Consideration of Lords amendments.
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendment 33. If the House agrees to the amendment, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
TV licensing: alternatives to criminal sanctions
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 38.
With this we may take Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
I want briefly to outline why the Government have introduced amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 38.
A television licence is required to watch all live or nearly live broadcast television content on any device in the UK. People should not seek to evade this and there needs to be an effective enforcement regime for the failure to have a TV licence.
Clause 76 imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that a review of the TV licensing enforcement regime is carried out. This review will identify whether the current enforcement regime is appropriate and proportionate, and will ensure that there is a strong, evidence-based case for any changes to the TV licence enforcement regime. This matters a great deal to many people.
The Government are very clear that the review of the licensing enforcement regime is a high priority. The decision was taken to commence this review in advance of Royal Assent, while retaining the clause that commits the Government to carry out the review to ensure that this important piece of work is completed. The review is being led, independently, by David Perry QC. The findings of the review, which will complete by the end of June 2015, will be laid in both Houses of Parliament and be presented to the BBC Trust.
The proposed further amendment requires the Secretary of State within three months of the review reporting to set out whether the Government intend to decriminalise or not, and commits the Government to indicate clearly the timetable they plan to follow upon the completion of the Perry review. Our overriding aim is to ensure that the system is appropriate, proportionate and fair, and represents the best value.
This amendment places a firm commitment on the Government of the day to promptly and properly consider the report and set out their response and the timetable of steps to be taken, within three months of the report’s completion. Clause 77 confers a new power on the Secretary of State, via secondary legislation, to change the sanctions that apply to the failure to have a TV licence. We have always maintained that the report’s findings, and potential next steps, should be considered in the context of charter review. This position has not changed.
The BBC’s current charter expires on 31 December 2016. The Government will not begin charter review until after the election and there is no set process for how the review of the charter should be conducted, or when. It will be for the Government of the day to take forward any further actions as they see fit.
We must not make presumptions about the recommendations that Mr Perry will make, nor about how the Government will decide to take them forward, particularly as the public consultation element of this work is ongoing. Clearly, any changes will require serious consideration in the broader context of the charter review process, and it will be for the next Government to ensure that the right enforcement regime for licence fee payers, the courts and indeed the BBC itself is in place.
Our amendment ensures that the next Government will be ready and able to implement whatever recommendations David Perry, QC wishes to make, when the Secretary of State’s regulation-making power commences in April 2017. There was significant cross-party support for the TV licensing clauses during our earlier consideration of this Bill in this House. The firm commitments set out by the Government at that time must be honoured, particularly given that strong, cross-party support. Our amendments ensure that David Perry’s review will be promptly considered by the Government of the day, and that any potential changes are introduced to a clear timetable, leading up to 1 April 2017. For all the reasons I have outlined, I ask hon. Members to disagree with the Lords amendment and support our amendments in lieu.
Anybody would think, from the way the Minister just presented his case, that this has been a smooth path and everything the Government intended from the very beginning. But there was only an amendment relating to the licence fee at all because of a Government Back-Bencher, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen)—who may be able to catch your eye a little later, Madam Deputy Speaker—and we have a change only because in the Lords the Government’s position was overturned by three votes. I am, of course, proud that we now have a far more sensible set of propositions before us. I admit that the Liberal Democrat heart that is still beating within the Minister is probably on our side in this argument, but he might at least have shown that that heart still beats, rather than just deliver what his paymasters in the Conservative party have told him to deliver.
The truth is that Labour Members support the BBC licence fee for the foreseeable future, not out of ideological passion but simply because it has worked and because the vast majority of people in this country support it. Everybody comes up with other ideas; every Select Committee that has ever examined this issue has set out this, that and the other idea for us to consider, but at the end has said that the least worst option is the licence fee. Broadly speaking, that is what the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport decided in its report a couple of weeks ago.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Of course. I cannot think of anyone to whom I would want to give way more.
The lack of any other options on the Government Benches may have something to do with that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mistake the broad support on the Government Benches for a different and less stringent sanctions regime for support for the TV licence. I very much support the idea of a TV licence, but we need somehow to rein back what has been allowed to happen with TV licence sanctions. That is what drives most of the support for this amendment.
I did not give way to the hon. Gentleman faute de mieux. He is right in what he says, and some Opposition Members are as passionate in their support for the licence fee as he is, as I am or as Tony Hall is but want a change to the rules on how the licence fee is administered and the penalties for those who do not pay. My noble Friend Baroness Corston put forward a cogent and moving argument, to which one would have to be hard-hearted not to listen, on the criminalisation aspects of the current situation. Our point, which won substantially in the House of Lords, was that we have a system that broadly works, and if we want to change it, it would be better to change it in the round, rather than simply changing the licence fee. Let me explain why.
The licence fee is not just about funding the BBC’s programming, although it is true that it provides £3.7 billion of investment in the arts, broadcasting and British culture through the BBC, which it is difficult to see how any other model would deliver to the same degree. In addition, it provides for a degree of competition for quality, as well as for audiences, with the other broadcasters. Thus, ITV wants to make high-quality drama and does so; many of the dramas people often associate with the BBC are actually made by ITV. Likewise, Channel 4 has a special role to play because of the original remit it was given to be edgy, alternative and sometimes naughty. It can perform that public service broadcasting role within the whole ecosystem only if the BBC licence fee also exists and if Channel 4 remains in public hands. I am sure that the Minister would agree with me on that one about Channel 4, even if some Conservative Members might not.
The Opposition believe that it is important that there is the licence fee, and that it is a massive investment in production and drama, not just the kind of long-form dramas that exist in American commercial broadcasting and are often very lucrative, but the short-form dramas, such as “The Casual Vacancy”, which has been on the BBC over the past few weeks. It was only three episodes long and it would be very difficult to make in any environment other than one where there is some form of subsidy. In news, current affairs, comedy and so many different areas, the BBC would not be able to perform the same function without the licence fee.
Labour Members have been critical of the difficult time the BBC has had. Of course it always has to strive to make its resources stretch further, but since 2010 it has had not only a tough financial settlement but top-slicing, with a significant amount of money—some hundreds of millions of pounds—going off to fund the roll-out of broadband around the country. In addition, S4C is, in the main, being paid for not by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but out of the licence fee, and the World Service is being paid for not by the Foreign Office, but out of the licence fee.
I see that the hon. Gentleman is pregnant.
If the BBC has had such a tough financial settlement and it can no longer go on with a freeze on the licence fee, can the hon. Gentleman explain why the number of managers—not staff, but managers—who work for the BBC and are paid more than the Prime Minister has increased by 10% in the past 12 months?
Those are precisely the kinds of points the BBC has to address. It has to make sure that more and more of its money is spent on programming rather than on administration. That is why I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on one element of his campaign. He has argued forcefully that the collection system for the licence fee costs some £100 million a year and he has asked whether there is a better way of doing that. That is a perfectly legitimate question to ask.
Of course there are those—I see the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has just entered the Chamber at precisely the right moment—who would dismantle the licence fee. He is the only member of the Select Committee who voted to get rid of the licence fee completely. Some people would want to change it, and that is a perfectly legitimate argument to have. My concern about how the Government behaved on this issue is that the version they sent through to the House of Lords meant that the Government could have instituted the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee without consideration of that issue within the whole package of other issues relating to the BBC and charter renewal. In effect, that would have left the door open to dismantling the licence fee without even intending to do so. I am certain that, as right hon. and hon. Members said in the House of Lords, if the Government were to proceed too swiftly, we would simply see a significant fall in licence fee take-up almost immediately. We could be talking about something in the region of £200 million or £250 million, which is more than the cost of all children’s broadcasting.
We need to think carefully about the timing of how we proceed, which is why Labour supported in the House of Lords the amendment that the Government are objecting to today, but not really objecting to. They are doing an adroit about-turn, for which we are deeply grateful. I wish to praise my colleagues in the House of Lords, particularly Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, who made sure that the amendment was carried, with a lot of cross-Bench support and a significant amount of Liberal Democrat support.
I want to make it clear that our argument has always been that if we are going to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, for which there are strong arguments, we need to do it as part of a debate about the whole of charter renewal and the whole of the licence fee settlement for the next several years. Otherwise the danger is that if we proceed too fast with just one element, like pulling on a thread in a jumper, we will pull apart the whole jumper. We would have been perfectly happy with the original amendment. Although the Government would have the power to introduce regulations decriminalising the non-payment of the licence fee, they would not be able to do so until 1 April 2017 which, as the Minister pointed out, will be past the time when the new charter for the BBC will have been agreed and the licence fee will have been settled for a further period.
We would have been happy with that amendment, but the Government have introduced a face-saving amendment, which says:
“The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 3 months beginning with the date on which the review is completed, lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the Secretary of State’s response to the review”.
We have no objection to the Government doing that. When we are the Government, we expect to do that. I note that the Minister expects that Mr Perry will have completed his review by June or perhaps July—sometimes these things slip. That means that by the end of this year, if the motion is agreed, a Labour Government will bring forward such a report.
The vast majority of hon. Members are not like the hon. Member for Shipley—an ideologue, passionate about destroying the BBC licence fee and, to my mind, destroying the BBC and surrendering our future to commercial broadcasting in its entirety. The vast majority of Members in this House, even Government Members, who have hearts beating as socialist hearts, even if they do not yet know it, believe in the licence fee. Although we all want to see an end to unnecessary criminalisation of non-payment, we want to make sure that the licence fee is considered in its entirety when that is done. Anything else—
I was on my very last sentence. Normally, hon. Members are clamouring for me to stop, but I see that the hon. and learned Member is clamouring for me to continue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in principle it is wrong for somebody to be sent to prison for not paying the licence fee?
I believe in the licence fee. I would like to see decriminalisation. If we can achieve decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee in a way that does not dismantle the rest of the licence fee, yes, I would agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. However, in order to do that, one cannot simply send forward to Her Majesty legislation which suggests that the Government can introduce that decriminalisation in a few weeks’ time. We have to carry the amendment as tabled, substantially agreeing with the House of Lords, while pretending to disagree. I am grateful that the hon. and learned Gentleman passionately agrees with me. He still has a beating socialist heart and will support the licence fee, as we shall.
I start by expressing my deep disappointment that the amendment has been added to the Bill by the House of Lords, by a narrow majority of only three noble Members, in order to maintain the status quo and perpetuate criminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence for at least another two years—an eleventh-hour attempt to frustrate the clear will of this House and of the country.
It should be noted that five of the votes in favour in the other place came from the ex-BBC chairman, Lord Grade, in whose name the amendment stood; the ex-BBC “Play School” presenter, Baroness Benjamin; an ex-BBC governor, Baroness Deech; the ex-BBC “EastEnders” actor, Lord Cashman; and BBC producer Viscount Colville. They all spoke in the debate and voted in favour of the amendment.
In referring to all those Members, the hon. Gentleman might also point out their slightly wider career paths. For example, Lord Grade was head of ITV and spent most of his career in broadcasting in the commercial sector, so it is fascinating that the commercial sector and the public sector agree.
Order. I do not think it is fascinating; we are not here to debate Members of the other place. We are here to debate the Lords amendments so, Mr Bridgen, I require you to desist from reminding us what happened in the other place, because we can read it, and to direct your comments to the amendments before us.
Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I much appreciate it. However, I point out to the House that those five noble Members represent more than the majority by which the amendment was carried in the other place.
Having read the Hansard record of the various speeches on the amendment in the upper House, as I am sure all hon. Members have, I found myself with a strong sense of déjà vu. There they were, all the same lines from the multimillion-pound BBC spin machine that we heard when I first proposed the amendment—horror stories about huge changes to the BBC if decriminalisation came in; losses of £200 million of revenue; the emotive closure of all local radio stations and TV stations; and so on. We have heard it all before. I remind hon. Members that there was support for my amendment from across the entire political spectrum in this House. It was signed by 149 right hon. and hon. Members and had the support of many in the Government who were unable to sign.
I draw the attention of the House to the comments of Baroness Corston, who was mentioned by the shadow Minister. She recognised the impact of delays to the implementation of the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence. The longer that takes, the more people will go to prison and the more people will be criminalised. Every year of delay means that another 160,000 of our fellow citizens will be dragged up on criminal charges for non-payment of a £145.50 licence—in effect, a poll tax.
Baroness Corston said:
“I once met a woman who had been imprisoned for three months for failing to pay the £145.50 television licence fee and a £200 fine. If she could not afford the licence fee, surely she was not going to be able to afford a £200 fine as well. During those three months in prison she lost her tenancy and was unable to look after her children, who were taken into care. When she came out of prison, she was told that she could not have local authority accommodation for a family because she did not have her children with her, and when she went to social services she was told that she could not have her children back because she did not have family accommodation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2014; Vol. 759, c. 800.]
That is truly shocking.
