Before the urgent question, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of environmental health officers and their concerns. Does he share my concerns that they often work very hard, that their departments are often very understaffed and that they are often placed in a difficult position because of the lack of legal protection for the tenant against retaliatory eviction? They want to do the right thing and enforce a repair order on the landlord but they are frightened of the consequences for the individual tenants. Environmental health officers, too, are good, decent human beings who want to see the right thing done, and this Bill would surely help in that situation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because that is exactly what I think, and exactly why my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central has introduced the Bill: not only to protect tenants, but to allow our caring and hard-working environmental health officers to do their job in the way they want to do it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned dampness, and I have mentioned electrical safety, but there are many other problems that can make a house unfit to live in. That is something that this House must look into as the Bill goes through. Evicted tenants might well find that rogue landlords do not return their deposit. We have protections in place for the return of deposits, but it is not too difficult for a rogue landlord to manufacture an excuse not to return it, perhaps by inventing damage that they claim the tenant has caused.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is exactly right. Most landlords are responsible, decent and caring people. We need to protect not only tenants but other landlords, because rogue landlords also damage their reputation and their willingness to carry on as landlords, without being seen as abusing their tenants. The great friend I mentioned earlier is one of those responsible landlords.
Some rogue landlords manage to manufacture evidence, exaggerate damage or say things that are plainly untrue in order to retain a tenant’s deposit. The tenant might then have no money for a new deposit and so cannot easily find another property. My local borough council provides a property bond, which in theory should enable a tenant without a deposit to move in, but most landlords will not accept a property bond. That means it is extremely difficult for anyone evicted and treated in that way to provide a decent home for their family.
I commend the Bill to the House and ask everyone to support it, in order to have a go not at landlords, but at those people who call themselves decent landlords but who are not, and to help tenants and landlords alike to act in a decent, honourable and caring way.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) expressed the hope that the Bill will receive support from both sides of the House and that we will put aside partisan politics. I think that those who know my relationship with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) will understand that the fact that I am here supporting a Bill that she has brought forward is extreme testimony to that. But it is the merits of the Bill that I am here to support.
I want to read out a letter from a landlord in my constituency who wrote to me about his concerns about the Bill. I do not know whether he is a good landlord or a rogue one, but these are the sentences he used to express his concerns:
“Surely anyone with an ounce of common sense must know if you are going to give a Tenant a five year contract up front they are not going to behave, respect the Property or be a good Tenant, and if you get struck with the bad one it’s a five year problem. All he needs to do is damage your property, run along to the Council and complain about the damage, and the landlord won’t be able to use section 21. This is utter nonsense of a Bill.”
I disagree with that, but I am confident that many of the remarks that will be made later on in an attempt to talk out the Bill will sound similar. The letter expresses pithily the fundamental worries that landlords, including good landlords, have, because there is abuse not only by landlords, but by tenants. The Bill has its best chance of success because that has been taken on board, while recognising that there has to be greater equity of power between the landlord and the tenant. At the moment, the balance of power is clearly in the landlord’s favour, and many tenants are suffering as a result.
One of those tenants is my constituent Mr P, who has been subjected to ongoing leaks and regular ceiling collapses for the past nine years. He is not one of the short-term, complaining tenants that the landlord who wrote to me was referring to, because he has been in the property for nine years. The first collapse occurred eight years ago and produced 20 kg of debris. Most recently, the ceiling gave way in two places, missing my constituent by only a few feet. The landlord is fully aware of the state of the property, but he appears to be very reluctant to carry out repair work.
On two previous occasions, the landlord initiated eviction proceedings against my constituent after he complained about his living conditions. However, I am told that the notices were withdrawn when my constituent threatened to involve Brent council’s private housing services. I want to mention Brent private tenants rights group, which is a wonderful organisation, and Jacky Peacock, who is known not only to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), from his time as council leader—he is nodding in his place—but to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and the hon. Member for Brent Central. Jacky has been sticking up for private tenants in the Brent, Harrow and Ealing areas for many years, and she is wonderful. I understand that on both occasions Mr P’s landlord agreed to undertake the repair work on the condition that he accepted rent increases. Those rent increases were imposed, but the repair work was not subsequently carried out.
The landlord whose letter I read out earlier feared that all the tenant needed to do was damage the property and make a complaint, and then section 21 could not be enforced. That is not correct. It is important that Members who support the Bill make it clear that that is not possible. He refers in another part of his letter to the many ways in which the local authority can already get involved. In fact, on 9 April this year, Mr P received a fresh notice to quit, and on that occasion he was rather surprised, because he had not made any recent complaints about the property. He realised that the notice to quit was triggered by the enforcement action that Brent council is now planning to take with regard to the property. Of course, if an officer from the council’s private housing service is to visit and make an assessment, it is a requirement that the landlord be notified of an impending visit and assessment. Otherwise, any enforcement decision cannot be taken against the landlord. It is really important that the hon. Member for Brent Central has incorporated into the Bill a reasonableness clause and a reasonableness agenda, because that gives succour to good landlords, reassuring them that they will not be subject to frivolous, vexatious or aggressive action on behalf of tenants. In my dealings with tenants in Brent over the past 17 and a half years, I have come across fewer than 20 vexatious tenants in that entire period. As for the number of retaliatory evictions—we are probably dealing with 20 such ongoing cases in my office at present. The balance is clearly out of kilter and needs to be rectified.
I, too, may be divided politically from the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), but I am entirely united with her on this occasion. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) agree that if a landlord were a vendor and the tenant were a purchaser—a consumer—the existing consumer protection legislation would provide that equity? Why do we have such a fundamental imbalance? Section 21, which was supposed to be a sensible measure, is a great threatening blunderbuss before which many of our tenants, our constituents and our friends and some of our family have to cower. Why this imbalance?
My hon. Friend is right. There is a huge imbalance, part of which the Bill seeks to address. I welcome that. The imbalance exists because power and money usually side together, and that is what we need to pull apart by ensuring that the Bill progresses.
I have a number of other cases which highlight the problem of retaliatory evictions. One tenant had lived in the property for 11 years amid lots of disrepair, the possession order coming once a complaint had been made. I shall not detain the House with further cases because I want to see the Bill progress. It is good, but it is limited. The hon. Member for Brent Central will know that in the House of Lords on 5 November my party introduced an amendment on retaliatory eviction to the Consumer Rights Bill. Hansard records who supported that amendment.
My party has also set out plans for a much more fundamental reform of the private sector because of the need to get a fairer deal for those who are renting and to remedy the imbalance identified by most Members who have spoken in the debate. I would very much like to present more cases, but I do not believe that for some of those who will follow me in this debate, more cases will be more persuasive. We need to let them make their remarks and let the House move to a conclusion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on introducing this important Bill and explaining so eloquently why it is necessary to end the travesty of revenge evictions. She is right that the Bill is about upholding existing contracts and should benefit landlords, tenants and local authorities. I thank Shelter, Crisis and other campaigners who have worked hard to bring these issues to national attention. I am proud to have co-sponsored the Bill.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned rental costs. There are many league tables that I am proud that Oxford tops, not least the fact that Oxford university medical faculty is now world No. 1, but there is one chart I would rather we did not top. At the beginning of this month, the Centre for Cities published research which found that Oxford has the least affordable housing in the UK. This results from a combination of its having some of the fastest population growth in the United Kingdom and a lack of new homes. It should not be an impossible dream for a nurse or a teacher to own a home, and the only way to address the problem is to increase supply to meet demand, so I am backing my local authorities in their bids to build new homes in the right places and with the right infrastructure.
In the meantime, although we cannot quite compete with Islington North, Oxford West and Abingdon has 17,944 renters, which is more than 23% of my constituents paying exorbitant prices. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, inevitably such a high demand in the private rented sector has caused an unhealthy power imbalance between tenant and landlord, which removes the usual market incentives for landlords to maintain high-quality properties and behave responsibly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and many others have pointed out, the majority of landlords behave well, but for tenants unlucky enough to get rogue landlords, the consequences range from living in unhealthy or even hazardous homes or, as we have heard, facing eviction and potential homelessness if they complain.
In a property market as overheated as Oxford’s, landlords find it far easier to re-let a property, possibly even at a higher rent, than to invest in property maintenance, despite the obvious false economies of this attitude. Student representatives tell me that this is a particular problem for the student population, who are perhaps seen as easy targets by landlords. This is backed up by recent research from Citizens Advice which finds that young people are far more likely than older renters to have problems with private landlords. One in six people in their 20s receiving help from Citizens Advice has an issue with a privately rented home.
I rarely call for more regulation, and I am very proud that my Government have a one-in, two-out deregulation target to cut the burden of red tape, and that they are making this statutory for our businesses and job creators, but in this instance I believe that the measures in the Bill are well targeted and that they will put an end to revenge evictions while not placing an additional burden on good landlords. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) observed, there is precedent for these measures. In the United Kingdom, landlords who have not protected their tenants’ deposits or who have not licensed the property when required already cannot serve a no-fault eviction notice. This Bill does the same thing in respect of poor conditions. It is modelled on regulations that have been successful in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
The Bill does not seek to interfere with section 21 possession proceedings in other circumstances. Landlords must meet their legal obligations before they serve a valid notice. It will assist good landlords. At present, fear of revenge eviction stops renters telling their landlord about repair issues, which means that serious hazards can develop in properties, depreciating their value without the landlord having an opportunity to do anything about it. That creates a problem for local authorities, which cannot successfully use existing legislation. Renters’ testimonies are crucial in ensuring the successful prosecution of rogue landlords. That is often not possible because renters refuse to give evidence in support of a prosecution for fear of eviction, or they may have already been evicted in retaliation before the case is brought.
The Government have taken steps to try and better protect tenants with the “How to Rent” guide and the model tenancy agreement, but it is clear that existing powers are not sufficient. Tenants in Oxford West and Abingdon and elsewhere with rogue landlords should not have to choose between eviction or living in poor conditions. This Bill will put an end to that catch-22 once and for all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, bad tenants will not be protected by the Bill and good landlords will not be damaged. That is why it is smart legislation and smart regulation that fits well within our deregulation targets. In short, the Bill will make the private rented sector work better for hundreds of thousands of renters across the country. That is why I back the Bill and why I am so pleased that the Government back it too.
It is an honour to be here today and to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and to discuss the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I congratulate her on securing such a high-profile place in the ballot, which I envy, and on her choice of Bill, her excellent speech and her approach to the subject. Her choice of Bill is important for two reasons. First, it is limited in scope. It recognises the importance of addressing the needs of millions of private renters, a matter of which I am very conscious, given the size of the private rented sector in my constituency—40% of all households in my constituency are in the private rented sector, a massive increase over recent years. That is surely, and very clearly, reflected in the support for this Bill outside this House shown in the large number of e-mails I have had from my constituents urging me to be here today, and the very strong campaigning efforts of various groups at national and local level. I pay tribute to Shelter, which has campaigned on this issue for many years and worked very closely with the hon. Lady on producing the Bill.
