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Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [HL]

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022

Commons Amendments

Motion on Amendments 1 to 5

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—

“(but see subsection (5)).”

2: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(5) Where there is a deemed surrender and regrant by virtue of the variation of a lease which is—

(a ) a regulated lease, or

(b) a lease granted before the relevant commencement day, subsection (1) applies as if paragraph (b) were omitted.”

3: Clause 6, page 4, line 30, after first “of” insert “premises which consist of, or include,”

4: Clause 6, page 4, line 39, after “period” insert “(if any)”

5: Clause 6, page 5, line 7, after first “of” insert “premises which consist of, or include,”

My Lords, before I turn to the Commons amendments, I will take a moment to remind us all of what the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill will do. The Bill will put an end to ground rents for most new residential leasehold properties as part of the most significant changes to property law in a generation. The Bill’s provisions will lead to fairer, more transparent homeownership for thousands of future leaseholders.

Throughout the Bill’s passage, there have been helpful discussions with Members of both Houses and with key stakeholders in the industry and from consumer groups. This has been crucial and has led to a number of refinements being made to this Bill during its stages in the other place. At our last opportunity to debate this Bill, in September 2021, changes were suggested by noble Lords to help improve it. I undertook to ensure that these would be made; and as promised, this was done. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the Bill returns to this Chamber in an even stronger position than when it left. We meet today to consider these amendments as made in the other place, and I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in its Amendments 1 to 9.

Commons Amendments 1 and 2 relate to the process known as a “deemed surrender and regrant.” Taken together, these amendments mean that a lease can have a peppercorn rent after it has been regranted, even where no new premium is paid. Especially for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, I can confirm the provisions in the amended Clause 6, Amendments 1 to 5, are amended also to apply in the case of a deemed surrender and regrant by operation of law where there is an extension of the term of a pre-commencement lease or the addition of further property. Commons Amendments 3, 4 and 5 are also connected to the “deemed surrender and regrant” process. But more specifically, they clarify the matter raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton with regard to a lease variation.

As noble Lords may remember, it was pointed out very diligently that the legislation as drafted was perhaps not as clear as it could be in relation to permitted rent within leases where they replace a pre-commencement lease. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton raised his concern that it was unclear whether the Bill as then drafted would require that any existing ground rent in such leases would be reduced to a peppercorn. I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing this to my attention. I can confirm that the amendments made in the other place make it clear that, where the property demised is changed, the resulting surrender and regrant will not reduce the ground rent on the remaining term of a pre-commencement lease to a peppercorn. Any extension to the term of the pre-commencement lease will be required to be a peppercorn. Crucially, this amendment ensures that freeholders need not withhold consent for a lease variation unnecessarily. I hope noble Lords will agree this is a positive development.

I turn to Commons Amendment 6. Noble Lords will remember that on Report an amendment was passed that inserted a new clause into the Bill, the “duty to inform”. It placed a statutory duty on landlords to inform an existing leaseholder of the changes introduced by the Act ahead of commencement and linked this duty to the Bill’s enforcement penalty regime, should a landlord fail to comply. Of course, we recognise the importance of leaseholders being aware of their rights and that they are therefore not rushed into lease extensions before this Bill takes effect. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, who is not in her place, and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for raising the important matter of consumer awareness, which the Government take seriously.

I support the principles behind the original Lords amendment. It is vital that there is transparency in the leasehold system. However, the Government continue to have doubts as to whether placing a duty to inform in the Bill would be the most effective and expedient means of meeting the objective that noble Lords set out to achieve. We remain of the view that this can be accomplished without the need for further primary legislation. The reasons for leaving out the duty to inform include legal and practical considerations that I hope noble Lords will allow me to explain a little.

As drafted, the duty to inform, although well intentioned, is unworkable. The original amendment placed a duty on all landlords, even if they were not residential, and did not specify how each landlord may satisfy their legal duties contained within the clause. Including the clause would require the penalty enforcement process for the duty to inform to align with the rest of the Bill; for instance, the duty to inform clause provided no mechanism for landlords to appeal and did not offer a concrete explanation of the means for enforcement, such as notices and requests for written representations. To make this clause workable would take up further parliamentary time and cause delay to the implementation of the new peppercorn rents that we all want to see. Furthermore, in terms of practicality, the clause related only to the short period between Royal Assent and the peppercorn limit coming into effect. It would therefore place a quite significant burden on enforcement authorities if it was included in the Bill.