As I have previously stated in the House, around 50 people a year go to prison as a result of the legislation, a disproportionate number of whom are women—50%, whereas women make up only 4% of the prison population. However, speaker after speaker in the upper House, while noting the comments of Baroness Corston, decided that the spurious claims about a shortfall in BBC funding took precedence.
It is unfortunate that TV licensing enforcement in Scotland was not brought up in the debate in the other place. I would like to correct that and remind the House that the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 introduced a regime whereby an emphasis was placed on alternatives to prosecution, such as fiscal fines. The result was a fall in prosecutions from nearly 2,000 in 2006-07 to just 34 in 2012-13—a 98% reduction. If the BBC PR machine is to be believed, one would think that that would result in a significant fall in compliance with the licence fee. However, as Fergus Reid, the spokesperson for TV Licensing in Scotland, said in 2013:
“the average evasion rate remains at a low of just over five per cent, meaning almost 95 per cent of homes are correctly licensed.”
Does my hon. Friend consider it disproportionate to imprison somebody for non-payment of a relatively small debt? Does he agree that this needs to be corrected, much as some of us love the licence fee?
Not only do the majority of Members of this House think that the measure is disproportionate; I honestly believe that the majority of people in the country think that it is disproportionate. When I first proposed my amendment and canvassed support for it across the House, it was clear that a large number of Members did not initially think that it was a criminal offence not to pay the TV licence fee. It is within our power to correct this. In England and Wales, more people are imprisoned each year for the non-payment of fines associated with TV licensing than are prosecuted for evasion in Scotland, with little, if any, difference in the evasion rate.
To be absolutely clear, people are not going to prison for refusing to pay the TV licence fee. The reality is that people are sent to prison for refusing to pay the penalty for not paying the fee in the first place. The former Solicitor-General has intervened a couple of times to suggest the opposite to that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. People go to prison not for not paying the licence fee, but for not paying the fines. However, if someone has hit hard times and has no money and cannot afford a £145.50 licence fee, they are unlikely, as in the example cited by Baroness Corston, to be able to pay a £200 fine, which could result in a mother going to prison and her children being taken into care, with the consequent results for her family on release.
The avoidance rate for payment of the TV licence fee in Scotland is hardly different from that in England, despite the fact that we criminalise 160,000 to 180,000 of our citizens a year and imprison between 30 and 50, whereas Scotland prosecutes only some 30 people a year. Given the sparsity of population in Scotland and human behaviour being what it is, one might consider that there would be a greater chance of evading prosecution in a remote part of Scotland than anywhere in England. I would suggest that there was possibly a higher evasion rate in Scotland prior to the decriminalisation anyway.
Unfortunately, the BBC public relations machine seems to have won the day in the upper House, so I now come to amendment (a) in lieu, tabled in the name of the Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin). As he says, there is no doubting the significant cross-party support for the clauses relating to TV licensing during the earlier stages of the Bill, and the firm commitments set out by the Government must be honoured. I therefore support the amendment to ensure that the review by David Perry QC, due in June 2015, to which I had the pleasure of giving evidence only last week, is promptly considered by the Government of the day, and that the changes that I very much hope come about are introduced with a clear timetable.
Whatever future funding mechanism for the BBC is decided at the next charter review, I hope that criminalising more than 160,000 of our fellow citizens each year, an estimated 75% of whom are women, will no longer be part of it. I therefore urge the House to join me in opposing the Lords amendment and supporting the Government’s amendments in lieu.
I will make a few short comments in relation to the points that have been made in the debate. It is impossible to win with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). If we do not make any changes to the Bill, we are being dictatorial and steamrolling things through. If we do make changes in response to the debate, we are being spineless. As a Minister, I am always in favour of listening, and if there are ways of improving a Bill, that is what I like to do—and that is what we are doing today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is the ideal Opposition spokesman? I hope he stays in opposition for a long time.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will stay on the Opposition Benches for a long time. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for expressing his support in a roundabout way, and in a lengthier contribution than mine on this measure.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for providing us with the opportunity to debate TV licensing and enforcement today, a debate he initiated many months ago. I hear the unhappiness that he has expressed, but I also heard him comment positively on the fact that there is a clear commitment from any future Government, providing the Bill is passed, to come forward within three months of the publication of the Perry review with an action plan setting out the steps that they will take if they are in favour of decriminalisation.
Lords amendment 38 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) and (b) made in lieu of Lords amendment 38.
Health and safety at work: general duty of self-employed persons
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 2 to 17.
Lords amendment 18, and amendments (a) to (g) thereto.
Lords amendment 19, and amendments (b), (e), (c) and (d) thereto.
Lords amendment 20.
Lords amendment 21, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 22 to 25.
Lords amendment 26, and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.
Lords amendment 27, and amendments (a) to (k) thereto.
Lords amendments 28 to 37 and 39 to 123.
It seems a long time since I was sitting opposite the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) debating the Deregulation Bill, but we are back here today. The Government support Lords amendments 1 to 37 and 39 to 123. I will also be speaking to amendments tabled by hon. Members to Lords amendments 19, 21, 26 and 27, which the Government will not be supporting for reasons that I will set out shortly.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 relate to health and safety and the self-employed. Lords amendment 1 addresses concerns raised during the public consultation on draft regulations conducted by the Health and Safety Executive during July and August 2014. Concerns were expressed that the regulations as drafted could lead to some self-employed persons who do pose a risk to the health and safety of others falling exempt from the law. Amendment 1 sets out the ways in which undertakings may be described in regulations made under section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to retain duties on self-employed persons. Subsection (2A)(a) provided for regulations to include descriptions of activities carried out by an undertaking where the duty on the self-employed would remain in place, essentially providing for a list of high-risk activities. Importantly, subsection (2A)(b) ensures that the regulations can also include a general description covering any undertaking the conduct of which may expose others to risks to their health and safety. The amendment means that the provision in the Bill aligns more with Professor Ragnar Löfstedt’s recommendation. The HSE will produce guidance targeted at self-employed persons and others to assist with their understanding of the amendment.
Lords amendment 2 takes into account a recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee to change the parliamentary procedure for these regulations from negative to affirmative. This will allow Parliament fully to scrutinise the regulations.
Lords amendment 3 removes a measure that would have had the effect of allowing private hire vehicles to be used for leisure purposes when they were not being used for private hire purposes. After listening to concerns about this proposal during the Bill’s passage, the Government have decided that the best course of action is for this measure to be considered as part of the package of measures recommended by the Law Commission to reform taxi and private hire vehicle licensing.
Lords amendments 5 to 17 seek to provide clarification and certainty in relation to the tenancy deposit protection legislation in response to recent court cases. The amendments address two issues. First, they make it clear that, where appropriate, a letting agent’s contact details, instead of the landlord’s, may be provided to a tenant. That was always the intention of the original framework, and thus the measure has been made to apply retrospectively. However, to ensure fairness, provision is also being made to prevent the reopening of out-of-court settlements or court cases that had been finally determined on this basis.
The second issue, which was raised by the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Charalambous v. Ng 2014, concerns tenancy deposits. The Court ruled that the tenancy deposit legislation should apply to landlords who received a tenancy deposit before the coming into force of the tenancy deposit legislation in 2007, and that they would therefore need to protect deposits if they wished to rely on the “no fault” ground for eviction, known as section 21. This was never the Government’s intention. Our amendments therefore make it absolutely clear that, although landlords affected by the judgment will need to protect deposits if they wish to rely on section 21, they will not be at risk of financial penalty should they fail to do so.
Lords amendments 18 to 26 protect tenants in the private rented sector from being evicted where they have raised a legitimate complaint about the condition of their home, and make the eviction process more straightforward in appropriate cases. They also ensure that tenants are aware of their rights and responsibilities and those of the landlord. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has tabled amendments to these amendments, and I will come to those shortly. The effect of the Government’s amendments is that landlords in the private rented sector will not be able to evict a tenant merely because the tenant has asked them to carry out a repair, provided that the local authority has confirmed that such a repair is necessary to prevent a potential risk to the tenant’s health and safety. They ensure that tenants are always given at least two months’ notice before they have to move out of their home and make the eviction process more straightforward for landlords in situations where the tenant should be evicted.
The amendments enable the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying the information to be contained in any eviction notice served under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, and provide that an eviction notice cannot be served where a landlord has failed to comply with their existing legal obligations relating to the condition of the property, the health and safety of their tenants, or the energy performance of the property. They also require landlords to provide information to their tenants about their rights and responsibilities.
As many Members will know, these amendments started as a private Member’s Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), whom I thank for all her work in bringing this to the attention of the House. I also thank the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills; the Minister for Employment; and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). Shelter and Citizens Advice have also been heavily involved in this process.
Retaliatory eviction is wrong, and its continued practice is unacceptable. No tenant should face eviction because they have made a legitimate complaint to the landlord about the condition of their home, and no decent landlord would engage in the practice. However, a small number of rogue and unscrupulous landlords think it is perfectly acceptable to evict a tenant for requesting a repair. These important amendments introduce protection for tenants against rogue and unscrupulous landlords, but they also contain provisions that will benefit landlords and make it more straightforward to evict tenants in legitimate circumstances.
On the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Shipley, I understand the intention behind some of them. However, I assure him that Lords amendments 18 to 26 ensure that all landlords are still entitled to their rights under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988, which enables them to evict a tenant who does not pay rent, goes to prison, or uses the house for illegal purposes. Our fundamental aim is to prevent a very small minority of rogue landlords from evicting tenants in retaliation for raising a legitimate complaint. Part of his proposals would undermine this effort.
Will the Minister answer two questions? First, is the opposition to my amendments unanimous across the coalition, or is it just the Liberal Democrats who oppose them? Secondly, what estimate have the Government made of the number of revenge evictions that take place each year, because there is great discrepancy in the numbers?
On the number of revenge evictions, I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman; I may get inspiration in the next few minutes. On whether there was coalition agreement on this issue, when the Department for Communities and Local Government looked at the impact of his amendments, it was clear that, in some cases, they would allow a landlord to make a retaliatory eviction on the day after the landlord had completed a repair. That would go completely against the intent of the provisions in terms of protecting tenants. It would permit a landlord to evict a tenant as soon as repairs had been completed using a section 21 eviction notice. That is not in the spirit of preventing retaliatory evictions, but merely delays them until after repairs are completed.
On the number of revenge evictions, as the hon. Gentleman will probably know, the figure is estimated to be some 80,000 per year. The source of that figure was a YouGov survey of 4,500 renters.
Even if the hon. Gentleman feels that the figure is rubbish and it is perhaps half that, 40,000 retaliatory evictions per year is still a very large number.
Why are the Government basing their figures on an opinion poll commissioned by a campaigning charity on this issue and ignoring their own figures from the English housing survey, which estimates that the number is about 6,000 a year?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He thinks that the figure is lower, at 6,000 evictions. I said 80,000, and then generously halved it for him to 40,000. If it is indeed 6,000, then that is 6,000 retaliatory evictions too many. His amendments would facilitate the process of retaliatory evictions, which the Government are, instead, seeking to avoid.
The amendments would extend the time within which a landlord must respond to a request for a repair from 14 days to 20 working days. This Government believe that renting out a property is a business and that tenants should be able to expect a much swifter response to a complaint than 20 working days—in other words, a month—particularly where the problem is serious. To clarify, this time frame is only for responding to the concern raised, not fixing the problem. There is a further amendment to the effect that any complaint must be within the scope of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985. However, that legislation is not the framework under which local authorities operate for the purposes of inspecting a property and deciding whether there is a health and safety risk to the tenant. Inspections are carried out under the Housing Act 2004 and involve checking for the presence of 29 potential hazards in the home.
Amendment 5 would remove protection against retaliatory eviction where a landlord intends to sell the property within six months. However, the proposed legislation already provides that it does not apply where, at the time when the section 21 eviction was served, the property was generally on the market for sale.
The next amendment would provide that protection against retaliatory eviction does not apply where a landlord wants to move into or redevelop the dwelling, or the dwelling is subject to a compulsory purchase order, or the landlord needs vacant possession to comply with a legal duty to carry out works in the building. Compulsory purchase orders are rarely used, but even where they are, the acquiring authority would become the landlord and could terminate the lease under separate powers.
The final amendment would introduce a five-year time limit on the life of the legislation or require that a review shall be commissioned within three years of the legislation coming into force. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it is standard practice to evaluate legislation after a certain period, and we will of course do this. However, we do not necessarily believe that the issue of retaliatory evictions will be resolved in five years, so we do not want to limit the powers as they stand.