Generation Rent must also be congratulated on its vigorous campaigning efforts at national and local level. The Home Sweet Home campaign has been working on the ground in Brighton for many months, backed by Labour’s excellent parliamentary candidate and by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is in her place; I agree with much of what she said earlier. It is heartening to hear of tenants and residents taking action, influencing this place, and actively seeking to improve their families’ quality of home, education and life chances. Labour has been clear that for too long their needs have been totally ignored. That is why we have set out ambitious plans for reform of the sector, and I will come to those later.
The second reason this Bill is so important is that the issue it seeks to address—retaliatory eviction—is completely unacceptable and must surely be brought to an end. That is why the hon. Member for Brent Central has our support for its passage through the House.
In recent years, the private rented sector has grown massively in size, but also beyond recognition in terms of the demographics and the character of those who rent from private landlords. Nine million people now rent privately—more than those who rent a social home. Over a third have families with children, and nearly half are over the age of 35. Many people who are renting privately are doing so not out of choice but because they cannot get on the housing ladder or secure a socially rented home. Yet private rented accommodation is not the cheapest option—far from it. It is, in effect, the most expensive type of housing. On average, people who rent privately spend 41% of their income on housing. For those in the social rented sector, the figure is 30%, and for owner occupiers, it is 19%. However, the extra expense does not buy greater stability or higher standards. Someone who rents privately is more likely to live in a non-decent home than someone in any other tenure, yet they are spending 41% of their income to do so. A third of privately rented homes fail to meet the decent homes standard.
Two issues are at the heart of these proposals—standards and stability. For too long, renters have had to put up with a choice between keeping their home and accepting the poor conditions they are living in. As we have heard, there is currently no protection from eviction for renters who report poor conditions to their landlord or local authority. Shelter has estimated that over 200,000 renters have been evicted or served notice in the past year because they complained to their local council or their landlord about a problem in their home.
This kind of unacceptable action can have a really damaging impact on renters. It can damage the lives of families and the fabric of communities as people are uprooted from their homes with as little as two months’ notice, disrupting schooling, support networks of family and friends, and even access to health care. It means that renters feel unable to complain and are forced to put up with awful conditions.
Trust me—I am not suggesting he does; it is just that I know the hon. Gentleman of old, and I know he will come to those figures in due course. The figures I am using are robust, and he knows it.
It is estimated that one in eight renters has chosen not to ask for improvements or to challenge a rent increase because of fear of eviction. This reduces the incentives for landlords to improve their properties. Rather than pay for repairs, unscrupulous landlords can take a short cut by evicting their current tenants and replacing them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I am very clear that there are good landlords and there are bad, and I am talking about the bad. He said to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who is no longer in her place, that he hoped she would have reported the unscrupulous landlord she was discussing to the council or to the environmental health services. Let me tell him that if someone has their complaint referred by an MP, that does not stop them being evicted by a landlord who takes umbrage at being forced to do repairs—as some of my constituents, sadly, know to their cost.
The effects of this shameful practice cannot be overestimated. Over the weekend, I read about the—literally—shocking case of Lela Lewis. Lela suffered a minor electric shock after taking a shower and, having discovered that it was due to faulty wiring, complained to her landlord. Much to her chagrin, the landlord responded by serving her with an eviction notice. There was the case of Greg and Laura Moore and their three children, who were served an eviction notice on their rented home in Norfolk just three weeks after reporting damp.
In the area where I live and which I represent, I have heard about the case of a constituent who I will call Chris. He is an assured shorthold tenant who has been in the same property since 2010. The property has damp, mice and a hole in the roof. His children’s health is suffering as a result of those poor conditions. He complained to the letting agent and it visited, along with the council, which agreed that the property was in a poor state of repair. Shortly afterwards, he received a notice to leave—a section 21 notice. He has been informed by the letting agent that the landlord will not renew his tenancy next May.
No; I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.
Despite the innovative and sterling efforts of Newham council to bring some order and better standards to the private rented sector, it cannot prevent such retaliatory evictions. This will happen to more and more people as the housing shortage forces more and more people into private renting.
This Bill is a real opportunity for us to put an end to this unacceptable practice. As I will set out, the private rented sector needs far more radical and sweeping reforms, but the Bill can, and will, make a real difference. It provides protection for assured shorthold tenants against retaliatory evictions where they are suffering from poor or unsafe property conditions. It does that by preventing a landlord from giving a section 21 notice for six months from the date of service of a notice from the local authority regarding conditions in the property, such as an improvement notice, a hazard awareness notice, or a notice of emergency remedial action. It provides the power for the Secretary of State to prescribe legal requirements which, if a landlord were in breach of them, would prevent them from serving a notice.
There are also important safeguards for landlords. They are protected in cases where the poor condition of the property may have been caused deliberately by the tenant, or where they genuinely need to sell the property. The banks and mortgage companies are also protected where they have repossessed a property and need to sell it with vacant possession. We believe that those protections are more than ample to protect the very good landlords in the sector who would not dream of evicting their tenants from their property following a complaint.
Labour is pleased to support the Bill and to help bring an end to completely unacceptable practices, but we also believe that the sector is in need of more fundamental reform. We have set out far-reaching proposals to reform the sector to get a fairer deal for private renters. First, a Labour Government would legislate for three-year tenancies, not short-term tenancies, as the standard for those who rent their homes in the private sector. They will become the norm.
We will build in protections for landlords, which, crucially, will also provide much-needed stability for private tenants. The nature of the sector and the people who rent has changed, and we need to create stability for the growing numbers who live in the sector for longer. They are crying out for a better deal, especially—but not solely—the growing number of families with children who are renting privately and who need and deserve our support. There are now 2 million children living in the private rented sector, and this House and this Government must ensure that their homes, their home lives and their future chances in life are not put in jeopardy as a result of the lack of access to a stable home environment.
Secondly, we will act on unpredictable rent rises, because the new, longer-term tenancies will put a ceiling on excessive rent rises. We will make sure that families have the stability of longer-term tenancies and that they will no longer have to live with the uncertainty that their rents could jump up from one year to the next. Labour wants to promote as much stability as possible for families. That is what happens in Ireland, Spain and many other European countries, and it gives families and people the peace of mind and stability they need.
The reforms will be good not just for tenants, but for landlords, too. We know that the last thing landlords want is a home standing empty, which means that they are not collecting rent or that there is constant churn where tenants come and go, often costing landlords hundreds of pounds in fees.
Thirdly, we will ban letting agent fees for tenants. Too many letting agents charge extortionate fees every time there is a change of tenancy, and often both landlords and tenants are being charged for exactly the same thing—otherwise known as double charging. It is disappointing that the Government chose once again to vote against our amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill in the other place earlier this week.
Finally, we have set out plans to introduce a national register of landlords and to help make it easier for councils to introduce licensing schemes in their areas. Although the Tenancies (Reform) Bill will help to drive up standards, it will not be enough on its own.
I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Brent Central for promoting the Bill. Although we believe that reform of private renting must be more far reaching, there is no doubt that this Bill will bring about very real improvements in the lives of thousands of renters. The act of retaliatory eviction is completely unacceptable. It creates a climate of fear and families are afraid to complain about mould, damp and even worse because they may lose their home. It leads to huge instability, as too many who do complain are then served with notice to leave. Moreover, in effect it encourages poor conditions. Unscrupulous landlords take the easy way out, evicting their tenants rather than carrying out needed repairs. We therefore welcome the Bill and will be pleased to support its passage through the House.
It is always a pleasure to follow the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), with whom I get on very well. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) not just on securing a place in the ballot, which is, after all, a lottery, but on her wisdom and good sense in selecting such an important issue as the subject of her private Member’s Bill. I also thank her for the constructive way in which she has engaged with me and my departmental officials, to make sure that we would be able to support the Bill’s Second Reading, and for securing a cross-party coalition in support of the Bill, even including, as he himself acknowledged, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).
I thank Shelter for working constructively with me and officials at its head office in London. I have also worked very closely with Shelter officials in my own constituency of Bristol West. I also thank Acorn, a new group that works in Easton in my constituency, for campaigning on improving conditions in the private rented sector in general.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) has mentioned how the issue affects students, which is important in her constituency and in mine, so I would also like to thank the National Union of Students for meeting me to discuss the private rented sector. It has been a while since I had a constructive and friendly meeting with the NUS, but that was it and I hope it will be a hallmark of how we will go forward from hereon in.
Members have spoken of how important this issue is in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has said that a large proportion of his constituents rent in the private sector, although his constituency is not in the top 20 in the country in that regard. I thank the House of Commons Library for giving me a table while the urgent question was taken. Several Members who have spoken have clearly done so because of the high proportion of tenants in their constituency who rent in the private rented sector. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central just makes it into the top 20—it is 20th in the table—with 32% of her constituents renting in the private rented sector. My own constituency of Bristol West comes second after Cities of London and Westminster. More than 40% of my constituents rent in the private rented sector, so this Bill is very important to me and the people I represent.
I hear what the Minister is saying, but only as recently as last December he said:
“The Department does not, at the moment, have any comprehensive evidence that retaliatory eviction is a widespread problem.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 281WH.]
The Minister has just said that a high proportion of his constituents are renting in the private sector, but how is it that his Department used to have no evidence and now, all of a sudden, he seems to have all the evidence in the world?
I have just begun. I have not come to all the evidence in the world yet, but I assure my hon. Friend that I will give him some evidence. I acknowledge what he says, but a lot of the evidence is hidden. One of the issues is that people are afraid to make complaints about conditions in their property precisely because they fear receiving a section 21 notice.
The Government are committed to promoting a strong, thriving and professional private rented sector where good landlords can prosper and hard-working tenants enjoy decent standards and receive a service that represents value for money for their rent. After a long period of contraction, the sector is expanding strongly and more than 4 million households rent in the private rented sector. We think that is good for the economy and we want to see that trend continue, particularly as it allows flexibility for young people not only to move around for employment reasons as they develop their careers, but to move up the housing ladder as their income expands. That is what I did when I moved from a one-bedroom bedsit to a two-bedroom bedsit, then to a one-bedroom flat and then finally buying at the age of 31.
We also want to see more purpose-built private rented properties, which is, after all, the norm in our fellow European states. That is why we have invested £1 billion in a build to rent fund, which provides development-phased finance to large-scale private rented sector developments that will deliver up to 10,000 new homes for private sector rent. Our housing guarantee scheme will support up to £10 billion-worth of investment in large-scale private rented projects and additional affordable housing.
These are guarantee schemes to enable developments to get off the ground. I am sure we would all agree that many of the problems that have been identified so far in this debate represent a minority of landlords and they are probably in the sort of properties that have been converted from large family houses. That is probably the issue in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where Georgian houses have been converted into bedsits and small flats; it is certainly the issue in my constituency. We need to deal with the problems in those properties, but more purpose-built private rented accommodation—that investors such as pension or insurance funds see as long-term investments—will ensure higher quality for tenants at an attractive rent.
It is important that we raise standards and improve transparency in the sector. The Government have done a lot and have a good story to tell in this area over the last few months in particular. We have worked with the industry in the development of a code of practice for those managing properties in the sector, including landlords themselves. It was published on 11 September. From 1 October, it has been a requirement for letting and property management agents to belong to any one of three Government-approved redress schemes, so that where standards do not meet expectations, landlords and tenants have an effective means of raising their concerns. The schemes are run by the Property Ombudsman, the Ombudsman Services: Property, and the Property Redress Scheme.
