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Regulated Tenancies (Procedure) Regulations 1980

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 6 November 1980

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4.55 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Regulated Tenancies (Procedure) Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 27th October, be approved. These regulations are concerned with the procedures followed by rent officers. Schedule I deals with the procedures for registering a fair rent, and Schedule 2 with the procedures for issuing a certificate of fair rent. They amend Schedules II and 12 to the Rent Act 1977. The objective of the changes is to streamline rent officer procedures and to reduce delays affecting the quality of service to the public. The proposals flow from a working party, consisting primarily of serving rent officers who reported earlier this year.

Noble Lords might recall that I gave notice of these regulations during proceedings on the Housing Bill last July. Since then we have been diverted by proceedings on another small Bill, so perhaps I might remind your Lordships of the background. When the Housing Bill came before your Lordships' House, it contained a schedule, now Schedule 6 to the Act, which revised the procedures for the registration of fair rents, under Schedule 11 to the Rent Act 1977. I had hoped at that time to be able to put before your Lordships' House amendments to the equivalent procedures in Schedule 12 to the Rent Act, for the issue of certificates of fair rent. I know this was a matter of considerable interest to noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Middleton especially, on account of the requirement that shorthold landlords must obtain a certificate of fair rent, before letting accommodation for which there is not already a registered rent. The noble Lord was concerned, as are the Government, that procedures for issuing certificates of fair rent should be as swift as possible, so that landlords are not deterred from letting, when the shorthold provisions are brought into force.

On Report stage of the Bill, my noble friend tabled his own amendments to these procedures, by way of polite inquiry about the Government's intentions to bring forward amendments. In response, I explained that if time did not allow Government amendments to be tabled to the Housing Bill, we should instead bring forward amendments by regulations, after the Summer Recess. Unfortunately there did not prove to be sufficient time; hence these regulations.

If I may, I shall deal first with Schedule 2 to the regulations, as it is this schedule which contains our proposed changes to certificate of fair rent procedures. A certificate of fair rent is a device by which a landlord who wants to let or improve his property may find out from the rent officer what fair rent he will get if he goes ahead with his plans. In the case of shorthold the landlord must get a certificate of fair rent as this will be the most he can charge until a rent is registered. The existing procedures have stood for 15 years, and in the light of that experience we are proposing, in Schedule 2 to the regulations, five changes.

First, rent officers cannot at present take any action on a case where the landlord supplies insufficient information, other than by referring it to a rent assessment committee. This causes delay, due to unnecessary rent assessment committee hearings. The new procedures in the regulations, empower the rent officer to request more information from the applicant, so that cases need not be referred to the rent assessment committee simply because of a lack of information. This will bring the certificate of fair rent procedures more into line with ordinary rent registration procedures. Second, the new procedures provide that where there is no tenant, the rent officer is not required to hold a formal consultation, but to consult the landlord in such a way as he considers appropriate. There would be no formal notices setting up the consultation. This will greatly speed up simple cases. Third, consultations are at present automatically held, where there is a tenant. This often results in delay, through unnecessary consultations. Schedule 2 provides that landlords and tenants will always be asked whether they want a consultation, and will have an absolute right to one, if either so requests, but consultations will no longer be held automatically. This arrangement parallels the procedures for rent registration in Schedule I to the regulations.

Fourth, all cases have a 14-day delay imposed upon them between the determination of the rent by the rent officer and issue of a CFR. Schedule 2 provides that, if the landlord indicates before the expiry of the 14-day period that he does not object to the rent which the rent officer proposes to specify in the CFR, the rent officer will be able to issue the CFR straightaway, without having to wait the full 14 days. This will only apply where there is no tenant, and would again speed up the processing of simple cases.

