Committee (7th Day)
Relevant document: 20th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 115: Assessment of accommodation needs
82GD: Clause 115, page 52, line 30, at end insert—
“(c) plots on which gypsies, travellers and travelling showpeople can have both residential accommodation and space for the storage of equipment.”
My Lords, Section 225 of the Housing Act 2004 requires housing authorities to carry out an assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers who reside in or resort to their area, and Section 226 allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the carrying out of this responsibility. An order was subsequently made in 2007 about implementing the provisions of the 2004 Act.
The Bill seeks to change the situation. There are two ways of looking at its provisions in respect of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Either they will absolve councils of their responsibility for planning to meet the needs of these groups for sites, which will make a difference to the position laid down in the 2004 in terms of what will happen on the ground; or, as the impact assessment suggests, it will not. If the latter is indeed the case, the only reason for the Government to include Clause 115 in the Bill is to throw a bone to councils and some communities that wish to make as little provision as possible, preferably none, by implying that the Government are responding to opposition to such provision, which unfortunately is fairly widespread. Such would be the sort of clients who might be disposed to engage the assistance of an organisation called Planning Direct. This organisation’s comments on the relevant clause distastefully boast of a 100% success rate in stopping Traveller sites for parish councils, for which in its publication it helpfully supplies contact details. If the Bill makes or is intended to make little or no difference, why does it include the provision in the first place?
Another organisation, Planning Resource, which describes itself as providing independent intelligence for planning professionals, reports divided opinions among planners. The strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society believes that it will have little impact, but also believes that there is some real concern over councils misinterpreting the rules and that the change is,
“almost like handing local authorities, which are reluctant to plan for travellers, an excuse not to do it”.
Others, in fairness, take a more positive view of the change, but Marc Willers QC declared that he has,
“no doubt that site provision will reduce and that the shortage of accommodation for Gypsies and travellers will increase if the requirement to assess their needs is subsumed into a more general housing needs assessment and the guidance on assessing their needs is swept away”—
that is to say, the problems will increase when an assessment of their needs is no longer required.
The all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies and Travellers echoes those concerns, describing the combination of the new Planning Policy for Traveller Sites, published last August, and the Bill as making for a “complex, confusing system”. It adds that the Traveller site planning policy leaves open questions as to the assessment of,
“the needs of Gypsies and Travellers within and outside the new planning definition”.
Moreover, most authorities will have completed their general housing needs assessment in any event and may not have included Gypsies and Travellers. It points to the potentially paradoxical outcome that the uncertainty may lead to more unauthorised encampments. The all-party group commended Leeds City Council, which conducted a full assessment of needs several years ago and provided a number of new pitches, thereby saving as much as £2,000 a week on services that it would otherwise have had to provide.
Concern over the provision is widespread. The Catholic Association for Racial Justice is deeply concerned about the latest planning policy for sites which it says is making it much harder for Gypsies and Travellers to obtain planning permission to live even on their own land. It concludes:
“The impact of these … changes could be very undermining for Gypsy and Traveller communities, increasing their already serious disadvantage and marginalisation”.
The chair of the Greater London Authority housing committee, Tom Copley, wrote in December to the Minister, Brandon Lewis, reporting that his committee had written to the Mayor of London in January 2015 with five recommendations that he thought would be undermined by the Bill. The committee considered that the Gypsy and Traveller community could be further marginalised by its provisions and that its suggestions for toleration sites would be undermined by removing the requirement for assessments of need. He called on the Minister to reconsider the changes. Can the Minister say whether her honourable friend Mr Lewis did so? Did he reply to the letter—and, if so, in what terms?
At the heart of the problem is the glossary appended to the planning guidance as to the definition of Gypsies and Travellers which lists three issues, among other unspecified matters, in determining whether people are Gypsies and Travellers: namely,
“whether they previously led a nomadic habit of life … the reasons for ceasing their nomadic habit … whether there is an intention of”,
“how soon, and in what circumstances”—
matters which noble Lords may think are rather difficult to establish.
Travelling showpeople are defined separately. The Showmen’s Guild is concerned about the possible impact on its members. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who is not in his place, and I, are very familiar with this group, as it is integral to the Hoppings, which is Europe’s largest open-air travelling fair and which has, for 150 years, taken place on Newcastle’s Town Moor, just a few hundred yards from where I live. It originated as a temperance festival and, though its character may have changed slightly over the decades, it is an enormously popular event, despite the wet weather that usually coincides with it.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s briefing to the House of Commons reminds us that homelessness among Gypsies and Travellers is currently estimated at 20%, and that they are among the most disadvantaged communities in the country. The commission concluded that the Bill may be in breach of Article 8 of the ECHR, of Articles 4.2, 5 and 27 of the European Framework Convention on the Protection of Minorities, and of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The commission also asserts that the impact assessment fails to examine the equality impact, as required by Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. We are dealing with a small but deeply deprived community, some of whose members belong to a people who—like the people I belong to—suffered very severely in the Holocaust of the Second World War. If this group is to continue to function effectively—to live the kind of life that it seeks to lead—this Bill is distinctly disturbing. If this House changes nothing, it is unnecessary; if it makes a change, it is, frankly, repugnant.
Amendments 82GD and 82GE require local housing authorities to consider the need for the provision of plots of land from which Gypsies, Travellers and travelling showpeople can have living accommodation and storage space for their equipment. I know from my own time as leader of Newcastle City Council that such provision creates concern locally and sometimes allows people with rather extreme views to stir up ill-feeling about this group. The provisions of this Bill lean towards that unfortunate development. It is not, of course, intended, but the apparent change—whether it is real or not is open to question—is not likely to help the settled relations between people in one or other of the relevant groups and the local communities in which they ought to be able to play a part. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 82H, which has broad support across this House. This is a simple probing amendment that would seek to retain Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 in legislation, requiring local authorities to undertake a direct assessment of Gypsy and Traveller needs. I shall also speak to Amendment 82GD, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which may point towards an alternative way forward.
I start by welcoming the publication of the Government’s draft guidance on Clause 115, which makes clear the duty of local authorities to undertake a specific assessment of all those whose primary residence is in caravans or houseboats, including Gypsies, Travellers and showmen communities. The very presence of this draft guidance is reassuring, and I am glad that the Government are making progress. I recognise that in the rush to get this guidance out it may not have been possible for Ministers and officials to consult all stakeholders about the content but I am sure that the Minister will reassure the House that all the relevant parties—including representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller communities—will be consulted extensively before final guidance is published. I know that there are a number of concerns about the proposed guidance, not least the failure to define what is meant by a household —something which has led to a great deal of confusion and cross-authority discrepancies in the past, as authorities have defined it in different ways.
I understand that the Government’s stated intention behind Clause 115 is to remove a general perception that Gypsies and Travellers are given favourable treatment under planning law. I also recognise that under current legislation there is no requirement to perform a specific assessment of those residing in caravans and on waterways who are not part of the Gypsy and Traveller communities, and that this may result in such groups slipping through the net when local authorities assess housing needs. As such, I have no objection in principle to the expansion of the existing assessment requirements to cover all those residing in caravans and on waterways, as long as this is genuinely an expansion and does not threaten the current arrangements regarding assessment of specific Gypsy and Traveller needs.
With this in mind I will highlight two main concerns, which I hope the Government will address. The first is the total lack of mention of Gypsy and Traveller communities in Clause 115 and only the smallest mention of them in the draft guidance. It is important to bear in mind that some local authorities, often under pressure from the wider community to refrain from making land available for Gypsy and Traveller sites, are liable to seize on any excuse not to undertake a full and detailed assessment of Gypsy and Traveller needs. The Government’s own impact assessment seems to recognise that the failure to put reference to Gypsies and Travellers in primary legislation—relegating any mention to secondary guidance only—may give local authorities the impression that the importance of assessing those needs has been downgraded in the new legislation. Making it clear in primary legislation that any assessment requirements include a requirement to assess the needs of Gypsies, Travellers and showmen residing in or having recourse to a local authority is therefore essential to maintain the pressure on local authorities to carry out such an assessment.
The simplest way of ensuring that the Gypsy and Traveller communities are directly mentioned in primary legislation is to ensure that Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 remain in legislation, as my amendment proposes. I see no reason why the two pieces of legislation cannot stand side by side, with local authorities subsuming the Gypsy and Traveller assessment requirement within the broader assessment of caravans and waterways. There are, of course, alternative ways of maintaining reference to Gypsies and Travellers, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, being one of them. None of these amendments would in any way imperil the Government’s aim of expanding the assessment requirement and ensuring parity of treatment for all in the assessment process.
The second concern that I have centres on the categories of caravans and inland waterways that are proposed in Clause 115 and reflected in the draft guidance. The use of these simple categories fails to capture the nuanced differences in the needs of the groups for which this legislation is intended to provide assessment, and may result in an inadequate assessment process if these nuances are not made clear. The accommodation needs of those residing in static caravans, for example, may be very different from the needs of Gypsy communities that are constantly on the move, which will again be very different from the needs of travelling showmen, who often require extra space for vehicles and equipment. I hope the Minister can confirm that these distinctions will be made clear in the revised guidelines and that any assessment will be required to differentiate between them.
What these categories ignore altogether, however, is the requirement that local authorities include the needs of Gypsies and Travellers living in settled, bricks-and-mortar housing in their assessment, despite this being included in the guidance. Given that any guidance issued is guidance only, can the Minister explain to the House how the Government intend to ensure that local authorities assess vulnerable Gypsy and Traveller families who might be abiding in bricks-and-mortar housing, perhaps only temporarily, when under Clause 115 there will be no statutory duty on them to do so?
I hope that everyone across the House recognises the importance of ensuring that local authorities are equipped to provide properly for the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their communities. A failure to provide a proper, robust requirement on local authorities to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers will inevitably hinder the provision of accommodation sites and space, which is only likely to increase the number of illegal sites, stoke community tensions and endanger a cultural identity that has endured for hundreds of years.
If the Government are committed to expanding the assessment requirement, that expansion needs to be done very carefully, building on the good work that is already being done to foster stronger relationships between local authorities and vulnerable minority communities. Indeed, I hope the Government might use these legislative changes as an opportunity to work with the Gypsy and Traveller communities to improve the assessment process, not undermine it. I hope the Minister can provide assurance that this will be the case.
My Lords, I support the amendment and draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the Register of Interests as a district councillor. I flagged up at Second Reading that I would be returning to this issue, and I support wholeheartedly the comments of the previous two speakers.
In 2004, while I was still the leader of Somerset County Council, the Government passed the Housing Act, of which Section 225 ensured that:
“Every housing authority must, when undertaking a review of housing needs in their district under section 8 of the Housing Act 1985 … carry out an assessment of the accommodation needs of gypsies and travellers residing in or resorting to their district”,
and prepare a strategy to meet those needs. Section 226 went on to provide guidance on how this was to be carried out. This significant step forward required councils to make assessments of the Travelling community’s needs. Of course, many councils had been doing this for a considerable time and making the necessary provision as a result; however, many were not—bowing to extremes of public opinion and abdicating their duty to provide accommodation for all types of people.
I am at a loss to understand why, apart from again bowing to pressure from certain quarters, the Government are now seeking to delete this requirement for local authorities to make provision in their housing needs assessments and local plans for sites for Travelling communities. The requirement is there now and is not arduous. Making it virtually impossible for Travelling communities to find permanent or temporary sites will only lead to an increase in what are known as illegal encampments. I will refer to this again later.