The shadow Minister mentioned the Consumer Rights Bill, which is under consideration in the House of Lords. We introduced provisions requiring letting agents to increase transparency around renting costs by publicising their fees prominently in their office and on their website. We hope that that provision will come into force in this Parliament. That transparency will assist with the problem of double charging that the shadow Minister mentioned, and that of extortionate charging, when agents charge over and above the actual cost of the service. As soon as the fees are transparent to everybody, much of that sharp practice will end overnight. If it does not, it will be down to constituency MPs like us, Shelter, the National Union of Students and other campaigning organisations to expose such practice so that it can be driven out of the sector. That will be a big improvement.
The Government are also committed to ensuring that private tenants know their rights and responsibilities, which is why we published a “how to rent” guide on 10 June. In September, we backed that up with a model tenancy agreement for the benefit of landlords and tenants. That tenancy agreement has been improved as a result of the Westminster Hall debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton)—he is not in his place at the moment—to which I replied. I was struck by the feeling after that debate that the tenant and the landlord should both know their rights and responsibilities. The model tenancy agreement now has a tick box so that the tenant and landlord can confirm that they have seen the “how to rent” guide, which includes coverage of safety issues in the property. The use of the agreement is voluntary, but it strikes the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of the parties and both parties can use it with confidence. After all, a tenant wants a home and a landlord wants a good tenant providing a stable income. It is in the interests of both that they embark on the tenancy with confidence on both sides. In particular, the agreement can be used when the parties have agreed to a longer fixed-term tenancy of two or three years; and it contains model clauses protecting the interests of the parties around termination, rent reviews and home business use.
Reference has been made to the resources available to local authorities to deal with the problem of rogue landlords. We have provided £6.7 million of additional resource to help local authorities tackle poor standards in that area. Specifically, £2.6 million has been allocated to deal with the mainly London-based problem of so-called beds in sheds, with a further £4.1 million to help tackle rogue landlords more generally.
Has the Minister heard of the New Era estate in Hackney which was bought by US private equity billionaires who have a horrible reputation as landlords in New York? Ninety-one Hackney tenants face eviction by landlords who are not interested in providing homes: they are only interested in driving out long-settled tenants so that they can make huge profits.
I had not heard about that, but I have now and the hon. Lady has placed the matter on the public record via Hansard.
Thirty local authorities have claimed the funding that I mentioned. In 2014, the money has paid for more than 13,000 inspections of properties, resulting in more than 3,000 landlords facing further action or prosecutions, and the demolition of 140 illegal beds in sheds in gardens, in London in particular. Those are outputs over and above what councils were already doing. We will shortly publish revised guidance for local authorities on best practice in tackling poor conditions and unacceptable practice in the sector, which builds on the work of the rogue landlord programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central referred to Jo and her collapsed ceiling. She also mentioned other evidence of how the tenant wished to replace an electric fire with a gas fire—to improve home energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty—and how difficult it was to get the landlord’s co-operation for the installation. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who is no longer in her place, said that London families in particular had these problems, especially as more are now living in the private rented sector. She also mentioned unsafe cookers. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) rightly pointed out that this is also an issue in small rural towns in Cornwall. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is also no longer in his place—
I forgive them for not being here. I am sure that they will diligently read Hansard to see how I responded to the points that they made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked what would happen if a landlord was obliged to make repairs but then tried to evict the tenants in order to get vacant possession. I am advised that the council can issue a prohibition order prohibiting use of the dwelling by someone else while repairs are taking place—
Well, this is only the first time. To take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), does the Minister think that the service of a prohibition notice is sufficient answer to that problem? A significant number of repairs may be needed, and in order to carry out the repairs, the landlord may need vacant possession. Is that not a reasonable position for a landlord to take?
These are detailed points and reasonable concerns about the effects of the Bill. That is why the Government’s position is that we support the Second Reading of the Bill so that such points can be teased out in Committee. As the hon. Member for Harrow East also said, that is one issue that will need to be tested.
We are trying to be consensual today to get this Bill through. I think the hon. Gentleman knows very well that this Bill was already known about. It is promoted and supported by the cross-section of charities referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central. Today is her opportunity to introduce the Bill and for the Government to respond to a substantive debate on it. That is why it was said in another place that the amendment tabled by the Opposition was not necessary, as we would have the opportunity to deal with the matter today. That is what we are now doing.
The Bill is necessary. The Government are very clear that retaliatory eviction is wrong and that its continued practice is unacceptable. No tenant should face eviction because they have made a legitimate complaint about the condition of their home to the landlord. No decent landlord—decent landlords have been referred to, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh— would engage in or condone that practice. However, there are a small number of rogue and unscrupulous landlords who think it is perfectly acceptable to evict a tenant for requesting a repair.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) asked for evidence and here it is. An extrapolation from a YouGov survey of more than 4,500 private renters carried out earlier this year found that 480,000 tenants had either not asked for a repair to be carried out or had not challenged a rent increase because they were concerned about being evicted. Some 80,000 tenants had actually been evicted because they had asked for a repair to be carried out. Many of those tenants will have children and partners, so we estimate that about 213,000 people are actually affected by retaliatory eviction every year. There may be 213,000 people affected by the issue we are discussing today.
It has been suggested—I suspect it will shortly be suggested again, but at great length—that there is no need for the Bill because existing consumer protection legislation is adequate. The view of the Government is that that is not correct. The existing law does not provide tenants with sufficient protection against retaliatory eviction. The application of existing consumer legislation to landlord and tenant issues is not clear. The existing consumer law enforcement regime is not specifically geared up to deal with landlord and tenant issues, but applies to traders who offer a wide range of goods and services.
It would be difficult for a tenant to prove that a landlord had acted illegally under consumer law by serving a section 21 notice in retaliation for a complaint. Threatening a tenant with eviction could potentially be considered an aggressive commercial practice, but it is difficult to see how serving a notice that a landlord is contractually and statutorily entitled to serve would be found to be an illegal act. Under section 21, the landlord does not need to give a reason to evict tenants.
Engaging in unfair or aggressive commercial practices is a criminal offence for which a prosecution or other enforcement action can be brought by trading standards officers. We consider that the law needs to be changed to introduce provisions specifically designed to target retaliatory eviction, which will make it clear that where a local authority has issued a statutory notice in relation to a health and safety hazard in the property, the existing restrictions on the use of section 21 notices should be extended to cover those circumstances.
It has also been suggested—I suspect we will hear more about this shortly—that the introduction of the Bill will jeopardise the private rental sector. There are already some restrictions on the use of section 21 notices. Landlords cannot serve a section 21 notice where they have failed to put their tenant’s deposit in a Government-approved tenancy deposit scheme, or where they have not obtained a licence for a property that should be licensed. There are therefore already some restrictions on section 21 and the private rental sector has expanded none the less.
I will briefly cover the four main areas of the Bill. First, there is protection from retaliatory eviction where a tenant requests a repair be carried out and the local authority confirms that that repair is necessary. It cannot be a vexatious raising of a spurious point—the local authority would have to confirm that the repair was necessary. If that is the case, the landlord will be prevented from evicting that tenant for a period of six months. Under existing legislation the landlord will also be required to ensure that the repairs are completed.
But surely that does not cover the situation where the local authority does not reach a decision. An application to a local authority would have the effect of staying proceedings. If the local authority does not then reach a decision, the landlord will be left in a very difficult position.
The landlord would be left in a very difficult position, but I have not yet seen or heard any evidence to suggest that local authorities do not, or are unable to, reach decisions. That would be quite an extraordinary state of affairs. The Bill provides that when the local authority does reach a decision, the repairs must be carried out.
Secondly, there will be compliance with certain legal requirements. Landlords are currently required to ensure that any property they rent out has an annual gas safety certificate and a valid energy performance certificate. The Bill provides order-making powers, and the intention is that regulations will be made specifying that a tenant may not be evicted where the landlord has failed to comply with these basic legal requirements. The restriction would be lifted as soon as the landlord obtained those documents.
Thirdly, the Bill provides for time limits on the service of eviction notices. There will be no change to the current requirement that a tenancy must be for a period of at least six months. However, the Bill will provide that an eviction notice may not be served during the first four months of any tenancy and that the eviction notice will be valid for a maximum of six months. The purpose of this measure is to deal with an approach adopted by a small minority of landlords: serving an eviction notice right at the start of a tenancy, which can result in a tenant having to vacate a property with virtually no notice.
Fourthly, the Bill makes the eviction process more straightforward. This shows that the Bill is balanced, because it helps the position of landlords as well. The process for evicting tenants in legitimate circumstances—for example, for non-payment of rent—is not as straightforward as it could be. That is exacerbated by the fact that most landlords are not property professionals and frequently do not understand current legal procedures for eviction available to them. As a result, it can sometimes take landlords several months to regain possession of their property. To address that, there will be a standard pro forma which can be used by landlords to serve an eviction notice and will provide that, so long as two months’ notice is given, a landlord no longer needs to specify the exact date when the tenancy will come to an end.
In conclusion, the Government support the Bill in principle. We want the Bill to be balanced. We do not want tenants to be able to make vexatious complaints and we do not want to bring in excessive regulation. We wish to give the Bill a Second Reading and for it to proceed to Committee, where some issues will need to be addressed. I commend the Bill to the House.
Before I start, I should draw the attention of the House to an interest declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As I have made clear before, I am a landlord, or an accidental landlord as I think it was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in his speech. I am also a tenant. In fact, I am a tenant in two places and landlord in one, so I am more of a tenant than a landlord. I thought I should confirm that before I start. I am also delighted to confirm that my tenants seem quite happy with everything and I have certainly never had to even consider evicting them. I have also not been evicted myself. That is probably a good thing all around.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on introducing the Bill. She was very lucky in the ballot. Not only has she brought forward a Bill, she has persuaded the Government to abandon everything they have ever believed in up until this point. Her powers of persuasion are clearly very good. although they may not quite have worked on me yet. I have been listening carefully and I note that we have had about two-and-a-quarter hours of contributions to the debate, all from people who are in favour of the Bill. There are about two hours left, so we do not quite have the time to cover all the points, but I will try to go through as many as I can in the time allowed.
Should I ever need to sell my property or move into it myself, I would need to ask my tenants to leave and find another place to live, not out of revenge or retaliation, but for reasons that have nothing to do with them but are a fact of life. The whole point of a tenancy is that one person rents from another person for a period. Some tenancies can last for a long time, but the only guaranteed length of time is that in the contract. That is clear to all parties and is the whole basis of the rented sector.
Should my tenants decide they would like a bigger property or to move out of London, they would not tell me they are leaving. There is nothing I can do about that, apart from trying to find new tenants to take over from them as quickly as possible to maintain the income to cover the costs of the property and hoping very much that the new tenants are as good as my current tenants. So here we have the principle of simple economics, despite there being plenty of regulation doing its best to interfere with it.
I have a property, somebody wants to live in it and for an agreed price and term, we make an arrangement for them to do just that. That is what we are talking about. The legalities, however, can be rather complex. I have taken advice from, and am grateful to, John Midgley, the enfranchisement and property litigation partner at Seddons solicitors. I have also taken advice from other organisations within the private rented sector, because they understand these matters well. I have also seen myriad briefings and reports on the subject.