Where a landlord wants to move back into a property that they are renting out, the legislation will not prevent them from doing so, provided that they follow the normal process and deal with any repairs before a local authority becomes involved. The legislation contains safeguards to ensure that a tenant cannot benefit from making spurious or unfounded complaints. A complaint in itself will not be enough to trigger protection against retaliatory eviction. In all cases, the local authority will have to confirm that a repair needs to be carried out and that failure to do so would probably involve a serious health and safety risk to the tenant. In addition, the legislation makes it clear that a tenant cannot claim protection against retaliatory eviction where they have failed to treat the property in a tenant-like manner—in other words, to take care of it, rather than to damage it wilfully and negligently—including by carrying out small jobs around the property.
I now turn to Lords amendments 27 to 30 on short-term lets and the amendments tabled by the Opposition to Lords amendment 27. The Lords amendments relate to the short-term use of residential premises in London as temporary sleeping accommodation. The Government intend to remove the uncertainty for London residents who wish to let their property on a short-term basis, perhaps while they are away on holiday or during events such as Wimbledon.
I hope to catch your eye later, Madame Deputy Speaker, but it is pretty clear that there is no uncertainty whatsoever. The regulations have been in place for 42 years for good reason, so to sweep them away as is now proposed would be rather unwise. I hope that the Minister will provide a little meat on the bones of exactly why the Government now wish to do so, particularly given the strength of feeling among London MPs on both sides of the House and in the Lords.
I will provide more explanation in a few minutes. I hope that it will satisfy my hon. Friend, but I suspect that it may not. We will have to wait and see. One point is that this is an issue only in London. I am not aware of a huge number of problems associated with it outside London. Perhaps there are such problems, but they certainly have not been drawn to my attention. The proposals will simply bring the approach in London into line with that in the rest of the country.
I did not quite follow the Minister’s argument. He accepted the fact that London is different and that there is strong feeling about it in London, but he proceeded to say that the Government therefore want to make London like the rest of the country. I am afraid that that is a non sequitur. If there is a problem in London, the Government must address it by accepting it and listening to the views of the local authorities and others in London who have clear experience of it and are saying that what the Government propose is wrong.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was paraphrasing me. What I should have said is that I am hearing the concerns about London expressed in this debate, but there are no restrictions of such a nature and I am not aware of its causing a significant issue outside London. I will come on to explain why the Government support the proposals and why we believe that the safeguards, which I am sure he wants, are sufficient to deal with any concerns of London MPs.
At present, Londoners would be in breach of section 25 of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1974 were they to use their residential premises as temporary sleeping accommodation without planning permission, because the Act stipulates that letting a residential property for less than 90 consecutive nights is a material change of use and thus requires planning permission. Not obtaining such permission means risking a fine of £20,000.
The Government published a policy paper on the short-term use of residential property on 9 February. It takes into account the representations we received following the publication last year of the discussion document on property conditions in the private rented sector, as well as our discussions with London local authorities, the industry and Members of both Houses.
Following that, the Government tabled a number of amendments in the other place to update the existing legislation and ensure that we provide appropriate freedom for London residents, broadly in line with that enjoyed by residents across the rest of the country. Alongside the new freedoms, we have sought to provide important safeguards to prevent the abuse of the reforms and, crucially, to prevent any opportunity for commercial letting on an ongoing or permanent basis, about which I am sure Labour Members are concerned.
I, too, hope to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is a London MP, so he knows the pressures on the residential housing stock in London. Have not London local authorities, across the parties, made representations to stress that fact? For example, Westminster alone loses about 500 residential units every year to short-term lettings, because it is impossible to distinguish, in the way the Minister claims to do, between the holiday let and the extension of what is effectively the hospitality industry.
The Government are clear that the proposals are not about facilitating a process that will allow more commercial letting on an ongoing or permanent basis; they are about restricting lets by individuals to a maximum of 90 days. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has ever used Airbnb or something of that nature in other parts of the country, where people let out their properties on a short-term basis at the time of particular events, such as the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. There is no suggestion that people are letting out properties permanently. The Government do not want that to happen, which is why the restriction of 90 days has been put in place. I will come on to the other safeguards in a moment.
I will not intervene again, but may I ask about that particular point? The Minister is saying that there is not a problem, but Westminster alone has had to take 7,362 cases against quasi-commercial short-term lettings in the past 15 years even under the existing regulations. The key point is that such enforcement will be far harder when the Government relax the rules, as they intend to do.
The hon. Lady will hear what I have to say about enforcement notices, and she may want to pick that up among the points she will make should she catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The internet has created new opportunities for residents who want to enter into what has become known as the sharing economy, a catch-all term encompassing all asset owners who wish to share their asset with others in exchange for a fee. As a result, it is now easier than ever for residents to rent out their property to supplement their incomes and offer consumers new experiences. A cursory look at some of the websites facilitating such lettings reveals that thousands of London properties and rooms are available for short-term use, all of which potentially violate the current section 25.
Lords amendments 27 to 30 add additional safeguards in relation to the short-term use of London properties without planning permission in three ways. First, they stipulate that a property can be used as temporary sleeping accommodation only for a maximum of 90 nights per calendar year. That will ensure that the reforms provide residents with greater flexibility, but it will not create opportunities for the short-term letting of properties on a permanent basis. Secondly, they provide that the person providing the temporary sleeping accommodation must be liable for council tax. That requirement means that a property is used as a residence, because a property used as a hotel or hostel would be liable for business rates. Combined with the 90-night per calendar year limit, we believe that this provides an appropriate safeguard against short-term letting on an ongoing or permanent basis. Thirdly, they allow either the Secretary of State or the relevant planning authority with the Secretary of State’s consent to direct, where there is a strong amenity case for doing so, that the relaxation of section 25 does not apply to certain properties in certain areas. I hope that addresses the hon. Lady’s concerns.
Let us try to dig a little into precisely how big that concession is. Would the Minister allow local authorities, particularly those in central London, to exempt themselves from the exemptions in the entirety of their area—in other words, to tie themselves again to the 1973 Act—or is he suggesting that the concession would apply only to very limited stress areas?
I am sure that my hon. Friend was listening carefully. I said that the Secretary of State would have to give consent. The Government are not proposing that local authorities should be allowed to decide unilaterally which areas are in and which are out. We want to facilitate something that is already clearly happening on a large scale in London—as far as I am aware, it happens elsewhere in the country without significant problems—to give individuals the flexibility to allow their properties to be rented on a short-term basis if there is an event, such as Wimbledon, during which they want to absent themselves.
The Minister mentions Wimbledon and I have no doubt that he is also thinking about things such as holiday lets. How many prosecutions have there been in respect of Wimbledon and holiday lets? The proposal is just about commercial lets. Is it not impossible to regulate such things in the way the Government intend? It is over-regulation to say that councils must apply for a waiver. Why does he not let localism take charge and allow local authorities decide for themselves?
Clearly there is a localism aspect to the proposal. If, as some Opposition Members are saying, there is a significant issue in Westminster and places like it, I am sure that Westminster city council will present a well-argued case to the Secretary of State to say why it believes that there should be an exemption in a particular location. I am sure that the Secretary of State would consider such an approach carefully.
The Government believe that the Lords amendments provide appropriate flexibility for Londoners alongside sufficient safeguards. The 90-night limit, coupled with the requirement for hosts to be liable for council tax, means that we will not create new opportunities for residential properties to be used as temporary sleeping accommodation on a permanent basis without planning permission. The relaxation of section 25 will allow properties to be used more efficiently when residents are away, and it should not remove properties from the housing stock that is available to Londoners and their families. In the Government’s opinion, the safeguards, coupled with the ability to exempt areas with the consent of the Secretary of State, are sufficient to protect Londoners against any potential abuse of the relaxation of section 25.
The Opposition amendments to Lords amendment 27 principally seek to create the additional condition that residential premises can be used as temporary sleeping accommodation without planning permission, provided that the premises are the principal residence in London of the owner. They would require the provider of temporary sleeping accommodation to notify the local planning authority in advance of every occasion on which they intended to use their property in this way on a short-term basis. I wonder whether any assessment has been made of the impact of that proposal on the existing London market, with regard to people who are already in breach of the law, and of the burden on local authorities in handing all the advance requests. The Opposition amendments would also remove the requirement for the local planning authority to seek the consent of the Secretary of State to direct that the new flexibility does not apply to particular residential premises or premises in particular areas.
The Government believe that the Opposition amendments seek to remedy issues that have already been addressed by the amendments the Government made in the other place. They would place additional burdens on London residents that are not experienced by residents in other parts of the country, and they run counter to the spirit of the legislation as a deregulatory Bill.
We know that short-term letting is already taking place in London, but the current legislation has led to confusion and uncertainty for potential hosts. The Government amendments will provide clarity and give London residents the confidence that they can use their property as temporary sleeping accommodation within the law, without the disproportionate bureaucracy of applying for planning permission. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central not to press the Opposition amendments.
I will finish fairly soon, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am afraid that the amendments touch on a wide range of issues. Lords amendments 31 and 32 change the parliamentary approval procedure for the establishment of urban development areas and urban development corporations. They contain a sunset provision with an expiry date of 31 March 2016. On expiry, the process to establish any further urban development areas and corporations will revert to the existing affirmative procedure. These amendments are intended to help us quickly to establish the urban development corporation for Ebbsfleet —a subject that was debated in the House recently.
Lords amendment 33 inserts new section 220A in the Housing Act 1996, which will give the Secretary of State the power to provide financial assistance when advice is provided in connection with the law concerning park homes. Financial assistance may be provided when an organisation provides information, training or advice, or a dispute resolution service concerning residential licences in England. Where appropriate, the money may be recovered from the recipient. There are similar powers to provide funding to organisations that provide legal advice on residential tenancies. The amendment simply provides the Secretary of State with a similar funding power in respect of residential licences.
Lords amendments 34 and 82 will enable and empower NHS ambulance services to respond to medical emergencies quickly and effectively. There are statutory provisions that exempt vehicles from various rules contained in road traffic legislation when they are being used by the emergency services for fire, police and ambulance purposes. However, modern practices and technology have outgrown the current law, which mainly uses the term “ambulance”. NHS ambulance services now use fast response units including cars and motorbikes to provide quick responses to the most critically ill patients, where time is of the essence. They also use larger vehicles to transport equipment to major incidents to ensure that clinicians are properly equipped. Such responses provide a vital part of NHS emergency health care.
The definition of “ambulance” and “ambulance purposes” in a recent case concerning the use of blue lights and sirens was limited to vehicles that have a primary use of conveying the sick and disabled, and did not include other vehicles such as motorbikes used by paramedics. That means that the fast response units that are used by NHS ambulance services to be the first on the scene of crises ranging from road traffic accidents to cardiac arrests, and that are therefore among the fastest travelling vehicles, can no longer rely on the exemptions. Lords amendments 34 and 82 will extend the stated exemptions to cover all fast response units that are dispatched by the national health service, whether they are vehicles that are owned or leased by an NHS ambulance service or private vehicles.
Lords amendments 35 to 37 will permit motor racing on closed public roads. Motor sport governing bodies in England and Wales, in conjunction with local authorities, will be able to authorise motor races on roads that are closed for the purpose. Certain traffic regulations, such as those on speed limits and traffic signs, may be disapplied while the road is closed. Motor racing on roads will also be permitted in Scotland as long as the event is authorised by regulation and held in accordance with any conditions that are imposed.
Lords amendments 41 to 43 and 109 will remove a restriction in the Administration of Justice Act 1985 and the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 that affects the Council for Licensed Conveyancers. The CLC can authorise a body or person only if they are licensed to provide conveyancing services. None of the other legal services-approved regulators have that restriction.
Lords amendment 46 amends sections 56A, 57 and 65LA of the National Health Service Act 2006, which are concerned with the transfer of property liabilities and staff between NHS bodies. The changes simply clarify the provisions in the existing legislation to ensure that it can be used in a seamless and efficient way. They do not create new policy. The amendment is needed to remove the uncertainty over the operation of the powers of NHS foundation trusts to acquire another NHS foundation trust or NHS trust using section 56A, and to correct the omission of key powers with respect to the transfer of staff and criminal liabilities. It will also extend Monitor’s power to transfer the property and liabilities, including criminal liabilities, of an NHS foundation trust that is dissolved following special administration.
Using the procedure in section 56A is the only way in which an NHS foundation trust can acquire another foundation trust. However, section 56A is uncertain and open to interpretation. Although it sets out the process to be followed when an acquisition is contemplated, it does not set out its terms. Further, it does not explain what happens to the acquired trust property and liabilities, or to third-party rights and obligations. The uncertainty that that creates means that NHS foundation trusts are unlikely to utilise the current provision for fear of legal challenges. Correcting that position will have an impact on measures to secure financial and clinical sustainability within the NHS. It is essential that NHS foundation trusts have the confidence to use section 56A.
Lords amendment 46 will make it clear that Monitor’s granting of an application is conclusive proof that the property and liabilities of the acquired NHS trust or NHS foundation trust, including third-party property rights, are transferred to the acquiring foundation trust. Accordingly, subsection (3) of the new clause will insert new section 56AA in the 2006 Act to provide for a direct transfer of property and liabilities by operation of law. The grant of the application will be conclusive proof that the acquired trust is dissolved and, in the case of an acquired NHS trust, the establishment order revoked.
