicated that no one outside the professional sphere understands it fit for purpose? The Government have done some events, where they have talked to professional officers. There is a division of opinion among them—perhaps the majority still want to keep the rating system—but at least the Government have now acknowledged that there is general support for updating the system, in terms of both the evidence base and the guidance, which is very out of date. Will the Minister tell us how far we have got with that?

One of the landlords organisations that gave evidence told us that private sector housing legislation was based on 150 different pieces of legislation. Everything the Government do—however worthwhile—is built on top of this higgledy-piggledy structure, with no real coherence. Will the Government ask the Law Commission to do an overall review? We made that recommendation in our 2013-14 report. At some point, someone must do a comprehensive review, not necessarily to change the intention of the legislation, but to pull it together as a coherent whole. The Government responded that they will have discussions with the Law Commission. Will the Minister tell us where those discussions have got to?

We raised the issue of fees and penalty notices. The Government say they are at an appropriate level, but the Committee wants them to be raised because, for some of the really bad landlords, the fines levied are a business cost that they write off against the business. Courts should give back the cost to local authorities who take a case. Local authorities’ resources are under pressure; if authorities spend a lot of money prosecuting a landlord and they get the prosecution, the court does not give them back the cost involved. That can be really discouraging. Has the Minister had discussions with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on that recommendation?

We recommend the creation of a benchmark system, whereby the different approaches of local authorities could be compared, including the number of prosecutions they take out. We asked the Government to work with the Local Government Association on that. They said they would have talks with the LGA. How far have those talks gone?

The Committee supported the Government’s decision to bring in banning orders. The Guardian and ITV News have publicised the fact that the banning orders are not public. That is not to say that that will not happen, but under the Housing and Planning Act 2016 they are available only to local authorities to tackle problems in the private rented sector. They cannot be made public as the legislation stands. The Prime Minister has committed to change that, but I understand that that needs primary legislation. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend to bring in primary legislation to do that?

Although a local authority may know that someone is banned in another local authority area, knowing whether a landlord is operating in an area and the properties they have is very difficult, because of the lack of information. To make public that a landlord has been banned would cause other people to come forward and say, “That landlord is banned, but he is renting a property down our road.” It would be very helpful if that could be done.

I went to a meeting of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Leeds to talk about our report and the general support for it. Interestingly, Mark Baxter, an environmental officer in Scarborough Borough Council said, “If the Government change legislation, could they go further and insist that when a landlord is banned in court, they have to give the court, for the public record, a list of all the properties they own, manage or have an interest in?” That is an incredibly simple but effective way forward. Once publicity shines a spotlight on these bad landlords, they should be made to help by giving that information, and it should be an offence not to give all the information at that stage. That would be very helpful to get a proper grip on this issue.