As we have heard, there are several groups of Travelling communities: Roma Gypsies, covered by the Race Equality Act; showpeople, including those in the circus trade, fairgrounds and historic seasonal fairs; and other Travellers, some of whom are called “new age” Travellers. The groups are distinct and have different requirements. I have long been an advocate of the need to provide permanent sites for individual Gypsy families, which will often include more than one generation. I have received a briefing from Friends, Families and Travellers and I have also met with representatives of the Showmen’s Guild and received a briefing from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Most of us will have seen at one time or another a group of caravans parked on a wide grass verge, in a lay-by, in a farmer’s field, or even in a town centre car park—the latter can be very disruptive to residents trying to park to do their shopping or visit the library. However, mostly the caravans are in the countryside and cause little problem. Sometimes the local landowner will allow them to stay, but more commonly legal action is taken to move them on. This is costly and, without legalised authorised sites to move them on to, only displaces them further down the road, or maybe over the neighbouring county boundary, where they become someone else’s problem.
In March 2015, guidance was produced by the DCLG, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on Dealing with Illegal and Unauthorised Encampments. Most of this dealt with moving the problem on and said:
“Public bodies should not gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation”.
Did any of them ever actually do this? The document might just as well have said, “Ignore it altogether”. This is despite statistics from January 2015 showing there were 593 more caravans on authorised sites than the year before—so not illegally camped.
A more positive document from the DCLG was published in August 2015, which gave very useful guidance for how provision might be made for sites for Travelling communities. In the same month, the responses were published from the consultation undertaken between 14 September and 23 November 2014 by the then Secretary of State at the DCLG. This second document reiterates the former publication, and paragraph 3.32 makes clear:
“The Government intends to review the implementation of the revised policies to consider their impact and ensure that they effectively support those persons who have a nomadic habit of life”.
Hurrah. However, there is reference to treating those who have previously travelled and now wish to be static but still part of the Travelling community as requiring bricks-and-mortar accommodation in the same way as the settled community. This will have a devastating effect on some sections of the Travelling community.
When I met with the Showmen’s Guild, it was extremely concerned about the removal of the 2004 needs assessment. The ability to have accurate numbers of those in need is essential to meeting that need. To return to where we were in 2000, when there was no information available, is unhelpful in the extreme. On Monday, we spent some time in this Chamber debating how the needs of tenants and residents looking for homes have changed over the years. This is also the case for the Travelling showpeople and others. Previously they might have been looking for somewhere to overwinter, repair their equipment and recharge their batteries. Nowadays they are looking for permanent, 12-months-a-year sites where their elderly can stay and gain access to GPs and health centres, they can look after the children, the children can go to school and receive an education, and from which they can travel to other parts of the country to earn their living.
The Showmen’s Guild is self-financing and self-regulating, and those it represents live in close family units supporting each other. They are proud that they receive no government handouts. It has 4,500 members, who are the heads of families representing 25,000 people. They are Travelling showmen who go to fairs and circuses, as we have heard. They attend overseas fairs in Dubai, China and New York, bringing money back into this country and reinvesting in their equipment, which enables them to keep up with the best in Europe. Examples of their presence are the Winter Wonderland fair, which is a multimillion pound business, and the King’s Lynn Mart, a fair which has been running for 800 years and is now run by the Showmen’s Guild. The fair brings a wealth of business into the town.
When I met the showmen’s representatives, they said that spending time worrying about whether they were able to have a permanent base took their minds off the job, which was not helpful. They need a year-round base in order to make repairs to equipment. They have a long-standing tradition, which is now a 21st-century industry, and their attendance at annual local events can mean businesses report a 25% increase in takings. The Showmen’s Guild believes it is important to count numbers in order to make both five and 10-year site provision, and for local authorities to undertake this task.
I see from the DCLG website that the previous Secretary of State is now the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues. During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities not only targeted Jews but other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”. They included Roma Gypsies. During this period, some 200,000 Roma Gypsies were murdered in the so-called euthanasia programme, according to the Holocaust Encyclopaedia website.
Let us not forget the need to protect all peoples of diverse opinions, faiths and ways of life. It is a basic human right to have a home, and for some this will be a caravan, even if it is on the same site 12 months of the year. These people deserve humane consideration and to be treated with respect. Sections 225 and 226 should remain as part of the Housing Act 2004.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of Friends, Families and Travellers. I am proud to attach my name to Amendment 82H, not only because of the breadth and distinction of its support from the highest levels in this House—I know that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, very much regrets that he cannot be here. I also speak in memory of my friend Lord Avebury, whose amendment to the Housing Act 2004 the Government’s proposal in Clause 115 seeks to destroy. He was throughout his life a campaigner for justice and fairness and, when the Government of the day repealed his Caravan Sites Act 1968, which resulted in a few hundred more sites, he sought tirelessly to bring in replacement provisions, culminating in those in the 2004 legislation, in which I was honoured to join him.
Why is it necessary to oblige local authorities specifically to include Gypsies and Travellers in their housing needs assessments? It is because without this, as has been said, local authorities have an excuse to shirk even more their responsibility to provide sites for that small proportion of Travelling people—which, as has been said, includes showpeople—who need them. The DCLG’s published figures for the Traveller pitch fund are 533 sites for 2011 to 2015, but even that small number is misleading, because it is not a net figure: it omits the pitches lost to development. The real figure is in the region of 305 to 335, according to research done by Friends, Families and Travellers—that is 61 to 67 a year, which can barely respond to household formation, let alone repair the huge gap in provision.
Homelessness is now more acutely on the increase, particularly in the Midlands, because of the Government's new definition of Travellers, so well explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, which ignores their ethnicity as established in law. Clause 115 did not emerge from consultation, nor was it presaged in the Conservative manifesto. It is as if the Government want, stealthily, to do away with a culture and traditional way of life that is different from that of the settled majority. Instead of bringing in measures that could improve social cohesion and oppose the prejudice that has made this very small minority so often marginalised and deprived—to the severe detriment of its health and education opportunities, let alone ordinary peace of mind—they seek to deepen that deprivation.
Clause 115 did not go unchallenged in the other place. My honourable friend Teresa Pearce cited over 11 national and local organisations, including the Joseph Rowntree Trust and all the leading Gypsy, Traveller and showmen bodies, in her request to remove it. In his response, the Minister, Brandon Lewis, did offer welcome recognition of the duty to assess all housing need. His justification for removing the reference to Gypsies and Travellers was:
“Our clause emphasises that Gypsies and Travellers are not separate members of our communities”.—[Official Report, Commons, Housing and Planning Bill Committee, 26/11/15; col. 345]
It has long been recognised that identical treatment is not at all the same as equal treatment. Indeed, in this case it would result in manifest inequality. Mr Lewis may have realised that he was on sticky ground, because he then offered to incorporate,
“any necessary elements of the current ‘Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment Guidance’ in wider planning guidance”.—[Official Report, Commons, Housing and Planning Bill Committee, 26/11/15; col. 345]
Guidance has indeed just been published, but without the consultation which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, had offered at her very helpful meeting with the all-party group. It would have benefited from that. What guarantee does it give Travellers, forcibly evicted at great cost to the evicting authority or continually refused planning permission, that their local authority will be obliged by law to ensure that their need for a site is accommodated? I emphasise again the small number concerned—perhaps 25,000 in the whole of England—but even that has proved too much for our majoritarian culture. Advisory guidance with no statutory backing, open to change without parliamentary intervention, will hardly do much when there is no political leadership.
The Government’s own impact assessment has the grace to recognise this, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, said. It says that,
“some local housing authorities may misinterpret the removal of a specific reference and therefore possibly fall short in their duties”.
However, it claims that this is balanced by the eight years’ experience of implementing the previous system and the reference to the provision of caravan sites and houseboats for canal workers. The problem is that the minimal provisions of those eight years needed strengthening, not eroding, to make enough of a difference.
The truth is that the studies which housing authorities carried out to assess need have been, at the best of times, insufficiently disaggregated to pick up small minority communities. Only specific Gypsy and Traveller assessments can ensure that a proper attempt can be made to provide sites which can preserve their way of life and allow them to live legally, in harmony with their settled neighbours. I hope that the Minister will take this on board and accept all the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I will briefly intervene in this debate. It is quite important when considering this issue to bear in mind that some of the local authorities that have dealt with the situation as it currently applies in legislation have found that the legislation itself has given rise to difficulties for them and, in some circumstances, to abuse.
I will say another word about travelling show people. I very much appreciated what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, said about them, and I want, in a sense, to support what they said.
First, on local authorities, I remind your Lordships that I was Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire. That district has one of the largest numbers of sites for Travellers, relative to its population and area, of anywhere in the country. Contrary to some of the implications about the attitude of local authorities in the absence of statutory provisions requiring them to behave in certain ways, the local authorities in the district have always rigorously sought to assess the requirements of Travellers in our area and to provide for it. That is because it has historically been an area where Travellers have been welcome in order to support the industry in the county, not least because of the needs of the farming community. However, the issue is that the specific statutory provisions, which Clause 115 would in effect remove, have not enabled local authorities to make disinterested and even-handed assessments of housing needs for all the members of our community, but have given an opportunity—often not for the legitimate Travelling community, who have been coming to South Cambridgeshire over generations—frankly, for abuse.
I refer not least to Smithy Fen at Cottenham in my former constituency, where some come, assert that they are part of a Travelling community—even in circumstances where they already have established residential accommodation in other places—and use the requirement for an assessment of need, which they then assert has not been met, buying at agricultural prices property in a place where development land values are many orders of magnitude greater. They then take possession and seek planning permission over a period for those properties, giving themselves very large uncovenanted benefits and, in some cases, moving on and doing the same elsewhere. The statutory provisions give a sense that, contrary to what the settled community feels, there has to be a fair assessment and an even-handed effort to meet everybody’s housing needs. Those housing needs are being met in ways that would never be accommodated for the purposes of the settled community. The same piece of land would never be able to be developed by somebody from the settled community whose need for housing might be at least as great. Often, in villages, there are young people who would love to live in that village and would love to have that site available for development but, for material planning reasons, it is not available. Therefore, it is important to them that the local authority has the ability—and should be required—to look at housing need and to respond to it across the community. In many places in consideration of this Bill, many Members on all sides of the House have taken the view that we should trust local authorities, through the planning process, to assess planning need and to provide for it. Frankly, that is what we should do in this case.
Clause 115 goes on to say, “but there are some specific circumstances” and refers to caravans and houseboats. That is where Amendment 82GD has some points of merit to consider because, particularly where Travellers are concerned, it is not just about caravans. It is also about a mix of provision of residential accommodation, caravan accommodation and space for equipment and so on. That is especially true for travelling show people. I know them well. They have a major site at Meldreth, the neighbouring village to my own in my former constituency. We made very good provision for them, which was very important to them. This was a classic instance of the special requirements of a plot, because they must have permanent accommodation for members of their community who are older, those who are retired and particularly where children need access to school. Therefore, they have permanent accommodation, temporary accommodation and space for equipment. A mix of all three is important and has been provided for them there.
Given the nature of the need, for certain plots the characteristics of that plot have particularly to be identified in the planning process in the same way as for caravans. I encourage the Minister in replying to look at whether, alongside the provisions in Clause 115, there is a need to identify specific characteristics of certain plots for which there would not otherwise be provision in the normal development framework.
I shall not comment on that. I am simply commenting on South Cambridgeshire where there is evidence that we—the people of South Cambridgeshire, the local authority and Cambridge city—are trying our hardest persistently to increase the availability of sites and have done so successfully. However, with all that effort, at no point have we been able to satisfy the requirement on the basis simply of asking how many people are seeking sites in South Cambridgeshire. That is a different issue. The issue is—as is true for all housing need—that local authorities must be in a position to decide the balance between the requirement for housing and the availability of sites, consistent with the wider development framework.