Very nearly finally, Lords amendments 47 and 48 will allow records to be available other than in the form of a certificate. Many family historians and genealogists do not need a certificate, but merely the information contained in it. Providing alternative formats will make it cheaper and quicker to obtain that information. The amendments would provide the power to lay regulations to define how a person may access birth, death, marriage and civil partnership records, the type of product that can be issued, and the fee payable. The regulations could also introduce a legal distinction regarding the age of birth, death, marriage and civil partnership records. That will follow the precedent set in Scotland and Northern Ireland where records are considered historical at 100, 75 and 50 years for births, marriages and deaths respectively.
Lords amendments 102 to 108 relate to sections 86 and 87 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. They make adjustments to the transfer of duties under those sections to secure the provision of facilities for education and training, so that those duties are appropriate to and recognise the wider remit and discretion of the Secretary of State. That is by contrast with the current wording, which was appropriate to the chief executive whose role as a creature of statute needed to be more closely specified.
Finally, Lords amendments 121 to 123 would remove further redundant pieces of legislation from the statute book. All other Lords amendments are either consequential on other amendments, or they are minor and technical in nature or seek to provide clarity. I urge the House to accept Lords amendments 1 to 37, and 39 to 123, and to reject the amendments to the Lords amendments.
Thank you, Minister. That was quite a few “Finallys.”
The Opposition welcome many of the Lords amendments. It has been an 18-month process to bring the Bill to this stage, and it has been much improved by the scrutiny brought to bear not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and other hon. Members who had the pleasure of serving on the Bill Committee opposite the Minister, but in the other place where a great deal of cross-party and constructive work was done. This will not be a case study in how to make laws—much of it is ill considered and there has been a lack of consultation about many of the proposals—but it may in future become a case study for how Members of the House can work together despite the Government, and particularly with the support of Members in the other place, to make better law.
We welcome Lords amendments 1 and 2. The changes will certainly improve clause 1 although we still believe that it is unnecessary, ineffective and confusing. We have opposed the clause in all its guises from the very beginning. It is clear that this is an ideologically driven attack on health and safety and will have a negligible impact on the self-employed—those whom the Government say they will help. We think that the clause could create confusion where there has been clarity in the law for more than 40 years, and at no stage was any real evidence brought forward to support any of the proposed benefits of the changes.
We have heard how some small businesses and self-employed people may benefit, but that will clearly be at the cost of creating confusion for millions of self-employed people in a variety of sectors and in some dangerous occupations. That contributes to a narrative that health and safety is inherently a bad thing, rather than something that makes our economy more competitive and a safer place to work. I shall be part of work around the country led by the GMB and other trade unions—it is international workers memorial day in a few weeks’ time, and we will recognise the huge progress we have made in this country to keep people safe at work. I regret that the Government are now seeking to undermine that progress.
I will not repeat the lengthy arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central in Committee, or those made by Lord McKenzie of Luton in the other place, but I will say that this clause—and indeed the Bill as a whole—has benefited from scrutiny, even though we believe it is largely unnecessary. Concessions were won in the House of Lords and improvements made to the Bill generally without any support from the Liberal Democrats in either House. They argue that they are a moderating influence that improves the actions of the Government, but the Bill shows that they have failed in that respect.
Amendment 10 is a welcome U-turn from the Government on the proposal to let anyone behind the wheels of a minicab. For the past year Labour has opposed the Government’s proposals to reform minicab law because we believe that they will put passengers at risk. Taxi and private hire vehicle regulation is complex, and we recognise the arguments that it is outdated. Nevertheless, these reforms are not the right ones.
The regulation and licensing of types of vehicles and their drivers is undertaken by local authorities across England and Wales, except in London. In 2011 the Department for Transport requested that the Law Commission undertake a comprehensive review of taxi and minicab law, aiming to modernise and simplify it. The Government delayed the publication of the Law Commission’s report, and instead proposed three amendments to the Bill on minicab regulation in March 2013, seeking to meet the so-called red tape challenge to scrap legislation. The informal consultation that the Government claimed to have carried out was not public but apparently sent privately by a civil servant to a limited number of select bodies who were given just 10 days to respond on such an important issue. That inadequate consultation process was strongly criticised by those involved and—more importantly—all those who were not involved, including local authorities and safety campaigners. No impact assessment for the reforms has ever been produced.
In May 2013 after the local elections the Government allowed the Law Commission to publish its proposals for reform, which included a new national framework of safety and standards enforced at local level. Many organisations, including the National Private Hire Association, Unite, the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers, the National Taxi Association, the Institute of Licensing Officers and the Local Government Association stated that the Government’s proposals would undermine the Law Commission’s reforms, result in further complications in the law rather than less red tape, and put passengers at risk.
The most controversial proposal was to enable people who do not hold a private hire vehicle licence to drive one when it is “off duty”. Safety campaigners, including the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid, police and crime commissioners of all parties, and councillors, joined Labour to warn that the measure threatened to increase the number of unlicensed drivers pretending to be legitimate, as enforcement against the illegal use of licensed vehicles will be almost impossible. The provision also threatens to put vulnerable people such as women and young girls at increased risk from rogue taxi and minicab drivers.
The Government eventually produced a form of impact assessment—although clearly it was not compelling to hon. Friends in either House—on 1 October 2014. It was signed by Baroness Kramer and confirmed that letting anyone drive a minicab
“could lead to an increase in illegal use of licensed vehicles.”
In respect of private hire vehicles and taxis the Bill has been a complete mess. We are pleased that the Government U-turned on the proposal and that today they have finally dropped it.
Like safety campaigners, the National Union of Students and others, we are still concerned about clauses 10 and 11. Clause 10 will end mandatory annual licensing checks, enabling minicab operators to subcontract bookings to firms in other areas, which I think is worrying. Some 80% of women polled by the LGA said that they would be concerned if they booked a journey with one firm and another company turned up. I completely understand that.
The alternative is that when the vulnerable women the hon. Gentleman refers to call a taxi firm, if it is not able to subcontract the fare it will simply say “We cannot take your job”. Is that better?
The taxi and private hire vehicle marketplace is increasingly competitive, and users of those vehicles are well used to looking—usually on a smartphone or some other device—for another company to use. Firms often recommend other firms and companies, which provides some assurance to someone who has booked a taxi—[Interruption.] The Minister should listen because it is a shame that having dropped some of the proposals he is not listening to the concerns of safety campaigners. Eight out of 10 women surveyed said that they would not feel safe getting into a taxi from a company that they had not booked or contacted. I completely understand that and am surprised that the Minister cannot.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?
The Minister did speak for 38 minutes, but I will give way.
I also took some interventions. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether all those private hire companies are licensed and subject to security vetting?
The Opposition think it is important that local authorities take seriously their responsibility to license private hire vehicles, and we are not seeking to undermine the existing framework that provides assurance to people who are booking taxis and private hire companies, as clauses 10 and 11 will.
Safety concerns have been raised considerably since the inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, which concluded that one of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being linked to children who were abused. The author of the report, Alexis Jay OBE, has warned against any further deregulation in that area. Given that the Government accepted the recommendations of that inquiry, we are surprised that the Minister has not listened to the concerns that are out there.
The Home Secretary has promised a joined-up safeguarding approach in response to Rotherham, and we have now heard about cases elsewhere in the country, including the disturbing report that came out last week about Oxfordshire. How do these proposals, particularly those in clauses 10 and 11, relate to that promise to join up safeguarding? I want to quote an old friend of mine and a very respected figure in local government, Councillor Ann Lucas, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board. She has campaigned to keep women and girls safe from violence, and she has stated:
“Keeping children safe is our top priority and a responsibility councils take extremely seriously. It is imperative that the Government withdraws these plans so councils can continue to fully check everyone getting behind the wheel of a taxi or private hire vehicle to ensure vulnerable children are kept as safe as possible.”
We are pleased to see the back of this provision today, but we are disappointed that the Government have not fully listened to the concerns that have been raised.
I want to turn now to the amendments relating to housing. This is why I have been asked to respond to the debate today. I pay tribute to the work that has been done on the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. It is these amendments that have provoked particular interest. We have already heard concern being expressed about short-term lets. The issue has generated considerable controversy since it was proposed that there should be some relaxation of the London provisions, but the Government have also focused attention on what is now happening in the market and why the status quo cannot be sustained. Currently, the letting of residential accommodation for temporary sleeping accommodation in London for a period of less than 90 consecutive nights constitutes a change of use, for which planning permission is required. Notwithstanding the possibility of a fine of up to £20,000 for failure to secure permission, short-term letting is extensively carried on without permission being available or given.
We have covered in earlier debates the problems that can arise in this area, and the issue is also dealt with in the very welcome briefing that we have received from London Councils, which has done excellent work to highlight the fact that this is a particular issue for London. The loss of residential accommodation to the lucrative short-let market has an impact on the availability of accommodation in central London, which is already under pressure. Properties entering the short-let market in this way can increase problems of noise and antisocial behaviour, as well as leading to a loss of community identity, increased crime and fire safety risks and significant challenges relating to continual enforcement.
We know that other cities around the world are experiencing similar problems, so why are cities such as Amsterdam and Berlin taking action in this area while our Government fail to recognise the importance of the issue for this part of our country? Westminster city council estimates that at least 3,000 properties in the borough are being used for short-term letting accommodation, and there has apparently been a rise of 37% in just three months in Camden. Members should recognise that these are very real problems that afflict some areas particularly deeply. The issue has been raised not only by the Opposition; I know that some Government Members wish to comment on it as well, as it affects all parts of London.
There is clearly a market for short-term letting activity, and business opportunities have been created, particularly via the internet. It was noted in the other place that this is very different from the situation in the 1970s. According to the Government’s own figures, thousands of London properties and rooms are currently being advertised for short-term lets, each of which is potentially in breach of the law. That is an untenable situation. Of course we support people who want to rent out their home when they go on holiday or want to make a bit of extra money. We understand that some people want to take the opportunity to do that. However, any changes in the provisions must ensure that there is a clear distinction between those who wish to rent out their homes infrequently and those who want to turn them into a short-let business. There is a critical difference between them.
We are worried about the lack of consultation on these proposals, and the results from the recent survey undertaken by London Councils show that the move is not really what many London local authorities want. They are the organisations closest to the issue, and 93% of the boroughs opposed the Government’s proposals to remove the requirement for planning permission for short-term lettings in London, 83% of them would not support the Government’s proposals even if the boroughs were able to apply exemptions in specified premises or areas, and 71% of them believed that the removal of the requirement for planning permission would have a negative impact on the London economy as a whole.
The Government released their policy document on short-term lets prior to the Report stage in the Lords. It set out their vision of how they would operate. The document stated that a short-term let may not exceed 90 days in a calendar year, that such a let may apply to a property only where the owner is liable to pay council tax, and that the local planning authority and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government should be able to issue a direction to exempt a particular area or premises. Unless our amendments are accepted, however, it will not be a question of the local authority and the Secretary of State being able to do that. Rather, it will simply be conditional on the Secretary of State giving his support. There is no localism involved at the moment. This is another example of the Secretary of State wanting to meddle in a decision that should rightly be determined at local level.
In the other place, Lord McKenzie of Luton won the support of Baroness Hanham, Baroness Gardner of Parkes and Lord Tope to come up with a package of measures that, building on the Government amendments, would enable home owners who wished to let their homes on a short- term basis to do so unless there was detriment to the amenity of the locality, and to do so within a system in which there was proper notification to local authorities and in which enforcement was enabled. The Minister’s argument that such an arrangement would be burdensome shows that he does not really understand that, in this day and age, technology is a great enabler.
Local authorities should rightly take the lead on these matters, rather than the Secretary of State, and they are particularly concerned about this. We have heard the evidence from London Councils. I am sure that they can be relied on to enable people to report the fact that they are letting their home on a short-term basis in a way that will not prove too costly, not least because many of the London boroughs in question have had some of the biggest council cuts in England under this Government.
Our amendments cover four areas. First, there must be provision in regulations for those letting properties on a short-term basis to have an obligation to notify the local authority. That is not a prescriptive amendment. Secondly, the concept is that short-term letting should be allowed when it involves someone’s home. It appears that the Government are seeking to define that by a liability to council tax, but we think that that is inadequate. Would not a liability to council tax arise for somebody letting residential property on a commercial basis—for example, between tenancies? Limiting the relaxation to someone’s principal residence in London would better target the deregulations. That is the reason for our amendment on that point.
Thirdly, we welcome the provision that the Government are seeking to make for local authorities to disapply the regulation for certain properties or areas, but we oppose this right being subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. As I have said, the Government’s proposal is not a localist move. Finally, there is the issue of enforcement, and we believe that a proportionate system can and should be put in place. The amendments are designed not to undermine the Government’s position but to strengthen the safeguards, and I hope that, even at the eleventh hour, the Government will be able to support them.
