Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [ Lords ] (First sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Julie Elliott, † Mr Philip Hollobone
† Aiken, Nickie (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
† Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
† Byrne, Ian (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
† Colburn, Elliot (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
Gideon, Jo (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
† Greenwood, Lilian (Nottingham South) (Lab)
† Greenwood, Margaret (Wirral West) (Lab)
† Grundy, James (Leigh) (Con)
† Hudson, Dr Neil (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
† Hughes, Eddie (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)
† Long Bailey, Rebecca (Salford and Eccles) (Lab)
† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
† Vickers, Martin (Cleethorpes) (Con)
† Young, Jacob (Redcar) (Con)
Huw Yardley, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 7 December 2021
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [Lords]
Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements that I am required to read out by Mr Speaker. I remind Members that they are expected to wear a face covering except when speaking or if they are exempt. That is in line with the recommendations of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done at the testing centre in the House or at home. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members emailed any speaking notes to email@example.com. Please switch electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings.
I first call the Minister to move the programme motion standing in his name, which was discussed yesterday by the Programming Sub-Committee for the Bill.
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 7 December) meet—
(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 7 December;
(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 9 December;
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 13; Schedule; Clauses 14 to 27; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 9 December.—(Eddie Hughes.)
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Eddie Hughes.)
Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the room and will be circulated to Members by email.
We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room and shows how the selected amendments have been grouped for debate. Grouped amendments are generally on the same or a similar issue. Please note that decisions on amendments take place not in the order in which they are debated, but in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper. The selection and grouping list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates.
A Member who has put their name to the lead amendment in a group is called first. Other Members are then free to catch my eye to speak to all or any of the amendments in that group. A Member may speak more than once in a single debate. At the end of a debate on a group of amendments, I shall call the Member who moved the lead amendment again. Before they sit down, they will need to indicate whether they wish to withdraw the amendment or seek a decision. If any Member wishes to press any other amendment in a group to a vote, they need to let me know.
I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—
“(but see subsection (5)).”.
This amendment inserts a reference to the new subsection inserted by Amendment 2.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 2.
Clause stand part.
New clause 1—Ground rent for existing long leases—
“Within 30 days of the day on which this Act comes into force, the Secretary of State must publish draft legislation to restrict ground rents on all existing long residential leases to a peppercorn.”
This new clause aims to ensure that the Government introduces further legislation to remove ground rent for all leaseholders, whereas the Act currently only applies to newly established leases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to see the hon. Member for Weaver Vale still in his place following recent moves.
Government amendments 1 and 2, and Government amendments 3 to 5, which we will come to later, relate to the process known as a deemed surrender and regrant. For the benefit of those who are not experts in property law, me included, when the extent of the demise is changed—for example, where an extension is made to a property or to correct an error, or where there is an extension to the term of a lease—the lease is deemed to be surrendered and regranted to the leaseholder.
Government amendments 1 and 2 provide further protection for leaseholders in situations where that happens. Taken together, the two amendments disapply the requirement for a premium to be paid when a regulated lease or a lease granted before the Bill’s commencement day has been surrendered and regranted. In other words, a lease can have a peppercorn rent under this legislation after it has been regranted even if no new premium is paid.
Without these amendments, there is a significant risk that a previously regulated lease could cease to be regulated, leaving leaseholders to pay a potentially significant premium for a simple change, such as correcting an error within the lease, or leaving them to pay a ground rent. It might be helpful if I provided an example of such a situation. If a future leaseholder were to seek the correction of an error in their regulated lease and there was no premium charge for that correction, the Bill, as currently drafted, means that the lease would no longer be considered a regulated lease and therefore the peppercorn requirement would not be applicable to that newly corrected lease.
Amendments 1 and 2 will remove the requirement for a premium to have been paid for regulated and pre-commencement leases subject to a surrender and regrant, in order for the peppercorn rent to be applied. These amendments and the clarifications in amendments 3, 4 and 5 ensure that the Bill does not have unintended consequences when there is a deemed surrender and regrant and that there is fairness in the system for leaseholders and freeholders.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone, and to respond to the Minister. We have spent considerable time over the last few weeks, in Committee and at Second Reading, discussing vital issues of building safety and leasehold reform. These technical and tidying amendments make perfect sense. They address the potential of leasees paying a premium if this was not put in place, so the Opposition certainly welcome this.
I have one question on the potential for informal lease arrangements to sit outside the scope of the Bill. What reassurance can we give those still caught in the leasehold feudal system that there is provision to tackle this element of the industry?
Order. Mr Amesbury, are you still speaking, or have you finished speaking?
So you did not give way to the Minister? Do you want to speak on new clause 1 in this group of amendments?
So the Minister has the Floor and has given way to the hon. Lady.
I am grateful to you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is early in the morning, and therefore perfectly possible that I was wrong about my hon. Friend’s intention. Can the Minister clarify that the main intent of these provisions is to prevent those who perhaps used to be able to charge ground rent on new leases but who, following the enactment of the Bill, will only be able to charge a peppercorn if they wish to collect it, having a not very realistic, false way of getting around the Bill by deemed surrender and then reissue? Is that the main intent of these provisions? Obviously, if he had thought about this kind of trick being played when the Bill was originally drafted, he would have included something in that drafting, but it is always good to think again about the way in which people may seek to get around provisions. Have I got it right? Is that the main intent of these provisions?
I can completely confirm that that is absolutely the main intent.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendment made: 2, in 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.”.—(Eddie Hughes.)
This amendment provides that where there is a deemed surrender and regrant of a regulated lease or a pre-commencement lease, the new lease may be a regulated lease even if it is not granted for a premium.
Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Minister is now speaking to clause 2 stand part.
Thank you. I was. I appreciate that it is not my job to be concerned on behalf of the Opposition, but I felt that there could have been some early morning settling into the rhythm of the Committee. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale may have missed the opportunity to speak to new clause 1—[Interruption.]
Order. I actually asked the hon. Gentleman quite clearly whether he wished to speak to new clause 1, and he decided that he did not. We are now debating clause 2 stand part.
Because that particular opportunity was missed, we will ungroup—very kindly, on the Clerk’s advice—new clause 1 from that first group. When we come back to new clause 1 later in proceedings, the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to speak to it. His opportunity will come; it just has not come when we thought it would. We are now debating clause 2 stand part.
You are very kind, Mr Hollobone. Clause 2 will be of significant interest as it sets out those leases not regulated by the Bill. We have taken care to tightly define these, as we are aware that any loopholes might lead to abuse of the system and a monetary ground rent being charged where we had not intended it. I will consider each of the exceptions in turn.
First, subsections (1) to (3) detail how business leases will be excepted. It is important that a commercial lease that contains a dwelling, such as for a shop or other business, can continue to operate as now, and that landlords of such buildings are not disadvantaged. Businesses are also likely to prefer to pay some form of rent rather than a premium for the use of the property. However, we also need to protect residential leaseholders from any argument by a landlord that a ground rent is payable because of the possibility of a business use. For that reason, subsection (1)(a) states that the lease must expressly permit the premises under the lease to be used for business purposes without further consent from the landlord.
In our response to the technical consultation on ground rent, published in June 2019, we committed that mixed-use leases would not be subject to a peppercorn rent. The example given was a flat above a shop, where these are both on the same lease. In such instances, it would be important that a commercial rent can continue to be paid, to reflect the business use of part of the building. However, we wish to ensure that the Bill does not result in a plethora of mixed-use leases that are to all intents dwellings but where the tenant pays a monetary ground rent. For this reason, subsection (1)(b) requires that, for such leases, the use of the premises as a dwelling must significantly contribute to the business purposes.
The Bill also includes provision to make sure that both parties intend and are aware of this business-use component of the lease. Subsection (1)(c) achieves this by requiring that the landlord and tenant exchange written notices at or before the lease is granted confirming the intention to use and continue to use the premises for the business purposes set out in the lease. The form of this notice will be prescribed in forthcoming regulations. Subsection (3) defines business as including a trade, profession or employment, but not a home business as under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954.
Statutory lease extensions for flats are already required to be at a peppercorn rent, so we have excepted them from the requirements of the Bill in order to avoid duplication. We will come to so-called voluntary lease extensions for flats when we consider clause 6. Statutory lease extensions for houses are required by legislation to be for 50 years for payment of no premium, but for a modern ground rent, which is typically higher than a peppercorn. Were the Bill to require that rent to be only a peppercorn, we would deprive the landlord of income for the granting of the lease extension. For that reason, those extensions are exempted from the Bill. However, we intend to return to the wider question of enfranchisement in future legislation. Our changes to the enfranchisement valuation process, including abolishing marriage value and prescribing rates, will result in substantial savings for some leaseholders, particularly those with less than 80 years left on their lease. The length of a statutory lease extension will increase to 990 years, from 90 years for flats and 50 years for houses.
I will turn now to community housing leases and other specialist products that we do not want to compromise. Community housing schemes promote the supply of new housing to meet local need where residents contribute towards the cost of shared community services. The use of ground rent in those cases is very different from ground rent for long residential leases where no clear service is provided in return. As we have done throughout clause 2, we have taken care to tightly define community housing leases to ensure that that exception applies only where intended. It covers long leases where the landlord is a community land trust, or the lease is a dwelling in a building that is controlled or managed by a co-operative society. We expect that to cover all deserving dwellings. We have also made provision, should it be needed, to add further conditions to those definitions in order to close a loophole should one be identified in future.
The clause also exempts certain financial products in cases where a form of rent is needed for the product to operate as intended. Subsection (9) defines them as regulated home reversion plans and homes bought using a rent to buy arrangement. It is important that those specialist financial products can continue, maximising choice for homeowners over how they finance their property purchase.
I think that many people who get involved in rent to buy perhaps do not understand that they may be excluded from that provision. I notice that the Minister is securing for himself some capacity to make regulations in future in relation to those particular types of leases. Could he give the Committee an indication of what kinds of regulations he anticipates will be made under the power that the Bill will grant him in respect of those particular kinds of rent to buy leases?