Finally, rent officers are not, at present, able to save time and effort by holding joint consultations where they are appropriate. The regulations provide that the rent officer may hold joint consultations, in the same way as is provided for in Schedule I to the regulations. May I now turn to Schedule 1? The bulk of this Schedule simply restates the amendments to rent registration procedures which—as I have mentioned—were made by the Housing Bill, and are now to be found in Schedule 6 to the Housing Act 1980. However, in discussion with the department on the detailed implementation of Schedule 6, the Institute of Rent Officers have proposed two minor changes to simplify the clerical operation in rent offices when applications are received, and one to give greater certainty. We have concluded that it would be sensible to accept these changes and they are as follows.

First, where the rent officer serves a notice informing the parties that he has received an application, Schedule 6 requires that the notice states the rent sought by the applicant and any amount for services included in it. The regulations instead require that a copy of the complete application (which will include this information) is sent with the notice to the party who is not the applicant. This will give him more information, while not telling the applicant what he already knows. Second, where the rent officer sends information on services to the tenant, Schedule 6 requires that this should also be sent to the landlord—even though it was the landlord who provided the rent officer with the evidence. The regulations remove this unnecessary requirement. Finally, the regulations require that a request for a consultation by landlord or tenant should be in writing, thus leaving no doubt as to whether a request has been made. Schedule 6 did not specify this.

Schedule 1 to the regulations, merely repeats Schedule 6 to the 1980 Act, but with these changes. Why, your Lordships may ask, is it necessary to do it this way, rather than by directly amending Schedule 6? The reason is that Schedule 6 is not in force and thus not embodied in the 1977 Rent Act, hence there is no power to amend it by regulations. It would not be sensible to bring Schedule 6 into force and amend it immediately thereafter because of the administrative confusion which could arise. Thus, if the regulations are approved, Schedule 1 will replace Schedule 6 to the Act and the latter will not be brought into force.

My Lords, I mentioned that these particular improvements were proposed by the Institute of Rent Officers. We have consulted the Institute throughout in the preparation of the regulations, and they are to be congratulated on the constructive way in which they have accepted change, and committed themselves to improve their output. In conclusion, may I mention that these regulations will, if approved by both Houses, come into force on 28th November? That is the date we are planning to bring the main private rented sector provisions in Part II of the Housing Act into operation. Subject to today's proceedings, we intend shortly to make a commencement order and to lay the various Negative Resolution instruments needed to give effect to Part II. I commend the regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 27th October be approved. —( Lord Bellwin.)

5.4 p.m.

My Lords, the Minister has moved the regulations with great clarity. In reading the regulations themselves, they are, as is usual in these cases, long in words and short on comprehension. I am also rather sorry to see—thinking of future students of legislation and historians—that poor old Schedule 6 becomes otiose, and that people who look for it, wonder where it has gone and what has happened to it, will have to find their way through the regulations, if they can. This is of course not peculiar to this Act or, unfortunately, to this Government. It is a result, as usual, of too much legislation, too hastily put through and then having to be caught up in this way with extra reading matter, extra work for everybody to do.

I would hastily say that I do not consider the Minister to be the villain of this piece. He was kind enough to write to me and send me an explanatory note on these regulations. The only remark I should like to make about heaping more regulations on to the Act—although this may be in a rather different category—is in both the Housing Act and the Local Government Bill, which is now waiting for Royal Assent, the number of places in which the Secretary of State has almost complete dictatorial powers and has the right to make regulations, and it all rests with him, have grown enormously.

However, in this instance I certainly have no objection to streamlining and also to cutting down any delays because this is an extremely important factor and has been in the past. It is essential that the tenant knows that he can ask for a consultation now that the mandatory form of consultation is going under these regulations, and that he will not be intimidated by the landlord or feel that he will put himself into a difficult position if he asks for a consultation. In order to show how even-handed I am about this, I can envisage the odd case where the landlord is the less dominating of the two parties. He also may feel a bit timid about asking for a consultation. However, we have to understand, to be fair, that it is usually the tenant who will be in this position because he is the person who is taking a tenancy in the house, flat, or whatever it is, and it is very important that he should know his rights.