I have three short “finallys”, Madam Deputy Speaker. On tenancy deposits, Labour pushed for these amendments in the House of Lords and we are therefore delighted that the Government have seen sense and tabled their amendment, which implements Labour’s proposals. On Ebbsfleet, as we made clear in the other place, we remain unconvinced that the negative procedure accompanied by a statutory duty to consult is the appropriate procedure for establishing an urban development corporation. I was personally involved as a local councillor in north Kent in the late 1990s and the early 2000s when we were trying to get Ebbsfleet off the ground, having successfully brought Bluewater to the area to help with the regeneration, and I greatly regret that it has taken the Government so long to take these proposals forward. They have effectively wasted five years. We do not intend to stand in their way on this technical question of how UDCs should be created.
We welcome the Government’s change of heart on tackling retaliatory eviction. They had previously suggested that our amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill in the House of Lords to protect tenants against retaliatory eviction was unnecessary. We believe that it was absolutely necessary, however, whether it would affect 6,000, 40,000 or 80,000 people. These amendments give much needed protection to tenants, as landlords will no longer be able to evict them in response to a valid complaint about their home. Tenants will no longer have to choose between living in poor conditions or losing their home. Labour would go much further to get a fairer deal for private renters by legislating for three-year tenancies, by ending excessive rent increases by putting a ceiling on rent increases across the three-year tenancy and, crucially, by banning rip-off letting agents’ fees for tenants. Nevertheless, we are happy to support the Government’s proposals today. I urge the Minister, at the final stage of this 18-month process, to listen to the many hon. Members who have direct personal experience of the issue of short lets, and to have a change of heart.
Sensible, pragmatic regulations exempting the Greater London area from a short-lets free-for-all are, as we know, under acute threat. I appreciate that the Minister has to put his ministerial duties at the forefront today, but he will know that his mentor, the noble Lord Tope, was one of the leading lights in the House of Lords in trying to get a more sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue. I hope that even at this 11th hour we can have some comfort on an issue about which a number of London MPs on both sides of the House feel strongly.
It is recognised that our capital city is a place of particular hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity, where housing shortage is a perennial long-term problem. That lies at the heart of the regulations, which have now been in place for more than four decades. Unquestionably, the world has changed since 1973, but the big new idea behind the so-called sharing economy is being vigorously promoted through ferocious lobbying by commercial interests whose business model requires the sweeping away of these long-standing public interest safeguards.
The creation of a new trade body, the so-called Sharing Economy UK, is essentially a front for that commercial campaign. Frankly, it is akin to setting up a trade body of payday lenders to dictate financial services policy. I am sorry that the wool is being pulled over the Minister’s eyes as these self-professed independent voices dictate a commercially advantageous landscape. Meanwhile, scant regard is being paid to the interests of residents, particularly in central London. If this was really all about allowing home owners to undertake short-term holiday housing swaps, as the Government suggest, it is highly unlikely that a local authority would even be aware of such a brief arrangement and no enforcement action should be taken against the owner in such instances, as it would clearly be disproportionate.
Enforcement action in the City of Westminster is, at least, reserved for those situations in which the council becomes aware that properties are being let on a short-term basis all year round. The number of such properties is significant, as the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) pointed out, and the impact of this activity is hugely detrimental in our locality, leading to a diminution of housing stock, reduced security, increased antisocial behaviour, a breakdown in community cohesion and giving a green light to what can, at its worst, be fraudulent activity. Without the current safeguards, many social housing properties, for instance, are likely to be sub-let given how lucrative the short-stay market can become in central London.
I have spoken in the House about all these concerns before as the Bill has gently wended its way towards the statute book, so I shall not go into the specific detail again. However, I want to raise two further issues. First, flats in blocks in which short-term letting is taking place might find that the insurance policy of the entire building becomes invalid. Secondly, and most worryingly in many ways given the geopolitical problems we face, which are particularly acute here in London, national security concerns have been raised by the Metropolitan police about the absence of checks on those who can live in central London for up to 90 days a year through short-term lets. That is three months in which people can come and reside in London completely under the security radar. The provisions contain no prior notification process, so local authorities would be literally clueless about who was letting their property on a short-term basis and for how long.
Of course, a question was asked on this subject in another place to which we did not get a proper answer, so I will ask it again of the Minister. We have been told by the Metropolitan police that they rely heavily on article 5 of the Immigration (Hotel Records) Order 1972, both in proactive intelligence-led activity and in retrospective investigations, but that that power would be superseded by unchecked short-term letting. What assurances or safeguards have the Government sought from the police and Home Office that the legislation will not inadvertently create a grey area that can be exploited?
I fear that this will all end in tears, and I regret that. Even at this late stage I ask the Government carefully to assess the impact the changes to short lets will have and to consider some more robust safeguards. At the very least, I want to see owners having to notify the local authority of a short let and its length. Councils believe that they can set up an online notification system pretty easily, but that without such a system controlling short-term lets would be utterly impossible. I would also ask that the premises concerned must be the principal London residence of the owner offering the let. More importantly still, councils should also be able to request that the Government provide local exemptions to the provisions when there is a strong amenity case for doing so. I know that proposals were made in the other place and I regret that more thought has not been given to that practical safeguard. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to it, even at this late stage.
I should also like a provision that states that the total period of short lets in any one calendar year for a specific property should be no more than 30 days, as that should be sufficient for a bona fide residential property owner seeking the flexibility that many of us would like in this so-called sharing economy.
If the Government are unwilling to see sense, I hope that at the very least we will get an assurance today that if the effects of the operation of these changes over the next 12 months prove to be as detrimental to the permanent resident population as many in central London fear, the Minister will review the situation with some urgency. I regret that it has come to this, because some practical discussions have taken place and one would have hoped that amendments would be made in the other place. The Government appear to have been wowed by the whole idea of a sharing economy in developing many of the provisions, many of which I wholly support, and that has meant that this has become a Christmas tree of a Bill, particularly as regards short lets. It has been suggested that we can simply throw out with the bathwater something that has worked for the past 40 years. I speak with less knowledge and authority than many on the Opposition Benches, but perhaps our housing problems, concerns and constraints in this capital city are more acute today than they have ever been in the past four decades. In many ways, if we had not already had the 1973 order, we would perhaps be looking to impose it today, rather than enacting this deregulatory measure.
I hope that the Minister will pay serious attention not just to what I have said but, more importantly, to what we will hear later in this debate and to the contributions made in the other place by members of all political parties. As a London MP, he will know that these problems are becoming increasingly acute. Carshalton and Wallington is a very different place today from 20, let alone 40, years ago. Short-term lets will be a much bigger issue for him in the years to come if we do not have some safeguards along the lines I have suggested.
I, too, rise to speak strongly in support of amendments (a) to (k) to Lords amendment 27, tabled by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and to reinforce the message we have just heard from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). I concur with every word.
I shall be relatively brief, because we have rehearsed these arguments on Report. I was also able to have a debate in Westminster Hall on exactly the same subject, and of course there were debates in the other place. However, let me reinforce a few points. The central point is that the spirit behind the amendments represents cross-party consensus in inner London. Obviously, we are now seeing cross-party consensus from the representatives of the London borough of Westminster, but the local authorities that have responded to the Government’s consultation include Haringey, Enfield, Camden, Westminster, Newham, Redbridge, Lambeth and the City of London, which all opposed the proposal. I know that hon. Members and peers with support from other local authorities have also spoken in favour of strong safeguards.
Those local authorities, their representatives and Members of Parliament from all parties feel a clear sense of the loss of protection for residential communities that this deregulation will involve. It is critical that a good Government should respond to the needs of localism and understand that central London in particular, like rural communities and the seaside towns, has distinctive needs and requirements that must be protected. We are arguing today that there are pockets in communities in central London in particular—and no doubt in other areas, such as the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford)—where the pressure from the commercial letting sector is becoming so intense that it is seriously impairing the quality of life of a number of residents.
As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster has said, we are concerned about the loss of residential stock. Westminster city council has produced very strong evidence to support its argument. It has dealt with more than 7,000 enforcement cases so far and it is very important to stress that those are not enforcements against people letting out a room in their home for Wimbledon fortnight. If those were the types of enforcements taking place, the Minister would be able to point to evidence of an innocent homeowner being enforced and fined for a casual holiday letting, but the Minister is not able to do that because I do not think for a second that that is what local authorities are doing.
What we are seeing is the sustained movement of the commercial letting sector into residential communities. Westminster city council estimates that about 500 units of accommodation a year are lost to the housing supply. In fact, it has so far lost the equivalent of about seven years’ worth of its target housing supply at a time of acute housing shortage. It has also produced evidence that demonstrates that the kinds of rents that are being charged for properties ranging from rooms to whole houses are so much more than the going rate for a shorthold private tenancy, let alone that for a social letting, that it would not be sensible financially for a homeowner not to get into the sector. If we look at the websites advertising those short-term lets, we will see that variance for ourselves. Westminster city council last did a sustained piece of work on this issue a few years ago—I suspect that the outcome would be far starker today—and it found an average difference of 273% between short-term let rents and longer-term rentals.
The irony of Westminster city council making representations on the impact of market rents and the loss of affordable housing units is not entirely lost on me. None the less, I am happy to get together with it on the critical issue of the loss of residential housing stock, which must be addressed. The Minister has previously spoken in the same debates as me and professed concern about affordable housing and the housing supply in London. I do not understand why the Government are turning their face against the cross-party consensus that the hospitality industry is, in effect, leaching into the residential housing stock in London.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and I have also previously raised the issue of the impact on residents. I will not rehearse all the arguments, but last summer I conducted a survey of people’s perceptions of the impact of short lets on Maida Vale, Bayswater, Queensway, north Marylebone and parts of St John’s Wood, which are the front-line areas. There were a litany of concerns and complaints about the lack of security in residential blocks with a high level of short-term lets, the impossibility of knowing who is coming and going, and serious problems of management.
Short-term visitors tend, not necessarily through any fault of their own, to treat their accommodation like hotels, but hotels spend a lot of money on looking after their properties whereas that is not necessarily the case with short lets. There are reports of damage to security systems, much greater wear and tear on communal areas and a higher level of anti-social behaviour. That is not necessarily because the people are themselves anti-social, but they come to London to enjoy themselves and to party and have a good time, so there is more rubbish and noise nuisance.
That is having a negative impact on those neighbours who in some cases find themselves stranded in residential blocks that are now almost entirely turned over to short let; it is also a cost to the public purse. Local authorities have to spend a considerable amount of time and effort enforcing against antisocial behaviour and higher levels of rubbish and noise nuisance. One of the Westminster wards has had to spend its budget on additional enforcement officers at a time when the local authority has cut more than £500,000 from its children’s services budget—that happened only last week—and plans to, in effect, halve its youth service. I know what I would rather spend public money on. I do not want it spent on chasing the hospitality industry for nuisance in a residential block; I would rather spend it on protecting our children and youth services. The impact on residential communities is a real problem.
That is all happening: as I have said, there have been more than 7,000 enforcements. Local authorities are having to chase a moving target as it is. The Government’s relaxation of the rules will make that significantly worse. At the moment, the local authority simply has to prove, should it choose to do so, that the property is being let on a short-term let basis without permission. In future, it will have to demonstrate that the property has been let for more than 90 days without permission, which will be a far harder thing for it to do. We have already seen—Camden, I think, is the council that has monitored this most closely—an explosion of lettings on the main websites since the Government announced their intention to deregulate. That is no accident and we can expect it to happen elsewhere.
We need to make it possible for local authorities to act to enforce. Personally, I would like the length of time for which someone can let out their home to be reduced significantly to 30 days, which would be reasonable in London. I certainly support the argument that the property should be the principal residence of the person who is letting it. Above all, I strongly feel that local authorities should have a right to be notified when such lettings take place. It is only through notification that a local authority will be able to enforce action.
Fundamentally, this comes down to the right of a local authority to determine what is in the best interests of its own community. We do not need to worry about whether London local authorities are concerned with boosting the tourism industry or economic growth: they are very much concerned with them, but they know very well that a balance has to be struck between those agendas and the protection of the people who live in London and their amenity and access to housing. Westminster city council—which, I repeat, is not known for failing to advocate a deregulatory agenda—is at the forefront of making that case, with which I totally agree.
Even at this last hurdle, if the Government support the measures proposed by my colleagues on the Labour Front Bench to allow local authorities to have the right to determine what is in the interests of their own communities, that would be very strongly welcomed by all parties in local government and in this Chamber, and the many thousands of people who live in the residential neighbourhoods most affected in London would breathe an enormous sigh of relief.