I am embarrassed to say that I cannot, and the reason is that we do not know what the loopholes might be. We have a clever bunch of people who seek to avoid legislation. It will be helpful for the Government to be able to make such changes as might be necessary depending on the inventiveness of the people we deal with in future.
I am grateful to the Minister; it is remarkably honest of him to say that he does not know. One does not always hear that from Ministers, but am I getting the sense that the intent is to ensure that there is not some kind of workaround to the regulations and to the law, and that the intention is to protect those who have taken out rent to buy plans from oppressive provisions by landlords to charge some kind of ground rent, which the Bill is seeking to get rid of generally?
On the intent, there are some financial products that we have exempted because the structure of their operation is dependent on the continuation of rent payments, but the opportunity is to make regulation in the future should people, for example, pretend to be something they are not, or try to do so. If we have the opportunity to close that down, I think that will be the intention. I feel that the hon. Lady could be building a case for future interventions—we will see. I think she is gathering evidence.
Subsection (9)(a) is clear that in order to benefit from this exemption, home reversion plan products must be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Subsection (10) defines a rent to buy arrangement, ensuring that arrangements such as Sharia mortgages are able to continue. It is important that the Bill enables legitimate activities that require payment of a rent to continue, which clause 2 does in a carefully considered way that has been informed by detailed consultation. The clause is drafted to enable such activities but with tight definitions, ensuring that the clause is not used by landlords to charge a ground rent by the back door.
I thank the Minister for his explanation. I understand the exemptions and I am pleased that they are limited in scope. What reassurance can he give that there will be no unintended consequences in community housing, for example? He referred to ground rent as a means of recovering service charges. That has been a problem for the industry over a considerable number of years.
It is important to point out that the Bill does not cover service charges. In the other areas that we are talking about, ground rent is paid for no discernible benefit in return, but in a community land trust there is the benefit of a shared endeavour to create high-quality community housing, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s concern applies.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 3 prohibits a landlord from requiring a leaseholder to make a payment of a prohibited rent. Subsection (2) defines that as making a request that the leaseholder make the payment, and/or having received a payment of prohibited rent, failing to return it within 28 days. To ensure that landlords are held accountable for their actions, we have made a conscious decision to include current and former landlords in the Bill. That will ensure that our enforcement measures, which are detailed later in the Bill, can be used in circumstances where a landlord has sold their interest in the property.
Having focused on landlords, I now turn to those we are seeking to protect. I am sure that the Committee will agree that the protective reach of the Bill should extend beyond current leaseholders who remain leaseholders when the wrongful payment is identified. A leaseholder who has sold the lease, for example, should none the less be able to seek redress if they subsequently realise that their former lease contained a prohibited rent. That is why subsection (3) ensures that the protections afforded to leaseholders also apply to previous leaseholders, a person acting on behalf of a leaseholder, and a leaseholder’s guarantor.
Clause 3 is the foundation for restricting unjustifiable rents for future regulated leases.
What limitations will there be on the provisions? Are we talking about the limitation in contract law? How long would a former landlord be under obligation to repay a prohibited payment that he had required, and how long would the former tenant be able to recover it? It is unusual to see a provision stating that
“references to a landlord include a person who has ceased to be a landlord”,
but there is usually some limitation to the liability. Does the Minister have an answer for that?
Please copy in the whole Committee to that correspondence if it is necessary.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Permitted rent: general rule
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 4 introduces the general rule for regulated leases that the permitted rent is an annual rent of one peppercorn. The effect of that is that no monetary rent will be payable in respect of most leases regulated by the Bill.
Clause 4(1) provides that this general rule is subject to clauses 5 and 6, which set out special rules on permitted rent applicable to shared ownership properties and replacement leases respectively. Use of a peppercorn rent is common practice; for example, it is used in statutory lease extensions for flats. A peppercorn is simply a token or nominal rent that in practice is not collected. The purpose of clause 4 is to protect leaseholders from being charged inappropriate rents by landlords.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill will help my constituents who have suffered in recent years from rising and excessive ground rents, and will help to prevent people from falling into the leasehold tenancy trap that we have also seen in recent years?
I thank the Minister for his brief explanation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood quite elaborately argued, this Bill is not about the many; it is just about the new. There are 1.5 million people who will still be in this system, many of whom write to us asking for us to advocate for them in this place. It is a particular issue in the north and north-west, and Wales. This Bill will do nothing for those people. In addition there is a plethora of complexities associated with the Bill—service charges, interesting management fees and so on—which we have spoken about at considerable length. So, while the Bill is welcome, it is narrow in scope and certainly does not deal with the situation here and now.
I very much welcome the intent of the Bill, which is to replace the standard charging of ground rent of real monetary value to leaseholders with a peppercorn rent. I welcome that very much; it is an entirely good and proper reform. Anybody who has had to deal with land law over the years—whether as a lawyer, or just as an MP trying to advise constituents—knows just how complicated it is to change these ancient and difficult land law provisions, which go back to feudal times in many ways and which very much have case law behind them. As we can see from this simple Bill alone, significant provisions have to be added to do the simplest things. I have every sympathy with the Minister, who has a record of trying to grapple with the complexities of English land law since he was Back Bencher. It is by no means easy.
I welcome, generally, clause 4, which reduces to a mere peppercorn the ground rent that is chargeable for new leaseholders. That is entirely to be welcomed. However, I want to set out to the Minister the difficulties that many of my constituents have. Thousands of them have in the last few years bought leasehold houses. This is particularly an issue in the north-west. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale rightly said, there has arisen a penchant for selling newly built, often detached houses as leasehold properties. That has, and can only have been to enable the freehold—the reversionary interest—to be turned into a financial product that, over years, often decades, provides a stream of income for whoever retains the reversionary interest, who is often not the original developer or builder of the properties. It is sold on in financial markets to those who are interested in long-term investments providing a stream of income.
Many of my constituents, trapped in such leases, had no idea when they bought the houses that that would be the case, and that they would owe obligations for decades to whoever held the reversionary interest. They had absolutely no idea that the person who held the reversionary interest could change, and that it would be traded on financial markets and bought by people who wanted to exploit to the maximum the provision for income generation over years. The Bill, unfortunately, does not help any of my constituents who are stuck in such provision.
I am entirely in favour of changing that provision by means of the Bill, which I welcome, but there is an argument to say that the Bill actually makes things startlingly worse for those already trapped in such leasehold provisions that have ground rent and sometimes accelerated ground rent. It makes starker the fact that it is anomalous. I have many constituents on a number of estates across my constituency of Garston and Halewood who are finding it difficult to sell their properties. They have suddenly realised that they do not own a house, as they thought they did, but that they are renting it.
I am extremely anxious that the Minister does not rest on his laurels, having got this complicated piece of simple legislation through the House and on to the statute book, but that he realises that there is so much more to do to assist those who are stuck—particularly in my constituency and in the north-west—in newly built houses that they now find they do not really own. They are being financially exploited by remote owners of a reversionary interest that will endure for perhaps 99 or 999 years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill, by doing the right thing for new houses, will actually make the situation even worse for those who are in existing houses, because potential entrants into the housing market will choose to buy a new leasehold house that is covered by these provisions, rather than a house that her constituent may wish to sell that is under the existing provision?
That is the very concern that I have. It not only shines a light on the dilemma and the problems of current leaseholders, who will not be covered by these provisions, but sets theirs up as an anomalous set of arrangements. Until the Minister comes back with legislation to change more thoroughly what has happened in existing cases, which I know will be difficult, these people will be in a more difficult position than they currently are. Not only will they have the ongoing financial burden of the exploitative provisions that have grown up, particularly in the north-west of England, but they will find themselves left behind. The danger is that the Minister may have to move on to other legislation of concern in his Department, and may find that doing something for existing leaseholders is very difficult in land law terms. I know it is difficult to change existing leases by statute.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) highlighted the issue that could arise where, within a single development, on one side of the road would be properties built in its first phase, under the current arrangements, and on the other side of the road properties built in the next phase, under the new arrangements. It is simply inequitable. When people come to market, which property will they purchase? The Minister is familiar with these issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is right that they need tackling, despite the difficulty.
I have every sympathy with that point because I know of examples in my constituency. In the past few years, as these egregious excesses were coming to light and before legislation could be drafted, the Government have tried to impress upon developers that they should not do this kind of thing, and there have been voluntary arrangements. House builders have made voluntary arrangements, sometimes midway through the completion of a phased development, such that some buyers of properties built in the early phases of a development have had to pay ground rent, or accelerating ground rent, service charges and some of the other things that have not been dealt with in this legislation, but in later phases that has not been the case; so there is a difference between properties—even those built to the same design in different phases of one development.
One could say that caveat emptor is the basis of land law in England. It is indeed: “Let the buyer beware.” However, I have a lot of sympathy with constituents of mine who were rushed into buying a property so that they could access Help to Buy, who were first-time buyers, who had not done a degree in English land law before they sought to become homeowners—which, let us face it, is most people—and who relied upon the advice they were given. I have many criticisms of the legal profession and the solicitors—even conveyancers—who advised some of my constituents, because it seems to me that there has been a potential failing, in some cases, there.
In any case, the Minister has come to this, wanting to do something about it—indeed he has drawn a line in the sand, as he said—but he must not forget those individuals that, in drawing the line, he has not helped, and who may in fact find their predicament more starkly highlighted, and may find it more difficult to move on and sell the property that they now have than they would have done without this legislation.
My hon. Friend is making excellent points. Does she agree that there is a real human cost to this? I know of people living in my constituency who have properties elsewhere in the country, predominantly in the south, who decided to move back to Wirral because that is where they are from, only to discover that they are struggling to sell their properties. Quite often such moves are to look after an elderly family member or for similar reasons, so time is of the essence. Does she agree that we have to remember the human cost?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I have come across many instances myself. Perhaps a young couple, just starting out in life and on the housing ladder, wanting to be able to trade up in time when they start their family, suddenly find that they cannot because their home—their leasehold home—is of pariah status and they find it difficult to persuade somebody else to buy it. I worry that this legislation, welcome though it is—it is a good step: I emphasise that to the Minister—shines a starker light on the predicament that these people are in. It is therefore incumbent upon the Minister and the Government, who have been talking about this issue for a number of years—I am trying to be kind, Mr Hollobone—to come back swiftly with effective and challenging legislation that will do something for the people who are already stuck in this mess.