Again, I thank both the Labour Front Bench and the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for their recent engagement on this matter. As I have said before, they can rest assured that I agree with them on the principle behind the amendment. We all understand how important it is to ensure that these changes to leasehold law are publicised for the good of leaseholders. However, I appreciate that noble Lords may want a little more. We have looked very closely at how to achieve the objectives that informed the original new clause, so I wanted to share some of the detail on measures that we will take ahead of commencement to close the gap.

We are developing a suite of communications activities, from social media to encouraging the broader press to cover these changes. We will work closely with our partners such as LEASE, the body that provides free and independent advice to leaseholders, as well as National Trading Standards and, of course, our industry partners, to do what we can to raise awareness of the coming changes. We will also contact our friends in the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. Everyone who can help to communicate should be brought on board. We are also preparing updates to existing government guidance for consumers and will publish new detailed guidance for enforcement officers in England. We expect Wales to produce separate guidance, which should mirror any guidance that we publish for England, and we will work closely with Welsh colleagues to ensure that we get this right.

After Royal Assent, we will write to solicitors, legal executives, licensed conveyancers and relevant professional bodies, detailing the new peppercorn restrictions. We should also contact those who represent property agents and managing agents—ARMA—as I mentioned in our discussions. Nigel Glen has a tremendous database, as does the Institute of Residential Property Management, where Andrew Bulmer can also help communicate the message.

I hope that this is reassuring to noble Lords who have raised concerns about the importance of accurate, independent legal advice to leaseholders. More generally, as part of the enforcement of the Bill, National Trading Standards will assist with advising local enforcement authorities. The department will fund National Trading Standards’ implementation costs from our budgets. We are in discussions with the Local Government Association on this. As I have stated previously, I am open to working with anyone across the House on any further activities that they believe we should pursue.

I hope noble Lords are sufficiently reassured that the Government are serious about raising awareness of the Bill among consumers ahead of it coming into force and can agree that the suite of actions we are taking represent the best course of action. On this basis, I ask that your Lordships agree to Commons Amendment 6.

Commons Amendment 7 is a further clarification, in response to concerns raised by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, about the impact that the newly created definition of a premium would have on properties with a repairing covenant. I thank the noble Earl for raising this on Report. As noble Lords will be aware, we previously amended the Bill to make it clear that it applied only to leases where a premium was paid. This was to ensure that the legitimate practice of longer leases on a rack or market rent could continue.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, questioned whether that initial amendment might still risk properties let on a full repairing lease at a rack rent being subject to the peppercorn rent requirement. The risk could arise where repairing covenants might fall within the definition of a consideration for a “money’s worth” of repairs. This is not, and never has been, the intention of the legislation. We therefore removed the words “money or money’s worth” from the definition of premium and substituted them with “pecuniary consideration”. This phrase is preferable as it is broadly any consideration expressed in terms of money and will not capture the actual worth of repairs for such covenants.

Amendment 8 is a standard amendment that removes the privilege amendment inserted in the Lords. The Government made one further amendment to insert “Welsh Ministers” into paragraph 12 of the schedule. This has enabled any proceeds of a financial penalty that have not gone towards legal or administrative costs to be paid to Welsh Ministers in respect of enforcement for leases of premises in Wales.

In conclusion, I hope that noble Lords will accept all the amendments made in the other place, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to speak on the amendment in my name, which refers to Amendment 6, to which the Minister has just spoken. I hope I am fully in order to do that.

If I could interrupt the noble Lord, the Question to the House was that we agree Amendments 1 to 5 en bloc. We will then come to Amendment 6.

Motion agreed.

Motion on Amendment 6

Moved by

6: Clause 8, leave out Clause 8

Amendment to the Motion on Amendment 6

Moved by

My Lords, I rise to speak on Amendment 6. I should start by saying that I am the joint owner of a leasehold property, but we got our lease extension some seven or eight years ago—outside the scope of the Bill. Also, both now and earlier the Minister has been very generous with his time in discussing the progress of the Bill. I very much thank him for that and for the great courtesy and good humour he has always shown in doing so.