I begin by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As I have previously made clear in these debates, I am a tenant in two properties: my home in Shipley and where I stay when I am working in Parliament. I am also the landlord of one other property that I rent out. I therefore like to think that I have a good perspective on these matters and I want to see a situation in which we reward good landlords and good tenants. That is the basis for my amendments to Lords amendment 18.
In the interests of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and in order to be helpful, I intend to speak only to my amendments, because other Members have already ably put forward their cases on the others. From what I have heard, the shadow Minister might want to press one of his amendments to a Division, so I will not seek to divide the House on mine, in order to protect time for Members across the House and facilitate debate. I am being as helpful as you know I always am on these occasions, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Order. Before you proceed, Mr Davies, let me say that that is extremely helpful and that I am very grateful. Given that the debate must end at 4.46 pm, it gives us a better idea of how to proceed. Thank you.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a shame that the debate clashes with the first day of the Cheltenham festival, but that is a hardship we shall have to bear. Anyone who has their doubles and trebles might like to know that Ruby Walsh and Willy Mullins have won three of the first four races today.
I am still bemused at the fact that we are dealing with a last-minute amendment on retaliatory eviction in what is supposed to be a deregulation Bill. The Minister said earlier that he would not accept an amendment because it went against the spirit of a deregulation Bill, yet here he is promoting a new regulation. I am struggling to understand how Lords amendment 18 has anything to do with deregulation. My amendments certainly try to keep to the spirit of the Bill by reducing some of the over-regulatory interventions that the Lords amendment would bring about.
It was no accident that I was so keen to scrutinise the earlier incarnation of these changes in the Tenancies (Reform) Bill, which was brought forward by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I am glad that I did, because its provisions were wide-ranging and, as far as I could see, were an attempt to deal with a problem—there was no evidence that it was as widespread as she claimed it to be—by inadvertently penalising good, normal landlords at the expense of bad tenants. In fact, not only was there no evidence to suggest that there was a big problem, but there was evidence showing that it was a very small problem.
Some people would love us to buy into the illusion that all landlords are bad and all tenants are good. There might be good and bad landlords, but the truth is that there are also good and bad tenants, and we should not forget that. There are already grey areas of law over these matters. John Midgley, to whom I pay tribute, is the enfranchisement and property litigation partner at Seddons solicitors. He acts for landlords and tenants alike and has been helpful to me in talking through some of these issues. One of his concerns is that these proposals could yet again have unintended consequences. In fact, the principle of an amendment that I tabled to this Bill at an earlier stage was accepted by the Government after the superstrike case, where the courts had ruled in a way that was contrary to what many thought were the real intentions of the original legislation. The clarification was required because the legislation was not clear enough and all the eventualities had not been covered sufficiently.
Through these amendments and what is said in this debate we have a chance to make Parliament’s intentions clear. We can then avoid the need for this regulation to be revisited simply because it is not clear enough that the intention is not to penalise good landlords. I am grateful that the Minister, from what I could tell, was keen to say that the purpose of these Lords amendments, as far as the Government were concerned, and the basis on which they would accept them, was that good landlords would not be penalised.
Let met turn to the detail of my amendments. I was rather disappointed when the Minister highlighted how little he knew about retaliatory eviction, because he seemed to be drawing numbers from thin air for the number of such evictions. When the hon. Member for Brent Central introduced her Bill, she did so on the basis that there were 200,000 such evictions a year. We then got into a bidding war with a Lib Dem peer saying that the legislation was vital because there were 300,000 such evictions each year. Now the Government say that as far as they are concerned there are 80,000. People are just making up numbers willy-nilly.
Fortunately, the evidence is all there in the English housing survey, which shows why people are evicted from their properties. It makes it abundantly clear that 81% of tenants leave of their own free will, 10% go by mutual agreement and just 7% are asked to leave by the landlord. Of that 7%, 57% are asked to leave because the landlord wants to sell the property, 10% because of non-payment of rent and 35% for other reasons. I went to the people who conducted the survey to ask what those other reasons were—I do not suppose anybody else bothered—and I was told that the numbers were too small to be broken down further, but they included: difficulties with the payment of housing benefit; landlords being dissatisfied with how the accommodation was being looked after; landlords receiving complaints from neighbours; and—this was the last one—tenants complaining to the landlord about problems with the property. Even if we take all the other reasons, 6,000 is the maximum possible number of evictions there could be and it is perfectly clear from the English housing survey that the figure is much lower than that. We are told that the provisions are absolutely essential because there are 200,000 cases a year, but that is not so. At most, there are a few thousand.
I am not defending any landlord who acts in an irresponsible manner and tries to kick out tenants simply because they have complained about their accommodation. I would never defend that; that is unjustifiable. However, we should at least have on the record the true scale of the problem, rather than numbers people have invented. If people want to act on the basis of the actual numbers, let them make their case—I have no problem with that—but please let us not have people justifying action based on fantasy numbers they have just plucked out of thin air, and the Government going along with it. That is not the basis for legislating in this House, and it is rather disappointing that the Government have resorted to using what they must know, in their heart of hearts, are bogus figures.
The whole point of this provision is to deal with the very small numbers of people who are evicted because they asked for a repair to be done. Surely, therefore, the emphasis of the legislation should be on getting the repair done. Currently, it is possible to evict tenants because they have asked for a repair to be done. The amendment from the other place seems to take an almighty sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut. It says that the landlord will not be able to evict a tenant for six months following the issue of a relevant notice. That is clearly completely over the top and it messes dangerously with the concept of no-fault evictions. We are talking about six-month tenancies here, and to give the tenant the equivalent of a whole free tenancy, even though the repair may have been dealt with, is crazy. Why not five months? Why not four months? Why not seven months? The landlord may already have been unable to issue a notice for some time at that point, meaning that they would not have been able to evict for that period, however long that was, plus the six months referred to here and the two-months’ notice period. That is an absolute minimum of eight months.
To those who say that the Lords amendment is to protect tenants from being evicted as soon as the repair has been carried out, I would say this. First, it is hardly likely that landlords, for no good reason, would spend the money to carry out a repair at their own expense and then evict a rent-paying tenant, with all the associated costs and risks that that would entail. That would be crazy.
Secondly, let us remember that a tenancy is a contract and must work both ways. In law, when tenants want to leave the 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 abide by the terms of the lease for the notice period and then they are free to go. In fact, even if they do not pay their rent, they often just leave and it is then up to the landlord to decide what, if anything, to do to try to recover the money owed to them. They do not need to give a reason for leaving or to justify it to anyone, and nor should they. However, according to the English housing survey, 80% of private renters who moved in the past three years said they had moved because they wanted to move, so most people are walking away when they have chosen to do so.
Thirdly, there could a situation where two things happen completely coincidentally. I do not believe that the Bill has considered this genuine possibility carefully enough. I will come on to my grave concerns about this later, but I will say for now that it is perfectly possible that shortly after a tenant raises a repairing issue, a landlord genuinely needs to get their property back. If the two Lords amendments relating to this issue are accepted, it would limit any additional damage caused in such cases by lifting the random six-month bar on the service of a section 21 notice.
Fourthly, the proposal would create a perverse situation whereby a landlord who deals with the problem is treated just as badly as a landlord who does nothing until the eleventh hour, presumably after much inconvenience to the tenant. I do not see the logic of penalising both and disincentivising a good landlord from carrying out what we would expect from a good landlord.
For those reasons, I do not believe that the law needs changing. As it happens, that was the view of the previous Labour Government when they considered this matter. I think that was perfectly reasonable. That has been the view of every previous Government. It was the view of the Communities and Local Government Committee, with a Labour chairman, when it looked at this issue. It recommended against making any changes to the law on this area, so it is not as if I am a lone ranger on this; the opinion I am arguing for today has always been the consensus opinion.
My amendments are a compromise between those keen to do something about a problem that apparently exists and the kind of gesture politics that will actually damage the condition of rental properties and the market generally. Under my amendments, as soon as the repair has been completed, the landlord and tenant would be in the position they would have been in but for the repair issue. In other words, the landlord could give the tenant two months’ notice to leave under section 21, as they could have done had no repair been needed, which seems to be what we are trying to achieve. Currently, the landlord could fail to make the repairs and evict the tenant. Under my proposal, they would have to make the repair so that the tenant could live in the property with the repair completed, and if the landlord then chose to give two months’ notice, the tenant would get the benefit of the repair in the meantime. I see no justification for the Lords amendment, and I had hoped that my compromise amendment would be substituted, but clearly the Government have decided against it, based on what the Minister said earlier, although we did not have much of an explanation why.
My amendment (c) would change “14 days” to “20 working days”. Under Lords amendment 18, the landlord has 14 days to respond to the tenant’s initial complaint. Given that under the Bill a failure to do so will have significant legal implications, it seems to me that 14 days is a rather short period, bearing the fact in mind that people are entitled to holidays and could be ill—if somebody went on holiday for two weeks, they would be completely snookered under the Lords amendment. Also, I am told that the proposal does not match up with the pre-action protocol on disrepair claims under the civil procedure rules. If there is already a good legal precedent for the time scale of 20 working days, it seems more reasonable and practical than 14 days and should be the benchmark, rather than a random number of days.
On amendments (d) and (f), the Residential Landlords Association, which I have been in touch with, is rightly concerned that the Bill does not provide for a moratorium preventing a local authority from taking action. A local authority can still serve a statutory notice on the landlord, even if the landlord is dealing with the complaint responsibly, as the law asks them to do. It points out that the Bill has consequences for such a landlord. The solution would be the addition of the provision that so long as the landlord replies in time and in an adequate way, the local authority is precluded from serving a statutory notice, unless the landlord fails to carry out the work on time, subject to an extension of time for good reason. That is what my amendments seek to achieve.
I tabled amendment (e), to leave out subsection (5), because it seemed odd to have a proposal for dealing with retaliatory eviction even where the tenant did not communicate with the landlord about the repair issue. Surely it can only be a retaliatory eviction if the landlord evicted a tenant knowing there was a problem. Under subsection (5), the provisions can be applied even if the landlord did not know there was a repair issue. How on earth that qualifies as a retaliatory eviction the Lord only knows. Under the Lords amendment, a tenant can rely on the retaliatory eviction provisions even if they have been unable to contact the landlord. If the tenant is paying their rent, they will have at least one means of contacting the landlord—through paying their rent—so I believe that this strange proviso should be removed.
Similarly, amendment (g) concerns the condition of the dwelling house, as it is called in the Lords amendment. As with the previous point, there is no explanation of what is meant by “condition of the dwelling house” when a tenant initially writes to the landlord. The Government might say that that is dealt with where the Lords amendment mentions the tenant’s making a complaint to the “relevant local housing authority” about the same, or substantially the same, subject matter as the complaint to the landlord. I point this out merely to ensure there can be no misunderstandings and that the condition of the dwelling house cannot, for example, include a broken light bulb or the like. We should all be clear that the intention of the Bill is that it refers to a relatively serious problem that needs fixing, not to the fact that a light bulb has gone and nobody has gone round to fix it, enabling the tenant to abuse the Bill for some trivial purpose. As things stand and as the legislation is written, there is no real defence for the landlord. I hope that the Minister will at least make clear in the words he uses what the intention behind this legislation is, should a court case come along, and confirm that it is not intended for the trivial matters that I have described.
Amendments (b), (e), (c) and (d) to Lords amendment 19 make provision for the landlord to be protected from the retaliatory eviction provisions if the house is for sale. I shall come on to that in a minute, but there are other glaring omissions along similar lines. The most important one is where the landlord wants the property back to live in. According to the English housing survey, only 7% of private renters who had moved in the last three years said that their tenancy had ended because they had been asked to leave by the landlord. Just short of six out of 10 landlords in that 7% category wanted their property back either to sell it or use it, so it is important that we get this part right. In my opinion, this amounts to a huge omission.
In one case I came across, a woman had rented out her property in the UK because she had gone abroad with her partner. The relationship broke up and she needed to come back to her home in the UK to live in—a perfectly reasonable position to be in. It is her property, so she should be able to do that. As drafted, however, the Lords amendments would make it very difficult for her to live in her own home for an awfully long period if she needs it back. Some thought should be given in the legislation to such circumstances, which are more common that many people might think, as the English housing survey showed.
There may be circumstances where the landlord wants or even needs to redevelop the property, which might not be possible with a tenant living in it. There may be a compulsory purchase order or a legal duty to complete works, which cannot be done with a tenant in place. Surely, it cannot be right for a landlord to be in breach of other legislation because of unfair restrictions in this legislation, which presumably cannot have been intended.
If the Government will not accept my amendments, can the Minister at least confirm the position in respect of breaching other legislation? Why should people not be able to get their own homes back to live in themselves if they need to? It would be very helpful if the Minister explained that.