What we cannot do is say, “Oh, it’s all too difficult.” It is difficult, but as lawmakers, we are here to solve these problems. I will give every support to the Minister if he can come back, ignoring the lawyers who tell him that it is all too terribly difficult and nothing can possibly be done that would not tear up our entire English land law system of trading land. Something can and must be done. He will have my support if he comes back with much fuller legislation to deal with the existing problems of those who are already caught in this situation. Peppercorns are great. Perhaps we can have retrospective peppercornery.
It is a pleasure to have you as Chair of the Committee, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Bill and the Government’s obvious determination to ensure that buyers of new developments will be protected from what I can only describe as dodgy practices.
Having looked into the issue before coming to Committee, and knowing bits and pieces from the media coverage of this story in recent years, I find it shocking that property developers and renowned house builders have thought it acceptable to expect families or individuals buying a property—we all know how expensive that can be; people save for years to have enough for a deposit—to be hit with a ground rent that they do not know is going to double and double over the years. I absolutely welcome the Minister’s determination to stop that practice.
I call on house builders across the nation to think about the consequences of such practices on their customers, and their future customers. I know that a number of house builders have taken steps to stop this practice. I believe that the Competition and Markets Authority is carrying out an investigation and that some, but not enough, house builders have stopped the practice voluntarily. That is why I am glad that the Bill will protect us in the future.
I was taken aback by the fact that the chief executive of Redrow, a renowned house builder, said in a letter to the then Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government that ground rent of £400 per year would not always necessarily double over 10 years, but in fact could reach £12,800 a year. For the average family, the idea of trying to find that amount of money is eye-watering. Even people on good salaries would find that amount punitive. I absolutely welcome the Bill. We must regulate to safeguard hard-working families who want to invest in homes.
I have no doubt that members across the Committee agree with much of what the hon. Lady says, but these measures are for the future, not for the here and now. The CMA investigation is very welcome, as is the work by the Select Committee and all the campaigners who have helped to force the issue, but many people are still applying these practices. Welcome though they are, these are baby steps.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention; I was coming to that point. In my constituency—the Cities of London and Westminster—many leaseholders live in properties with much older tenancies that involve ground rent. I believe the vast majority are on peppercorn. I have lived in the two Cities for 25 years, as a leaseholder and now, I am glad to say, as a freeholder. There is a massive benefit to being a freeholder, even though I own a flat.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am sure that this Government and this Minister will be looking at legislation that can protect all leaseholders, no matter what kind of tenancy they have. I understand that the renters reform Bill will be coming through, which will be a massive step towards creating a balance between tenants and landlords. This Bill and any further legislation that the Government consider on leasehold are about balance and fairness. I welcome the Minister’s taking forward this Bill and future legislation to protect leaseholders.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood referred to my previous interest in this subject as a Back-Bench MP. It is an incredible privilege to have championed changes in this area and now to be the Minister responsible for it. I can assure her that my enthusiasm for greater reform is not diminished in any way by my having the opportunity to, at least, begin the legislative process now.
I have a huge degree of sympathy with the cases that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the room. It is incumbent upon us, as a Government, to ensure that we do not rest on our laurels, but continue to push and be bold with legislation in the future. Certainly, that has been the case with regard to things that have been said by our previous and current Secretaries of State. The current Secretary of State is determined to be bold and ambitious in all things for which he has responsibility, and I would like to think that we will have further discussions about this subject early in the new year.
Perhaps one day they will make me Secretary of State and I will be able to make those decisions myself, Mr Hollobone—don’t laugh. As I said, it is our intention to come forward with proposals, so we will be talking again in the new year and discussing this in detail.
We will hear first from Mr Amesbury and then Dr Hudson.
On a point of clarity, will the legislation apply to properties that are currently being built, whether they are in Birmingham, Westminster or Manchester? Will the narrow scope of the one peppercorn policy apply to properties that are being built, but are not yet completed?
As I referred to in the discussions about previous clauses, I believe that the legislation will apply once it has been enacted following Royal Assent, so it will apply to new contracts that come into force once the Act is in force. It would not necessarily apply to a property that is being bought today. It will apply only once the law has been enacted. We will have Royal Assent, legislation will be provided and then it will be enacted.
Minister, you have the floor and you decide who you give way to.
As the Chair, it is not for me to call people but for the person who has the floor to decide who they will give way to.
It is great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Minister’s comments and the Bill, as well as the constructive comments from the Opposition. We are all on the same page and think that this constructive Bill is a small step towards correcting future injustices.
I take on board the complexities for people in the existing system, but in respect of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, does the Minister agree that if we can get the Bill through, it will shine a spotlight on developers that have existing leaseholders and they may well reflect, so this Bill for new leaseholders might create some retrospective good will? It is a start, and I welcome the comment from the Minister that we can try to address things moving forward. I very much welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will start to address some of the retrospective issues indirectly.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are signalling strong intent by virtue of introducing the Bill, which backs up the suggestions we have made previously about our intent. With regards to other pronouncements that the Government have made, I think people will rightly expect that legislation will follow in due course. My hon. Friend is completely right.
I wish to follow up on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood. Clearly, the Bill will apply only from the date that it receives Royal Assent. Is the Minister concerned that some developers that have acted in unscrupulous ways that the Bill is designed to prevent will see the deadline of Royal Assent as an opportunity to place more people in the position that has been outlined by my hon. Friends and Government Members? Developers might try to get in before the deadline of Royal Assent, rather than taking the message that these sorts of leaseholds should not be offered and are inappropriate. What discussions has the Minister had with developers, and what sense does he have of whether people will act opportunistically?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution but, fortunately, the evidence does not back up the concern she has voiced. We saw a prevalence of this type of construction. That has peaked, and now its popularity is decreasing, so we already see that developers understand that, effectively, the game is up and the world has moved on. I would like to think that, thanks to the efforts of hon. Members in this room, we are publicising the Bill and our constituents will become better informed as a result of our contributions to the debate. Hopefully, that will serve to protect them.
Some developers have responded to the change in landscape and enforcement action with strong encouragement, but others out there have not done so. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South is correct to say that this is another opportunity to get developments erected as soon as possible. We need only look at the skylines across our cities to see that happening, and some developers will want to continue with that cash cow at the expense of leaseholders. It is a real fear, and I would certainly welcome a Government assessment of the impact in that transitional period.
As I said in answer to the previous question, we can already see—not just now, but over the previous few years—that there has been a rapid decrease in the number of properties being constructed and subsequently sold in this way, so the hon. Gentleman should feel reassured that the Government’s intended legislation is already having an incredibly positive effect.
Following the previous point, does the Minister agree that the conduct of house builders such as Countryside Properties, which has voluntarily agreed to remove the doubling of ground rents from its leasehold contracts, is a step forward? The Home Builders Federation or another trade body should be working with its members to take that forward, as Countryside Properties and others have done, but too many house builders are still not doing so. Perhaps the CMA review will help, but perhaps the Bill will send a clear message to house builders that, actually, they should be looking at their own practices before they are made to do so by the legislation.
We have to have proper scrutiny. There has been a general hope expressed by the hon. Members for Penrith and The Border and for Cities of London and Westminster that this legislation, rather than highlighting the difficulties existing leaseholders have and putting them in a more difficult position, may promote better behaviour towards existing leaseholders from those who are in a position to exploit them. We hope that that will be the case. Do the Government collect any figures that they might publish to enable us to see whether there is the positive impact hoped for by Conservative Members? Does the Minister have any figures that show that is the case—or are we just crossing our fingers and hoping?
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 13, in clause 5, page 4, line 7, at end insert—
“(2A) Where a landlord charges a service charge more than £100 per month, the permitted rent in respect of the landlord’s share in the demised premises is a peppercorn.”
This amendment provides that a landlord of a shared ownership property may not charge ground rent in respect of the landlord’s share if service charges exceed £100 per month.
The amendments were tabled to raise the issue of the often sky-high service charges in shared ownership property—often with little given back in return. I could list any number of examples and am confident that other Members in the room could as well. The Minister will have heard, as I did, the many stories about the extortionate costs faced by shared owners, other leaseholders and social housing residents. The errors are often only exposed when residents, facing costs they cannot afford, lobby hard for information and transparency.
We have heard it all: service charges for shared owners in Kent tripling in one year; leaseholders in Essex being charged £4,275, plus VAT, per year for ground maintenance, when a local landscaping company quoted £660 per year for the same work—something that I discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood only this morning; and leaseholders in south London being charged over 400% more for their cleaning costs than they were in 2013. I know that inflation is increasing at the moment but—my God—not by that level. To get in the Christmas spirit, a rather festive example stood out to me in the Financial Times, which published an article over the summer about residents in central London being charged £200,000 for Christmas lights, without being consulted in advance.
Those costs impact on leaseholders, and some social housing tenants as well. For shared owners, a particular concern is being charged 100% of the service costs while only owning a small portion of the property. We have seen that up and down the country through the building safety scandal and historical remediation costs. The Opposition welcome the narrow scope of the Bill on peppercorn ground rents, but the fear is that there will be other means or opportunities to rake in the money, and to continue treating leaseholders as a cash cow.
Clause 5 is essential if the Bill is to avoid creating unintended consequences for future shared ownership leases. It will protect leaseholders by ensuring that they pay only a peppercorn rent on their share of the property, but it will also allow landlords to collect a monetary rent on their own share. Without the clause, landlords could not collect a monetary rent on the share of the property that is rented.