My Lords, I am afraid my experience in the adjacent county of Bedfordshire is different from that of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. That is why I support the amendments of my noble friend Lord Beecham and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I used to be responsible for Gypsy and Traveller health in north London. In my mid-40s I decided to reassess my career and to abandon London—he who is tired of London is not tired of life—to live in rural Bedfordshire.
I saw that the first parish council meeting in my new village was going to deal with Gypsy and Traveller assessment. That sounded like a place that I should be, being really keen having seen the huge mountain that Gypsy and Traveller communities have to climb in a wide variety of areas, not least housing, but also in health and equality generally. It gave me the biggest education I had ever had. It was like a bear pit. The amount of undiluted prejudice on both sides of the argument was so huge that it terrified me. I sat at the back of the parish council meeting—I should say that the parish council regularly attracts about three spectators but on this occasion we had 600—and kept my lip severely zipped. In integrating into the community, I had to recognise that there was huge prejudice surrounding the Gypsy and Traveller community. Ever since that night I have regretted not standing up and saying something.
Having followed the issue for over 25 years, I know that Bedfordshire’s assessment record has improved immensely, but in terms of achieving sites for the Travelling community it has not improved as significantly as I would like. Therefore, anything that allows the importance and prominence of this hugely difficult issue in rural communities to be diluted is a retrograde step. Given half a chance, local authorities faced with this horribly controversial issue will take the line of least resistance if they are allowed to. Therefore, the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans are absolutely required.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for missing the first two or three minutes of the introduction to the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham.
We need to recognise that the Gypsy community suffers multiple disadvantages, and not just in housing. It suffers some of the worst health outcomes in the country, as well as the worst rates of infant mortality and the poorest educational outcomes of any community in the country, and it has the least access to finance of any community in the country. If you do not have a settled existence, and particularly if you are constantly moved on from road verges, it is difficult to open a bank account or to enter the legitimate financial scene.
We also need to recognise that something like 75% or 80% of Gypsies have accommodation that is suitable; it is not a question of the whole community roaming around and looking for somewhere to stay. It is a marginal problem but it is very important and serious, and it is one where we ought to sustain the push with legislation to make sure that local communities face up to their responsibilities.
It is also interesting that many in the Gypsy community are strongly religious. For instance, I remember that when I was a Minister there was a huge row about an unauthorised encampment of Gypsies and fears about hundreds of caravans turning up, but it turned out that they were coming to a Pentecostal Christian event organised for Gypsies. That was counterintuitive, but maybe counterintuitive is what we need to be here. It is the last group in Britain that it is legitimate to slag off in the golf club bar, on the street corner or, indeed, at the parish council in a way that nobody would if those involved were Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean or Chinese people, because, apart from anything else, they would know that it was illegal to do so. They would know that it is something we do not do in Britain but you can still say these things about Gypsies. Unfortunately and sadly, that is the case, and I do not think we should give anybody an excuse to default on their duty.
However, I want to put this issue in a more positive light. We need to give those who want to take their duty seriously some legislative backbone in saying to their communities, “I know this is a tough one. I know it’s difficult, but you can see that the law requires us to do it”. I believe it would be a serious mistake to go backwards on this provision and I hope the Minister will take account of the views that have been expressed.
My Lords, in debating this clause, I am conscious of the absence of the late Lord Avebury, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I was saddened, as were others, on hearing of his death. I know that he was a committed and forceful advocate for the rights of the Gypsy and Traveller community, and I hope that together we can do justice to his memory.
I thank all noble Lords for their amendments. I understand their reasoning, which seeks to ensure that local authorities have an explicit duty to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies, Travellers and Travelling showpeople. I emphasise that this clause does not remove that duty.
I turn first to Amendment 82H, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The Government’s intention is to ensure that the assessment of accommodation needs is seen to be fair to all. We know that some feel that a specific mention of Gypsies and Travellers in legislation relating to such assessments somehow accords them more favourable treatment. We want to combat that impression which, as my noble friend Lord Lansley mentioned, only adds to misunderstanding between the Traveller and settled communities, not to remove the duty to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. Their needs will be assessed, but in a way that is seen to be fair to all.
The aim therefore is to simplify legislation to ensure that the housing and accommodation needs of all the residents and those who resort to an area are considered without specific reference to particular ethnic groups. The clause makes it clear that the needs of those persons who reside in or resort to an area with respect to the provision of caravan sites and moorings for houseboats are considered as part of the review of housing needs. This would include all those who are assessed at present and potentially those who simply choose to live in a caravan, irrespective of their cultural traditions or whether they have ever had a nomadic habit of life. We recognise that for many, but for Travelling showpeople in particular, this assessment needs to include consideration of not only residential accommodation but also space for the storage of equipment—I am speaking particularly about Amendments 82GD and 82GE. That is why we have published draft guidance that makes this explicit.
The definition in Planning Policy for Traveller Sites relates to the provision of sites and is relevant for those seeking planning permission for Traveller sites. The definition is based on proof of nomadism and ensures that planning provision relates to specific land use requirements. The duty in the Housing Act is about assessing the housing and accommodation needs of all in the community and those who resort to it, including those with or without an existing nomadic way of life and those who wish to resort to caravan and houseboat dwelling. We would not wish to align the housing definition with the planning definition as it would limit the scope of the assessment to those who proved an existing nomadic lifestyle. I hope that this reassures the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who raised these points.
Noble Lords and others have rightly raised concerns about human rights, and we are ever mindful of our obligations under both domestic and international law regarding the treatment of protected groups. Therefore, before proposing this clause Ministers gave very careful consideration to their public sector equality duties and the need to ensure that local authorities understand their duty to assess the needs of those living in houseboats and caravans. This includes those with protected characteristics such as Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, for whom it is recognised that caravan-dwelling is a cultural part of their identity. We have therefore published draft guidance explaining how the needs of such groups should be considered under this revised legislation. We want local authorities to assess the needs of everyone in their communities, and our clause emphasises that Gypsies, Travellers and Travelling showpeople are not separate members of our communities. I hope Lord Avebury would have agreed with me that they should be treated fairly.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked whether my honourable friend the Housing Minister in the other place had responded to a letter from the London Assembly Group. I can reassure him that the Minister responded and explained that the changes in the Bill would not impact on how local authorities assess their needs. Local plans need to be found sound before they are adopted. This means that they should be positively prepared, based on a strategy that seeks to meet objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirements.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether any change led to more unauthorised encampments. I can reassure them that the change in legislation is about local housing authorities assessing accommodation needs. It for local planning authorities to ensure that their local plans address the needs of all types of housing and the needs of different groups in the community.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised concerns about local authorities ignoring needs. If a public authority does not comply with the general duty under Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010—the public sector equality duty—its actions or failure to act can be challenged by judicial review. He also asked what consultation was undertaken on the draft guidance. Officials in the department and my noble friend the Minister, who is in her place on the Front Bench, have engaged with the Gypsy and Traveller communities through liaison groups, which meet every few months. The guidance is published in draft, so we are continuing to engage with representatives from the Travelling communities. I hope that reassures noble Lords on that point.
The right reverend Prelate also raised the question of how a “household” is defined. It is for a local authority to ensure that it considers the combination of needs of its community. The guidance is clear that this covers the needs of households from all sectors of the community, whatever that household might look like. Local housing authorities will be able to consider how best to assess that need in summary. With these explanations and assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw this amendment.
Will the Minister say a bit more about whether he sees this as a watering-down of the provisions? Clause 115(2) seeks to remove Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act, which state that a “housing authority must”—it is a very clear duty. This clause would replace that with a “duty to consider”. My noble friend Lady Whitaker said that this would allow authorities to shirk their responsibilities and, as my noble friend Lady Young said, take the line of least resistance. How are we to avoid that?
Before I conclude, many noble Lords have mentioned Lord Avebury. He was a very good man and we all miss him very much. I know which side of the debate he would be on if he were in his place today. It is worth noting that just a couple of days ago, on 15 March, it was the anniversary of his famous by-election win in Orpington.
I understand the thinking behind the noble Lord’s question, but I might put it another way. He used the word “watering-down”, but it could also be said that it might lead to local authorities underestimating the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers. Again, as I hope I have made clear, that is absolutely not the case: the proposed changes to primary legislation make it clear that the needs of all those, including Gypsies and Travellers, who reside in or resort to a district are considered in the same way as before in respect of the provision of caravans, sites and moorings.
My Lords, by the standards of Committee stage on the Bill, this has been a relatively short debate, and I will not prolong it too much. But I find myself slightly puzzled at the position that we end up in.
First, I thank those who participated. Most have supported the amendments. One of the most telling phrases was that of the right reverend Prelate, who said that the provisions in the Bill failed to capture the nuances of the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. I think that that is right. I particularly welcomed the participation of my noble friend Lady Whitaker, who is a tireless campaigner for the groups that are the subject of this amendment.
I was, however, slightly puzzled by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. I very much welcomed the rare degree of agreement between us, which we did occasionally experience in his ministerial past, but the notion that somehow it was the system that created the problem in his constituency where, as he put it, a particular group took possession of land and developed it, strikes me as a little odd. This is not the Wild West. Presumably they did not just walk on to somebody else’s land and erect fencing around it. They must have acquired the land and they must, presumably, have got planning permission for building on it. The implication was that they had developed it and sold it and moved on. The noble Lord is shaking his head. Perhaps I have misunderstood him.
To be clear, yes, they acquired it, but at agricultural values. Then the utilities were provided because the utility companies were required to do so. Then, of course, they subsequently made retrospective planning applications. Often in particular circumstances, when they were refused planning permission, they based the essence of their argument to the inspectors that they had a housing need as Travellers in the area, that the local authority was not providing collectively for all the housing needs of Travellers, and that therefore their particular application should be granted.
Then that is a failure of the planning system, not of the particular requirements of this group. However, let us go back a little. Section 8 of the 1985 Housing Act required every local housing authority to,
“consider housing conditions in their district and the needs of the district with respect to the provision of further housing accommodation”.
That clause was effectively amended by the 2004 Act. It was amended because insufficient provision was being made for this group and because very often it was not made because of pressure from people who feared or, at any rate, opposed provision for the categories of would-be residents that we were talking about.
If the 2004 Act was in response to the failure by then of authorities to make provision—and that clearly is the case—what sort of message does it send to remove that duty under the 2004 Act and then say, “Well, it’s all right because they have a duty to consider everything”? They had that duty under the 1985 Act and it was clearly not being fulfilled.
There is a special case here and I hope that the Minister will, with his colleagues, think again about a clause which in my view is specifically designed to buy off support for those who do not want to see provision being made for this vulnerable group. At this stage, I will not test the opinion of the House, but it is a matter to which we may well return on Report, unless the Government reconsider. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 82GD withdrawn.
Amendments 82GE and 82H not moved.
Clause 115 agreed.
Clause 116: Licences for HMO and other rented accommodation: additional tests
83: Clause 116, page 53, line 19, at end insert—
“(c) has a current entry on the database of rogue landlords and property agents as set out in Part 2 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016”
My Lords, as this is my first proper intervention in today's proceedings, notwithstanding the questions I asked in the previous debate, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and also declare that I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham.
I should also say in this opening contribution, as I have voiced in previous debates, that our proper consideration of this Bill and all its clauses and schedules is made all the more difficult because of the poor handling of the Bill through Parliament by the Government. I do not feel that it is going to be any better today. It is a scandal how poorly prepared the Government are. At every session we are either highlighting new problems or discovering new issues that will make the implementation of the measures in the Bill even more difficult to deliver.