I appreciate that I am racing through my amendments, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am trying to give others the opportunity to get their points across and then to have a Division. Under my amendment (e), retaliatory eviction would not apply in certain conditions. It would depend on the tenant acting in “a tenant-like manner”, on not using the house for “immoral or illegal purposes” and on the absence of any
“indictable offence committed in, or in the locality of, the dwelling-house”.
Another condition is whether the tenant is in prison at the time. I think much of the amendment is self-explanatory, and I like to think that Members will see its obvious merits.
For some reason—I am not sure why, so perhaps the Minister could have a better stab at explaining it—what seem obvious and common-sense amendments dealing with omissions are not going to being accepted. If a tenant has used a property for criminal purposes, it must be right that they are not afforded any additional legal protections to stay there. Surely that is common sense. Equally, if a tenant is in prison at the time of making a complaint about the property, they should surely not be able to benefit from these Lords amendments.
This is a completely unacceptable way to pass wide-ranging legislation—on the basis of Lords amendments to legislation that has had no previous scrutiny in this place. We barely have any time to scrutinise it, and this is when mistakes happen in legislation. That is what happening today, as this is being rushed through in an unsatisfactory manner.
If the tenant has refused access to the landlord, for example, to prevent them from seeing any problems or from doing any repairs, it could hardly be right for the tenant then to benefit from the retaliatory eviction provisions. Nothing in the Lords amendments will deal with that, unless my amendments are accepted. If tenants do not allow the landlord to fix the problem, it should not be possible to protect them from eviction.
On rent arrears, my amendment would provide an effective way to separate good tenants from bad and ensure that good tenants are rewarded, while bad tenants are not allowed to abuse the system. If the rent is not paid, the landlord may well not be able to afford to carry out the necessary repairs. It would be very unfair to penalise a landlord by allowing a non-paying tenant to remain in the property for a further eight months—the extra six months that have been randomly provided, along with the two-month notice period. Indeed, it would be an absolute travesty.
Last year, when we were debating the Tenancies (Reform) Bill—on which these amendments are based—I was contacted by a landlord in my constituency, who wrote:
“I have been a renting landlord for over 30 years with a small portfolio and in that time have served 2 section 21s to tenants. One was a young delinquent male and his parents were involved and were understanding.
The other was a woman who was a long term tenant in a rented house and with whom I had had difficulties for several years collecting rent. When she left eventually there was a CC”—
“judgement against her for £6,000 arrears. The reason I am elaborating is that in my negotiations with her and her representatives the fabric of the building was brought into the discussions. Her grievances were not justified but if the proposals suggested had been in force I would have had even more difficulty getting my property back and she may still have been there. I would have had to spend money to deal with the claims she had levied and there would be no guarantee or obligation for her to settle the arrears going forwards. I would have been in a terrible situation.
There does not need to be a change to the current legislation, the section 21 is needed just as it is.”
Amendment (c) would insert in Lords amendment 19 the words
“or where the landlord intends to sell the dwelling house within six months.”
As I have said, when a property is for sale, the landlord is still able to serve a valid section 21 notice. There are myriad exclusions, for reasons that are beyond me, but I shall leave that aside for now. However, the landlord may not be able to put the property on the market until it is tenant-free. The change that I propose would prevent a tenant from making a complaint simply to prevent the property from being sold. I might add that past Governments have always accepted that that is a legitimate reason for the serving of a section 21 notice.
The landlord may not have been aware of the position at the time of the original complaint, but the Lords amendment would prevent him from subsequently selling the dwelling or removing the tenant. That strikes me as a total Catch-22 for landlords, which must surely be an unintended consequence of the legislation as it is currently proposed.
Amendment (d) would insert the words
“at the time the section 21 notice is given the landlord’s reasons for serving the notice are unrelated to the repairing issue.”
As I said earlier, I have grave concerns about what will happen if a landlord genuinely needs his property back and the tenant has, by sheer coincidence, made a complaint about a repair. It seems to me to be only fair to exempt landlords who have a genuine reason and to prevent them from being caught up in this nightmare legislation. Their need for the property to be returned could well have nothing to do with any kind of revenge or retaliation, but they will be caught up in the legislation regardless.
If, by sheer coincidence, the tenant of the woman whom I mentioned earlier, who went abroad and had to return to this country—the tenant had been dealing with managing agents—had given notice of a problem, that woman would not have been able to move back into her property for six months, and, presumably, for a further two months after that. Given that she would be the one moving back at the end of that eight-month period, it could be assumed that she probably wanted the repairs to be carried out. Far from having an interest in not carrying them out, she would have an interest in carrying them out, because she was going to live in the property. Surely, landlords should be protected in circumstances in which they will live in their properties themselves. They clearly will not want to live in a property that is not in a fit state. The Lords amendment would make un upsetting situation even more stressful.
There could also be a problem if someone wanted to move back into a property to be near an ill or dying relative and help with that person’s care. Surely, no one wants to pass legislation that would prevent that from happening. It would be helpful if the Minister made it clear that that is not the intention and that, if there are any claims in the courts, they can take that in consideration when dealing with what is currently very unsatisfactory legislation.
I turn to amendments 21 and 26. On amendment (a) to Lords amendment 21, the proposed burden placed on all landlords, good or bad, is that they are prevented from serving notice under section 21 for the first four months of the tenancy. This could have implications if the landlords then are unable to serve notice on exactly the first day of the fifth month, as they will lose out. Therefore, this amendment reduces that period to two months as a compromise. That would give landlords two months to get their notice in and get their property back after the six months, if that was what they needed, and make things a bit fairer. It also prevents the tenants from having a free four-month period in which to make a repairing complaint when the landlord can do nothing about it—something that, again, seems to be treating landlords as guilty until proven innocent.
My final amendments are amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 26. I believe we have far too much legislation already, so I was pleased to see the Deregulation Bill announced, but as the Government are now using it to introduce more regulation, I am not quite as happy as I was when it was introduced. I suppose that is what happens when we have Liberal Democrats in government, however: a deregulation Bill becomes an extra regulation Bill.
For the reasons I have stated, I believe that it is healthy to have either a sunset clause or, at the very least, a review of this so-called necessary legislation to see what the real effects have been—to see whether any of the fears I am outlining have come to fruition. It would be helpful if the Government agreed that some kind of review will take place, certainly given the unsatisfactory way this extra regulation is being introduced at the last minute. Anyone who is confident that these laws will work well should have nothing to fear from a review. It would give me at least some confidence that the Government have some confidence in their own legislation if they agree to review it to make sure everything is fine.
There is always a danger with such legislation that the more of it there is, the more work will end up in the hands of lawyers and judges trying to deal with the fallout from it. The serving of notices can already be a highly litigious area. I understand there is much case law on the subject of the issuing of notices and this is where the doubt is on the side of the landlord and the side of the tenant.
I am surprised that we are here again today discussing this issue at this stage, as it has been considered on many occasions, and even the Communities and Local Government Committee concluded by saying:
“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.”
That all-party group—a Select Committee—looked into this in detail and came up with that unanimous conclusion. Yet here we are today completely ignoring all of that wise counsel and having just that kind of interference.
I believe the measures before the House today would tilt the scales unfairly against the landlord, which, as I have said, could easily put people off renting, so there could be fewer houses to rent. We should not just keep putting up an additional legal hurdle and saying that it is not that big a deal and assuming that everyone will jump it no matter how small the steps are and how much higher we keep building it. There are only so many hurdles people will be prepared to jump and even accomplished hurdlers like Colin Jackson might feel like giving up if they see the size of the hurdles that the Government are putting in the way of landlords.
I believe that my amendments are more in tune with the spirit of the Deregulation Bill than those proposed by the Lords. I hope that the Minister will think again about these matters, or at least clarify what the Government’s intentions are with this legislation on the points I have raised and agree to the review, which if he has any confidence in the Bill, he will be happy to do.
Given the excellent speeches we have already heard on this subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), I can be relatively brief on amendments (a) to (k) to Lords amendment 27.
The question that arises here is cui bono—for whose benefit are these changes being made? Who do the Government think benefit from allowing, in effect, unrestrained short letting in London? There is no mechanism for ensuring that these are not permanent short lets that go beyond 90 days, which, in itself, is too long. It is certainly not residents who benefit, nor is it residents wishing to do so-called Wimbledon or short holiday lets; it is large commercial organisations, some of which have been set up specifically to exploit this potential loophole—companies such as Airbnb and big commercial landlords.
Let me illustrate that, exemplifying why our proposals go a substantial way towards addressing the problem, by reading from parts of an e-mail I received just last month from a constituent. It said:
“I write to you as a concerned citizen. A whole part of a whole mansion block in your constituency near Ravenscourt Park underground station has been unlawfully converted into a hotel. I know this to be certain as I pass the building daily on my way to work and see many people with suitcases who, when I ask them if they need any help, usually respond that they have stayed or are staying 1/2/3 nights in an apartment in the building. Additionally, I couldn’t find that any planning permission had been granted in to allow these residential apartments or the building itself to be short let from the Hammersmith and Fulham planning database.”
The constituent then provides four links to websites that are advertising these apartments, which sound very attractive. He continues:
“They also advertise on Airbnb and Trip Advisor…I read the transcript of the debate in the House of Commons on 7th January with respect to the proposed Deregulation Bill and particularly agreed with yourself and Karen Buck MP with respect to the consequences of unlawful short term letting…What is worrying is this isn’t one or two flats in a block carried out by amateurs. These are professional property managers that have rented these apartments and made them available for short let. The experiences of long suffering residents in Westminster and Camden would seem now to be spreading out from the centre as prices there soar. However, this activity only serves to increase the rents of people who live and work in Hammersmith, thereby pushing them out. A friend of mine who is writing to the council about another building had to move out of the area due to his Landlord raising the rent. The Landlord justified the rent increase by saying that he could just rent the apartment out on a short term basis and make more money.”
Typically, we are talking about two or three times as much money as can be made with a conventional letting.
The e-mail continued:
“As austerity cuts have taken their toll on many London communities and unscrupulous landlords charge sky high rents for what previously were affordable properties, I’d like to know whether the company managing this building not only has the requisite permission to run such an operation but has also passed the rigorous health and safety checks that hotels must undergo to engage in this activity.
There are at least 12 apartments in this building engaging in this activity and I consider the effects of unlawful short term letting in disrupting the peace of a community and its effect on rents that breaks up a community to be detrimental to the borough.”
I am proud to have constituents who can, in effect, write my speeches for me and put the arguments so articulately. I looked at some of the websites in question and found that the lowest cost for renting anything is £170 a night. The apartments sound terribly attractive:
“All the comforts of home, with the luxury and location of a premier hotel”.
I saw that even “plush towels” are included. There is a note on the website saying:
“Please note all Hammersmith apartments require a minimum stay of 90 nights.”
Judging by what my constituents’ observations have been and what the people coming out of those apartments have said, that may be honoured more in the breach than in the execution.
As a codicil to that rather sorry account, which exactly exemplifies why the Minister was entirely wrong in the arguments that he put forward, let me tell the House what these particular buildings were used for up until two years ago. I believe they were owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, but they were on long-term lease to the Shepherds Bush Housing Group and were used for accommodating homeless families for long periods. Some of the families had been in there for 10 years, but one by one they were evicted. Some are being forced out of the borough and they are certainly being forced into other accommodation. Long-term, low-income residents of Hammersmith are being forced out and replaced not by residential owners, but by people renting for one, two or three nights. That pattern is already happening in Hammersmith and will happen all over London, including, I am sure, in Carshalton in due course.
I will not dwell on the effect on residents, which has been set out clearly at previous stages, but there will be higher rents, antisocial behaviour and less accommodation for people in London at a time when there is a housing crisis that affects us across the board, from those seeking social rents to those seeking private rents to those seeking owner occupation. I held a seminar in January this year at which I had an extraordinarily good turnout, mainly by residents of mansion blocks in Hammersmith. There was widespread concern across the constituency about those effects.
Why are we doing this? To solve a problem that does not exist. I wonder who dreamed up the scheme. Was it decided to remove regulations willy-nilly in order to fill up the Bill? There was no problem. This Minister and other Ministers have been unable to say how ordinary citizens are penalised by not being allowed to have short-term lets of their properties. The Minister revealed today that far from deregulating—here I agree with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), as I do from time to time—the new procedure will instead be more complicated. Local authorities will be able to apply for a specific exemption in relation to a specific building on grounds that they will have to agree with the Secretary of State. What on earth is wrong with allowing boroughs such as Westminster and Hammersmith, which are sufficiently responsible and sufficiently experienced to be able to determine what is in the best interests of their own residents in this matter, to have a waiver in respect of the proposals? This is an unnecessary provision in any event. If the Government insist for their own reasons and for the purpose of box-ticking to push it through, they should at least allow the boroughs that are most affected by it to be exempted from it.