Clause 5 applies to qualifying shared ownership leases. Subsection (4) defines a qualifying shared ownership lease as one in which the tenant’s share of the premises is less than 100%. Subsection (7) clarifies that, in a situation in which a shared ownership lease does not distinguish between rent on the tenant’s share and rent on the landlord’s share, any rent payable under the lease is to be treated as payable in respect of the landlord’s share. Subsection (8) means that the clause no longer applies if clause 6 applies. For example, if the leaseholder undertakes a so-called voluntary lease extension in regard to a shared ownership lease, where the leaseholder chooses to enter into a new lease that replaces an existing lease outside the statutory lease extension process, the treatment of that is dealt with under clause 6. We will consider clause 6 shortly.
Clause 5 ensures that the shared ownership model can continue to operate for new leases.
Order. The Minister is meant to be speaking about the amendment rather than the clause. Does he have any more comments about the amendment?
About the clause or the amendments?
About the amendments, Mr Hollobone. Amendments 11 and 13, tabled by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, seek to reduce the payment of rent on a shared ownership property. Shared owners are leaseholders of a share of their property. Most shared ownership properties fall within the terms of the Government’s shared ownership scheme, and the providers will be registered with the Regulator of Social Housing. In the Government’s existing shared ownership scheme, owners have a full repairing lease and are financially responsible for all maintenance charges and outgoings in the same way that any other homeowner is.
On 1 April, the Government confirmed the new model for shared ownership, which introduces a 10-year period during which the landlord will support the cost of repairs and maintenance on new build homes. Under the shared ownership model, landlords can collect rent on their share of the property, and I reiterate that the Bill will allow them to continue to do so. The payment of rent reflects the fact that the shared owner has purchased a share of their home, and pays rent on the remaining share, which is owned by their landlord. The rent paid is not the same as the service charge paid for repairs and maintenance previously described.
The effect of amendments 11 and 13 would be to remove the ability of a landlord to receive the rent that they are rightly due on the share of the property that the leaseholder rents in cases in which the service charge is more than £100 per month. The law is clear that service charges must be reasonable and that, where costs relate to work or services, the work or services must be of a reasonable standard.
I just wish to mention service charges in central London, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale did. I am very aware of extortionate service charges in central London, particularly for private blocks. Service charges of £100,000 are not unknown, but the properties in those cases are worth around £35 million; I suggest that, if someone can afford to buy a £35 million flat, they may be able to afford a £100,000 service charge. However, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale makes an important point, and I would like the Minister to consider it. We must not put all service charges into the same pot. We have to ensure that homes within the community—rent to buy, social housing and community housing—are different from very expensive properties. We cannot put them all into the same position. We must give landlords the ability to charge a fair service charge that is in keeping with the value of the home. There has to be a balance. There is a big difference between a £35 million flat and a rent-to-buy property.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I appreciate the extenuating circumstances that might apply to some of the properties in her constituency. We certainly do not experience that in Walsall North.
The amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale would be unfair to shared ownership landlords and would therefore undermine confidence in the sector. I urge the hon. Member to withdraw his amendment.
The evidence out there grows by the week. There is a genuine fear that landlords, freeholders and developers will look for other opportunities in response to the legislation. We already see those service charges up and down the country. I know it is a particular issue in London and the south-east, but every city across the country has seen some interesting non-transparent service charges—that includes estates and houses.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Committee prevents the inclusion of loopholes in the Bill that could be widened by clever lawyers and then exploited by developers and those with a financial interest in keeping things as they are? His proposals are trying to prevent loopholes from being left in this admirable but small piece of legislation.
I concur. That is exactly my point. I know that a similar amendment was tabled in the other place, as the Minister will be aware. We certainly need reassurance. There are lots of good intentions from the Minister and his Department with regard to this legislation, but we need to look at every opportunity to close those loopholes. I would like to have further discussions as the Bill continues its parliamentary journey—it is a conversation we need to continue. However, in that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 14, in clause 5, page 4, line 7, at end insert—
“(2B) Where a landlord charges any remedial costs during the course of the lease, the permitted rent in respect of the landlord’s share in the demised premises is a peppercorn.”
This amendment provides that a landlord of a shared ownership property may not charge ground rent in respect of the landlord’s share if any remedial costs are charged.
Taken together, the amendments revisit a question that I have posed to Ministers many a time in previous debates in Committee, on Second Reading and so forth: what about the costs of remediation for leaseholders? It is something we are all familiar with—here in Committee and well beyond—in particular for leaseholders caught in the scandal. We are of course waiting for the next stage of the Building Safety Bill—Report—in the Commons after spending many weeks in Committee. I see the Minister and some other familiar faces. While we wait, hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are receiving bills for astronomical amounts of money to remediate dangerously cladded housing. The cost is for more than cladding, as many people know—there are missing fire breaks, wooden balconies and so forth. Some of the bills top £100,000. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles—a not too far distant neighbour—is very familiar with those kinds of bills in her constituency.
The cost of remediation on shared owners’ shoulders can equal the value of their share of the property. Again, shared ownership leaseholders are too often charged 100% of the remediation cost for properties that they own only a small proportion of. Meanwhile, the associated costs of the building safety crisis, such as waking watch and insurance premiums continue to go up—we have examples of 1,000% and 1,400% right across the country. Despite repeated promises from Ministers—at my last count we were at 19 if I include the new Secretary of State—the issue is very much ongoing.
The amendment will not solve the problem. The Opposition have repeatedly set out a plan to get the building safety crisis fixed and ensure that developers, not leaseholders, bear the brunt of the costs. I am interested in the recent language from the Secretary of State in that regard. He seems to say some of the right things—there are some warm words—but we are now desperate for action. The amendment would at least ensure that shared ownership leaseholders cannot be charged for ground rents while they are also being charged for remediation work, taking one of the many costs of the crisis off their shoulders. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I certainly recognise the situation that my hon. Friend describes. I have a large number of constituents living in flats and being asked to pay astronomical costs for the remediation of their properties for which they bear no responsibility. Will he clarify whether the amendment would apply only where remediation costs are unfairly distributed between the freeholder and leaseholder, or would it apply in all situations where leaseholders are being asked to pay remediation costs?
Amendments 12 and 14, proposed by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, seek to reduce the payment of rent on a shared ownership property in different circumstances. As I have said, in the Government’s existing shared ownership scheme, owners have a full repairing lease and pay rent on the landlord’s share of the property. The role of ensuring that the fabric of the building is maintained and safe for residents is an essential part of the relationship between landlord, leaseholder and, in some cases, a managing agent. Reasonable service charges remain the proper and accountable way through which landlords should recover costs for maintaining a building and provision of services.
I reiterate that the Bill is focused entirely on the issue of ground rents, so remediation costs are outside its scope. The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing remediation, as it contains the appropriately detailed legislation for a complex issue of this nature. I ask the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Permitted rent: leases replacing pre-commencement leases
I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 6, page 4, line 30, after first ‘of’ insert ‘premises which consist of, or include,’.
This amendment clarifies that clause 6 can apply to a replacement lease which includes some premises not demised by the pre-commencement lease.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 4.
Government amendment 5.
Clause stand part.
Earlier, we considered amendments 1 and 2, which relate to disapplying the premium requirement for a lease where there is deemed surrender and regrant. This set of amendments is also connected to the deemed surrender and regrant process, but more specifically, they clarify the matter raised by Lord Etherton with regard to a lease variation.
As currently drafted, it was not clear, where there was a pre-commencement lease where a demise was changed, whether such leases would be captured by clause 6. It was raised in the other place that, if not, any existing ground rent in those leases would be reduced to a peppercorn. We recognise that that might make some landlords reluctant to agree to such changes, thereby disadvantaging their leaseholders, which is not the Bill’s intention. The amendments make clear that the demise of a lease can be changed and the resulting surrender and regrant will not reduce the ground rent on the balance of the term of the pre-commencement lease to a peppercorn.
Any extension to the term of the pre-commencement lease will be required to be a peppercorn, in the same way as for voluntary lease extension. By clarifying that ground rent in pre-commencement leases can continue in this way, the amendment ensures that freeholders need not withhold consent for a lease variation unnecessarily. It also ensures that there is a consistent approach towards existing leaseholders throughout the Bill. As with amendments 1 and 2, the amendments are designed to avoid unintended consequences.
I just want a little clarity from the Minister about the circumstances in which this extensive clause would apply. Is the amendment seeking to exclude just the issue of a voluntary lease variation? One might argue, quite plausibly, that any kind of leasehold is entirely voluntary, because the parties to the lease voluntarily sign it—caveat emptor and all that. One can say that any signature of a lease is voluntary in that sense.
The Minister says that a particular issue was raised in the other place about variations not happening if the landlord, in granting one, therefore lost the ground rent he was getting on an existing lease. I think that is the issue that the Minister raised in his succinct manner. However, I worry slightly about the word “voluntary” when it attaches to leases, because one might say that any signature of a lease is voluntary, on the basis that a party has, without being forced, signed it. I just wonder whether he is clear that his amendments will not create the potential for a wider loophole than one would wish in seeking to keep it tight.
I hope the Minister understands the minor point I am trying to make. I am very anxious that we do not inadvertently create broader loopholes in the Bill as a consequence of this. When one uses “voluntary” in relation to signing a lease, one can easily argue that any signature of any variation or lease is voluntary.
I am incredibly concerned that the hon. Lady has me at a disadvantage with regard to her legal expertise. However, I think we understand and accept the distinction between voluntary and statutory when it comes to lease extensions. This principle is well understood within the legal profession. I understand the concern she raises, but I feel it is misplaced, or at least should be assuaged. The intention of the measures is to close a loophole so that people are not deterred in any way from granting a lease extension because they feel they will be disadvantaged as a result.
I beg your indulgence, Chair, to say that, on the hon. Lady’s previous concern about how far back people could go when making a claim if a leasehold has been sold, my understanding is that the statute of limitations will apply, which is generally within six years.