This Bill should have been proposed in the Queen’s Speech in May this year, having had proper pre-legislative scrutiny in this Session of Parliament. I should further add that running three days of Committee in a row next week is not, in my opinion, ensuring that we get the best out of these debates. It makes preparation for debates difficult and the scrutiny process very difficult.
With today’s Committee day and then three days next week—and, I understand, proposals for two of the first three days when we return after Easter being reserved for Report, it means that, including today’s debate, the main business in six of the next seven days in your Lordships’ House will be the Housing and Planning Bill. It is not a good way to proceed; not a good way to make legislation; not a good way to treat Parliament; not a good way to treat local authorities which are trying to understand what is happening and interject with their views; not a good way to treat the voluntary sector which is trying to keep up with what is going on and give its views; and not a good way for the Government to be seen to be taking on board the views expressed to them, and hopefully responding to them. It is all unsatisfactory and all of the Government’s own making.
I agree entirely. It is not good for the Minister or indeed for all Members of your Lordships’ House; there are many Members who have been here all the time for these debates.
Amendment 83 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Beecham is quite simple in its intention and, hopefully, will cause the Government no problems at all. That said, I often think that my amendments will help the Government and improve the legislation and should be of no concern at all, but so far I have not been able to persuade them of that fact. Still, we carry on in the hope that on Report the issues and concerns that we have raised will be responded to, because, although we do not like the Bill, we fully understand our role as a revising Chamber in seeking to improve the Bill before it becomes an Act of Parliament.
The amendment seeks to add, in an additional clause, that those with an entry on the database of rogue landlords and letting agents cannot be granted an HMO licence. A house in multiple occupation is a property rented by at least three people who are not from one family but who share facilities such as the bathroom and the kitchen. A licence is required if the property is rented out to five or more people who are from more than one family, the property is at least three storeys high and tenants share facilities such as the toilet, the bathroom or the kitchen. It is important that people identified as rogue landlords should be specifically unable to rent out properties as houses in multiple occupation and should be prevented from obtaining a licence to rent out such properties. My amendment is clear, straightforward and simple. I look forward to the Government’s response, and I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 83, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, would require a local authority to have regard to the fact that a landlord had been included in the database of rogue landlords and property agents when considering an application from that landlord for a licence to operate a house in multiple occupation or selective licensing. A local authority is already required to have regard to a range of factors when deciding whether to grant a licence under the Housing Act 2004. These include whether the applicant has committed any offence involving fraud or other dishonesty, or violence or drugs, or certain serious sexual offences; practised unlawful discrimination; or contravened any provision of the law relating to housing, or of landlord and tenant law. These factors would be likely to include all the offences leading to inclusion in the database. The database will be a key source of information for local authorities when taking decisions on whether to grant a licence.
These safeguards are very important as it is essential that a local authority can be confident that a licence is granted to a landlord or agent only if they can demonstrate that they are a fit and proper person to operate a house in multiple occupation or a property subject to selective licensing, and will not pose a risk to the health and safety of their tenants, many of whom may be vulnerable. Clause 116 includes two further safeguards by providing that a local authority will also be required to have regard to whether the landlord has leave to remain in the UK, is an undischarged bankrupt or is insolvent.
The aim of Amendment 83 is to ensure that local authorities fully consider the past behaviour of landlords and agents who are applying for a licence. The Government are extremely sympathetic to this aim. To do this, local authorities need access to information about the previous activities of a landlord and to share that information across local authority boundaries. The database will be an important step forward in sharing information about convictions recorded against residential landlords and property agents. It is extremely unlikely that a local authority would be unaware of a matter leading to an entry on the database of rogue landlords and property agents when deciding if an applicant was a fit and proper person. I trust that with this explanation, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 83 withdrawn.
Clause 116 agreed.
Clause 117: Financial penalty as alternative to prosecution under Housing Act 2004
84: Clause 117, page 54, line 18, leave out “as an alternative” and insert “in addition”
My Lords, I suspect that this will be another very brief discussion. Schedule 9 amends the Housing Act 2004 to provide that any financial penalty should be an alternative to prosecuting a rogue landlord for an offence. The Explanatory Notes give no justification for this change, and, given what we know about some of the appalling conditions that rogue landlords create or tolerate, I see no reason why they should be immune from a criminal prosecution.
It is perfectly legitimate that a financial penalty should be imposed, but it is a matter of good sense to ensure that totally unacceptable behaviour is treated as a crime, in the hope of deterring others from committing the same offence and behaving disgracefully towards their tenants, rather than their simply being able to pay a financial penalty without any publicity. The deterrent effect of prosecution ought to be invoked.
Indeed, even leaving aside deterrence, conduct of the kind that we regularly read about is simply appalling, and society’s rejection of such an approach by landlords should be made clear by retaining the possibility of prosecuting them. In the absence of any explanation of why the change should be made, I hope that the House will express a view and the Government will reconsider this strange provision. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 84, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, would make a change to Clause 117 so that a local housing authority could impose a civil penalty in addition to, rather than as an alternative to, prosecuting a landlord. The Bill as drafted provides local housing authorities with a choice on whether they want to go down the civil penalty route or the prosecution route, depending on the seriousness of the offence. We have looked at this carefully and come to the conclusion that it would be disproportionate to use both regimes in relation to the same conduct.
Local authorities will benefit from other measures proposed in the Bill. For instance, they can apply for a rent repayment order where the rent has been paid from housing benefit or universal credit where certain housing offences have been committed, as set out in Part 2 of the Bill. This is in addition to the powers already available through the Housing Act 2004 whereby magistrates can impose unlimited fines on conviction for the most serious housing offences. I hope that after this brief explanation the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
Could the Minister comment on whether this would cover the instances that I have spoken about of invisible rogue landlords who give their tenants no rent books, nor anything of any sort? Would a criminal offence not have a bit more impact on them, and encourage them to be fair to the people living in their properties?
I was answering the points raised by noble Lords, and the main point is that we think it disproportionate to use both regimes. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s question. I am now able to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, about fines. The answer is: up to £30,000.
The Minister says that it is up to £30,000. There has been an interesting series of programmes recently, I think on BBC on weekday mornings, in which a team has been going out and looking at properties, particularly in east London, where invariably ethnic minority landlords are exploiting illegal entrants to the United Kingdom, or indeed other people from within the ethnic minority. I have made a point of watching some of these programmes and have begun to realise that these landlords are dancing round local authority officials. The local authority officials seem almost unwilling to exercise real responsibility to bring these people to court. When we talk about up to £30,000, we may end up with little fines of a few hundred pounds for what appear to me to be major offences. Huge breaches are going on in London in properties that come under Sections 64 to 67 of the 2004 Act.
The law seems quite clear. You would imagine that the law would work, but the reality is that it is not working. These people are not being pursued. My noble friend used the phrase “in addition” and I think that it is important that those words are introduced. These rogue landlords need to know that they will not only be taken to court—where they can hire smart-backsided lawyers who can manage to get the fines reduced to whatever level they think is acceptable by simply acting in the interests of their clients—but will be pursued by the authorities, which, I understand, have the right to use that money to do up the property.
The Government are taking a very weak-handed view in dealing with this matter. HMO properties in London are at the bottom end of the market in terms of the treatment of tenants by landlords. The law needs to be tightened up in this area. I hope that when we get to Report we can table amendments that everyone will support to bring home the lesson to the Government that this area is not being dealt with in a good enough way.
I wanted to expand on my previous answer to say that prosecution fines are unlimited civil penalties of, as I mentioned, up to a figure of £30,000. It may give the noble Lord some reassurance to say that we have the power to provide guidance to local authorities on what to use and when in terms of fines. We intend to consult local authorities on the guidance on this matter.
Perhaps I can pursue this a little further. How many people have actually been charged, nationally and in London, over the last 12 months, say? Does the brief tell us the number of people who have been through the courts or do the lawyers manage somehow to deflect the legal actions? If the Minister does not have the reply, perhaps he can indicate to the Box that the information might be made available to us during discussion of a subsequent amendment.
My Lords, I confess that I am not at all satisfied with the Minister’s reply. We are seeing a change in the law to put a financial penalty as an alternative to prosecution. As my noble friend rightly said, we are talking about some appalling examples, which would make the likes of Rachman blush, if he were still around, of abuse of tenants and appalling housing conditions. What is effectively being said in the legislation is: you can buy out of the consequences of that appalling behaviour by an unspecified fine—unspecified in the Bill; I appreciate that there is scope.
The behaviour is worse, in many respects, than many of the offences that are routinely dealt with in the courts in terms of the impact on citizens. It is simply not good enough to allow rogue landlords to escape with a financial penalty but without the stigma of being convicted of a criminal offence. I urge the noble Lord to consult again his ministerial colleagues, because I agree with my noble friend that we should seek on Report to reverse the current position. It will not take long, but my goodness it is important. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 84 withdrawn.
Clause 117 agreed.
Schedule 9 agreed.
Clause 118 agreed.
84A: After Clause 118, insert the following new Clause—
“Overcrowding in shared residential buildings
(1) Local authorities may set limits for the number of residents that may lawfully reside in each rented property in a shared residential building.(2) Local authorities may set limits under subsection (1) for each relevant rented property whenever the contract for renting the property changes at any point after the day on which this section is brought into effect.(3) If a complaint is made to a local authority about overcrowding in a rented property for which a limit has been set under subsection (1), the local authority may investigate whether the limit is being exceeded and, if so, order the landlord of the property to take action to end the overcrowding.(4) Where the local authority orders a landlord to take action under subsection (3), the local authority may charge the landlord a fee to cover the reasonable costs of the investigation and action undertaken by the local authority.”
My Lords, my commercial interest is on the register. I have also owned a flat for 29 years, which has mainly been lived in by family or let. I pay tribute to the Public Bill Office, which has been very helpful in preparing amendments—something much more complicated than it seems—and the Library, which has been invaluable in coming up with information.
We have all seen overcrowding on television in the sordid garages in Acton where there is no water or anything else. But the problem is the same at the top end of the market because the Deregulation Act took away the right of councils to go into properties in London —it was only effected in London—and find out who was living there. The Government said at the time that new regulations would be required but we have heard nothing more about this. It is very important that we do.
I asked a Question for Written Answer on this and was told that councils have the power to determine how many people should be in a property and to inspect it. The difficulty is that before the Deregulation Act some authorities, such as Westminster, had six full-time officers checking on who was in a property, if it was overcrowded, and how long people were staying there, but unfortunately they no longer do. Other boroughs have always found checks costly and have not bothered. But we need to know how many people are in these properties.
I think I mentioned that, in the block in which my flat is, 10 Airbnb guests are often in a one-bedroom flat. That means 10 times more people using hot water than the 90-something year-old lady who is paying for half that water. It is therefore very unsatisfactory to have not seen hide nor hair of the new regulations. This has to be investigated, as set out in Amendment 84A. The issue is also addressed in Amendment 84B so I will speak to that as well.
This is about the right to manage. At last after all these years we now have the right to manage the block I am in but it turns out that, although you need only a 50% vote to get the right to manage, you need 100% to do pretty much anything else significant to improve things. You get to the point where fire doors are being left open and anyone can come in from the street. People in these blocks are abusing long-term residents, including the 90 year-old I have spoken about. There has to be some way of assessing these issues, so Amendment 84B seeks to change the percentage needed on the right to manage. It should be possible to have all these people known, so that if they cannot be there and are not aware of what is happening, they can appoint a proxy or authorise someone else to speak for them. It is very unsatisfactory to be in a position where you can see the overcrowding and the dangers, yet nothing can be done about it. I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is excellent. As usual she understands the issues about how people in the rented sector can be exploited, as well as the problems that can be caused to others living nearby. This proposed new clause suggests a practical solution.