Clause 8 is a duty to inform the tenant. I was very disappointed to find that the Commons, led by the Government, thought that that was an appropriate safeguard to take out of the Bill. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said by way of a substitution and I will cover that in my further remarks.

First, the Minister has accepted the evidence that the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, among others, brought forward in Committee: that there really is a loophole and it needs to be tackled. The loophole is one that may be exploited by unscrupulous landlords—a minority of landlords, certainly, but ones who are well practised in being unscrupulous. It is a real-world issue. Of course, they are often aided and abetted by their in-house or tame lawyers who are helpfully acting for both parties and do not necessarily spend too long explaining what the hapless leaseholder is being invited to sign.

We hope very much that the Bill will outlaw that practice, but it will not do so immediately. The purpose of the original amendment that your Lordships sent back to the other place was to effectively freeze the imposition of any such unfair terms meanwhile. The Minister has understandably exaggerated the difficulties of Clause 8, but it actually requires that, when a tenant and landlord are about to commence negotiations, the landlord has a duty to inform the tenant of the existence of this Act and the fact that, in a short period of time, they would essentially be able to carry out their transaction for free, whereas in the intermediate period they would do so under the existing regulations, where it is commonplace for escalation clauses and so on to be built into a lease, which would then be an enduring one. There is clearly a temptation for the unscrupulous to do that. You can see the marketing pitch: “New lamps for old”—or rather “New leases for old”—an offer of a VIP lane to leasehold extension, with legal fees waived if you do it by 31 July. Unwary leaseholders could well fall for that, perhaps prompted to go for it by the knowledge that they have only, say, 20 more years on their lease, and perhaps overlooking the fact that it would essentially be free if they waited until 31 July.

I have chosen that date purely for illustration, because the fact is that the Minister has not told us when the new provisions will become operational; I hope he will be able to enlighten us on that point shortly. The window of opportunity for this unscrupulous behaviour to carry on is between now and the moment when this provision comes into force. I want to hear exactly what the Government intend to do to shut that window at the earliest possible opportunity.

What is being offered instead? Superficially, it certainly sounds very plausible, and I hope that it will turn out to be as robust as the Minister hopes it will be. I hope that it will reach every leaseholder, because what is being substituted is an intention in Clause 8 that is a transactional one that would come into play only if a particular lease was going to be extended or was thought likely to be extended, for a general one—so we have a popgun firing at every leaseholder rather than simply providing a provision for landlords to act on at a time of leasehold extension.

I am very pleased to hear about what the Minister had to say about getting in touch with legal firms and those who represent leaseholders and others. I find that a very satisfactory part of his reply.

I would say that a couple of press releases in the ordinary course of business are unlikely to be very effective. The Minister might perhaps like to emphasise how this communications plan will take place. Is there a budget for it? Is it a real-life thing or just a piece of ministerial gloss? I know that the Minister does not go in for ministerial gloss, but I would like an assurance that we will see a real effort made to make sure that this is closed.

When exactly will it be closed? Clause 26(2) says that this will come into force

“on such day as the Secretary of State”

determines. Is that soon, shortly, in the summer, this year, next year, sometime or never? The longer the window stays open—the longer the gap between now and when the Bill’s provisions come into force—the more the risk and the more difficulty there is.

So I would like to hear an assurance from the Minister. Can he give us a date on which this provision will come into force so that we can hold him accountable? Perhaps he could also comment on whether we will get the second leasehold Bill, which he spoke of frequently, in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in respect of this and will listen carefully. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have not previously spoken in the debates on this Bill, but I will be brief. I start by thanking noble Lords who have done a lot of work to improve this much-needed legislation. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, is a welcome reminder that the Bill lacks any obligation for landlords to alert leaseholders in advance of changes relating to ground rents and leasehold extensions. We fully support the noble Lord’s amendment, which seems to be an entirely proportionate measure and in no way presents an obstacle to the core provisions of the Bill.