In law, when a tenant wants to leave a property after the agreed time, they just leave. In theory, they pay their last month’s rent, hand over the keys, get their deposit back, or part of it, and walk away. They just abide by the terms of the lease for the term of the notice period, and then they are free to go. In fact, even if they do not pay their rent, they often just leave. It is then up to the landlord to decide what, if anything, they do to recover the money. The tenant does not have to give any reason for leaving—they just can leave—but that is not the case for landlords. That is a clear example of the already in-built bias in favour tenants.
The tenants have no obligation to say why they are leaving or to give notice months in advance. They can just leave and say goodbye. This leaves landlords at a disadvantage, because they will normally want to re-let the property to maintain their income, in many cases to cover a mortgage, and they might well have had little notice that the tenants planned to vacate the property. Yet landlords have to serve notice on tenants to get them out. In the case of a no-fault situation, under an assured shorthold tenancy, where the landlord just needs to get the property back, for whatever reason, notice under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 needs to be served by the landlord on the tenant in order to bring the letting formally to an end. Only after that can the landlord instigate possession proceedings if the tenant fails to leave as requested.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, although, in fairness, the point has been made by others that there are good landlords and less-than-good landlords, and good tenants and poor tenants who leave properties in a terrible state and without paying. I do not see this as a one-sided issue. I do not think it is all in favour of the landlord, as opposed to the tenant. That is not my reading of the picture.
I must say in passing that those who claim there is a terrible bias in the system owing to problems of supply and demand are the same people who do not want to tackle immigration, which is one of the main reasons there is so much demand for property. If they really wanted to tackle the root causes of any imbalance in the market, they might at least be consistent and approve policies on immigration that would do some of the job they want to do through regulation.
I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He had the opportunity to speak earlier, but he cut himself short; he could have expanded at greater length on the problem of land-banking in his constituency. I do not want to be drawn off course. I am being dragged away and asked to speak at length about something, but I would rather stick as closely as I can to the meat of the Bill. I am sure that everybody would want me to do that.
On the subject of meat, the hon. Gentleman is well known for his prodigious appetite for research. Where in his last comment is there any link to the wording of the Bill? I cannot see any connection between his comments and what the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) is seeking to help with.
I was merely pointing out that others had said there was a problem with supply and demand—that there was too much demand—and therefore that landlords had too much of a whip hand. I was merely pointing out that there were better ways of dealing with the supply-and-demand issue than through this Bill, so my point was very pertinent to the Bill. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) seems to be slower on the uptake than normal, so I shall repeat that point: there are better ways of dealing with the supply-and-demand issues than by passing the Bill, which makes my remarks very pertinent to whether we need to pass the Bill.
As I was trying to say before I was rudely and repeatedly interrupted, the private rented sector has been a topical issue for many years, and there have always been arguments for greater regulation of the industry. The historical context of assured shorthold tenancies and section 21 notices, which are the subject of the Bill, can be easily traced. The 1987 Conservative manifesto recognised that there was a problem with the shortage of rented properties available, and to help increase the supply of rented dwellings, it pledged to make renting easier for landlords. I will not read out the whole section of the manifesto, under the “Better Housing for All” heading, but the relevant bits read, under the sub-heading, “A Right to Rent”:
“Most problems in housing now arise in the rented sector. Controls, although well-meant, have dramatically reduced the private rented accommodation to a mere 8 per cent of the housing market. This restricts housing choice and hinders the economy. People looking for work cannot easily move to a different area to do so. Those who find work may not be able to find rented accommodation nearby. Those who would prefer to rent rather than buy are forced to become reluctant owner-occupiers or to swell the queue for council houses. Some may even become temporarily homeless. And it is not only these people and their families who suffer from the shortage of homes for rent. The economy as a whole is damaged when workers cannot move to fill jobs because there are no homes to rent in the neighbourhood.”
Many might say we face similar challenges today. It went on:
“The next Conservative Government, having already implemented the right to buy, will increase practical opportunities to rent. We must attract new private investment into rented housing… First, to encourage more investment by institutions, we will extend the system of assured tenancies. This will permit new lettings in which rents and the period of lease will be freely agreed between tenants and landlords. The tenant will have security of tenure and will renegotiate the rent at the end of the lease, with provision for arbitration if necessary. Second, to encourage new lettings by smaller landlords, we will develop the system of shorthold. The rents of landlords will be limited to a reasonable rate of return, and the tenant's security of tenure will be limited to the term of the lease, which would be not less than 6 months. This will bring back into use many of the 550,000 private dwellings which now stand empty because of controls, as well as making the provision of new rented housing a more attractive investment.”
That touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). The reason for the system used today was to bring into use lots of properties that were out of use, because unfortunately the system then was not conducive to encouraging people to rent out their properties.
The figure of 550,000—the number of private dwellings to be brought back into the rental market—is staggering and shows starkly the dangers of too much regulatory interference. The fewer properties on the market, the worse is the supply-and-demand issue, so if people think there is a problem with supply and demand now, I must point out that it can only get worse if we introduce too much regulation into the sector.
My hon. Friend is accurate in his recollection of the history. Would he like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the then Member for Bristol West who was the Minister responsible for housing—now the noble Lord Waldegrave. The Department of the Environment at the time, in which I was privileged to serve as a very junior Minister, carried this forward as a really popular piece of legislation.
I am very grateful. I was not aware of the history that Bristol West has in respect of Ministers from this Department. I would happily praise Lord Waldegrave. I know that my hon. Friend must have been in that Department if it was doing something sensible; I am sure it was more down to him than to the Member for Bristol West. I will leave that to be determined.
The 1987 manifesto also said it would
“strengthen the law against harassment and unlawful eviction”.
All this was from a Thatcher Conservative manifesto.
The legislation relating to section 21 notices came about because, against this backdrop of the manifesto, the Housing Act 1988 was passed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) will know. Section 21 deals with the landlord issuing a no-fault notice to terminate the contract. This is what today’s Bill is about. It is therefore crucial to understand the section through which this Bill is seeking to ride a coach and horses. The section in the original 1988 Act is titled “Recovery of possession on expiry or termination of assured shorthold tenancy” and it states:
“Without prejudice to any right of the landlord under an assured shorthold tenancy to recover possession of the dwelling-house let on the tenancy in accordance with Chapter I above, on or after the coming to an end of an assured shorthold tenancy which was a fixed term tenancy, a court shall make an order for possession of the dwelling-house if it is satisfied…that the assured shorthold tenancy has come to an end and no further assured tenancy…is for the time being in existence”
“the landlord or, in the case of joint landlords, at least one of them has given to the tenant not less than two months’ notice…stating that he requires possession of the dwelling-house.”
In essence, the tenants need to be given two months’ notice in order for the request to regain the property to be valid.
The section continues:
“A notice under paragraph (b)…above may be given before or on the day on which the tenancy comes to an end; and that subsection shall have effect notwithstanding that on the coming to an end of the fixed term tenancy a statutory periodic tenancy arises.”
If there is a six-month tenancy, say to 31 July, notice can be served any time up to that date. Strictly speaking, the original tenancy ended on 31 July and the periodic tenancy started thereafter. It goes on:
“Where a court makes an order for possession of a dwelling-house by virtue of subsection (1) above, any statutory periodic tenancy which has arisen on the coming to an end of the assured shorthold tenancy shall end”
on the day on which the order takes effect. That means that the periodic tenancy is wrapped up and no further notice is needed. That is basically the point.
Another point is that
“a court shall make an order for possession of the dwelling-house”
let on an “assured shorthold tenancy”, which is a “periodic tenancy” if the court is satisfied that at least one of the landlords in the case of joint landlords has given to the tenants a notice stating the last day of the tenancy not less than two months after the date, and the date specified is not earlier than the earliest date on which the tenancy could be brought to an end. So if a notice is not served in the contractual term, and a periodic tenancy has arisen, a further notice is required which must be for a minimum of two months.
The original section of the Act had four subsections and it has been amended in a few ways since its introduction—for example, any notice under section 21 must now be done in writing, which was not in the original Act. This change, other minor amendments, and five new clauses have been added by the Local Government Act 1989, the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, as well as by various statutory instruments.
Today’s Bill seeks to curtail this section and place an additional restriction on landlords. Section 21 applies to an assured shorthold tenancy. On the Government website there is a section called “Tenancy agreements: a guide for landlords”, which explains what an assured shorthold tenancy is, saying:
“The most common form of tenancy is an AST. Most new tenancies are automatically this type. A tenancy can be an AST if all of the following apply: you’re a private landlord or housing association…the tenancy started on or after 15 January 1989…the property is your tenants’ main accommodation…you don’t live in the property”.
“A tenancy can’t be an AST if: it began or was agreed before 15 January 1989…the rent is more than £100,000 a year…the rent is less than £250 a year (less than £1,000 in London)…it’s a business tenancy or tenancy of licensed premises…it’s a holiday let…the landlord is a local council”.
Now the Communities and Local Government Select Committee looked at the private rented sector for its first report of the Session 2013-14. pointing out that sector was growing.
“The private rented sector is growing. In 1999, 9.9% of English households rented privately. By 2011/12, the figure had risen to 17.4%, with the number of households renting privately overtaking the number in the social rented sector...In the course of our inquiry, witnesses suggested a number of reasons for this growth including: the deregulation of the private rented sector and changes to tenancies in the late 1980s generating increased investment;…the introduction of new lending instruments in the late 1990s;…constraints on the other two main tenures—social housing and owner occupation—forcing more people to rent privately…and economic, social and lifestyle factors leading to an increased demand for more flexible forms of housing tenure…Most likely, all these drivers have contributed in some way to the growth.”
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been listening carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and he does not seem to me to be talking much about retaliatory evictions. He is talking more about the generality of the private rented sector. It is obviously in order to refer to that, but it is clearly not the central factor of the Bill. The Bill is quite specific—it deals with retaliatory evictions.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Gentleman would let me get on with it, we might get to a conclusion, instead of having him delaying proceedings all the time.
It is interesting to note in that Select Committee report the clear reference to the deregulation of the private rented sector and changes to tenancies in the late 1980s as being reasons for the increase in rented accommodation. That was exactly the point made in the 1987 Conservative manifesto, which I mentioned earlier. The exact figures are interesting, too. The number of private rentals nearly doubled from 1999 to 2012. In 1999 there were 2 million; in 2011-12 there were 3.8 million; whereas the social rented sector declined from 4 million to 3.8 million, but just below the number of the private rentals.
When it comes to understanding the procedure in relation to a section 21 notice for an assured shorthold tenancy, let me tell the hon. Member for Islington North that that is what the Bill is about. I do not know whether he has read the Bill, but that is what it is about. I am sorry to have surprised him by telling him that the Bill is about section 21 notices for an assured shorthold tenancy.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has guidance called, “Gaining possession of a privately rented property let on an assured shorthold tenancy”. It is dated 14 November 2012, but is the current online guidance on the DCLG’s webspace. It says:
“You cannot use Section 21 to gain possession of your property during the fixed term. You can serve a Section 21 notice on your tenant during that time, providing the date you state you require possession is not before the end of the fixed term. If your tenant paid a deposit, you cannot use Section 21 unless the deposit has been protected in accordance with the tenancy deposit schemes.”