To pick up on the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood on “voluntary”, a freeholder might offer a seemingly reasonable deal to voluntarily and formally extend a lease, but there is a real risk that elements of that could have a premium applied and ground rent could continue. What reassurance is there that that cannot happen? We have seen lots of examples of that. The mis-selling of leasehold properties was mentioned, which the Competition and Markets Authority has investigated and seen evidence of, and which we are all familiar with from constituents. If there is any possibility of a loophole here to do that, unfortunately there are people in this field who will do it, so again it is about that reassurance that the measure closes down those potential loopholes.
I think the hon. Member should be reassured. However, to ensure that that is the case, the Government will communicate regularly and frequently with professional legal bodies to ensure that they understand the case completely. No matter what legislation we introduce, it will not be possible to get away from the fact that, in seeking to enter into a legal contract, members of the public should engage good, independent legal advice. Unfortunately, some people will not and will be disadvantaged as a result.
That goes back to the point that, at the end, people seemed to seek legal advice, which they thought was independent and objective, but clearly it was not. This is about that reassurance. On behalf of our constituents, many of whom are trapped in that situation and still somewhat nervous, I seek that reassurance.
I feel that the clause strikes the right balance between, first, ensuring that the loophole is closed and, secondly, landlords feeling reassured that they will not be disadvantaged in any way by granting a lease extension. I think that both the points that the hon. Gentleman made are covered.
Amendment 3 agreed to.
Amendments made: 4, in clause 6, page 4, line 39, after “period” insert “(if any)”.
This amendment clarifies that clause 6 can apply to a replacement lease for a term that does not extend beyond the end of the term of the pre-commencement lease.
Amendment 5, in clause 6, page 5, line 7, after first “of” insert—
“premises which consist of, or include,”.—(Eddie Hughes.)
This amendment clarifies that clause 6(5) can apply to a new lease which includes some premises not demised by the lease to which subsection (2) applied.
Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Term reserving prohibited rent treated as reserving permitted rent
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to consider clause 16 stand part.
Clause 7 will apply if a regulated lease includes a prohibited rent. Should a lease include such a rent, the effect of the clause is that the term in the lease is in effect replaced by the correct rent term under clauses 4, 5 or 6 of the Bill.
The clause means that, should a lease include a prohibited rent, there is no requirement on the leaseholder to pay that rent. Any requirement in the lease to pay a prohibited rent has effect as if it were a requirement to pay the relevant permitted rent as established under the Bill.
Later in the Bill, with clause 16—in a moment—we will come to the provision in the Bill that enables a leaseholder to seek a declaration from the first-tier tribunal as to the effect of clause 7 on their lease. Clause 7 is important because it has the effect of immediately rectifying, in law, any lease that includes a prohibited rent.
Clause 16 is an important measure to ensure that parties to a lease can seek clarity as to whether a term in the lease is a prohibited rent and, if so, what the permitted rent is. Clause 7, as the Committee will recall, sets out the rent that should apply in cases where a lease reserves a prohibited rent. We expect that in most cases the effect of the clause will be clear, and that the landlord will accept that a prohibited rent is not enforceable. However, where that is not the case, clause 16 means that a leaseholder, or landlord, can apply to the appropriate tribunal for a declaration. If the tribunal is satisfied that the lease includes a prohibited rent, it must make a declaration as to the effect of clause 7 on the lease. In other words, the tribunal must also clarify what rent is payable.
Under clause 16(3), where there are two or more leases with the same landlord, it will be possible for a single application to be made. That may be made either by the landlord or by one of the leaseholders with the consent of the others. That will mean that if there are several properties in the same block, or perhaps in different blocks but with the same landlord, it will not be necessary for a separate application to be made in respect of each lease.
Clause 16 also states that where the lease is registered in the leaseholder’s name with the Land Registry, the tribunal may direct the landlord to apply to the Chief Land Registrar—the Land Registry—for the declaration to be entered on the registered title. The landlord must also pay the appropriate fee of about £40 for that. This will ensure that there is a record of the declaration for any successor in title to the lease. It will also mean that if the leaseholder wishes to sell, the true position will be clear to their purchaser’s conveyancer.
In the case that the tribunal does not direct the landlord to apply to the Land Registry, the leaseholder may do so themselves. That will involve the payment of a modest fee of around £40. I hope that we can agree that it is important that a leaseholder does not encounter difficulties when selling and that future leaseholders clearly benefit from the actions taken to address the prohibited rent included in their lease. The clause achieves that by ensuring that the correct position in relation to ground rent under their lease can be made clear on the register of title.
I thank the Minister for his explanation. If we look at the evidence provided by the National Leasehold Campaign and the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, and take our mind back to the Select Committee call for evidence, I think in 2018, which I know he had a keen interest in at the time, there was a real concern about access to tribunals. Decisions seemed to be weighted against leaseholders. On the worry about access to, and supported provided to, tribunals, what reassurance can he give that the situation can improve as a result of the changing legal landscape?
I wish to ask the Minister a question. I apologise to him; obviously we have not yet reached the debate on the commencement provisions, but he might be able to enlighten us on the Government’s intention. Clearly, it is entirely welcome that clause 7 would simply replace the unfair term in the lease that asks for real money for ground rent rather than the peppercorn, which the legislation is intended to outlaw, but the commencement provisions are not totally clear about when that provision will be commenced.
My understanding is that there will be a regulation-making power for the Government to bring into force the Act on the day that they wish to do so. My concern about not being clearer about when clause 7 comes into force is that there may be a gap between when the Bill is passed and when the clause is commenced by the Government, because they will have to make a regulation to do so. Does that leave a space for unscrupulous landlords to continue to have unfair contract terms in their leases after Royal Assent but before the commencement of the legislation?
I wonder whether the Minister could assuage concerns by making it clear that it is the Government’s intention not to have a big gap between Royal Assent and commencement such that a loophole could be created in which clause 7 has not yet been commenced, preventing unscrupulous characters who may want to induce potential tenants into leases with contract terms that would be outlawed by the Bill from doing so. A simple commitment from him that there will be no such gap would satisfy me entirely.
Given the pace at which legislation moves, that feels to me quite quick. With regard to the concerns of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale about the tribunal, I guess time will tell. We will need to monitor the situation closely, to ensure that people have access to tribunals. We are expecting the number of cases covered by this legislation to be relatively small. Given that the Government have signalled their intent, we have already seen reactions in the market, but I would look forward to working closely with the hon. Member, should concerns arise in future, in order for us to address them collectively.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Duty to inform the tenant
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Is the Government Minister absolutely sure that he wants to vote aye to clause 8?
I will suspend the Committee until this matter is resolved, which I hope will be done extremely quickly.
I am going to start that debate again. We now come to the Question that clause 8 stand part of the Bill. I call the Minister.
Mr Hollobone, I apologise sincerely for that small confusion on my part.
Clause 8 imposes on landlords a duty to inform whereby they are required to inform an existing leaseholder of the changes introduced by the Act, but only if those provisions in the Act have not yet come into force. This amendment was passed in the other place, and I support the principles behind the Lords amendment. It is vital that there is transparency in the leasehold system. However, there are doubts as to whether the amendment is the most effective means of achieving that objective. As drafted, it places a duty on all landlords. The amendment does not specify how—
Order. What we are debating now is that clause 8 stand part of the Bill. No amendment has been moved to clause 8. We are debating whether clause 8, as inserted by the noble Lords, stays part of the Bill.
Order. I am going to speak with the Clerk.
This is most unsatisfactory. The Minister can redeem himself by talking about “the clause”, not “the amendment”. If there is any more inappropriate language, I have a mind to suspend the sitting for the rest of the morning until the Government sort themselves out. The clause was tabled as an amendment in the Lords, but is now a clause in the Bill. If the Minister refers to it as “the clause”—we are debating clause stand part—I will allow him to continue.
That is very kind, Mr Hollobone; thank you.
I support the principles behind the clause—it is vital that there is transparency in the leasehold system—but there are doubts as to whether the clause is effective in achieving that objective. It places a duty on all landlords but does not specify how each landlord must satisfy that duty. Furthermore, it relates only to the short period between Royal Assent and the peppercorn limit coming into effect. It would therefore place a significant burden on enforcement authorities for a limited period. Additionally, the changes that the clause requires for the penalty enforcement process to align with the rest of the Bill would delay the implementation of new peppercorn rents.
We are looking closely at how to best achieve the objectives that informed the clause. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) raised very good points about the importance of transparent, objective legal advice during the purchase process.
I firmly believe that the Government’s provisions will lead to fairer, more transparent homeownership. I hope the Committee will agree that the clause should not stand part.
I thank the Minister for his explanation. He referred to the fact that I and a considerable number of other Members spoke about this matter on Second Reading and have done so throughout the campaign to reform the feudal leasehold system. I cannot quite understand the objection to the clause, given that the lack of transparency has been a major factor in the leasehold landscape—we have referred to the CMA investigation and mis-selling by solicitors. The clause would help to improve the landscape and improve the situation for leaseholders. It makes perfect sense to include provisions on transparency of information in the Bill that the Government are arguing for and which we are scrutinising and challenging. We support clause stand part.
I have some concerns about the Minister’s suggestion that we should not keep clause 8 in the legislation, partly because of the exchange that we just had on clause 7. I expressed a little sedentary shock that six months may pass between Royal Assent and the commencement of clause 7. A lot of leases can be signed in six months, which I consider an extended period, and clauses that will become prohibited may not be at the time.
Leases are difficult enough to read as a layperson without having to be aware that the law has been changed to prohibit a particular clause and that a rent set out in a lease should be replaced with a peppercorn rent. One would have to follow Hansard reports of Bill Committees carefully, as well as the commencement of legislation, to have an understanding that there was a prohibited clause in a lease that one had just signed. Even then, one must understand the legal language in leases, which is not the easiest thing for lay people, perhaps first-time buyers. It is extremely useful to have a provision such as clause 8 in the legislation to make it clear that there is an obligation on landlords to inform tenants of this interim period of time.