I hope the Minister is listening even at this stage. Amendment (g) would give such discretion to local authorities. I repeat the point on notification. Without notification, we will not get anywhere because nobody will know what is going on. Unless those changes are made, there will be a free-for-all and the consequences will be more homelessness, worse housing, higher rents and more antisocial behaviour for my constituents and people across central London.
I, too, intend to speak about the provisions on short-term lettings. I very much endorse the views that were ably expressed by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). There is cross-party agreement and I fail to understand why the Government are proceeding with a measure which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) rightly identified, does not address a problem because there is no problem. It will simply create a series of difficulties and aggravate problems that are obvious to many of us who have looked at the subject and which are increasing exponentially because of the changing character of the lettings market in London.
Before I proceed, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register.
I shall not repeat the arguments that have been well rehearsed already. This is not just a problem for central London. In my constituency, Greenwich and Woolwich, there is a lot of evidence of problems of exactly this nature. We have some major tourist attractions, such as the O2, which attract people for individual events, and the availability of very short lettings—one or two nights—is an obvious attractive additional factor for people thinking of coming to such an event. There are significant numbers of short-term lettings which have the effect, as my hon. Friends have highlighted, first, of eroding permanent lettings because properties are converted from permanent lettings to short-term lettings, and secondly, in certain circumstances, attracting antisocial behaviour and behaviour which is very damaging to existing residents of the blocks being used, where properties are being converted for such short-term lettings.
There was a murder recently in a property in Erebus drive in West Thamesmead, not in the central area of Greenwich, which is perhaps more attractive to tourism, but an area to the eastern edge of my constituency. The matter is under investigation so I shall be cautious in what I say, but the evidence that I have seen is that it involved a very short letting—for only two nights, I think—and a party which attracted people from a wide area, including the west midlands. In the course of an altercation that evidently developed at the party, one individual lost their life.
Such a situation is hugely damaging to the community’s confidence in its homes if it finds that properties can be subject to such short-term letting with very little check on who has taken out the letting. These are short-term agreements and they are not subject to the kinds of checks that reputable landlords would carry out before deciding whether to let premises to an individual. That in itself is bad enough, but where individual lettings take place for a short period and properties are advertised, people come from far afield, resulting in huge antisocial behaviour with noise late at night, causing nuisance to residents. These are the consequences of what the Government seek to do. They are already a problem, but at least local authorities have powers at the moment to act. If the Government proceed with their proposals, those powers will be seriously restricted. It will not be possible to take action unless it can be established that the property has been used for this purpose for more than 90 nights. That in itself will be a difficult task to establish, as the City of Westminster made clear in its evidence to us.
This is a measure that has the seeds of all sorts of problems and difficulties, and I fail to understand why the Government are proceeding with it against the overwhelming views of the informed public in London. This is not a partisan case. Political parties across the board have agreed that proper regulatory arrangements need to be in place to allow the control of such lettings and to prevent the kinds of abuses that I have highlighted. There is also widespread support from residents groups in many areas of London, including my own. Against all that evidence and with an extraordinary lack of evidence to support what the Government are doing, I hope that common sense will prevail and that they will agree to pull back and accept the amendments, at least to allow greater control and safeguards, and to avoid some of the consequences that we fear will happen as a result of this ill-conceived measure.
I do not want to repeat what others have said but rather to address a specific local issue for me concerning the area around Heathrow airport. I have had representations from all the major hotels along the Bath road around Heathrow and from the local community, and I have seen representations from London Councils. I will describe the area as it now is, because I am worried that this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of retaining any form of community around the Heathrow villages. With the threat of the third runway, Sipson is already three-quarters bought by Heathrow Airport Ltd and rented out on licences of, I believe, no more than two years, which is destabilising for the community anyway. There is a massive expansion of buy-to-lets. All of us can identify buy-to-lets in our constituencies by their unkempt gardens, the lack of repair, and the occasional mattress dumped outside. With this legislation there will be further destabilisation of the community and further short-term lettings.
Who asked for this change in legislation? What was the enormous demand? Who was banging at the doors of the ministerial office to change the system, which may not be working brilliantly but which at least gives local authorities in their local areas some local tools that they can use against the adverse effects of short-term letting that we have had described today? I cannot see the benefits to any but a small commercial niche that seeks to profit at the expense of the wider community. I am fearful of the impact on legitimate traders as it is. I am worried about the impact on the hotels along the Bath road, which are a source of employment to my local community. But in addition to that, the average hotel in my area employs between 200 and 250 staff. Many of those staff live within the local community in private rented properties. I am worried that this will affect the private rented market in my area and have a knock-on effect on staff who are not the highest paid and sometimes fairly low paid.
My greatest worry is the churning of the local community that results from the instability and blight in our area owing to the third runway and the buy-to-let regime. This proposal will create even further instability. I have also had problems with short-let properties regarding antisocial behaviour, parties and so on, and with cannabis growing.
If there is to be a new regime, it is critical that we follow the advice that we have been given by the local authorities—that these matters should be determined locally. It should be for local authorities to determine how they tackle the particular issues in their areas. This proposal seems to fly in the face of all the statements we have had from the coalition parties about the development of localism within policy making and within government.
I understand the argument about people wanting to let out their properties when they go abroad on holiday, but 90 days is beyond the length of a normal holiday. If there had to be a few exceptions, we could have some parameters around 30 days, which was a reasonable suggestion. This is opening up almost a cowboy market that is going to operate in many of our areas.
As I say, I fear for the area around Heathrow in particular. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us more advice on how a local authority can apply to have an area designated by the Secretary of State taken out of this regime and have the old regime continue to operate with regard to enforcement and supervision. It is hard enough to supervise at the moment, but this will render it almost unenforceable. We will have a free-for-all in the market and dire consequences for most of our communities.
I understand the Wimbledon argument, but there are better ways of achieving this which are designed at the local level by local authority members and officers who have had experience of this, over time, across London. We have reached a consensus across London among those in local government and our elected representatives, and, in my area, industry—the hotels—and local community representatives. This is the first time I have ever advocated on behalf of a new comrade, Councillor Roe, the leader of Westminster council.
A whole range of people with great depths of experience have argued with the Government that this is not the right approach, and I urge them to take that on board. If the Minister is not willing to concede this matter today, we will be back here in six or 12 months’ time trying to remedy the disastrous consequences of these proposals.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will try to respond to most, if not all of the points raised in this informed and passionate debate about some of the matters in the Bill.
In response to the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), the Government do not believe that health and safety measures are bad. Clearly, when they are appropriate, the Government support them. We are pleased, and welcome the fact, that the Health and Safety Executive has recently, very vocally, pointed out to some organisations how badly they are interpreting health and safety rules in using them as an excuse not to allow things to happen.
The hon. Gentleman spent some time on the issue of private hire and subcontracting. If he feels that it is safer for a person who approaches a private hire operator who says, “Sorry, I can’t help you”, because they cannot subcontract it, then to go off and look online for an alternative provider, he is entitled to that view. I think that safety is actually enhanced by a contractor in an area having a relationship with another subcontractor who can work in another area. The hon. Gentleman called for precisely that—a relationship between the different providers—and that is probably a better guarantee of safety than someone simply looking online for people to do a job in the area. All such firms must be licensed, which also provides a safeguard for those seeking to travel in that way.
The hon. Gentleman referred to his party’s policy of introducing rent caps or rent controls. [Interruption.] He did, I believe. We can look at Hansard, but I think he used the term “rent caps”. The evidence is very clear that such caps lead to a reduction in the number of private rented properties, which I am sure is not what he is seeking.
Like other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman thought that local authorities should be able to decide whether certain areas should be exempted. In the Government’s view, that would introduce inconsistencies in that different rules would apply in different parts of London; our proposals will provide consistency and be easier for people to understand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) talked about how insurance for whole blocks may become invalid. If he has such examples, I would certainly like to see them. Our view is that the reforms only affect the requirement for planning permission; they do not have any impact on insurance polices and tenancy agreements. If he can supply me with any examples, I will be happy to look at them.
My hon. Friend referred to Home Office concerns about the change from people staying in hotels to their staying in short-term lets, making it harder for the security services to monitor their activities, but that is clearly happening already. It will not happen as a result of our changes; it is already happening on quite a large scale in London, as other hon. Members have said. If the security services have identified such an issue, they will have called on the Home Office to take action. I am sure that the Home Office would respond positively to any such requests, but I am not aware of any.
Like other hon. Members, my hon. Friend asked whether local authorities could choose to exempt particular areas in relation to private lettings. As I have said, that is not our view. We want to provide local authorities with the ability to approach the Secretary of State if the amenity of a particular locality is affected, and we expect them to do so.
Will the Minister elaborate on that point? Once the legislation has gone through, will local authorities be able to submit a bid to designate an area, or do they have to wait for problems to arise before making a submission?
The honest answer is that we do not yet have such details, but they will be set out in regulations. I assume that a local authority would have to provide examples, such as a consistent pattern of noise nuisance or antisocial behaviour in an area, in a letter or submission for the Secretary of State to consider. The exemption will apply to a locality; Westminster could not apply for an exemption for the whole of the area covered by the council.
The hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) spoke about the proposal to make people report it to the local authority every time they let property on a short-term basis. I want to understand better the purpose behind that and how it would work in practice. What enforcement would there be if people did not report it? An individual who was going to rent out their property for a week would be very unlikely to do so. How would she ensure that it was done? What action would be taken against people who did not comply, given that short-term lets are already happening on a large scale in London and people are not taking notice of the existing law?
The Minister has just conceded that he does not know how the system will work and that we will have to wait for the regulations. We will look at the exact operation at that time. Westminster city council has looked at this matter closely and is confident that it could have a simple online reporting system that would allow people to notify the local authority that they intended to have a short-term let, and that that could be matched up with the data on properties that were being advertised. That would enable the local authority to target enforcement against the properties that we are all saying we are concerned about—not the one-off short holiday lets, but the extensive commercial lettings that are permeating our residential neighbourhoods.
I thank the hon. Lady for expanding on how the proposal would work. However efficient Westminster city council is, there will be huge difficulties in identifying the people who are advertising short-term lets on websites and making a link with the local authority register where those who are doing it properly have registered.
The hon. Lady asked whether the Government’s proposals will remove the ability of local authorities to take enforcement action against illegal short-term letting. Clearly, if there is a breach, people will be at risk of planning enforcement action by their local authority. Although we want the legislation to remain light touch, we want to send the strong signal that in order to let property on a short-term basis legally, people must remain within the 90-night limit, otherwise local authorities will take enforcement action against them.
I assume that local authorities will be provided with the information—the hon. Lady and other Members have said in this debate that this is already happening on a large scale—and take the appropriate action. She referred to an explosion in the number of adverts for such letting. We are not aware that that has happened since the reforms were introduced. I understand her concerns, but the safeguards are in place to address them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for saying that he will not press his amendments to a vote. Like him, I recognise that there are good and bad landlords. There are also good and bad tenants. No doubt the good landlord and the bad tenant and the bad landlord and the good tenant sometimes go to his surgery, as they come to mine, although not usually at the same time, to report each other to their Member of Parliament.
My hon. Friend referred to the 80,000 figure that I quoted for retaliatory evictions as “fantasy” figures. He prefers his figure of 6,000. I understand that the English housing survey does not give figures on retaliatory eviction, but just talks about the fact that 9% of tenancies are ended by the landlord. As I understand it, that does not provide the clarity that he wants on the numbers.
My hon. Friend said that the Government’s proposal is not deregulatory. Of course, we have made it easier for landlords to evict through the use of standard pro forma notices and by no longer requiring that the notice given in relation to a periodic assured shorthold tenancy ends on the last day of a period of the tenancy. Therefore, there are deregulatory measures, although I accept that there are also measures that do not fall into that category.
Many of my hon. Friend’s amendments are covered in other legislation and so are not necessary. There will be a review of the legislation. That is automatic with legislation that is passed though this House.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) asked about short-term lettings and how many prosecutions there have been, but that is a matter for local authorities and we do not have that information to hand. He asserts that what the Government propose would be of no benefit to private owners. I would ask him—unfortunately time does not allow—to expand on how he knows that it would not benefit private owners, given that many people use—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has the leave of the House to speak for a second time in this short debate. Having spoken for 35 minutes at the beginning of the debate, the leave of the House was for a short conclusion to the debate. So far he has taken 12 minutes, which is not a short contribution. I appreciate that he is answering many complicated questions, but I am afraid that in order to behave properly to the House, which has given him leave to speak for a second time, he ought to conclude briefly.
Thank you for the clarity, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will conclude and I apologise that I was not able to give simple answers to the complicated questions from Opposition Members. I urge the House to accept Lords amendments 1 to 37 and 39 to 123, and to reject the amendments to the Lords amendments.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 26 agreed to.
Amendment (g) proposed to Lords amendment 27.—(Andy Sawford.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
10 March 2015
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Lords amendments 27 to 37 and 39 to 123 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendment 33.