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Property Agents: Regulation

Volume 837: debated on Thursday 18 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to introduce an independent property-agent regulator, to deliver a legally enforceable code of practice for property agents.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I draw the House’s attention to my relevant registered interests and to the fact that I am a leaseholder.

The Government are committed to raising professionalism among property agents. Property agents must already belong to a redress scheme. The Government’s Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill and Renters (Reform) Bill will help drive up overall standards. Legislating to set up a new regulator would, however, require significant additional legislative time that we do not have in this Parliament. We will meanwhile continue to work with industry on improving best practice, including on codes of practice.

My Lords, the Government received the report from the noble Lord, Lord Best, in the last Parliament, in July 2019. Can the Minister explain to the House what the Government have been doing for the past five years on this issue? There is widespread agreement on what needs to be done. From the outside, it looks like the Government are reluctant, unenthusiastic, disinclined and generally unwilling to address the issue.

I appreciate the time delay and am exceedingly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the report from him and his working group, which included more than 50 recommendations cutting across different housing tenures. We are developing key primary legislation to address the fundamental power imbalance that exists in parts of the housing market. Through the Renters (Reform) Bill and the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, we are taking forward specific recommendations from the noble Lord’s report, and we will keep the question of further regulation for the sector under review.

My Lords, did the Minister see the excellent report from your Lordships’ Industry and Regulators Select Committee, which thoroughly endorsed the need for a regulator? It took evidence both from those representing the consumers—that is, tenants, leaseholders and people buying and selling properties—and from those who would be regulated, the agents themselves, who felt at least as passionately about the need for a regulator. If we cannot have a fully-fledged regulator because time does not allow, could we at least go half way and introduce some mandatory training and qualifications so that the people handling property agency work know what they are talking about and we weed out some of the rogues?

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and for his work, which I have acknowledged. I am grateful also to noble Lords on the committee for their recent work on this important topic. Ministers are considering its recommendations and will respond in due course. Training programmes are currently available, and. I suspect that this question will come up time and again. In respect of the legislation that we are currently talking about, I have no doubt that I will be having those conversations with the Minister, my noble friend Lady Scott, in the coming days and weeks.

My Lords, given the clear, widespread support for the introduction of an independent property agents regulator, first proposed by the indefatigable noble Lord, Lord Best, some five years ago, can the Minister explain why, having had five years to think this through, it is not now possible, as she seems to suggest, for the Government to include it by way of an amendment to the Renters (Reform) Bill? That way, they would provide what more or less everybody in this House and outside it are keen to see.

I understand the frustration. I believe that all of us in this House and in our wider communities would like to see more professional-quality work being done in this sector and that we all want to drive up service standards for buyers, sellers and renters—whoever they may be—interacting with the system. It is important that we get it right; measures are coming up in the leasehold and freehold Bill and certainly in the private renters Bill, both of which will be before this House over the next few weeks. Therefore, there are opportunities for us to put forward specific measures that we felt were a priority in the leaseholder space and the private rental space.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Property Ombudsman. The ombudsman has been producing codes of practice for several decades, and that skill was utilised by the RoPA steering group, particularly the steering group chaired by my noble friend Lady Hayter. A new code was produced which has been received very positively. It stands ready to be implemented, and I urge His Majesty’s Government to give serious consideration to how it could be achieved in the absence of a regulator.

The Government welcome the work undertaken by the independent steering group chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, on the codes of practice for property agents. That is an important development towards making sure all consumers are treated fairly and all agents work to the same high standards. The Government have approved two codes for managing agents, which set out good practice and are to be taken into account in cases before courts or the tribunal. We will consider other codes as they are brought forward.

My Lords, I declare a former interest in that I used to chair National Trading Standards. The Minister will be aware that the department already funds an estate agents and letting agents regulator through National Trading Standards. Would it not make sense to extend the remit of that regulatory function carried out by Trading Standards into this field? That could presumably be done fairly simply, fairly easily and possibly fairly cheaply.

Estate agents are regulated under the Estate Agents Act 1979, which is currently enforced by the National Trading Standards estate and letting agency team—the abbreviation or acronym is too complicated for me to work out, so I have given the full title. It has powers to issue warnings and banning orders, and estate agents are required to belong to an approved redress scheme. These things can all be improved on. When we bring forward the home buyers and sellers reform strategy over the coming months, I hope to come back to the House and give details on further actions.

My Lords, the bad apples are giving legitimate, professional agents a very bad name, recently highlighted in my own city of Sheffield, where instances of adding charges that never existed to ground rents and refusing to answer correspondence and communication were taken up by the honourable Member for Sheffield South East, Clive Betts. We have just ascertained, including from the Minister, that we have unanimity across the House. Could we not just agree in the legislation coming forward very shortly to pass the necessary measures to put this right?

I can confirm that in the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill we are introducing measures to empower leaseholders to take action in the event of unreasonable behaviour. The Bill will make it easier for leaseholders to scrutinise costs and challenge the services provided by both landlords and property managing agents and ultimately for them to take on the management of their building themselves or directly appoint or replace agents. Alongside existing protections and work undertaken by the industry, these measures will seek to make property managing agents more accountable to leaseholders who pay for their services. It is coming.

My Lords, we have before the House a suggestion that we introduce a property regulator. It has waited five years. There is agreement across the House. Surely we should take the opportunity to amend the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill or the Renters (Reform) Bill to introduce this. Five years is long enough to wait, especially when we have complete agreement across the House that this is what we need to do.

I know that the Minister, my noble friend Lady Scott, has engaged with noble Lords on the leaseholder and freeholder Bill and will continue to do so as it progresses through this House next week. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Best, has reached out to her to consider how to improve the Bill further. I have no doubt that further conversations will happen as we consider the Bill in detail in Committee.

My noble friend the Minister will be aware that there have been some industry initiatives—though they are not perfect—over the years such as Safeagent and the kitemark scheme. In considering the possibility of more regulation in this space, could my noble friend and her department ensure that they do not squeeze out those private initiatives and work in conjunction with them?

I can confirm to my noble friend that we are working hand in glove with industry and trade bodies that want good-quality services provided by their members. It is in their interests, in our interests and in consumers’ interests that we do so.