If the Minister had said in our debate on clause 7 that the delay was going to be a week or two weeks, then perhaps I would not have risen to support this clause, but we are talking about six months. Many leases have clauses that are to become prohibited later on, but the tenant who signed them may not understand that. We wish that were not the case but there are some landlords out there who wish to induce people to sign leases with charges attached that are shortly to become unlawful. Perhaps then there will be some money paid over, and it is more difficult to get that back than not to pay it in the first place.
Given that there is likely to be a period of up to six months between Royal Assent and commencement of the legislation, clause 8 is a valuable provision to keep in the Bill. I cannot understand why the Minister wants it removed. I would be happy if he were to tell me that commencement of the legislation would take place within a week or two of Royal Assent. I would not then be so concerned about this gap. I am concerned that we are creating or allowing too many loopholes that enable our constituents who are signing new leases to fall into traps that those who wish them to sign leases want to induce them into. The fewer loopholes, the better. Clause 8 is an important provision to leave in the Bill and I would vote for it to stand part of the Bill.
Clearly, six months is the limit that we have set. I am sure that people will be working assiduously to try to ensure that that period is minimised. The suggestion that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood made—that she would be reassured to hear that it would be a week—is nigh on impossible. We will continue to work hard to limit that period. During that time, we will communicate regularly with professional bodies to ensure that all solicitors are informed of and understand the changes that are coming.
We are placing a duty on the landlord, and the unintended consequences might be that there are a number of cases that are highlighted and then brought to a tribunal in a very condensed period of time, placing an unnecessary burden. I think it would make for a slightly chaotic approach to the system. We are aiming for a smooth transition. Given the effort that we have put into communicating with legal bodies and the work that hon. Members are doing to highlight the changes the Government have made, it feels like an unnecessary process. However, we will continue to work with the hon. Member during the passage of the Bill to see if there is anything else we can do to meet the objective of the clause.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 8 disagreed to.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
We must ensure that the breaches of prohibited rent that I set out in clause 3 are acted on. Clause 9 will place a duty on local weights and measures authorities in England and Wales, that is to say trading standards authorities, to act where a breach of clause 3 occurs in their area. It also gives them the power to act where a breach occurs elsewhere in England and Wales.
In addition, through subsection (2), English district councils that are not trading standards authorities will be given the power to enforce clause 3 but, unlike trading standard authorities, will not be required to do so. That will maximise our ability to act against perpetrators. Both local weights and measures authorities and district councils will be able to retain the financial proceeds from the penalties they impose to cover the costs incurred in carrying out their enforcement functions in relation to residential leasehold property.
Subsection (3) clarifies the area in which a breach occurs and, to be thorough, captures areas where a premises is located on a local authority boundary, although we think that those will be few and far between. I am sure we all agree that although it is important for enforcement authorities to have the necessary duties and powers to act on breaches, it is also important that we provide protection against the duplication of penalties, which is what subsection (4) does.
Equally, I am sure we all agree that it is right to expect landlords to understand the requirement of the new legislation and abide by it. It is our hope, therefore, that enforcement action will not be needed in most cases, but by conferring duties and powers on enforcement authorities, the clause will be instrumental in ensuring that any breach of the restrictions on ground rents can be robustly enforced. That is vital as a deterrent and to protect leaseholders from unfair practices.
My only concern is the obvious one about resources. I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Over the last 11 years, resources have been somewhat depleted as a result of austerity and Government cuts. Although there is the control and skill capacity locally to be the foot soldier for enforcement, it is a matter of having the people and resources to carry that out and implement it.
I notice that on the Bill’s journey in the other place, a reference was made to future local government settlements. The last 11 years have not been good if we use them as an example of potential resources. I would be interested in the Minister’s reply on that important and vital matter.
It is good to see that there is some provision about enforcement because there is often a gap in legislation, so the law is made and practical enforcement is not set out. I find it quite an interesting approach to enforcement to say that local trading standards or weights and measures authorities in England and Wales “must enforce” in their own area the standard statutory obligation of such an authority but
“may enforce…elsewhere in England and Wales.”
I may be wrong, but that seems a fairly novel approach to enforcement. I am not saying it is bad, but I would like the Minister to set out in a little more detail why the clause is worded in this manner and whether there are any precedents in respect of other enforcement arrangements that have been drawn on to set out the provision.
Subsection (2) says:
“A district council that is not a local weights and measures authority may enforce section 3 in England (both inside and outside the council’s district).”
We have the prospect of roving entrepreneurial weights and measures departments perhaps thinking that they can go and levy fines of up to £30,000 for a breach somewhere else entirely. I think I have read somewhere that they get to keep the proceeds, so this is quite an interesting tax farming idea—perhaps going back to old England, whereby the collector is given a percentage of the takings. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale, I was going to ask what provision the Government will make to enable a local authority’s trading standards department to search out such breaches. Perhaps they intend to enable trading standards from elsewhere in the country to come galloping in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. On the point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood and for Weaver Vale, Liverpool has lost £465 million of funding since 2010, and another £34 million of savage cuts are mooted for the upcoming budget. How does the Minister expect a council such as Liverpool City Council to finance a trading standards team that can actually carry out what the Bill proposes under what we are experiencing through austerity?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the savage reduction in available resource that the Government have visited on Liverpool. I am interested to hear from the Minister about the intention of this formulation and whether he anticipates that trading standards from out of area will be galloping around the country doing enforcement work in the manner that the clause lays out, because it is not something that I have seen before in legislation. I may be wrong, but it is not something that I can recall seeing.
I thank the Government for including effective enforcement in the Bill. There is no way that the Bill will work, and landlords will not be held to account, unless there is proper enforcement. Having been the cabinet member for public protection at Westminster City Council, which trading standards came under, I know at first hand the brilliant work that trading standards officers do day in, day out in Westminster and across the country. I would really appreciate it if the Minister could give assurances that trading standards teams across the country will have the funding to carry out the extra workload. I certainly think it is important that we ensure they can do so, because we do not want to be giving leaseholders any false hope, and I certainly welcome the ability for local authorities to keep the proceeds of any fines that they may be able to extract from a landlord.
Order. I must ask the hon. Lady to resume her seat. It is nothing against the hon. Lady at all—I am enjoying her speech immensely—but it is now time to adjourn.
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill (First sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Stewart Hosie, Mrs Sheryll Murray
† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)
† Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)
† Buchan, Felicity (Kensington) (Con)
† Cadbury, Ruth (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Daly, James (Bury North) (Con)
† Dowd, Peter (Bootle) (Lab)
† Eastwood, Mark (Dewsbury) (Con)
† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)
Fuller, Richard (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
† Green, Chris (Bolton West) (Con)
Hopkins, Rachel (Luton South) (Lab)
† Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Scully, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab)
† Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Whittaker, Craig (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Seb Newman, Sarah Ioannou, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 7 December 2021
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Bill
We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. Before we begin, I have a few announcements. Please switch electronic devices to silent. No food or drink is permitted during sittings of the Committee except for the water provided. Members are expected to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues will be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper. We will then consider a motion to enable the reporting of written evidence for publication, and a motion to allow us to deliberate in private about our questions before the oral evidence session. In view of the time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally, without debate.
(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 9.25 am on Tuesday 7 December) meet—
(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 7 December;
(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 9 December;
(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 14 December;
(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 16 December;
(2) the Committee shall hear oral evidence in accordance with the following Table;
Date Time Witness Tuesday 7 December Until no later than 10.10 am UKHospitality; British Retail Consortium Tuesday 7 December Until no later than 10.55 am British Property Federation; Lightstone Properties Tuesday 7 December Until no later than 11.25 am Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Tuesday 7 December Until no later than 3.00 pm ukactive; Federation of Small Businesses; British Independent Retailers Association
Tuesday 7 December
Until no later than 10.10 am
UKHospitality; British Retail Consortium
Tuesday 7 December
Until no later than 10.55 am
British Property Federation; Lightstone Properties
Tuesday 7 December
Until no later than 11.25 am
Chartered Institute of Arbitrators
Tuesday 7 December
Until no later than 3.00 pm
ukactive; Federation of Small Businesses; British Independent Retailers Association
(3) proceedings on consideration of the Bill in Committee shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 22; Schedule 1; Clause 23; Schedule 2; Clauses 24 to 26; Schedule 3; Clauses 27 to 30; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
(4) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 16 December.—(Paul Scully.)
The Committee will therefore proceed to line-by-line consideration of the Bill on Thursday at 11.30 am.
That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Paul Scully.)
Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room and circulated to Members by email.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Paul Scully.)
We will now go into a short private session to discuss lines of questioning.
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Kate Nicholls and Dominic Curran gave evidence.
Kate Nicholls: Thank you. I am Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, which is the national trade body representing hospitality businesses, from single site to multi-chain. We have 700 member companies and 95,000 outlets—about 95% of the market.
Do you have any introductory remarks to make about the Bill?
Kate Nicholls: In the interest of brevity and given the time, I will not make any introductory remarks.
Thank you. Dominic, will you introduce yourself and make any introductory remarks that you may have?
Dominic Curran: Thank you, Chair. I am Dominic Curran, property policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium. I will follow Kate’s lead and incorporate any remarks that I might have made into the evidence that I give.
Thank you very much. In that case, I will open up the floor to questions. Seema Malhotra.
Kate Nicholls: I will begin by saying that we have had unprecedented engagement in terms of the preparation for the Bill and all the way through the coronavirus crisis. In terms of when we first started talking to Ministers in the various Departments about the impact on rent and rent debt and the ability of businesses that were forced to close to pay rent debt, the engagement began in March of last year and has continued throughout the process. Certainly over the course of the summer since the intention to legislate was announced, we have had extensive dialogue and consultation meetings with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials.
Kate Nicholls: I do not have any concerns about the definition of tenant in this legislation. I think it is important that this piece of legislation sits within the existing canon of property law. There are some very clearly defined terms and references there, so the definitions do not cause us any degree of concern. An area that we may have wanted greater clarity on—we would hope that that would come forward in the guidance to arbitrators—is around the importance of sharing the burden of outstanding rent debt for those businesses that are covered by the ongoing moratorium and the mandatory arbitration process. It is also important to make sure that we have clarity around affordability and the affordability tests, but that could come through in guidance to arbitrators.