The amendment would give powers to local authorities to take action when necessary on the number of people who may lawfully reside in each rented property in a shared residential building. We have all seen reports of severe overcrowding, usually of vulnerable people, in conditions that are truly unacceptable. The amendment would give local authorities a power to do something about that by setting numbers straightaway. I can recall a situation where workers in east London were in effect hotbedding. People would be able to sleep in a bed for a period of time and then it was the turn of the next person, so that at least two if not three people were using the bed in shifts. For such practices to be happening in modern Britain is an absolute disgrace, although I accept entirely what the noble Baroness said about this cutting across society. It does not affect only people living in sheds in east London.
The proposed new clause would give local authorities powers to set limits, investigate complaints, and the ability to charge reasonable costs for investigation and any necessary action that has to be taken. I hope that the amendment will receive a positive response from the Government, and I may intervene later in Committee once I have heard the Minister’s response.
On Amendment 84B, what would happen? It talks about the information being made available to members of the right-to-manage company but, once they have that information, what will they do about it? I do not quite understand how the amendment deals with the problem in terms of providing a solution.
I go back to Amendment 84A in the same group. One problem when local authorities get involved in dealing with blocks of flats in multiple occupation is that sometimes they hesitate to do so because they know that, if the property is overcrowded and someone has to leave, they are then responsible for sorting out the problem for that tenant. Certainly I get the feeling when watching those programmes that local authorities are a little careful in this area because they simply do not have any properties for people to move into. That is why in general we need to give local authorities far more substantial powers to deal with these properties. They cannot simply become the receptacle into which people in difficulties are put. They cannot just be passed on to the local authority, which is then responsible for housing them when it does not have any accommodation available. I say that against the background of other provisions in the Bill which are going to remove particularly vital property in London from the market.
All these things interconnect. I simply say to the Minister in terms of the previous provision, Amendment 84A, that the Government should write a new clause themselves that would put together a far more substantial package to deal with the problem, and perhaps taking evidence from organisations outside. It might be that they should consider introducing a separate Bill to deal specifically with this problem because it is one that has to be resolved.
To help me understand these matters, perhaps the noble Baroness could explain what would happen once the leaseholders have acquired the information. They must be given some sort of power to actually deal with the problem. We will be dealing with management committees in later amendments. Their members often have little power unless it is enshrined in the original lease, signed by every leaseholder, that there are responsibilities to be met.
My Lords, are there not already regulations about the overcrowding of buildings? I am sure that there are also regulations covering the sharing of bedrooms, particularly between young people. I think I am right in saying that under the age of 12, children of opposite sexes can share the same bedroom, but it is deemed undesirable beyond that age. In certain dwellings it is sometimes impractical to change that. Do we not already have regulations in place? I agree entirely with what my noble friend is trying to do, but I wonder whether the regulations we already have are being enforced as well as they might be.
If there are such regulations in place, of which I am totally unaware, how many prosecutions have been brought? I would bet that there has not been one anywhere in the United Kingdom. The reason for that is because there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people living in homes where those regulations are being defaulted upon.
My Lords, there are regulations about all these things. There are fire regulations, regulations on overcrowding, spatial regulations and so on. The difficulty arises if you have a room in the sort of flat that one of my children rented at one stage. Changes can be made without the local planning authority or anyone else knowing about them. In that particular instance, what had been a two-bedroom property with a fairly large kitchen and dining area was converted into a three-bedroom property when part of that area was hived off, thus creating another bedroom. It meant that, in effect, three couples—six people—were sharing one bathroom, which was a trial in its own right. However, the third bedroom which had been hived off the kitchen and dining area had no direct access to the safe environment protected by a fire door, which meant that the people occupying that room were not safe, given that a kitchen is a potent area for fires to start because of cooking, electrical equipment and so on. I felt that the property was at risk and I told my offspring that, if they had to rent in that flat, for heaven’s sake not to rent the room off the kitchen but to take a room off the lobby.
A local authority has no real way of catching up on this kind of thing, particularly if the properties are relatively temporary lets. Often these are places which are let to students for a year or nine months at a time for the academic year. The tenants may not be registered at the property as electors because their university might have registered them, so there is no real audit trail to enable the authority to look into the issues.
I think that there is a real problem here. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, doughty campaigner as she is for getting these things sorted out—I support her in her intentions behind her amendments—should note that, nevertheless, to use a West Country phrase, we are a bale short of a stack on catching up with these issues in practical terms. That is the conundrum. Also, landlords might not be particularly interested in enforcing such a provision. It might be possible to deal with these issues through a body other than the local authority, but I do not know. However, there is a problem here which is creating situations that are hazardous and prejudicial to some of the people who are occupying these properties. I certainly therefore support the gist of what the noble Baroness has said.
Is there not great irony in the fact that, to get around this problem, we need more bedrooms? In London, the flats with the most bedrooms—the three-bedroom flats—are the very high-value flats that are going to be sold off under this Bill. It shows what a mockery this Bill makes of housing problems.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for her amendments, which seek to address overcrowding and unlawful subletting in flats in residential blocks. For reasons that I shall come to shortly, however, I do not think that they are necessary, since both local authorities and managers of residential blocks have sufficient powers to tackle overcrowding and associated problems. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friend Lord Swinfen, alluded to this. I will explain further.
I will respond first to Amendment 84A. Part X of the Housing Act 1985 already deals with statutory overcrowding, which it defines by reference to a room standard and a space standard. If either of these is contravened, an occupier or landlord may be guilty of an offence. Statutory overcrowding results if two or more people of the opposite sex aged over 10—I have a figure of 10, not 12—and not being part of a couple have to share a room. This is defined as the room standard. Statutory overcrowding also results if the permitted number of persons who can sleep in a dwelling is exceeded. This is the space standard, which is calculated by reference to the number of rooms available as sleeping accommodation and their floor-spaces.
Local housing authorities can use their existing powers to gain entry to a dwelling in order to measure rooms to work out the permitted number. They also have powers to require information about the number of people sleeping in a dwelling and to inspect, report and prepare proposals on overcrowding generally in all or part of a district.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, where a local authority considers that a property is overcrowded to the extent that it is hazardous to the health and safety of the occupiers, it may—and must, in the case of a category 1 hazard—serve a prohibition order under Part 1 of the Housing Act 2004 on the dwelling. This prohibits the use of all or part of a dwelling for residential purposes, limiting the number of persons who can occupy it. Whether the overcrowding is actionable will be determined by applying the housing health and safety rating system, which provides a numerical score of the severity of the potential hazard. Those scoring highest are category 1 hazards, and the authority is required to take action. Hazards with lower scores are category 2 hazards and the authority may take action. In any case, if the local authority serves a prohibition order limiting the number of persons who can occupy a dwelling, it is a criminal offence to contravene the order by permitting more persons than specified in the order to occupy it. A local authority can recover from the landlord its expenses in preparing and serving a prohibition notice.
On the interesting point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, about how one would find out about such overcrowding, it is subject to intelligence from local residents and the immediate area. It is fair to say that it works; no doubt on occasions it is hit and miss, but that is where we stand at the moment.
In deciding whether a dwelling is overcrowded, a local authority must apply an objective test and not its own perceptions or those of others. My noble friend’s amendment would enable local authorities to set standards in individual cases in addition to the national standards and existing hazard rating systems. This would cause confusion and uncertainty.
While I appreciate that flats that appear to be overcrowded can cause problems for other residents of the block, local authorities and managers of the blocks have powers to address them. For example, a local authority can serve a noise abatement notice if noise is coming from a flat, and the landlord or manager of the block can take action against the long leaseholder for such a nuisance if there is a condition or covenant relating to it in the lease. I am pleased to report that Kensington and Chelsea, where, I understand, my noble friend Lady Gardner is a leaseholder, was this year awarded £91,000 from a £5.3 million fund to tackle rogue landlords. This funding will work alongside the measures in Parts 2 and 5 of this Bill to ensure that local authorities have the resources and incentives to tackle rogue landlords.
On Amendment 84B, the freeholder and the manager of a block of flats already have powers to investigate compliance with the terms of a long lease, such as whether a flat has been sublet in contravention of the terms of the lease. Many long leases, but not all, permit subletting. The lease may specify such matters as the need to seek approval to sublet, a requirement to register the subletting with the landlord, the duration and nature of the subletting, and the restrictions on the persons to whom the flat can or cannot be sublet. Many leases will require the flat to be occupied only as a family unit in single occupancy. A long leaseholder who sublets in breach of the terms would risk forfeiting the lease. Where subletting is permitted, the long leaseholder remains responsible for complying with the terms of the lease and is therefore liable if his sub-tenants breach any covenants, such as those that address noise or use of the flat. Again, the long leaseholder would risk forfeiting the lease if the terms are not being complied with. It will, therefore, always be in the interest of the long leaseholder to ensure that the subletting does not cause a nuisance to other residents in the block. I hope that my responses provide reassurance to my noble friend.
Can the Minister put it on record that, when people buy their leases and turn them into a share of the freehold, they have the opportunity at that point to redraft the lease documents? That is the point at which they could input the restrictions required to cover many of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Parkes.
I note the noble Lord’s point but point out that the lease is a matter between the leaseholder and the landlord.
I hope, however, that my responses have reassured my noble friend that landlords of residential blocks and local authorities can take action to tackle overcrowding and problems associated with flats. With these assurances, I ask my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank those who have contributed to this debate, but I do not think that anyone has any idea what goes on under the surface. In the particular block that I am speaking about, the head lease should have been made available to all leaseholders in the block. However, a loophole in the law allows someone to set up a sister company with the same directors and, after two years, to sell it to any outsider. This is what happened—the head lease was sold over our heads to an outsider. The outsider then has to decide whether or not they are going to be a good landlord. The tenants and residents tend to believe that the intention is to make the place so uninhabitable that we will all happily sell our bit of it, because it is a post-war block built in the 1950s, when building materials were scarce. It is not a glamour block, but next door three tiny houses have been demolished and a fabulous block has been built. It is nothing to do with the man who owns ours, but it is a private enterprise venture, and the cheapest apartment was £6 million. So the site must be hugely valuable. To the people living in the place it is no more valuable than when we bought it for, by comparison, pretty well nothing, but it changed our thinking completely: it is why we have gone for the right to manage, so that we can upgrade the conditions and protect the block.
I do not know whether that answers the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made. Would he like to respond on that?
The holder of the freehold to whom those leases are transferred must comply with the original leasehold agreement between the original freeholder and the leaseholders. You cannot simply arbitrarily change the lease. There must be, in the original lease provided by the freeholder when the block was originally purchased, provision to do the things that the noble Baroness is now objecting to. Maybe no one has read the original lease.
I thank the noble Lord for that remark. I do not want to prolong the debate on this but I am certainly pinning my faith on the right to manage. If we can get a more realistic percentage of how many people are required to do things under that right, then I have hopes on that point, too—and I have an amendment tabled later on it. Meanwhile, I note what has been said but the difficulty with local authorities is that they do not have the money to do any enforcement. That is their one complaint to me. Kensington and Chelsea was mentioned. Westminster had a team of six and sacrificed other things to have its properties checked, but Kensington and Chelsea does it only if there is real pressure and the situation becomes impossible, because it is short of funds for enforcement and very limited in what it can do.
On that very point, the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, said that councils can recover their expenses. It would be quite useful to know what he meant by expenses. Are we talking about reasonable costs or full costs? If necessary he can obviously write to me on what he meant by expenses, but the point the noble Baroness makes is absolutely right: councils do not have the resources to undertake this work.
Amendment 84A withdrawn.
Amendment 84B not moved.
Clauses 119 to 122 agreed.