This idea that landlords can go along willy-nilly using section 21 at any time a tenant decides to complain about the condition of their property is just for the birds. It is just not accurate. The guidance on the Department’s website is perfectly clear about that.
The tenancy deposit scheme is another regulatory burden on landlords, and it is relevant to the Bill because it is a crucial element of the qualifying criteria for a landlord to issue a section 21 notice. However, that is the only respect in which it is relevant, so I do not think that I need to dwell on it any further, which will please the hon. Member for Islington North.
The guidance on the Department’s website goes on to say:
“You must give at least 2 months notice in writing. If the fixed term has expired the notice will end on the last day of the rental period and you must explain that you are giving notice by virtue of Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. You will need to give more than 2 months’ notice if the fixed term has expired and the gap between the dates that the rent falls due is more than 2 months (e.g, a quarterly rent).”
Serving the notice is only part of the story, however. Giving notice under section 21 is merely that; it does not constitute a guarantee that the tenants will actually leave. The Department gives a helpful explanation on its website, and I shall set out some quotations from it:
“What do I do if my tenant refuses to leave on the date specified in the notice?
You will need to apply to the courts for a ‘possession order’.”
“What do I do if my tenant refuses to leave by the date given in the court order?
You must apply to the courts for a warrant of possession and the court will arrange for a bailiff to evict the tenant. You will need to use the ‘Request for Warrant of possession of Land (N325)…form.”
“How can I speed up the process?
You can use the possession claim online service if you are seeking possession of the property together with any rent arrears. The service allows you to access court forms online”.
“Where possession is sought under Section 21, an accelerated procedure can be used which is a straightforward and inexpensive procedure for getting possession of your property without a court hearing.
In most cases using this procedure the court will make its decision on the papers, and can order possession to be given up within 14 days unless exceptional hardship would be caused, in which case the maximum time that can be allowed is 42 days.
You can only use this procedure if you have a written tenancy agreement and you have given the tenant the required notice in writing that you are seeking possession. You cannot use this procedure if you are also claiming rent arrears.”
The landlord therefore still has plenty of hoops to jump through, even after serving notice, unlike the tenant, who will have no problems at all if he or she wants simply to leave.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is already a big problem for landlords. Many landlords also worry about not being paid for weeks on end and, for example, being unable to have any benefits paid directly to them.
The issue with which we are dealing today is what is described as “retaliatory eviction”. The House of Commons Library says:
“Retaliatory eviction, also sometimes referred to as revenge eviction, is used to describe the situation where a private landlord serves a section 21 notice on an assured shorthold tenant (seeking to terminate the tenancy) in response to the tenant’s request for repairs, or where they have sought assistance from the local authority’s environmental health department.
Retaliatory eviction is said to be a by-product of the fact that private landlords can evict assured shorthold tenants without having to establish any ‘fault’ on the part of the tenant.”
The problem is that unless one knows the specifics of the case, or is in possession of an admission that that is what the landlord has done, it is difficult to know whether an eviction falls into that category. A landlord could, for example, coincidentally need the property back at the same time as the issuing of a complaint or a request for repairs.
I know of an example of a woman who went to Australia with her then boyfriend. They let their property in Clapham to go off on what was supposed to be a three-year secondment. Unfortunately, the woman’s boyfriend decided to end their relationship after just a few months. Her visa was dependent on him, so she had a very short time in which to leave Australia. She was homeless on her return to the United Kingdom, as the property had been let to cover the mortgage while they were out of the country. She had no choice but to give her tenant notice so that she could at least have somewhere to live and regain part of her life back in the UK.
Under the Bill if, by sheer coincidence, the tenant—who had been dealing with managing agents—had given notice of a problem, the woman would have had to wait a further six months. Given that she would be the one moving back into the property, she would hardly have not wanted to do whatever work was needed, because such work would have been to her benefit. The delay would have made an already upsetting situation even more distressing and stressful. Such a situation could well be just one of the Bill’s unintended consequences.
Similarly, if someone wanted to move back into a property to be near an ill or dying relative and to help with that relative’s care, in the event of the same coincidental timing of a notice or complaint, that person could be prevented from regaining his or her property, with the obvious emotional problems that would naturally arise in such distressing circumstances. Moreover, the tenant’s complaint might not be genuine. In the cases cited by the proponents of action, such as the Bill’s proposer, complaints are always genuine rather than bogus or spurious, although such complaints obviously occur from time to time.
Landlords already have obligations in relation to repairs and maintenance under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, so they have a legal duty. We are talking about tenants who complain about a landlord who is not carrying out his legal duty. Resorting to evicting tenants would not remove the legal duty in section 11 of that Act, which states:
“In a lease to which this section applies…there is implied a covenant by the lessor…to keep in repair the structure and exterior of the dwelling-house (including drains, gutters and external pipes)…to keep in repair and proper working order the installations in the dwelling-house for the supply of water, gas and electricity and for sanitation (including basins, sinks, baths and sanitary conveniences, but not other fixtures, fittings and appliances for making use of the supply of water, gas or electricity), and…to keep in repair and proper working order the installations in the dwelling-house for space heating and heating water.”
The Communities and Local Government Committee considered retaliatory evictions as part of its 2013-14 report on the private rented sector.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would never dare for a moment to suggest a course of action that you should take from the Chair, but surely, Sir, you would agree that this is utterly, totally and completely irrelevant. We will be on to episodes of “Rising Damp” next. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to seek to read out a list of necessities including “sanitary conveniences” in his pathetic attempt to talk out a good and decent Bill?
That is not a point of order, but we have heard the hon. Gentleman’s view and his opinion. My opinion is that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is in order. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on one point: we do not want to be given too many more examples.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ealing North has led with his chin by drawing attention to the fact that he has absolutely no idea what the Bill is about. The Bill is about retaliatory evictions. That is the whole purpose of it, and that is what the campaign that resulted in the Bill was about. The moment I mentioned the Select Committee’s report that considered retaliatory evictions, the hon. Gentleman stood up to say that that was irrelevant to the Bill. Either the hon. Gentleman is wasting time himself, or he has not the first idea what he is talking about. I have no idea why he is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench masquerading as some sort of expert on the subject.
My hon. Friend is right. I know that this is very inconvenient, but the whole point of Select Committees is to look at and scrutinise issues in detail and to take evidence, with the Committee then making recommendations on the basis of its expertise. It is a sad day in this House when Members seem not to want to know what that Select Committee, under its Labour Chairman, said about the issue we are debating. Free speech is a long way away from the Labour party. The detailed Select Committee report is a hefty 79 pages long.
Order. I am not sure that I was referring to a Select Committee report, but we are dealing with a Bill. The two must presumably link, but I am not sure how, as I do not have the Select Committee report before me. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss the Bill and I presume that that is what we are going to do.
Very much so. The specific point about retaliatory eviction in the Select Committee’s report is relatively short but insightful:
“A number of witnesses raised concerns about ‘retaliatory eviction’, whereby landlords would serve notice on a tenant if they complained or asked for repairs to be carried out. Bradford Metropolitan District Council”—
my local authority—
“stated that one of the consequences of the relative lack of security of tenure in the PRS is the incidence of retaliatory evictions. We have concerns that when some landlords become aware that their tenants have contacted the local authority for assistance with the poor standard of their accommodation, that they then serve notice on their tenants, who are then required to move out.”
Retaliatory eviction was said to be a by-product of the fact that private landlords can evict assured shorthold tenants without having to establish any fault on the part of the tenants.
I will come on to what happens in other countries but, sticking to the conclusion that is relevant to the Bill, the Select Committee said:
“We are not convinced, however, that a legislative approach is the best or even an effective solution. Changing the law to limit the issuing of section 21 notices might be counter-productive and stunt the market. Rather, if we move towards a culture where longer tenancies become the norm, tenants will have greater security and also more confidence to ask for improvements and maintenance and, when necessary, to complain about their landlord. Moreover, if local authorities take a more proactive approach to enforcement, they will be able to address problems as they occur rather than waiting for tenants to report them.”
The Committee cited the word “perception”, as opposed to the reality, and rejected the need for legislation, going as far as to say that that could be “counter-productive”. I could not have put it better myself, and I praise all the Committee members who listened to the evidence and reached that sensible conclusion.
The issue of retaliatory evictions is not new—in fact, it has been raised time and again—yet no Government, whether Conservative or Labour, have felt the need to take action. The issue was the subject of an amendment in the name of Lord Dubs that was moved by Lord Williams of Elvel in 1996. It is worth considering the reasons behind the amendment. Lord Williams said:
“This amendment deals with the difficult problem of retaliatory eviction. The effect of the amendment is to extend the notice period in such cases…Retaliatory evictions, apart from being very distressing to those who are evicted as a result of something they may have done inadvertently, can seriously hamper a local authority's attempts to tackle poor housing conditions.”
Exactly the same issue was therefore being discussed in 1996. The interesting bit is the response of Earl Ferrers, the then Minister:
“I have difficulty with what the noble Lord is proposing. It could prevent a landlord from regaining possession of his property for more than a year after the end of the initial six-month period or after the end of a pre-agreed fixed term”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 July 1996; Vol. 574, c. 311-313.]
Of course, those problems remain. The then Minister’s argument—that such a measure could create unnecessary problems for genuine landlords—is as relevant today as it was when that amendment was moved and the then Conservative Government rejected it.
The issue was also raised when Labour was in office. Lord Williams of Elvel—a very persistent Member—had another go in 2008. The then Labour Minister, Baroness Andrews, responded by saying:
“We have to understand the scale of the problem. It is not at all clear how many people are affected. We also need to avoid unintended consequences. We need a thriving private rented sector and we need to keep good landlords in the market.”
She was right.
I shall not go into the other notable comments that were made during that debate, but Earl Cathcart and Baroness Gardner of Parkes also made good points. Baroness Andrews summed things up by saying that it was
“in everyone’s interests to get the balance right”. —[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 April 2008; Vol. 700, c. 1039-1041.]
That was what the Labour Government thought they had done. I agree with them, as they did get the balance right between the rights of the landlord and those of the tenant.
I know that the hon. Member for Brent Central has the support of many of her Liberal Democrat colleagues, but I was interested to read the position of the former Communities and Local Government Minister, the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell), during the passage of the Bill that became the Localism Act 2011. He said:
“section 21 is one of the key characteristics of assured shorthold tenancies to which the tenancy deposit scheme relates. It allows a landlord to evict a tenant, having given reasonable notice, on a non-discretionary basis and without having to give a reason. The ability to gain possession of their property is key to a landlord’s confidence in letting out that property in the first place, and in the current economic climate, we would not want to undermine that confidence.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 10 March 2011; c. 952.]
Once again we have the Liberal Democrats all over the place on an issue. They tell landlords one thing on the one hand, but tell tenants something completely different on the other. However, I think that what the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove said was very sensible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is also an issue for landlords who are borrowing, because lenders may be very worried about lending money to landlords if it cannot be guaranteed that those landlords will be able to get the property back should the need arise?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. An unintended consequence of the Bill would be that there would be fewer properties on the market for people to rent, and I am not sure how that that would help anybody.