I should like to ask the Minister whether this new procedure, and the opportunities open to the tenant, will be set out in simple language and made easily available to tenants. As we all know—and again it is not the prerogative of this Government—so much of people's rights very often become eroded because people do not understand them and they do not know they have them. Even when they find, or are given, the piece of paper the wording is extremely difficult to follow. Also, I should like to know whether the Minister has any idea—he can let me know later if he has not the answer today—how many of the mandatory consultations under the old régime proved to be unnecessary because they were unattended. In other words, consultations had to be held, but the tenant or the landlord and tenant—one or the other or both—did not attend.

Where the rent officer sends information on services to the tenant, Schedule 6 requires that it should also be sent to the landlord. As the Minister pointed out the regulations remove this requirement. I wonder whether there could be cases where all the necessary information is not given. If that is so, is there any way this would be found out? How would it be dealt with?

The other point that slightly worries me is that the requests for a consultation have to be made in writing. I can see the reason for that: somebody may phone and the message may not get through. People may get worried and say, "Well, I did phone" when in fact they have not done so, but they do not quite know what to do. There are all sorts of difficulties, especially if this is going to be carried out very stringently. There are old people, people who are illiterate or semi-literate, who may find it difficult to put their request in writing. I should like to be assured that it would be possible for people to fill in a simple form in the rent office, so that they could go along and then and there put their signature to a piece of paper which simply asks for a consultation. I think that is very important.

Streamlining and cutting down the work of rent officers is all very admirable, but I wonder how this is going to tally with the cut in the rent review period from three years to two years, over which we argued so vigorously and on so many occasions during the passage of the Housing Act. Since this will mean more work for rent officers, how far will this cancel out the streamlining of rent officers' work under the new regulations? The Minister may perhaps reply by saying, as he did during the passage of the Bill, that with inflation as it is it is necessary to cut the review from three years to two years. I naturally would answer—and he will not be surprised—that the inflation is due to his Government's policies anyhow, but I will not go further into that on this occasion.

I would ask the Minister whether the Government will monitor these new procedures to see how many consultations at the end of the year were requested by tenant, or landlord, or both, or how many consultations were held by rent officers when thought necessary, even though a consultation was not asked for. Also, there may be cases where a consultation was not immediately asked for but then the tenant might approach the rent officer within a quite short period. I am not trying to build up a case for more consultations, because I think that anything which wastes the time of rent officers and of other people is unnecessary; but obviously we must welcome anything that simplifies the procedure, as long as tenants' rights, as I said, are not eroded.

5.14 p.m.

My Lords, I will just quickly cover some of the points made by the noble Baroness. Of course, I will gladly write to her and tell her how many mandatory consultations were not attended under the old regime. She was concerned that tenants, under the new regulations, may be afraid to ask for a consultation. I do not see why they should be. The tenant has full security of tenure under the Rent Acts and has nothing to fear in asking for a consultation. However, if there was any hint of a tenant being intimidated, which I would condemn just as much as would the noble Baroness, the rent officer has the reserve power under our proposals to call a consultation himself. It is precisely this kind of circumstance which, albeit remote, has led us to give this discretion to the rent officer.

The same point applies in any case under the existing provisions where the tenant is asked whether he wishes to make representations. Any representations he makes will be copied to the landlord and then discussed at a consultation, so if there is any risk of intimidation—and I see no evidence of it—it is equally there at the present time. However, that is no reason why we should not want to see something better.

I make no comment on the noble Baroness's reference to inflation being due to Government policies, beyond saying that I presume she would accept that the inflation under the previous Government was due in those circumstances to her own Government's policies. I do not think we would quarrel too much about that. I do not think there is much I can add. I will read very carefully what the noble Baroness has said and should there be, among the suggestions that have been made, any points which would make things work better, we shall be very glad to contact her and indeed to consider taking them up.