84BA: After Clause 122, insert the following new Clause—
(1) A tenant may make an application for an order that all or any of the costs incurred, or to be incurred, by the landlord in connection with proceedings before a court, residential property tribunal, leasehold valuation tribunal, or First-tier Tribunal or Upper Tribunal, or in connection with arbitration proceedings, are not to be regarded as costs to be taken into account in calculating the amount of any administration charge, within the meaning of paragraph 1(1)(d) of Schedule 11 to the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, payable by the tenant.(2) The application shall be made—(a) in the case of court proceedings, to the court before which the proceedings are taking place, or, if the application is made after the proceedings are concluded, to a county court;(b) in the case of proceedings before a residential property tribunal, to a leasehold valuation tribunal;(c) in the case of proceedings before a leasehold valuation tribunal, to a tribunal before which the proceedings are taking place, or, if the application is made after the proceedings are concluded, to any leasehold valuation tribunal;(d) in the case of proceedings before the First-tier Tribunal, to the tribunal;(e) in the case of proceedings before the Upper Tribunal, to the tribunal;(f) in the case of arbitration proceedings, to the arbitral tribunal, or, if the application is made after the proceedings are concluded, to a county court.(3) The court or tribunal to which the application is made may make such order on the application as it considers just and equitable in the circumstances.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 84BA, which is in my name, and to Amendment 84G. These are, I hope, noncontroversial amendments which would level the playing field—which is currently tilted in favour of freeholders—for leaseholders.
Amendment 84BA addresses an irregularity concerning the consideration of recovery of a landlord’s costs from leaseholders as administrative charges. At the moment, a landlord can recover their costs for appearing before a tribunal or court as an administration charge where a covenant exists in the lease, without the leaseholder being able to ask the tribunal or court to consider the reasonableness of the costs, which they are able to do when the costs are recovered via the service charge. This is potentially unfair and can discourage leaseholders from exercising their rights to seek a determination that service charges or other payments are payable and reasonable, where they are aware that the landlord can recover his costs in this way through this loophole. The proposed amendment would enable the court or tribunal to consider on application whether it is reasonable for a landlord to recover all or part of the costs of appearing before it as an administration charge, where the lease allows this. At the moment, that cannot be done.
This amendment would therefore be similar to the existing legislation which enables tribunals and courts, on application by a tenant or leaseholder, to limit a landlord’s costs of appearing before a court or tribunal where they seek to recover them through service charges. This is not to say that a landlord should not be able to recover his costs, but rather that a tribunal or court should be able to consider whether it is reasonable so to do.
Amendment 84G would give leaseholders the right to obtain from their landlord contact information for other leaseholders in a shared block, for the purposes of obtaining statutory recognition of a tenants’ association. This may be relevant to some of the issues raised by my noble friend Lady Gardner. To put this in context, the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 allows a tenants’ association made up of qualifying tenants to seek statutory recognition. Such recognition provides the association with additional rights to those enjoyed by individual leaseholders. Because this is a collective right, the relevant guidance suggests that a specific proportion of qualifying tenants should support the application before recognition of the tenants’ association can be sought, which means that leaseholders have to contact other leaseholders to get the necessary proportion.
However, it is apparent that leaseholders are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the numbers needed to seek recognition, particularly where they require contact information about absent leaseholders. This will not surprise my noble friends, given the well-documented increase in absent leaseholders and the growth of subletting. Putting a note through a letterbox, for example, is not a satisfactory way of achieving contact because there are no guarantees that the subtenant will pass the note on to the landlord. There is also no obligation on the landlord to pass on information. This means that a number of qualifying tenants are not given the opportunity to take part in the formation of an association, which is frustrating and potentially weakens the ability of leaseholders to exercise their statutory right.
This amendment to legislation which I fear I put on the statute book myself some 30 years ago—I clearly omitted to make it absolutely perfect—would address the problems outlined by requiring a landlord to supply relevant information with individual leaseholders’ consent within a given timeframe, thus helping those tenants seeking to exert their collective rights. I beg to move my first amendment.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, has raised one of the legacy issues derived from the way in which leaseholds are set up. I have a possible reservation about the impact of leaseholders exercising their right to manage, but the point he made highlights a particular mismatch here.
Landlords of landlord-managed blocks tend to have rather blurred lines when it comes to dealing with what exactly constitutes a legitimate service charge item. It is all very well if they are pursuing something that will clearly protect the service charge payers in the block—if it is a block—generally; it is quite different if the landlord is using the service charge to finance his pursuit of a particular tenant on a landlord/tenant issue, as opposed to a service charge issue. That is where the muddle starts to creep in. The way in which the service charge provision and its recoverability are set out in many old leases simply has not kept pace with the passage of time. We are stuck legally where we are because of how these things were done historically, perhaps during the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, when we did not have the same sort of concentration on ensuring that the rights of tenants, as the payers of service charges, were as adequately protected as they might be under modern drafting.
This does raise an issue, and the only thing on which I would counsel a bit of caution is long leaseholders who have exercised their right to manage. Would they get caught for part of the administrative costs of pursuing a non-paying long leaseholder in a block on a service charge item? Would they then suffer the same fate? Otherwise, it puts them in an exposed position. However, the basic premise raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young, is to me unassailable. Why should the generality of long leasehold service charge payers in a multi-unit building foot the bill for the landlord pursuing a particular tenant on a landlord/tenant issue? On that point, he is absolutely spot on.
My Lords, I would like to bring a little experience to this debate. I was involved in an enfranchisement over getting a share of a freehold from leasehold. Although it was an enfranchisement, if I remember rightly, the costs were not payable by the tenant in the enfranchisement proceeding before the tribunal. Notwithstanding that, it is interesting to know what can happen in these tribunals. In the tribunal in which my residents’ association was involved, we were paying £3,000 a day for a lawyer. I remember sitting there one day during the inquiry. There had been a gentle chat in the morning and at lunchtime the chairman of the tribunal looked up at the clock and said, “I think we’ve had an interesting day and I suggest that we adjourn until tomorrow morning”. In the event that the bill had been payable, the residents would have had to share out the £1,500 costs. In fact it was not payable, because, as I said, it was an enfranchisement. In circumstances where the liability did fall on the tenants, the bill would have fallen on the residents. Ministers have to have in mind the fact that complications such as those can arise in a tribunal, where the chairman might not be fully aware of the costs of the lawyers representing the residents.
I have a little experience of the second issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, because I also live in Westminster. We had the devil of a job tracking down the 168 members of our residents’ association, which we needed because we had 999-year leases. The reason was quite simple: in London most of the flats were owned by people from all over the world—Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia. How were we possibly going to get their addresses? When we approached the management company, which obviously had the addresses because it had to send them their service charges, for example, we were told that it was not within its rights to give us that information. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, deals specifically with that problem and I think Ministers should be sympathetic. If they cannot be sympathetic today, perhaps civil servants could give the matter a little more thought when they are advising Ministers in the future during the course of the Bill.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 84D, which has been put in this group. I have no problem with that. In my research for what I shall say, I also discovered quite a lot of involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Young, from a long time ago, which I shall come to in a few minutes.
The purpose of the amendment is to bring the tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall in line with other tenants of other landlords and their rights to buy. First, it repeals Section 33(2)(c) of the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. Secondly, it repeals Section 94(11)(c) of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, concerning Crown land. I could read out the relevant clauses, but I expect noble Lords can understand what they are all about and if they want to read them, they can.
The amendment is also part of a Private Member’s Bill that I put in for the ballot last May. It did not come very high, so I thought it would be useful to raise the subject today, because it is relevant. The purpose is to examine the exemptions and immunities from certain Acts of Parliament which do not extend to the Duchy of Cornwall. Individuals who hold leases from the Duchy do not, unlike other persons who hold leases from private estates, have the right to enfranchisement. The purpose of the amendment is to give them the same rights as if they were leaseholders in England and Wales.
The first thing to discuss is whether the Duchy is a private estate or not. There has been an awful lot of debate about this. The Government, in many Written Answers over the years, have said that it is a private estate. On 9 June 2009, Bridget Prentice MP said:
“In general terms, the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster are private estates in that they belong to the heir apparent and the monarch respectively in their private capacities”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/09; col. 528W.]
In a Written Answer to Andrew George MP, on the same date, Harriet Harman said:
“The Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate that funds the public, charitable and private activities of the Prince Of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Prince Harry”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/09; col. 528W.]
There seems to be little debate about that. In a case brought by Michael Bruton on the Helford river, which I think is still being debated in a tribunal, having been to the European Court of Justice and back, the argument was that the Duchy of Cornwall did not have to do an environmental impact assessment on an SSSI over installing cages in which to grow oysters because it was a private estate. Michael Bruton argued that it was a public estate and the case has still not been resolved. While all this is going on, a large number of tenants are not able to buy their own houses, in contrast to those who are tenants of somebody else.
I will now give some examples from the island of St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly, which I think apply elsewhere. They go back to the origins of the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act, which said that the Crown was exempt from this particular clause, but a voluntary undertaking was given to Parliament through a Written Answer by Mr Fred Willey, who was Secretary of State for Land and Resources, in 1967. My noble friend probably remembers that. The Answer does not mention the Duchy of Cornwall but refers to Crown leases. It stated that the Crown authorities will agree to enfranchisement,
“except that enfranchisement will be refused where the house is of special architectural or historic interest … or adjoins such houses and is important in safeguarding them and their surroundings”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/6/1967; col. 42W.]
In 1992, during of the passage of what became the 1993 Act, a further Written Statement was made to Parliament, by Sir George Young, as the noble Lord then was, which was materially different from the 1967 Answer. He stated that, regardless of the exemption under the Act, the Crown authorities would agree, subject to specified conditions and exceptions, to the enfranchisement under the same qualifications and terms which applied by virtue of the 1967 Act and the 1993 Act to lessees held from other landlords. The relevant exception affecting the Isles of Scilly states that,
“where the property or area in which it is situated has a long, historic, or particular association with the Crown … the areas referred to in paragraph 3(iii) include the Off Islands within the Isles … the Garrison on St Mary’s and parts of central Dartmoor”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/1992; col. 19WS.]
This indicated that the 1967 test had been materially changed. There appears to have been no consultation about this and no debate in Parliament. Perhaps other noble Lords who were in the House of Commons at the time can correct me on this. It is not even very clear whether Members of Parliament voting on the Bill were aware that there had been a material variation to the Crown undertaking. It is not clear whether it was drawn to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Young—maybe he will have views or maybe he cannot remember it. For the Crown to claim that it was entitled to refuse enfranchisement, the Crown no longer had to show that the property was of special architectural or historic merit. It now became clear that if it was in an area which had a long historic or particular association with the Crown, that was good enough.
There is an awful lot more in this story, which I will not bore the Committee with now except to say that the situation is rather confused. We can sit or stand here to debate this and say, “It doesn’t really matter because there are many other things going on to do with the Crown and the Duchy which need careful discussion”, but we have to remember that people who have bought a lease are affected by this: if the lease has come from one particular landlord, they cannot buy it, whereas if it has come from another landlord, they can. That is very unfair.
As I think I have demonstrated—there are many other documents that we can use to demonstrate it—the Duchy in this case is a private landlord, so the argument that its tenants should have an exemption from the right to buy seems to me very unfair. We know that leaseholds are a diminishing asset—that is the whole point of them—but just because somebody owns a house on the Isles of Scilly, in Cornwall or somewhere else of no particular architectural merit, why should they be exempt? The only safe way is to remove this exemption, which is why I tabled this amendment.
I thank the noble Viscount for giving way. I entirely endorse the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley. I sympathise with the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, who is temporarily not in her place, although I have some difficulties with the wording. Amendment 84E would insert a clause about sinking funds which states:
“The buyer of a leasehold … is required to make periodic deposits”.