The Communities and Local Government Committee report also dealt with the fear of retaliatory eviction in relation to energy efficiency requests. It said that Friends of the Earth and the Association for the Conservation of Energy were concerned that tenants would be unlikely to request energy efficiency measures from landlords for fear of eviction. This is mentioned in the Bill, although that was not a recommendation of the Committee. Actually, the Committee’s recommendation was very landlord-friendly, while recognising that this would also help tenants, because it asked the Government to
“convene a working party from all parts of the industry, to examine proposals to speed up the process of evicting during a tenancy tenants who do not pay rent promptly or fail to meet other contractual obligations. The ability to secure eviction more quickly for non payment of rent will encourage landlords to make properties available on longer tenancies. The Government should also set out a quicker means for landlords to gain possession if they can provide proof that they intend to sell the property.”
The Committee was in effect urging the Government to take the exact opposite view from that proposed in the Bill. It says that they should make it easier for landlords to evict tenants more quickly, which would mean there would be more properties available and landlords would have much more confidence in offering longer tenancies, with the security that that provides.
The Committee’s report did not agree at all with what is proposed in the Bill, yet apparently all parties are supporting it today. Before we start running around doing something about a problem, we need to be sure it is so concerning that it is impossible to ignore.
The English housing survey is a good place from which to get important statistics for this debate. According to the 2012-13 survey, 84% of private renters said they were very or fairly satisfied with their accommodation, with 10% being either slightly or very dissatisfied. Three fifths—61%—of private renters reported that they anticipated owning their own property in the longer term, with about a quarter reporting that they expected still to be renting from a private landlord in the longer term. In the private rented sector, a fifth of households were of other nationalities—not British or Irish—in comparison with only 3% of owner-occupiers, and 7% of social renters. The private rented sector had the largest proportion of full-time students and only 13% of private renter households earned less than £200 a week. In 2008-09, 12% of private renters were couples with dependent children, but by 2012-13, that figure had increased to 20%, compared with 39% of people with a mortgage. Private renters had been living in their current home for an average of 3.8 years, so most private renters stay in a property much longer than many might imagine.
It is important to paint that illuminating picture of the types of people who rent. It is clear that there are reasons why they would choose to rent rather than buy, not least of which is that people of different nationalities might be working over here temporarily. Students might live away from home for a fixed period of time but then want to return. It is also important to note that the vast majority of private renters are very happy with their accommodation. I certainly fall into that category as somebody who rents a property in London and in Shipley, and I hope that my tenants do too. That is not the picture that some people would like to paint in justifying the Bill today.
The housing survey also assists with the numbers of people leaving their properties, which is crucial in understanding the position of eviction in the market. The survey states that four fifths of private renters who moved in the past three years said that their tenancy had ended because they had wanted to move; only 7% said that it was because they had been asked to leave by their landlord or agent—and that covers every possible circumstance before we even move on to retaliatory eviction. The other reasons were that the renter wanted to move, that there was a mutual agreement or that the accommodation was tied to a job that had ended.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and that certainly makes up a large part of the market.
A helpful breakdown in the English housing survey also shows why over the past three years tenants were asked to leave. That is very illuminating as regards today’s debate, because we are being led to believe that people left, right and centre are being asked to leave in some sort of retaliatory eviction, which simply is not the case. Out of 184,000, 103,000 had been asked to leave because the landlord wanted to sell the property or use it themselves, 18% had been asked to leave because they had not paid the rent and 63,000 had left for other unspecified reasons, which is 35%. In 57% of all cases people were asked to leave simply because the landlord wanted to sell up or use the property themselves.
It is not very helpful just to say that there are “other reasons”, so I asked the statisticians behind the survey for a breakdown so that we could be a bit more specific about what they were and how many there were in each category. I suspect that the Government have not done that and that the hon. Member for Brent Central has not done so either. The statisticians helpfully said that the sample sizes for the response options grouped together as other reasons are too small to break down any further but include difficulties with the payment of housing benefit and local housing allowance, the landlord’s being dissatisfied with how accommodation was being looked after, the landlord’s receiving complaints from neighbours and, crucially, the tenant’s having complained to the council, agent or landlord about problems with the property. So, that was the fourth reason down of the other reasons that are individually too small a sample to be broken down and have their own category. That lays bare the extent of the problem that the Bill is trying to deal with today.
The Government claim that they have been persuaded of the case and that because of a YouGov survey they have overturned everything they ever believed in. It seemed from what the Minister said earlier that that is the basis on which the Government’s position has changed. He did not say that it was a YouGov survey commissioned by Shelter, so I will add that bit for him. The day that a Government support a Bill on the basis of an opinion poll commissioned by a campaign group is a sad day, and the Minister did not even have the nerve to admit that that was what happened. It was a survey conducted by a pressure group, and that is a pretty shoddy reason. He should look at the evidence.
I cited the YouGov research, and the extrapolation that could be made from it, as further evidence of the need for the Bill. The compelling need for the Bill has also been illustrated by many other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate and reiterated the real-life experiences of their constituents. They have shown why there is a need for the Bill.
If the Minister would like to intervene on me again and tell me his view of the English housing survey and how much weight should be put on the figures, I would be interested to hear that. The survey has, in just one set of tables, completely undermined the case for the Bill.
Given that the smallest figure that had a category—non-payment of rent—was 18,000, we can deduce that the number of households with tenants who were asked to leave because they had complained about problems with the property has to be substantially less, because it was the fourth category down in the “other” section. The figure must therefore be considerably less than 18,000. That figure also relates to people who have been asked to move from a household in the past three years, so this represents a three-year figure, not just a one-year figure. We know that the figure is very small, but, whatever it is, it will include tenants who have complained but who did not have a genuine complaint, because the complaints in the survey were never verified.
In fewer than 18,000 households were tenants renting in the private sector asked to leave because of a complaint made about problems with their property. Even if the figure were 18,000, that would amount to only 0.7% of all households where the tenant left their rented property in the past three years. That means that fewer than 6,000 households a year were affected. We do not know the exact number, because the figures are too small to be helpful, as the statistician behind the English housing survey confirmed.
Another way of looking at this is provided by the Association of Residential Letting Agents, which has said of retaliatory eviction:
“A recent poll undertaken by possession specialists, Landlord Action, suggests it could be the reason behind around 2% of landlord possession claims.”
It is also important to consider that, according to the English housing survey for 2010-11, only 9% of tenancies ended at the request of the landlord. Based on those two pieces of research, we can conclude that the figure we are talking about is 2% of that 9%. So, according to the best evidence we have, retaliatory evictions might occur in only about 0.18% of tenancies, yet we are told that it is essential that we pass this Bill today. Given that the English housing survey suggests that there are currently almost 4 million tenancies in the UK, that 0.18% would equate to approximately 7,120 tenancies ending in retaliatory eviction.
Richard Lambert, chief executive officer at the National Landlords Association, has said of retaliatory eviction that
“it should not be confused with using the no fault possession procedure to end a tenancy, which in the vast majority of cases is the final resort, not a response to a request for repairs or because landlords are out for revenge. We don’t talk about any other service provider seeking revenge from their customers and there is no reason to suspect landlords are any different. Sarah Teather’s private member’s Bill is aimed at tackling a perception of the ‘worst case scenario’, which is not the experience of the majority of renters who rely on private housing. There is a lack of hard evidence to support a need for the changes proposed”.
How well do the official figures that I have given to the House tally with the claims being made by those in favour of the Bill? Not very well—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been talking for a very long time on the same point. He has made the point very eloquently, but he is in danger of repeating the same point continuously by drawing on different comments from elsewhere. He is now repeating himself and—dare I say it?—repetition can sometimes get a bit tedious. This comes under Standing Orders, so I hope, given that there are others waiting to speak, that he will acknowledge that he has made his point and conclude his remarks.
Order. Whether a contribution in the House is in order or not is measured not by time but by whether it continuously repeats a point or argument. However good the hon. Gentleman’s memory might be, the fact is that I am in the Chair now and I have given him my ruling. It is the content of a speech, not its length, that is the measure. He has made his point, so perhaps he will move on to another one. I do not want him to keep going over the same ground.
I am absolutely not going to go over the same ground, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am going to compare the official figures with those given by the campaigning organisations that have asked for this Bill to be introduced, because they simply do not tally.
Shelter, which has been making a lot of noise on this subject, says on its website that last year 200,000 renters faced eviction just for speaking out about bad conditions. The official figures are nowhere near 200,000; Shelter has just picked a figure out of thin air and decided to run a campaign on the back of it. In the briefing note for this Bill, Shelter says that more than 200,000 renters have been evicted or served notice in the past year because they complained to their local council or their landlord about a problem in their home—that is simply not true. I am confused: is Shelter saying that 200,000 renters faced eviction, that 200,000 were either evicted or served a notice, or that 200,000 were evicted and many more live in fear of eviction? I do not know which it is, but I am certainly not sure that that is true. The Liberal Democrat Lord Stoneham has said that every year 300,000 tenants are evicted after making a complaint to their landlord about the state of their home, so we have fantasy figures inflation about this. I am not sure where the figures come from, and I would be very interested to know, but that is 150% of Shelter’s worst-case scenario of 200,000 people being evicted.
The Minister has fallen back on saying that he is relying on anecdotal evidence to justify this Bill. Bearing in mind the impact it will have on the whole of the private rental market, is it not right to look at the exact scale and try to find some evidence to justify the case for this Bill?
Absolutely. The official figures are there; but the Government have just decided, presumably because an election is coming and the Minister thinks he might get a few cheap votes out of it, to ignore the evidence Paul Shamplina of Landlord Action has said that Shelter is
“engaging in a lot of guesswork”
on the figures. He said that the Government statistics show that last year there were 170,000 possession claims issued—the Minister might want to confirm that these are his Department’s figures—of which 113,000 were for the social sector. So that just leaves 57,000 in the private rented sector, 23,000 of which were through a hearing route—section 8—and 34,000 of which were through the accelerated possession routes. He says that
“most of the time tenants may not know the reason”
why a section 21 notice is issued, because it is the landlord’s prerogative. Does the Minister want to confirm that that is the case and so those figures from Shelter are just completely wrong?
Landlord Action also carried out a survey of landlords who had served section 21 notices, finding that 28% of landlords said they had served a notice because their tenant was in rent arrears, with 2% advising that their tenants had asked for repairs to be carried out so they served a section 21 notice. It could be argued that those were retaliatory evictions, but the precise details are not known. The Competition and Markets Authority also notes that the database it analysed in preparing its review of lettings did not identify retaliatory eviction as a problem of any significance at all.
Given all that, we could be forgiven for being completely confused and wondering what the reality of the situation is. Helpfully, however, the Government have been answering parliamentary questions on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) asked how many section 21 notices were served in each of the past 12 months and in each of the past five years. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) said:
“The Government does not collect this information.”
But he went on to say that the serving of such notices was
“like any other termination of a contract…a private matter between the landlord and tenant.”