My Lords, there is one point I should like to raise again, if I may. I did mention it, but I should like an assurance that the Minister is taking it on board. It is the matter of the tenants being informed in simple language about their right to a consultation, so that they know exactly what the position is and exactly what they do. These are human points and points of communication. The other point deals with what I think could create difficulties, namely, this request in writing. I should like to feel that this is being taken up by the Government and by the Minister and that something will be done on both points.

My Lords, on the first point I agree that the rent officer must tell the tenant in simple language that he has a right to a consultation, and because of this the Government will prescribe by law the letter to be sent to the tenant. It will be in simple, clear language and, subject to tonight's proceedings, we shall lay regulations before the House tomorrow containing the prescribed letter. I hope that the noble Baroness is duly impressed by the expedition brought forth by her suggestion. I am sure she would also realise that it was anticipated. I should have said this when I responded in the first place. I apologise for not so doing. As regards the other points she has made, as I said, we shall consider them carefully, and if there are any proposals that are helpful, we shall want to take them further.

My Lords, it would appear at first sight that this matter of regulations is a simple affair that can be dismissed following a speech by the noble Lord the Minister and one on behalf of the Opposition. In my opinion it goes much further than that. Far from being simple, it raises many complications, such as the rent that is to be charged to a very large number of tenants in the United Kingdom, the effect on their standard of living, and the financial and domestic difficulties that are bound to follow. When the Bill was passing through your Lordships' House, I played no part in it because, quite frankly, I had the utmost difficulty in understanding the implications involved.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, is out of order because he did not use the phrase. "Before the noble Lord sits down". I regret that he should have continued his observations.

My Lords, it could have been raised before the noble Lord rose or it can be raised by letter or by word of mouth.

My Lords, let us be clear about the position. The Minister made his speech and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, replied. The Minister then got up to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I was not aware that it was his final speech. I was waiting to get an opportunity to speak. There was no indication that he was finalising the situation—none whatever—and I am not so sure that that was the opinion of the House, that this was the final word.

My Lords, it is customary when the Minister has made his final speech—and I think it was clear that it was his final speech—that there are no further observations. The only means whereby the noble Lord could have interrupted him was to use the phrase, "Before the noble Lord sits down". He did not do so. If the noble Lord will consult Hansard he will discover that he is out of order.

Then, my Lords, how is this matter of the regulations to be dealt with? Are we simply to accept what the Minister has stated in submitting the regulations, and accept them without any opposition at all, in spite of the large number of people who are being adversely affected? Is that the situation?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, is teasing my noble friend and, indeed, the Government, because he is quite well aware of the procedures set out in our Standing Orders and indeed in the Companion. It is possible to lay a Prayer or to make use of some very flexible opportunities.

My Lords, all I have to do is to make a protest. I am disgusted with this kind of action. Here is a matter of the utmost importance. I raised it in the course of the debate and it is the only intervention that I made. It is a question of the rents that ought to be charged. Now that there is an opportunity, when the regulations are submitted, to offer some observations on the subject, I am told that I cannot do so. We cannot appeal to the Speaker, because we have no Speaker. But this is pushed through, under cover almost, in a House that is almost empty. It is a matter of the utmost substance—

My Lords, I must object strongly to the suggestion that anything at all is being pushed through. I come along here in the correct manner, I present the regulations in the proper way and they are discussed by the Opposition or by any other noble Lord who wishes to comment. Because the noble Lord does not stick to procedures, with which I am less familiar than he, he must not, with great respect, say that something is being pushed through. Whatever it is or is not, nothing is being pushed through, because that seems to imply that in some way there is something underhand about this. It is nothing of the kind. It is a straightforward alteration of the procedures. It is nothing more than that. It is an attempt to do things better. It is attempting to change the regulations, but it is not changing the basics of the Act in any way. With respect, to suggest that something is being pushed through in any way is wrong.

My Lords, the Question is, That this Motion be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say, Content? To the contrary, Not-Content?

Motion agreed to accordingly.