She refers again to the buyer of a leasehold in proposed new subsection (4), but of course the leaseholder need not have purchased—
I apologise to the Committee. The group that I have includes the noble Baroness’s amendments. But if the groups were changed only this morning, perhaps I should withdraw my apology and confirm merely that I support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and my noble friend Lord Young for their amendments. I welcome the consideration of issues around the operation of leasehold, which I know are of interest to many in the House.
Amendment 84BA seeks a right for a leaseholder to obtain an order restricting a landlord’s ability to recover the costs of appearing before a court or tribunal as an administration charge. My noble friend Lord Young has raised an important issue, which others have also expressed concern about today, including the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. As the Committee will be aware, legislation already allows tribunals and courts to make this type of order where a landlord is seeking recovery of costs through a service charge. I should like to consider this further and I hope, with that assurance, that my noble friend will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I will now address changes proposed in Amendment 84D, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said. As noble Lords will know, the Crown is not bound by legislation except where that is specifically provided for. The underlying exceptions to the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 and the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993 apply to Crown land, which for the purposes of those Acts is defined as including the Crown Estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, the Duchy of Cornwall and the interests of any government department. There are no plans to change the exemptions set out in statute.
However, the Crown authorities covered by this exemption have committed, through a voluntary undertaking renegotiated in 2001, that the Crown would, as landlord and subject to specified exemptions described in the undertaking, agree to the enfranchisement or extension of residential long leases under the same qualifications and terms which apply by virtue of the 1967 Act and the 1993 Act. These specified exemptions include property that stands on land held inalienably by the Crown, and where there are security considerations. They also include where properties, or the areas in which they are situated, have a long historic or particular association with the Crown.
These exceptions are important to protect land and property associated with the Crown. Within the Duchy of Cornwall, which is the focus of this amendment, this includes the off islands within the Isles of Scilly—as the noble Lord will know, they are St Agnes, Bryher, St Martin’s and Tresco—and the Garrison on St Mary’s. The Duchy of Cornwall is not part of the Crown Estate: they are treated as separate entities, as is shown for example by their distinct listings within Section 33(2) of the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. However, only the son and heir of the monarch can hold the Duchy as the Duke of Cornwall. When there is no Duke of Cornwall—for example if the eldest son is not the next in line to the Throne—the Duchy reverts to the sovereign. The Duchy of Cornwall estate is therefore always linked to the sovereign and as such is, for the purposes of the specific provisions in the Acts in question, brought within the meaning of Crown land. It would not be appropriate to change this. With that rather prolonged explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will agree not to press his amendment.
Amendment 84G seeks to tackle the difficulties faced by leaseholders seeking statutory recognition for a tenants association and thereby to become a recognised tenants association, by requiring landlords to provide contact information for absentee leaseholders. This point was raised eloquently by my noble friend Lord Young. The Government recognise the difficulties faced by tenants associations that wish to seek recognition in ascertaining and reaching the necessary membership numbers needed for recognition. This issue has also been raised with Ministers, and my noble friend Lord Young has set out the challenges faced by leaseholders very clearly. I should also like to take this issue away to consider it in more detail ahead of Report.
Going by my own experience, if a statutory requirement was placed on the management company to forward correspondence requesting that information to the people who own the leases, particularly if they were abroad—in other words, if the responsibility was on the management company—following a request from the residents association, we would indeed get the names.
That is a possibility, and I will bring that into the considerations that we will undertake prior to Report. I thank the noble Lord for his point. I hope that my noble friend will agree to withdraw his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, will not press his later.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his answer, but in the exception mentioned—when properties are of special architectural or historic interest or adjoin such houses and it is important to safeguard them and their surroundings—the definition of whether a lease could be given up is very wide. Many of the buildings which I believe are the subject of this debate are in fact 1960s houses. They are probably very nice houses but they are not in the same category as the Garrison or the off islands or anything like that. It seems that there is no appeal in this process. The Duchy’s decision is final and that is that—you like it or lump it. Can nothing be done about it?
I would not put it in quite that way. There are no plans to make changes, but the noble Lord will know that we are talking about properties that are considered to have a long historical association with the Crown. I will investigate further and if I can furnish the noble Lord with more information, I will certainly do so in the form of a letter.
My Lords, I am grateful to everybody who took part in this debate. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, let me say that, indeed, I do not remember the background to a Written Parliamentary Question that I answered in 1992. My general impression was that the Duchy agreed voluntarily to abide by what was in the legislation. That was the background, which I think was broadly confirmed in the exchange, although there might be some minor amendments more recently. I am grateful to my noble friend for his benign response to my two amendments: the teams of Young and Younger seem to be on the same wavelength here. Against the background of the assurances that he has given, I am more than happy to beg leave to withdraw Amendment 84BA.
Amendment 84BA withdrawn.
Schedule 10 agreed.
Clauses 123 and 124 agreed.
84C: After Clause 124, insert the following new Clause—
“Client money protection for lettings agents
(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, a person may not accept money from another person (“T”) in the course of lettings agency work unless there are in force authorised arrangements under which, in the event of his or her failing to account for that money to the person entitled to it, his or her liability will be made good by another. (2) In this section “T” is any person who seeks residential accommodation which is to let, or who has a tenancy of, or other right or permission to occupy, residential premises; and a “relevant payment” means any sum of money which is received from T in the circumstances described in subsection (1).(3) In this section “lettings agency work” has the same meaning as in section 83 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (redress schemes: lettings agency work) and a “lettings agent” is a person who engages in lettings agency work.(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument—(a) specify any persons or classes of persons to whom subsection (1) does not apply;(b) specify arrangements which are authorised for the purposes of this section including arrangements to which an enforcement authority nominated for the purpose by the Secretary of State or any other person so nominated is a party;(c) specify the terms and conditions upon which any payment is to be made under such arrangements and any circumstances in which the right to any such payment may be excluded or modified;(d) provide that any limit on the amount of any such payment is to be not less than a specified amount; and(e) require a person providing authorised arrangements covering any person carrying on lettings agency work to issue a certificate in a form specified in the regulations certifying that arrangements complying with the regulations have been made with respect to that person.(5) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.(6) Every guarantee entered into by a person who provides authorised arrangements covering a lettings agent shall tenure for the benefit of every person from whom the lettings agent has received a relevant payment as if the guarantee were contained in a contract made by the insurer with every such person.”
My Lords, Amendment 84C is about client money protection. It would require every letting agent to have the money that they hold—belonging either to a tenant by way of advance rent or to a landlord as rent received or funds for repair or insurance—to be protected. In this way, even if a letting agent disappeared or went bankrupt, such money would be safe and available to the landlord. This client money protection is required of solicitors, other professionals, estate agents and, indeed, anyone else holding client money that belongs to others. It is what is needed for rents collected by letting agents on behalf of landlords. It is not the agent’s money and it should be held separately in a protected client account.
This is a big issue: there are hundreds of cases of letting agents taking money from tenants as holding fees, deposits, rent, service charges or even tax, but then pocketing the money. Sometimes, the long arm of the law catches up with them. Tim Glasson was jailed for 21 years for unlawfully and dishonestly keeping rent and deposits; Roy Jackson of Suffolk Letting stole £70,000 from landlords and Keiran Farrer stole £17,000 in rents and deposits, repaying neither the tenant nor the landlord. Similarly, Shirley Player was jailed for stealing £400,000 and Russell Baker was accused of taking £150,000 in deposits but not handing them on to either a tenant deposit scheme or the landlord.
This money is not going into the housing market. It deprives landlords of their income and tenants of their security. About 60% of landlords use letting agents to help to manage their property. Thus money for repairs and insurance, in addition to rents, is channelled through the agent’s bank account. This is not money for the agent’s services; it is due to be handed on to someone else.
The amendment would require the funds to be in a ring-fenced protected client account, in the same way as happens with solicitors. It is strongly supported by landlords as much as by tenants. It is backed by the National Landlords Association, RICS, the British Property Federation, the Association of Residential Managing Agents, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the Property Ombudsman, Ombudsman Services, Crisis and Shelter. It was recommended by the CLG Select Committee in the other place.
Reputable letting agents strongly support the amendment. As David Cox, who leads their professional association ARLA, said, client money protection is,
“fundamental for tenants and landlords to ensure they have peace of mind should an agent go bust or take off with their funds”.
A director of a large firm, Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward, which protects landlords’ and tenants’ money under a client money protection scheme, said that,
“all too often, rogue agents who do not subscribe”,
to such a scheme,
“misappropriate landlord and tenant funds … It should be compulsory for all agents to subscribe to a client money protection scheme”.
Savills—well-known to everyone in this House—urges the Government,
“to make it compulsory for all letting agents to have client money protection”.
We are talking about vast amounts of money handled, but not owned, by letting agents: probably £2.7 billion at any one time, perhaps £700 million of which is unprotected. In deposits alone, renters typically hand over £600 each, with no guarantee of its safety.
Amendment 84C, which would require all letting and managing agents to have client money protection, is based on similar provisions in the Estate Agents Act 1979. Agents would have to maintain a segregated bank account for clients’ money, with written confirmation from the bank that all the money in that account belonged to the clients. It would mean, importantly, that the bank was not entitled to combine that client account with another account or to offset the money in that client account for any sum owed to the bank by the letting agent.
We tabled a similar amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill and it seemed that the Government were almost persuaded. They came up with a compromise amendment of their own, which required letting agents to display whether they had client money protection. However, it has not worked and it was never going to work. As far as tenants go, they cannot choose which letting agent to use; it is the landlord who chooses. For a tenant, if a particular letting agent is handling the property that they already rent, or which they want to rent, they cannot shop around to find another agent. Their only choice is not to rent that property. They have no consumer power to change behaviour in the market. It hardly works for the landlord either. Many are small and non-professional and do not really appreciate the importance of client money protection until, of course, it is too late.
The Government’s transparency amendment, which became part of the Consumer Rights Act 2015, is fairly useless because, even before that change, every letting agent who had client money protection already proudly boasted about it, but that did not drive the rogues to follow suit. As we predicted, the amendment made little difference. It did not help tenants, who could not shop around, and it did not help landlords, who could only check at the beginning, and not later, whether there was client money protection in place. The other problem is that even the law that was put through is being flouted. We have numerous examples of letting agents failing to display their charges and whether they have client money protection.
When we dealt with this before, the Minister for BIS, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, claimed that client money protection could,
“make it difficult to encourage landlords to invest in properties”.—[Official Report, 3/11/14; col. GC 600.]
How wrong could she be? It is exactly the security given to landlords by client money protection that will encourage them to invest, knowing that the rents paid over to the letting agent are safe and sound. This amendment is wanted by tenants and is particularly wanted by landlords; it is also strongly supported by reliable letting agents. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment, to which my name is attached. I declare my interest as chairman of the advisory board of the Property Redress Scheme, which has been mentioned in passing.
It seems very little to ask, in legislating for housing, to require letting agents to have a protection scheme in place for moneys received by them in their course of business from tenants, prospective tenants and anyone who is renting or seeking a place to rent. It has been estimated—I always wonder how these estimates are arrived at—that letting agents hold about £2.7 billion in client funds, yet if the agent has not elected voluntarily to obtain cover, landlord and tenant can lose their money. If disaster strikes in the form of an agent going bust or running off with the loot, under this amendment the landlord and tenant would be covered. The amendment does not require government underwriting, so the Chancellor does not need to amend the Budget. The cover could be provided by the users; this would supplement any award under any one of the redress schemes. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has said, we are not asking for reinvention of the wheel. Section 16 of the Estate Agents Act 1979 already provides protection in the course of sale and purchase transactions.