In terms of the challenges that businesses have faced over the course of the pandemic, I have to say that in large part landlords and tenants have worked very closely together to try to get through the crisis and, over the period of time that has been affected, about half to two thirds of landlords and tenants have been able to reach agreement on the treatment of rent debt and ongoing rent liabilities during that period, before the Government introduced legislation. The decision and the announcement of the intention to legislate gave a further nudge to those parties that had outstanding rent debt or which refused to negotiate or come to the table over that period. At that point, about a third of our businesses in hospitality had not got a negotiated settlement. The announcement of legislation pushed that towards resolution, and we have more businesses undergoing negotiations now. It is not all resolved. About 60% of our members say that all their outstanding rent debt is resolved and they have agreement as to how it will be treated, but that still leaves around one in five who have not got any form of negotiated settlement yet, the balance of the two being those that are in the process of negotiating while this legislation is introduced.
We see a small number of businesses that have been directly affected and continue to be directly affected. That is why this legislation is important—because without it, we would see an unsustainable rent debt that would be borne by a small number of tenants and would undoubtedly result in damage to their business and their businesses becoming unviable, or an impact on jobs, growth and investment going forward. The legislation remains vital to be able to provide the extended protection and to provide a negotiated solution for the remaining businesses that are unable to negotiate that themselves.
Kate Nicholls: That remains an ongoing discussion with officials and Ministers. Clearly, there is an indicative fee level that is set out for an application to the arbitration process, which is consistent with other arbitration schemes. It is reasonable and relatively small scale. Obviously, even if it is a paper process—let alone if it goes to a hearing—there will be considerable additional arbitration costs. We would welcome a cap on that and direction to arbitrators about the treatment of costs that are incurred as part of an arbitration process. Particularly where there is one party who is being deliberately obstructive or who has not co-operated, it would be helpful to have an ability to award costs.
As we go forward and understand in more detail what the arbitration process will look like, and as the guidance to arbitrators comes out, we as the trade association will work to make sure that we have got template systems in place to allow small independent lessees in particular to have access to the resources—the burdens of proof and the benchmarking data—that would help them to make their case at arbitration, so that we can try to keep the costs as low as possible and avoid the need for small businesses in the sector to require professional advice and support. That is where the costs will ratchet up, rather than the entry point costs to arbitration—where people feel they need to have expert witnesses and expert support to be able to build a case. We will work to make sure that we can do whatever we can to help businesses access that in a cost-effective way.
Dominic Curran: The British Retail Consortium, in the call for evidence that the Government published last spring, did call for a scheme that extended the moratorium to a future date and ringfenced the protection of the arrears that arose during the process, and it called for a process of compulsory arbitration. At least at headline level and in terms of the core principles of the Bill, this is what we have called for and what our members want. We do welcome it.
We have a slight concern about the definition of a business tenancy. The Bill appears to suggest that it is only a tenancy that is not contracted out of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. We have been assured by officials in separate meetings that that is not the intention of the Bill and that actually the Bill covers any tenancy that would be within the scope of the 1954 Act, whether it is contracted out or not, which does give us some comfort. That might be an area you would want to clarify in the course of scrutiny of the Bill.
Engagement with officials and Ministers has been fantastic, actually, throughout the pandemic and through the drafting of the Bill. We have a similar concern to UK Hospitality about the approach that will be taken on viability. Some of the definitions that the Government have said they do not want to enshrine in legislation—which is, I suppose, understandable—will be left to guidance for arbitrators. More than ever, the devil will be in the detail on that. We would want to see what that guidance is as soon as possible to give as much clarity as possible to businesses that might be thinking about using this route.
We would want to make sure that that guidance also directed arbitrators to take as broad a concept of viability and affordability as possible, so that there is enough understanding of a business’s circumstances that they could build in an allowance for the uncertainty of future cash flow and turnover, not least because there will be tax rises coming from April onwards when this process will effectively kick in—both higher businesses rates liabilities for many businesses and further tax increases on Business Network International contributions. We would want to see as much certainty in advance as possible and as much understanding of the need for businesses to have a buffer to enable them to trade while all these adverse headwinds are hitting them. We certainly share some of the concerns of UK Hospitality. I think the approach taken on fees is exactly right, as Kate outlined. While there may be a nominal, reasonable amount to enter the arbitration process, we would want the process to be as straightforward as possible, particularly for smaller businesses, which will not have access to in-house or agency consultants to support them through the process, so that it really is open to all and seen as fair and equitable.
Dominic Curran: I think it is less of a problem than it is for UK Hospitality. That is not to say that it is not a problem, but I think retail rent collection levels are higher than hospitality, as you would expect, given that the retail sector includes businesses that were allowed to open throughout the pandemic, particularly grocery and pharmacy businesses, so turnover has probably been higher proportionately in retail than it has been for hospitality.
I think it affects a smaller proportion of our sector in terms of the quantum of rent arrears, but it is still significant. It is estimated that there are still several billions of outstanding rent arrears in the retail sector during the pandemic period that the Bill covers, as far as we know. Some of that surveying does not take account of agreements that will have been reached off the books, as it were, or outside the formal rent collection dates, so it is an uncertain figure. When we have spoken to members, and this is an informed guesstimate rather than a thorough survey, it feels like we are at about 80% to 90% of rent having been collected and deals having been done, so it is a very small proportion of the outstanding rent liabilities that is left to be resolved. With each extension of the moratorium every three months, as we have seen over the past year and a half, and particularly with the announcement of this Bill and the process that it proposes, we have seen that percentage chipped away. Ever more landlords and tenants are reaching agreements. While it is a significant problem, it is probably less of a problem than it is for UK Hospitality, but it is still really important that even if businesses do not take advantage of the arbitration process, that process is there—if for no other reason than to help chivvy both landlords and tenants into making new arrangements.
Dominic Curran: In all honesty, members report that the code of practice did not aid them particularly. Its voluntary nature was the real sticking point. It was not necessarily the content, which was developed in very deep and meaningful consultation with us, UK Hospitality and other interested parties, but it was the fact that it was voluntary that was the sticking point. Because it was good practice, those who were going to use that approach did so anyway, almost regardless of the code’s existence, and those who were not going to use the approach did not feel like the code applied to them, because there were no sanctions on the requirement to negotiate in line with it.
What has helped—in so far as people are aware of it—is the suggestion, and Kate alluded to it, that if you do not negotiate in line with the principles of the previous code and the revised code, there may be some penalty in terms of costs being awarded against you in any subsequent arbitration process. That may help focus minds somewhat.
Dominic Curran: I would not be able to say significantly, but certainly anecdotally speaking to members, yes, it has helped.
Kate Nicholls: I agree with what Dominic said. The code of practice content was really helpful, and it gave a steer towards negotiations and how you should negotiate in good faith. A mandatory backstop and a legislative backstop are absent. It was limited in its impact in bringing recalcitrant players to the table. When Ministers announced that they were intending to legislate, a third of our businesses still had no negotiations and a large amount of outstanding debt, with no agreement as to how that was to be treated. That has dropped from a third to 20% and it keeps getting chipped away every time we move further forward in the legislative process.
The introduction of the legislative backstop is really important. The code of practice principles will be important to guide discussions for those businesses that fall outside the legislative solution, because obviously there will be parts of the business that will not be covered by the arbitration process. It is about giving the legislative backstop and the clearer direction towards sharing the pain, coming to a negotiated solution and being able to support what would otherwise be viable businesses.
The ministerial forewords in the legislation and the call for evidence are immeasurably helpful in giving a clear direction that landlords should do whatever they can to support businesses that would otherwise be viable. That was the piece that was missing from the code of practice that gives a clearer steer of the intent of the legislation.
Dominic Curran: On the arbitrators who will be used, the Bill says, if I remember it correctly, that the Secretary of State will nominate or choose which arbitrating bodies will be eligible to provide arbitrators to the process, so it remains a bit of an open question. All I would say—having spoken to officials, this point is well understood and well heard—is that given the nature of the discussions that inevitably will be had during the arbitration process, we would prefer to see arbitrators who have a strong accountancy background, perhaps more so, or at least as much as, those who have a property conflict resolution background.
The nature of the process is to look at tenants’ accounts and to make sure that their income, liabilities and forecasts for turnover are such that they can pay a relevant and viable proportion of their rent arrears. So rather than it being a dispute over the interpretation of a lease or the duties of a tenant or a landlord, it should really be about understanding the finances of that business and enabling it to pay a proportion of rent between 0% and 100%, while being able to continue to trade viably at the same time. We certainly want to see the accountancy profession well represented in that.
Whether any other trade bodies, beyond those that represent accountants, are given the right to carry out the process by the Secretary of State remains to be seen. If you wanted to get the confidence of businesses that are tenants, however, you would want to make sure that you had accountants rather than property dispute arbitrators fulfilling the duty.
Dominic Curran: No, I think it is a reasonable set of stages. There is a helpful flowchart in the revised code. The only point I would make is that we have a situation where the arrears, at least in retail, are historical in that they go up only to April 12 or the end of March, given rent payment dates. We want the legislation to be passed as quickly as possible, the arbitrators to be announced as quickly as possible and the process to start sooner rather than later, because it is the uncertainty that is particularly damaging for any business.
Kate Nicholls: I agree with Dominic that the key thing is that we need to have confidence from both parties to be able to and want to use the process to resolve these outstanding matters as rapidly as possible. I am therefore more attracted to using a multiple variety of arbitration bodies, rather than just one, because we need to make sure that there is no delay in appointing arbitrators and their being able to take on the work. I also agree with Dominic that it is hugely important that they have broad-based financial and business understanding and sector-specific—in our case—understanding of the businesses.
This is not necessarily a legal issue or a dispute resolution issue. This is a financial issue that centres on viability and affordability, and therefore an understanding of the nature of the business, the way it operates, the cost of business and the costs coming down the line, as Dominic alluded to, is critical to an understanding of affordability and ability to pay. Those are the key elements that we want to see. Confidentiality, given that you are effectively opening books and sharing financial information, is really important because tenants clearly need confidence that that will be protected. However, I do not see any problems with the Bill as it is currently drafted.