That raises the question of why the Government now do not seem to think it is a private matter between the landlord and the tenant, and seem to have figures that they did not have when the question was asked.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport also asked what records the Department keeps and what criteria they use to define retaliatory eviction. Again, the Minister replied that none of that information is collected centrally. Having looked at that some more, it seems that my assessment of the situation chimes with what previous Housing Ministers have said. My right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), now Conservative party chairman, when he was Housing Minister, referred to the English housing survey and gave the figures I have used today. He was using those figures as the official Government figures. If they are the official Government figures, why does the Minister not accept them? Why are the Government now trying to pretend that a YouGov poll is more important and worthwhile than the official figures that his predecessors used when discussing the matter?
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) asked earlier this year, on 28 April—
Order. Okay, Mr Davies, under Standing Order No. 42, a Member may be called to order for
“tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members”.
That is now what is happening with regard to the reference to evictions in the Bill. The Member has been speaking for nearly an hour. I am directing the Member to make his closing remarks now. Otherwise, I will require him to take his seat so that we can hear from the other Members who wish to participate in the debate. Is that clear?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred to his own accidental property ownership. I, too, must take this opportunity to put on the record a quarter share in a property that we now rent out. I apologise to you and to the House for not having done so at the beginning of my contribution and for therefore having to do so on a point of order.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), many of whose concerns about this legislation I share. As I said in an earlier intervention, this area has long been of interest to me, since I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment when we introduced the Housing Act 1988, which deregulated the private rented sector and, in so doing, generated so much more activity in the sector and provided so many more opportunities for people both to rent and to let properties. We got rid of the enormous scandal of hundreds of thousands of properties being kept empty because landlords feared that, once a tenant was in place, they would be unable to regain vacant possession. It is against that background that I look at this Bill.
I am worried that such a Bill, which is intended to change the balance—it certainly would—between the landlord and the tenant in shorthold tenancies, might result in adverse consequences for the whole private rented housing market. It might deter new landlords from coming into the market and encourage existing landlords not to re-let and to leave the market. It might, completely contrary to the wishes and intentions of the Minister, reduce the availability of tenancies for people looking for somewhere to live. Against that background, we need to be circumspect in looking at the precise provisions of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley dealt with the scale of the problem and sought to put it into perspective. He challenged the basis of the Shelter survey, which was relied upon by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and by the Minister, although in his more recent intervention the Minister seems to have said that he was relying on anecdotal evidence, rather than any hard analysis. That is a rather irresponsible position for the Government to take. It is not the position that the Labour Government took and it is not the position that this Government took up to the time that the hon. Gentleman became the Minister.
My challenge to the Minister is this: given that the Bill is new regulation, has there been a regulatory impact assessment? I do not think so. This new regulation will impact adversely on the market. I would have thought it was a sine qua non of Government support for the Bill that they would have undertaken a proper regulatory impact assessment. If we had such an assessment before us, it would probably have been easier for my hon. Friend to make his argument. He would have been able to refer—[Interruption.] or not, as the case may be––to a regulatory impact assessment and thereby ensure that Second Reading of this important Bill was properly informed.
The impact is not just potentially on the rest of the private rented sector. The Bill will have an impact on the courts. It is clear that it will generate more business in the courts at a time when the Ministry of Justice—I have the privilege of serving on the Justice Committee—is under enormous pressure to reduce costs and the Courts Service is under great pressure, not least because of the reductions in the legal assistance that has been available to people bringing cases before the courts. The prospect of the Bill generating cases in the county court in which tenants represent themselves against small landlords who are seeking to regain possession of their property is a serious issue which needs to be addressed. It has not been touched on in the debate so far.
I draw attention to that aspect because of the wording in clause 1, which states:
“A section 21 notice may not be given in relation to an assured shorthold tenancy . . . within six months beginning with the day of service of a relevant notice in relation to the dwelling-house.”
It then sets out that that notice would be invalid in particular circumstances. Clause 1 (3) is key. It states:
“It is a defence to proceedings for an order under section 21 . . . in relation to an assured shorthold tenancy of a dwelling-house in England that—
(a) before the section 21 notice was given, the tenant made a relevant complaint in relation to the dwelling-house to the landlord or the relevant local housing authority, and
(b) subsection 4 applies.”
Subsection (4) says that if
“the relevant local housing authority has not decided whether to inspect the dwelling-house or the common parts”
or has decided to inspect them but has not carried out the inspection, or has conducted an inspection but has not decided whether to serve a relevant notice, or has decided to serve a relevant notice but the notice has not yet been served, in all those circumstances clause 1(3) would result in the section 21 proceedings not being able to go forward. That could give rise to a lot of litigation.
It has been assumed during this debate that local housing authorities act expeditiously and conscientiously in dealing with these issues. However, as we heard earlier, there is evidence that, because of a lack of resources, local housing departments and environmental health officers can be reluctant to engage in this kind of activity because it is expensive. Although they have a statutory duty to inspect dwelling houses that have been the subject of a complaint, they often do nothing about it and allow the matter to lapse.
Given that local housing authorities are not even inspecting all the dwelling houses with repair problems that they are obliged to inspect under their existing statutory duties, it is inevitable that a significant period of time—possibly many weeks—will elapse while they decide whether to carry out inspections under the Bill. If an authority did decide to inspect a dwelling house, it would take even longer for the inspection to be carried out. Then it would have to look at the results and decide whether to issue a relevant notice. If so, the matter would be referred to the legal department and in due course the notice could be served. The whole process, it is no exaggeration to suggest, could take at least six months. Throughout that time, the landlord seeking to regain possession of his property under section 21 would be unable to do so because of the interaction of clauses 1(3) and 1(4).
What would be the likely response of a landlord in this situation? They might well say, “I’m going to have to put pressure on the recalcitrant local housing authority to deliver on this, so I’ll go to the court to try to require it to reach a decision.” In many aspects of the world that we look at as Members of Parliament, the inability of regulatory and statutory authorities to make decisions is, in essence, the regulatory burden. The only remedy for that indecision is to go to the courts, and that leads to a lot of extra court work, as well as a lot of unfairness and injustice for the people involved. One of the biggest problems with clause 1 is the impact that it will have in the courts.
Clause 1(5) states that subsection (1) does not apply where the relevant notice has been wholly revoked under section 16 of the Housing Act 2004, where it has been quashed or where a decision of the relevant housing authority to refuse to revoke has been reversed in three different sets of circumstances, which I will not recite. Those are all very narrow situations, but the bigger question is: what will happen if the tenant acts in a way designed to try to delay eviction or to frustrate the process of recovery of the property by the landlord?
The Minister and the hon. Member for Brent Central, who introduced the Bill, kept on emphasising that it was fair as between landlord and tenant and that there was an opportunity to ensure that if the notice was being challenged on unreasonable grounds, that could be dealt with by the courts. That is where clause 2 comes into play, but I submit that that is not fairly expressed. For example, clause 2(2) states:
“Subsection (3) of section 1 does not apply if the court considers that the relevant complaint is totally without merit.”
How will it be possible to find out whether a complaint is “totally without merit”? That is obviously a subjective judgment that would have to be made by a court. Assertions would be made by one side and counter-assertions by the other. The process of establishing that will take a significant amount of time, even when the notice has been served prior to the landlord seeking to exercise his section 21 rights.
To reply to the hon. Gentleman’s point about what would happen in the event of a delay, if a section 21 notice is given, there would have to be two months’ notice and it is our view that that would be sufficient time for a council to go into a property and assess whether the repairs or safety measures need to be undertaken.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not being mischievous, but what I said was that if a section 21 notice is given, it is for two months and that ought to be sufficient time for a local authority to go into a property to assess whether the repairs or safety measures need to be undertaken.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Having heard the Minister say that a local authority “ought to” be able to do this in two months, I could not agree with him more, but my concern is what happens when a local authority does not do what Members think it ought to do. We have already heard many examples of areas in which local authorities are already falling down on their statutory duties. Nothing in the Bill sets out a timescale within which a local authority has to act in response to the requirements set out in the Bill. If the Minister thinks that two months is reasonable for the whole process, we should be able to incorporate that time scale in the Bill, perhaps through amendments in Committee. Perhaps such amendments will be tabled by the Government.
In each paragraph in clause 1(4), we should specify that the relevant local housing authority must decide within, say, two weeks. There are four parts to the process, so if the Minister thinks that two months is a reasonable time for those four activities, two weeks for each would equal eight weeks. Each of those decisions by the relevant housing authority would therefore have to be taken within the two-week period or be deemed to be a negative decision. That would be a necessary protection for the landlord and, if the tenant has a genuine concern, it would be an opportunity for him to be assured that if something is wrong in the house that he is occupying it can be put right in a reasonably short time. I would be happy to give way to the Minister if he thinks that my interpretation of the need for such an assurance to be included in the Bill is reasonable and the Government would be willing to take it on board to meet the concerns that I have expressed. I note that the Minister has not responded.
The hon. Member for Brent Central said—and I agree with her—that a heck of a lot of people are tenants in properties whose landlord is falling down on the responsibility to keep the property in good repair. Those responsibilities can already be enforced by the existing law, especially the provisions of the Housing Act 2004. That Act deals with the enforcement of housing standards. It defines two categories of hazard. In section 5, the local authority is under a statutory duty with regard to category 1 hazards. Under the title “Category 1 hazards: general duty to take enforcement action”, the Act states:
“If a local housing authority consider that a category 1 hazard exists on any residential premises, they must take the appropriate enforcement action in relation to the hazard.”
For category 2 hazards, local authorities have the power to take enforcement action. We know that in many cases local authorities are not exercising those powers. That is par for the course and there is nothing that we can do about it.
We know also that in many areas local housing authorities are not exercising their statutory duties, which means that they are letting down the tenants whom they purport to want to assist. Because local authorities are failing to exercise their responsibilities, they are permitting—through their lack of intervention—a larger number of properties to be in disrepair than should be the case. That is unacceptable.
Given that many of the hon. Members who support the Bill today claim that local authorities are short of resources, does my hon. Friend have any idea as to what extra resources local authorities will need to meet the Bill’s requirements and expectations, and whether they have had any discussions on the matter?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very pertinent question. I think it comes back to the lack of a regulatory impact assessment. The Bill has the potential to put more responsibility on to local authorities, but we know they are already not exercising those responsibilities. The Minister said that they had been given specific grants by the Government in the past year. I think he talked about £6.7 million, if my memory serves me. Despite that, the amount of activity he described by local authorities dealing with problems relating to housing in a bad state of repair was very small indeed in comparison with the vast number of properties—some 4 million—that are currently let by landlords to tenants.
That deals with one of the issues relating to the further exemptions under section 1 set out in clause 2. It is still far from clear that putting the burden on the landlord to show that a complaint is totally without merit is a solution to the problem that the Minister and the promoter of the Bill identified, which is how to deal with tenants who are mischievous, who want to prolong their tenancies, who cause trouble for the landlord or who effectively are in what might be described as the tenants’ awkward squad. If this is to be any use, the burden should be the other way around. The burden should be on the tenant to show that the complaint has merit—the burden of proof should be reversed.