Client money protection is of course operated by the travel industry. Travel agents in the UK are required by law to be a member of an independent client money protection scheme that uses ABTA or ATOL. Many of us may have had to use these in the past—I certainly have. When you pay for your travel, your payment to the agent is protected by ABTA or ATOL against the agent going bust or going walkabout with your holiday money. You claim against ABTA or ATOL rather than against the travel agent. This amendment asks that what is the norm for the travel industry, just for going on holiday, is also used for letting agents—for most people, the property that they own or seek to let is much more important—and that there should be compulsory protection for rents, deposits or moneys held, even moneys for repairs.
The current problem is that while there are voluntary schemes, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, mentioned, the good guys subscribe to, the bad guys do not subscribe to them, which is why we need the system to be compulsory. The careful tenant or landlord, if they have the opportunity to choose, can have their money protected, because independent schemes are in use. It is particularly important that the independent holder of client protection money should be involved rather than the money simply staying in clients’ accounts.
What is different? The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, gave the example of solicitors, so I will concentrate on that. As a chartered accountant in my early career, I audited firms of solicitors and I had to give them something called the accounts rules certificate. It was incredibly traumatic when I found that a client, who was a friend of mine, had, sadly, not separated the money properly into a client account and I had to qualify my accounts rules certificate. I use this as an example because in the letting industry letting agents do not have a law that requires them to have a client account. If, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, says, they should have a client account, nobody forces those letting agents to operate in that way, as the Law Society does for solicitors.
There is an urgent need for us to convert into law what is voluntary at the moment and is done by many people who belong to professional bodies to protect people who are most at risk, often small landlords and letting agents. A noble Lord described a property owned by one of his children, I think, and said that they should not choose the room next to the kitchen. Very often people do not have the ability to decide whether to choose the property—often they feel that they are only too lucky to find someone who will let to them and they do not realise that the rents, deposits and money for repairs are at risk. That is why we urgently need this amendment.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lord Palmer. I hope that noble Lords will not read anything into my very brief appearance here on the Front Bench.
We have heard a little about some of the figures. Back in 2012, Reading University carried out a survey that showed that some £23 billion a year was paid in rent and that in a year some £6 billion to £10 billion was held by agents after being collected by them on behalf of landlords. However, as my noble friend Lord Palmer points out, a more recent survey shows that, at any one time, some £2.7 billion is held by letting agents. The amendment is about the protection of that money.
It is worth reflecting on what eminent people have said about this issue. In July 2013, the Property Ombudsman felt moved to say something about client money protection under the heading:
“Client Money Protection Is a Necessity for the UK Lettings Market”.
“'We need an even playing field for lettings. All agents are required to hold client money in a separate Clients Account but there is no current requirement to have those funds insured against unlawful use or fraud, which is why”,
client money protection,
“is crucial for landlords and tenants”.
He went on to say that client money protection,
“is not a duplication of any deposit scheme or professional indemnity cover. It goes beyond that and provides landlords with the peace of mind they need to know that the rent collected by an agent is protected”.
As we know, many good agents and trade bodies, such as the Association of Residential Letting Agents and the UK Association of Letting Agents, recognise the importance of this and provide necessary protection for their members. Sadly, however, some do not.
Back in 2013, the Property Ombudsman surveyed some 8,000 lettings branches and discovered that, while 80% had client money protection, 20% did not. The ombudsman concluded:
“My personal viewpoint would be to question why a letting agent would not support CMP. In the absence of any regulation … agents themselves need to take proactive steps to show landlords and tenants that they have taken out the necessary cover to protect rental income”.
However, it is very difficult indeed for the vast majority of agents—those who provide client money protection—to persuade the others to do so. It is also difficult for them to run the necessary publicity campaign to warn landlords or would-be landlords and the public of the need to choose an agent who provides that protection.
Of course, agents are helped to some extent by the new transparency rules, which are being enforced by local authorities; I have no doubt that the Minister will refer to that in his response. These require the publication of the breakdown of the fees that agents charge to tenants and landlords, the redress scheme that they belong to and a statement of whether they are a member of a client money protection scheme. I recognise that there are many such schemes—again, no doubt, the Minister will refer to schemes such as SAFEagent and CM Protect. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, points out, there is no evidence to suggest—and the vast majority of agents agree with her—that those schemes alone will provide the level of protection that is needed.
Earlier in our deliberations on this legislation, during our discussion of zero-carbon homes, the Government said that by opposing the introduction of tighter energy efficiency standards they were protecting housebuilding businesses; they said that they were stopping the overregulation of housebuilders. I was able to point out at the time that the housebuilders themselves supported the introduction of the regulation. We have a similar case here. It is instructive to learn what Mr Brandon Lewis said in response to such an amendment when this matter was discussed in another place. He said:
“We want to ensure that we have a strong and thriving private rented sector that is not tied up in excessive regulation. Requiring agents to pay to belong to a client money protection scheme would force honest agents to buy insurance against the risk that they themselves were fraudulent, when, as the hon. Lady said, the vast majority of agencies are not. Introducing a mandatory client money protection scheme at this point would be a step too far and would overburden a market that is perfectly capable of self-regulation”.
That is slightly odd, coming from a Minister who is imposing a large number of regulations in the Bill. However, it is much more bizarre that in this case, just as with zero-carbon homes, the industry itself is pressing the Government to introduce regulation.
It was the Association of Residential Letting Agents that drafted the amendment before us today to protect money received from clients and held by agents, such as rent due to landlords. The Government claim that the only reason for rejecting the amendment is that it would overburden the industry, but given that the industry wants it imposed on itself, I hope that the Government will drop their opposition. I hope that when the Minster responds he will reflect on the other thing that Mr Brandon Lewis said during his response to a similar amendment in another place. He went on to say, rather indicating that even he is a bit worried about the situation:
“However, in May 2016 we will review the impact of the transparency measures that were put in place only recently. At that stage, I will take due consideration of whether any further action is needed”.—[Official Report, Commons, Housing and Planning Bill Committee, 10/12/15; col. 719.]
We see yet again another example of the Government being prepared to consider something after we have finished our deliberations on this legislation. I urge the Minister to reflect on the fact that the agents themselves want to see an amendment such as this in place. I hope that the Minister will support, if not the precise wording of the amendment, something along these lines.
My Lords, it gives me considerable pleasure to be responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who will probably remember only too well that not so long ago we debated a number of Bills with some vigour. This amendment would introduce provisions under which cover for money received or held by lettings agents in the course of business, generally known as client money protection, would be mandatory. I hope that at the end of my remarks I can offer a little light at the end of the respective tunnels for particular Lords, if I may put it that way.
I am aware of some support within the housing sector for this measure. That has been reflected in interventions from the noble Lords, Lord Palmer and Lord Foster. But I am concerned that requiring lettings agents to belong to a client money protection scheme will introduce burdens and costs into the sector that could have implications for rent levels. Instead, this Government’s approach is to encourage lettings agents to adopt client money protection without the need for regulations. I shall explain.
We have already legislated through the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to require lettings agents to be transparent about whether they offer client money protection. Transparency raises consumer awareness and encourages landlords and tenants to shop around and choose an agent based on the level of service that it provides. I recognise the importance of client money protection. This is why in our guide on how to rent we champion the SAFEagent scheme—a kitemark scheme, in effect. This helps landlords and tenants easily to identify agents that offer this protection by the display of the SAFEagent mark. I accept that participation is voluntary but estimate that at least two-thirds of agents already offer client money protection. At the moment, to introduce mandatory client money protection would be a step too far and overburden a market that is perfectly capable of self-regulation. The balance of regulation for lettings agents is now about right. We need to allow time for the transparency measures to which the noble Lord, Lord Foster, alluded to bed in.
We shall review the impact of the transparency measures later this year. I reassure all noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Foster, that this review will be taken seriously and that we intend to work closely with our industry partners and representative groups to develop this review. I hope that this explanation reassures noble Lords and that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
What is the Government’s logic? The Minster has said how good money protection schemes are, how everyone feels reassured by them and how many people—landlords and others, lettings agents in particular—subscribe to them. So, as the Minister said, they are good. If it is good to be voluntary, why is it not even better to be compulsory? The compulsory element sweeps up the bad landlords. The Minister is talking about the good landlords who use lettings agents. The idea of compulsion would be to deal with those who are not at the moment helping protect tenants and landlords. The logic in not making a successful voluntary scheme compulsory is lacking.
I appreciate that the noble Lord feels strongly about this, but as explained earlier, at the moment we feel that we have got the balance right. I have explained that the review will aid us further by providing greater intelligence. Further regulation could deter lettings agents and make it difficult to encourage landlords to invest in properties. This is what this Bill is about—freeing up the market to ensure that the supply of housing for rent helps to meet the country’s urgent housing needs and demand.
The Minister is suggesting that the introduction of measures proposed in this amendment would increase costs on letting agents. That is true. I have looked at the costs of such insurance schemes as are currently available. We know that the Minister says three-quarters of lettings agents have already entered such schemes. I believe that it is almost 80%. Will the Minister share with the House, either from figures in his brief or by writing subsequently, the Government’s estimate of the cost of the introduction of the scheme, not to the 80% that have taken it up but to 100%, and of its impact on rent levels?
Yes, indeed. I shall make two points arising from the noble Lord’s question. We believe that the balance is right also because we want to encourage a market whereby customers or people who wish to rent have the opportunity to shop around and to go to those agents where there is a kitemark scheme and reassurance in terms of their level of service. We believe that the market will weed out those without that. To answer the question on the money involved, agents typically pay an annual levy of around £300 to join a scheme. The noble Lord probably has these figures himself. This forms part of a central pot of money that can be used to pay successful claims by landlords and tenants.
My Lords, I thank the Government Front Bench for allowing us to take this amendment at this stage and apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and my noble friend Lord Rosser. The reason is that between 2 pm and 3 pm this afternoon I am completing my house purchase and I will have the keys at 3 pm. That is utterly relevant to this debate because the money was certainly in my solicitor’s account at 2 pm. I am hoping that by 3 pm it will be in the account of the seller and I am completely confident that that money in the solicitor’s account is safe.
It will not go through estate agents—estate agents hold very little in client accounts. You pay almost nothing to the estate agent. The seller will have to give them a percentage of the sale, but it is very small. But the amount that tenants pay to lettings agents is enormous. So under an earlier Act, client money protection is essential for estate agents, who hardly handle any client money, but not obligatory for lettings agents who handle an enormous amount. The noble Viscount, Lord Younger, again says that tenants can shop around. They cannot. In London, you are lucky to find anywhere to live. The idea that as a tenant you would shop around for your lettings agent, let alone the property, is, I am afraid, unrealistic.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, for his intervention. I have to confess that when I went on holiday I had not realised that my money was protected, but there it is. We make it essential for holiday firms and estate agents, but somehow for lettings agents this £300 to safeguard tenants’ and landlords’ money is a step too far.
I hope that the Minister was not saying that he wants even more lettings agents coming in—lettings agents who would not protect their clients’ money. I think that that is what he is saying. He is saying that he wants more people to come in as lettings agents, but without requiring them to protect their clients’ money. That sounds to me like a charter for more rogue “set up today, take the clients’ money tomorrow” lettings agents.
Despite the Minister’s firm response, I hope that the Government will think about this again. We will clearly bring it back on Report. I am not threatening anything but I think he knows how much support it will have. Instead of having to go down that route, I ask the Minister whether he will be willing to meet me, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and perhaps some other noble Lords to talk about this, as I do not feel that the Government are taking the right position here. For the record, I saw a very healthy nod from the Minister there. So I thank him for that and apologise to the Committee for having to get my new key at 3 pm. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 84C withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 2.51 pm.