My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper and draw the attention of the House to his relevant interest as a leaseholder.
Service charges must be reasonable and where costs relate to work or services, they must be of a reasonable standard. Such moneys must be held in trust unless specifically exempt and used for their intended purposes. We are committed to ensuring that residents have more information on what their costs pay for, and this will help them more effectively to challenge their landlord if they consider their fees to be unreasonable. We will bring further reforms later in this Parliament.
My Lords, there seems to be some confusion regarding statements made in the other place and in the media by the Secretary of State, the Member for Surrey Heath. In the other place, he talks of the reform of leasehold as a tenure of housing, yet in the media he talks about the abolition of leasehold tenure. Can the Minister tell the House which it is: reform or abolition? It cannot be both. Leaseholders deserve absolute clarity on the intentions of government.
My Lords, last month I asked my noble friend if she would publish the promised leasehold reform Bill in draft. She said she would love to, if only to stop the question being repeatedly asked; but she then declined. We now know that the next Session is not going to start until the autumn. Is there not now adequate time to publish the Bill in draft and knock it into shape before the last Session of this Parliament, which may be foreshortened?
I thank my noble friend, who perhaps knows more than I do about when that Bill will come to the other place and then to this House. Seriously, publishing a draft at this stage would slow the process down and I do not think any of us wants to do that. But I do welcome the engagement we are already regularly having on leasehold and commonhold reform. I am very happy to work continually with MPs, noble Lords and wider stakeholders until the Bill comes to the House.
My Lords, as part of a question I asked last June on the levying of escalating service charges, I asked whether the Government might consider a scheme for rolling up service charges in a debenture against property title—effectively, a rising legal charge. The debenture holder would pay the resident’s service charge, interest-serviced or otherwise, clawing back payments on death or prior. The Minister promised to consider the idea. Will the Minister check on developments in the department and let the House know where we stand?
My Lords, can we not acknowledge that the debenture issue is not new but has been going on for years? In this section of the housing market, both tenants and landlords do not know their mutual responsibilities. Is it not time for a draft Bill, so that there can be proper detailed discussions and action can be taken for the benefit of both parties?
The Government recognise the strength of feeling in this House in particular, and the other place, on the leasehold issue, but it is complex and needs careful consideration. The Government have said that we will bring a Bill forward in this Parliament and that is what we intend to do.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that proper consumer protection is particularly important for older people, who may be downsizing or rightsizing to retirement apartments and feel totally confused by the plethora of service charges, exit fees, commission fees and commission on insurance? Is this vulnerable group not particularly important in leasehold reform? Otherwise, who is going to downsize or rightsize ever, knowing the difficulties they may well face?
The noble Lord is absolutely right. This is an important issue, particularly for older people who may be considering downsizing. It is just too complex at the moment. That is what we will be dealing with as we move forward, and I thank the noble Lord for all his help in doing so.
My Lords, the points raised in the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, are, in fact, all covered by very good codes of practice, advice from government and professional bodies. The problem is that there is no enforcement and no sanctions. Evidence from the First-tier Tribunal chamber and the Leasehold Advisory Service shows that this is happening all too often. When will there be a regulator with teeth, as recommended in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Best, or will the Government at least consider making the First-tier Tribunal’s decisions legally binding?
We will certainly have a social housing regulator once we get the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill through the other place and back through here, and I hope that will be as soon as possible. Regarding the noble Baroness’s other concerns, we will have to be patient and wait for the Bill to come forward.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Best, came up with a recommendation that we thought the Government had accepted: to regulate all property agents, which would cover the managing agents and the questions that have been raised today. I chaired the committee which gave the Government a code of conduct, ready for that regulator to start work. Why cannot we get on and regulate the agents, who are the problem with all the issues that have been raised?
We are taking very seriously the issue of property agents and are committed to promoting fairness and transparency for tenants and homeowners in this space. The commitment also includes raising professionalisation and standards among property agents—letting estate and managing agents. The Government welcome the ongoing work being undertaken by the industry itself. Interestingly, since the noble Lord, Lord Best’s report, the industry is doing something different and is working better. We will continue to work with the noble Lord and his working group on what more we can do to ensure that property agents are behaving professionally.
My Lords, some of the most vulnerable in society, including prison leavers and refugees, can be heavily penalised by the housing system. In the south-west, there is a joint project with the police and crime commissioner to manufacture low-cost eco-pods which provide not only employment and skills for prisoners on day release but a potential solution to rehousing vulnerable people. What is being done to speed up this sort of housing provision for vulnerable groups?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question; I do not know what is being done, but I will certainly get an answer. I know from personal experience that these pods can work very well, particularly for homeless people. In the short term and in bad weather, in local communities—even next door to local authority town halls, et cetera—they can give the shelter that is required during difficult times for very vulnerable people. However, I will get an update.
Many of the freeholders of the leasehold properties are councils, including Southwark Council, where I live. Many of the leaseholders have extreme difficulty in getting information on the nature of the charges. Will any guidance, or stronger, issued to freeholders and managing agents be clearly applicable to local councils as well?
My noble friend is absolutely right, and the department is fully aware of these issues. I cannot talk about an individual case, but we recognise that too many landlords are failing to provide sufficient information to leaseholders, who should have a right to that information, as stated in their lease. The Government do not think that existing requirements go far enough to enable leaseholders to find out about these issues, and we will take action to support and empower them in the future.