Clause 2(1) states:
“Subsections (1) to (3) of section 1 do not apply where the condition of the dwelling-house or common parts that gave rise to the service of the relevant notice, or consideration of whether to serve a…notice, is due to a breach by the tenant of—
(a) the duty to use the dwelling-house in a tenant-like manner, or
(b) an express term of the tenancy to the same effect.”
That will be subject to litigation. Whether a tenant has failed in a duty to use the dwelling-house in a tenant-like manner is ultimately something that has to be justiciable by the courts, even where it is alleged that there is a breach of an express term of the tenancy.
Why would tenants want to play the game of engaging in litigation? If they are impecunious, they know they can engage in retaliatory action against their landlords by using the courts against them. They could turn the powers in the Bill, which are designed to try to protect tenants, upside down and use them as a weapon against landlords. That is the concern being expressed by landlords’ associations. It is a pity that in listing the bodies the Minister has consulted, he did not mention the Residential Landlords Association, which represents many independent private landlords who are responsible and want to comply with the law, but who are extremely concerned about the consequences of the Bill were it to get on the statute book.
If we start raising questions of whether a tenant has breached an express term of a tenancy or failed to use the dwelling house in a tenant-like manner, we effectively return to the litigiousness of the landlord-tenant law that preceded the assured tenancy regime and section 21 notices, the whole purpose of which was to avoid the litigation and doubts associated with the termination of an assured shorthold tenancy after it had run its six-month course or at some subsequent time. The Bill would resurrect, almost covertly, those old litigious opportunities.
Before I entered the House, I was a practising barrister, and I spent many an enjoyable occasion before judges in the county courts—I will not list those I had the pleasure of practising in—representing tenants and landlords. I was familiar with how the complicated law, as it was prior to 1988, was used by the unscrupulous to prolong the agony, to themselves, often, and the landlord, and at great expense—I am talking about fees as well as the cost to the Courts Service and legal system. The purpose of section 21 notices, which would be undermined by the Bill, was to curtail that activity and the adversarial approach to dealing with tenants’ problems.
The Minister and promoter of the Bill say that clause 2, introducing further exemptions to the application of clause 1, balances out the rights of a tenant as against the landlord, but I do not think that is so. That point is reinforced by clause 2(3), which would provide for a further exemption where the dwelling is
“genuinely on the market for sale”.
Who will assess whether it is “genuinely” on the market? The explanatory notes mention family members, and clause 2(4) spells out specific cases where the landlord would not be regarded as being engaged in a genuine sale—
The Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative because fewer than 100 Members voted in the majority in support of the motion (Standing Order No. 37).
I am sorry that the process has been interrupted. That has taken away 12 or 15 minutes of good debating time, which I was hoping to be able to make use of. It shows that the Bill does not have the massive, overwhelming support that its sponsors say it has. Normally on a Friday, someone moving a closure motion expects to succeed.
I am tempted to go into the world of how the Liberal Democrats can sit on the fence and be on both sides of an argument at the same time, but I am not going to do that. I am just going to say that quite a lot of Members come to the House and never vote for or against a closure motion; they sit on their hands. Normally, however, if a Member is going to try to get what is known to be a controversial Bill—[Interruption.] Hon. Members are laughing, but the Bill is obviously controversial because until only a few weeks ago, the Government themselves were against it and they have opposed a similar measure in the House of Lords.
The hon. Gentleman has to reflect on the fact that no one was prepared to go through the Lobby against the closure motion. If he is as confident in his position as he claims to be—it is clear what he is trying to do; he is trying to talk until 2.30, when the motion will fall—why does he not agree now to put the substantive matter to the vote?
The hon. Gentleman obviously was not trusting me, which is why his friends tried to move a closure against me. I must admit that I have a slightly stubborn streak, and since Members of this House have tried to move a closure against me, albeit unsuccessfully, I am certainly not going to just immediately sit down.
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but may I, through him, tell the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) not to be discouraged because this matter will come back, and at some point this legislation will go through?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Legislating on Fridays is an iterative process. For example, I spoke on several Fridays against what was then known as the high hedges legislation. It took three or four successive Sessions of Parliament before that Bill got through. It was put through by the Government in a schedule to the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, and it was not debated at all, either in this House or in the other place.
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is unwilling to allow this mother of Parliaments to make a decision on this motion and I have to leave for my constituency. All I can say is that, as a fairly new Member of this House, I am shocked and ashamed that this sort of thing can go on. It is the clear will of the House and of the public that this Bill be passed, yet this gentleman makes an outrageous play, using up time and a parliamentary motion, to prevent that. I have to leave now. I will lose my temper; I am shocked, and I think the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) should feel a sense of shame that they are unwilling to act in a decent and moral manner.
I am grateful to you for trying to restore some decorum, Madam Deputy Speaker,. I know the hon. Gentleman is new and forgive him that, but he asked me if I would give way; I gave way to him, and then he took the opportunity to insult me. I do not mind: I have been insulted by Liberal Democrats before, and I am sure Liberal Democrats will continue to insult me in the future, but we should not engage in ad hominem arguments, neither should we ignore the fact that this Bill is controversial. It may be supported by 60 Members who are present today, but it is not supported by a lot of other people. I think it is important when considering legislation such as this that we think through the full implications, so that it does not result in a diminution of the private rented sector, as was the case when I first came into Parliament in 1983.
My hon. Friend referred to the high hedges Bill, which took three Sessions to get through but was obviously needed and did get through. Why does he feel that my constituents who are living in poor rental accommodation and are fearful of asking to get problems addressed should have to wait and wait and wait—in their homes, which should be their castle and their refuge where they feel safe—for what is obviously necessary legislation? My hon. Friend is suggesting we should allow them to continue like that for as long as possible, just because he does not want to see this legislation proceed and be altered in Committee. I cannot understand it.
I am sorry my hon. Friend does not understand it. This is a serious Bill—I think it should have been a Government Bill, frankly. It contains changes to existing legislation which are potentially of significant impact. I think there should have been a regulatory impact assessment associated with the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman wants it to be a Government-supported Bill, and I have already indicated that the Government support its having a Second Reading and therefore proceeding to Committee. I have also indicated that the Government had some technical amendments to put down, addressing some of the points raised. If he wants those points to be raised in detail in Committee, he must allow a Second Reading. He could help us all in that by now sitting down.
I do not know whether the Minister is being intentionally disingenuous, but if the Government introduced this legislation it would be a Government Bill in Government time. The Government are now trying effectively to usurp private Members’ time for Government business, and that is what the Minister has just admitted. This has taken up the whole of a Friday that should be given over to genuine Back-Bench debates on issues of concern to Back Benchers. If the Government think this is such an important Bill and want to get it on the statute book, they could get some of its provisions on the statute book by amending the legislation that is currently going through the other place.
It will be no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I am here to support this Bill. However, his position is legitimate. If the Bill is as important as many of us believe, we should have had 100 colleagues here to support it. I do not think it is fair to blame the hon. Gentleman who, with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and others, has been blocking one of my Bills for the past five Fridays. I respect their ability to do that. It is our job to persuade people to come to the House and support the legislation that we think is important.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who knows that although that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and I have been preventing his Bill from going through without debate, I have written to my constituents and others to say that I believe his Bill should also be a Government Bill, as it was promised by the Government—
Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is grateful for that clarification, but I would be grateful, Mr Chope, if we could return to debating this Bill and not other Bills. I know that you probably still have more to say.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Before we had the interruption, I was expressing some concern about the reference:
“Subsections (1) to (3) of section 1 do not apply where the dwelling-house is genuinely on the market for sale.”
My concern is about the use of the word “genuinely”. Clause 2(4) states that a dwelling house is deemed not to be genuinely on the market for sale if the landlord intends to sell the landlord’s interest to a person associated with the landlord. If somebody wished to sell their house to their child, a divorced wife, a cousin or somebody like that, they would not be allowed to in these circumstances as it would not deliver an exemption from subsections (1) to (3) of clause 1.
The Bill states that the landlord cannot sell to a person associated with the landlord. Given his legal background, can my hon. Friend give us any guidance on what “associated” means? Does that mean that it could not be sold to anybody whom the landlord knows in any way whatever?
The answer can be found in clause 2(5):
“For the purposes of subsection (4), references to a person who is associated with another person are to be read in accordance with section 178 of the Housing Act 1996.”
I do not have section 178 of the 1996 Act immediately to hand, but although we might not agree with it, that is probably a proper and adequate definition in this Bill.
A second category of people to whom one would not be able to sell a property in order for it to be deemed to be genuinely on the market for sale would be those associated with the business partner of the landlord or a business partner of a person associated with the landlord. Again, that goes far too wide, and the landlord could well be in a situation such that he has to sell his house to pay off his debts to a business associate, for example. He might be a minority shareholder who can no longer sustain his position. All sorts of issues could arise. If we are saying that a dwelling house has to be genuinely on the market, we should not then go further and prohibit its sale to a relative, friend or business partner, or to an associate of a business partner.
People looking at the Bill will think that it is rather slanted against the landlord, yet it is being presented as neutral as between landlord and tenant. Another reason that I think it is slanted against the landlord is that the Residential Landlords Association, which represents the responsible landlords, is against the Bill. The Minister did not refer to the association when he was talking about those whom he had consulted in preparing his view of the Bill.
Clause 2(7) states that subsections (1) to (3) of clause 1 will not apply if the landlord is
“a private registered provider of social housing.”
There is no explanation for that provision, and in my experience some of the worst problems relating to premises in a state of disrepair are found in properties that are owned and let by private registered providers of social housing. Why should that category of person be exempt from the provisions of the Bill? Could this be based on anything other than an ill-conceived prejudice against independent private landlords?
When I first looked at clause 2(8), I thought it might meet one of the concerns that I expressed earlier about a landlord whose mortgage had been granted before the beginning of the tenancy. However, my reading of the subsection is that all three conditions set out in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) will have to be satisfied, rather than just one of them. If the Bill goes into Committee, or if it comes back to the House to be reworked on an iterative basis, I hope that we can insert the word “or” after paragraphs (a) and (b), in place of the word “and”. This is another weakness of the Bill.
There are also weaknesses in the way the Bill seeks to change the notice process. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Brent Central’s justification for changing the process, but I was not convinced by what she said. Similarly, the Minister justified clause 4 by saying that it would be perfectly reasonable to introduce new time limits, but, again, I was not convinced.
We are running out of time, so I shall turn quickly to clause 5. This is potentially one of the most dangerous in the Bill. The Bill gives the Government the power to bring forward regulations. The Bill itself is bad enough in undermining the whole shorthold tenancy regime, but the provisions of clause 5 would enable the Government to introduce regulations covering a whole host of other things that could be used as a reason for not allowing a landlord to recover possession of his own premises. Under the clause, that could occur if a landlord were in breach of requirements relating to
“the condition of dwelling-houses or their common parts”,
“the energy performance of dwelling-houses”.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said so ably, this is about privity of contract. People wishing to enter into an agreement can ask themselves whether they wish to take on the tenancy of a particular property. If the property has not got a good energy performance rating and the person is suffering hard times, the better choice is not to take a tenancy on that property but to look for a newly built property with proper central heating. We must not treat the people who enter into these contracts as imbeciles—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 5 December.