The Government have been unable to bring forward any safeguards to address this specific power imbalance at the expense of leaseholders. Without it, we believe that the legislation remains flawed. The relationship between leaseholders and landlords should be defined by the principle of transparency and accountability—as, in fact, the Minister agreed in his opening remarks—but this is simply not possible without provisions such as these. So I ask the Minister, even at this late stage, to provide further assurances that have not previously been forthcoming to allay the concerns from across the House.

My Lords, I am not sure whether we have moved all the amendments up to Amendment 9—because then I can wind up, so to speak. I can appreciate the—

If I may interrupt the noble Lord for a moment—we have moved only Amendments 1 to 5. We are now discussing Amendment 6, and we will then come to Amendments 7, 8 and 9.

Okay. I am just getting used to this process. On Amendment 6, it is really helpful that the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, raised the issue of timing. Of course, in order to start the gun, if you like, we need Royal Assent, and then there needs to be a commitment around commencement, which means having all the regulations in place. So let us get this Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible. I have already made a commitment—which perhaps goes beyond where I should have gone because I am, perhaps, a little naive—that, within six months of Royal Assent, we will have commencement. So we know what the window is, effectively, because I made that commitment at the Dispatch Box and I do not want to let anyone down. That is the timeframe: let us get Royal Assent and then, within six months, we will have commencement—and that is the period of time we should be concerned about.

We have very genuinely tried to respond to the issues that have been raised to ensure that the greatest number of people are aware of the dangers and the risks of carrying out a lease extension in that window in a way that would be detrimental to their interests. That is why we have that suite of communications measures. I hope, therefore, that with that and a better understanding of the timeframe, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, will withdraw his amendment.

On the timing, I have now been in post and responsible for leasehold reform for nearly two years—I have survived one reshuffle—and it is fair to say that both Secretaries of State, particularly the right honourable gentleman in the other place, are absolutely committed to the second wave of leasehold reform, which will be far harder than this modest ground rents Bill. I cannot give a commitment about what will appear, but my expectations are that leasehold reform will be front and centre around his ambition for a wider reform of housing.

My Lords, the Motion is that this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 6. As many as are of that opinion will say “Content”. Lord Stunell?

Well, if that is the Motion being put to the House, that is fine. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment—although I do so a little grumpily and I shall be keeping a very sharp eye on the Minister.

Amendment to the Motion on Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Motion agreed.

Motion on Amendments 7 to 9

Moved by

7: Clause 23, page 14, line 13, leave out “consideration in money or money’s worth” and insert “pecuniary consideration”

8: Clause 27, page 15, line 25, leave out subsection (2)

9: Clause 27, page 19, line 16, leave out from “paid” to end of line 17 and insert—

“(a) where the penalty was imposed in relation to a lease of premises in England, to the Secretary of State, and

(b) where the penalty was imposed in relation to a lease of premises in Wales, to the Welsh Ministers.”

Motion agreed.

My Lords, I have a few words in conclusion to thank everybody who has worked so hard to get the Bill to this stage. I thank particularly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who has been helpful in tidying up this Bill, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, with his knowledge as a professional surveyor, and my noble friends Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Hammond of Runnymede, who have been extremely insightful.

I probably should put on record, because I forgot to do so until the very last moment, my residential and commercial interests. I want to make sure that I have declared them, although they are properly set out in my declaration of interests.

I also thank the Benches opposite. I have had to deal with changes and am sorry to have lost the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who I believe has gone off to be Chief Whip. Then Labour sent the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, from Yorkshire. and now we have the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, who has an incredible reputation in the other place for being fair-minded and constructive. It is marvellous to work with her.

It has been great to work with the Liberal Democrats as well. I will even thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock; she described herself as a Yorkshire terrier, which is why my ankles seem to get bitten quite a bit when she intervenes; she does so on behalf of the interests of leaseholders and fighting their corner, which is appreciated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, who is not in her place, raised the issue of the gap in the first place. I know the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, is representing her, but she raised an important matter, and it is to her credit that the Government have responded to those genuine concerns. I thank everybody—the Opposition Benches, the Liberal Democrats and the Cross Benches—for a very constructive approach to the Bill.

No Minister should ever leave the Dispatch Box without thanking the officials, many of whom are in the Box and have been simply tremendous in supporting me. We should all be proud of what this House is putting forward in legislation, which is much improved because of the contributions of noble Lords. I commend the Bill to the House.