Kate Nicholls: As soon as we have got the legislation through, we need the communication out there as rapidly as possible that this is coming, so that the scope of the Bill, as it goes through the House, is clearly understood. We are doing a wide range of outreach through the trade press and through our own communication channels to cascade that information out, not only through the trade association but more broadly. We are working closely with BEIS and MHCLG to make sure that that communication goes out there.
I think it is then about making sure that we have a communications plan post the Bill being enacted to ensure that there is confidence in the arbitration process and the arbitrators, and that we encourage people to use it. It will then be down to the industry to make this work. We will work flat out to do that, and to facilitate the tools that people need to enter into confidential negotiations, using the code of practice, and then arbitration if they absolutely need to as a last resort. Arbitration should be a matter of last resort in this case. Success for the Bill and the trade associations helping commercial tenants through this will be if a small number of cases actually need to go to arbitration to be resolved.
Kate Nicholls: Clearly, it affects our ability to pay and it affects viability. It is quite clear, and Ministers have been quite clear about this over the course of the last week, that we now know and understand in full the economic effects of any restrictions on businesses, such as in hospitality, which have been asked to bear a disproportionate burden over the course of the whole pandemic. It is quite clear that businesses would not survive without further additional support if additional restrictions were imposed. That would be one measure that would be necessary. Your ability to pay your rent on time a quarter in advance is significantly impaired if your ability to trade is restricted. Trading remains quite soft, and consumer confidence remains fragile, so restrictions would have an immediate and significant effect on ability to pay, viability and affordability—all the tests we are talking about. As a minimum, you would need to extend some of these protections going forward.
Dominic, do you want to add something?
Dominic Curran: Kate said exactly what I would have said; if you just replace “hospitality” with “retail”, you are more or less there. The only thing I would add to Kate’s comments is that, just as at the peak of the pandemic, with the business rates holiday and restart and reopening grants, when retail and hospitality were able to reopen, you would need to see a package of measures to support businesses in the event of any further restrictions.
Kate Nicholls: If you look at the pub-owning businesses and the tied pub companies, there has been a far greater degree of forgiveness of rent among those businesses. It might not be 100% for all of them, but significant rent concessions have been granted throughout the periods of closure, and immediately granted. There has also been a greater willingness to defer rent, allowing rent debt to be accrued and rescheduled over a longer period of time.
If you look at the commercial sector, there has been a variety of different approaches, and there is not anything that really reflects the size of landlord or of tenant businesses in terms of a willingness to negotiate and to reach agreement. Some very small landlord companies have been very willing to give rent holidays, concessions and deferments, and some large commercial companies have been very difficult and intransigent in coming to the table and negotiating, and are taking further enforcement action. It is less to do with the size; it is more the nature of the landlord that has caused the biggest challenges, and the ones that we have found taking enforcement action tend to have been the larger commercial landlords, who have taken a more robust line.
Dominic Curran: Thank you very much for asking that. That is a really important issue for our members. We have been asking for action on county court judgments and High Court judgments since October last year. We are very pleased that the Government listened and took account of our concerns to the extent that it was announced alongside the Bill that there would be no ability for landlords to pursue court processes for rent arrears after 10 November, when the Bill was introduced. Unfortunately, that means that any landlord who started those proceedings before 10 November is now in a more advantageous position than any landlord who was perhaps negotiating in line with the code and taking a more reasonable approach with their tenants.
We have the slightly perverse situation that the “more aggressive” landlords are actually better off now than those who might have been taking a longer, more reasonable and more timely approach. I do not see why it should be impossible for there to be a direction to courts to stay any court hearing—county court or High Court—for rent arrears pending the outcome of any arbitration process, or the period in which you could make an arbitration process after the Bill gets Royal Assent. I do not see why it is right that those landlords who have been more aggressive are able to carry on their approach.
We saw that problem early on in the process. The Government rightly and laudably made it effectively impossible in England for landlords to take properties back, to seize goods to the value of the debt, and to effectively start the process of winding up a tenant. That was the rent protection moratorium, which was very welcome and was extended, but it left, as we have been saying since October last year, a gap in the ringfence that unfortunately some landlords sought to exploit very early on. Landlords’ lawyers were sending tenants letters demanding rent arrears, and they could effectively impose the costs of that process on to the tenant.
The tenant was therefore liable for not only the rent arrears and any interest due but their landlords’ lawyers costs, which some suggested might have been slightly inflated, as well as their own legal costs in defending themselves. One member said to me, “It’s a bit like a water running downhill; it will always find a way.” That was the situation with CCJs. While it is fantastic that there has been recognition of that loophole, unfortunately it applies only from 10 November. Any CCJ that had not reached a final decision but was in train in the courts should be stayed pending the outcome of the arbitration process.
Kate Nicholls: I would echo everything that Dominic has said. CCJs have remained a cause for concern throughout this process, and we have been flagging it as a potential loophole that some landlords are exploiting. The key point about a CCJ is that it seeks to establish that the rent—a debt—is due in full, and the confirmatory judgment that it is due in full cuts across the arbitration process, which talks about a fair sharing, a fair split or fair dealing with the rent debt, so you are pre-empting that discussion. There are significant effects for the business that has a CCJ against it, in terms of credit rating, so there is an onus on a business to try to resolve the matter and prevent it from being heard in court. So this has always been a major source of concern. What we have seen is landlords—even after the date of the ministerial statement that the Government intended to legislate and about the intent on the code of practice and the arbitration process—tabling and starting CCJ processes. That is a particular cause for concern when the intention and the direction of travel are quite clear.
So I agree with Dominic. The concern is that you have this cut-off date of 10 November, which is when the legislation was published, but we would want to see direction to courts to stay all those proceedings, to avoid unnecessary costs to businesses in having to defend cases that should not be being brought and should be set to one side. I think it would be helpful if that was taken forward. Yes, we have raised that as part of the consultation process and we have raised that repeatedly with Ministers and officials over the course of the last year. As Dominic says, we have been highlighting CCJs since October of last year, but, more importantly, highlighting the continued use of them since spring of this year, when the intention was announced. I understand the challenges of legislating retrospectively, but I think it would be helpful to give direction to the courts, and clarity and certainty around that.
Kate Nicholls: Yes, I think that would be helpful to take into account, in terms of both arbitration fees and more general costs, if people are having to incur costs to go to arbitration because of a refusal to negotiate. I think that would be a sensible, pragmatic principle to put into the guidance to arbitrators in order for them to be able to take that into account.
Dominic Curran: We certainly have been making representations to officials since it was clear that this was the direction of travel the Government wanted to go in, and I am sure they have heard loud and clear the points that we have made, which will have been made by UK Hospitality and others. I think they completely understand and appreciate that.
It would probably be helpful, as I think I said earlier, for the Government to set out as far in advance as possible, or as early as possible, who they are thinking of as eligible bodies that could undertake the arbitration process, or whose members could undertake the arbitration process, and perhaps some of the principles that they would like to see for arbitrators—as I said earlier, making sure that there is a strong understanding of accountancy issues, rather than property dispute issues. I am sure that there will be an announcement as soon as the Bill allows the Government the freedom to make that announcement. It will be all set out in secondary legislation. We want people with a strong understanding of the financial issues, rather than property issues.
Dominic Curran: The Government were right not to put in a clear definition of viability, because I think it will be different for every business, let alone every sector. However, at the same time, there needs to be reflected in the guidance to arbitrators as broad a definition of viability as possible, or as broad a set of criteria as possible to be taken into account when assessing viability. Not only will there be the known knowns, if you like, of higher business rates and tax costs, but there will still be a great deal of uncertainty. Who knows where we will be in March and April, but consumer confidence still has not returned to the levels we saw pre-pandemic. While in retail, particularly, there were reasonably good sales figures for October and November, those are perhaps reflective of people spreading out their December purchases and so are not necessarily reflective of a higher level of consumer spending in the economy generally. In that context, I think it is wise to build in as much of a buffer as possible within the assessment of viability and affordability, because we are still dealing with a hugely uncertain situation, in terms of the ability of businesses to trade.
Kate Nicholls: The questions that you raise on issues pertinent to future trading, future recovery and the costs coming down the line are more relevant to a discussion about affordability, rather than viability. Go back to the principles and the ministerial foreword to the legislation and the call for evidence, which talk about making sure that businesses that would otherwise be viable, had it not been for covid, are able to continue trading through the covid recovery period. That means that you need a longer timeline. I think it is helpful to look at, in our case, the hospitality strategy and the tourism recovery plan, which talk about the length of time it will take our businesses to recover. The domestic and international tourism recovery will be in 2023 to 2024, so you need to look at businesses that will be viable over that longer period and will return to a level of viability that they enjoyed previously.
The questions you ask are much more related to ability to pay and affordability, and the key thing we need there is that longer timeline that looks at the sustainability of making this rent debt payment, either in full or in part, at an immediate point or over a longer period. Those are the questions that the arbitrators will look at. For the tenants’ businesses, it is about making sure that you can factor in all those costs that are coming through and the recovery. That is where I go back to the templates and the benchmarking that business organisations and trade associations are able to provide, so you can look at what happens to the margin.
What we know has happened over the course of covid and over the course of the recovery period since reopening—the point at which the rent debt is fixed; it is 19 July, in our case—is a significant increase in the costs of doing business. Revenues have not tracked upwards to the same level, and we are not back at 2019 levels, and therefore the margin of profitability has been squeezed quite dramatically. It takes more sales to make a profit and to break even at this point in time, when you are looking at cost-price inflation of about 13% in hospitality businesses and revenues that are still around 75% to 80% of 2019 levels. Those are the factors, and that is why it is so important that the arbitrators who are making those judgments about affordability and ability to pay can take account of and understand all of those issues and plug in the future changes.
As Dominic alluded to, you have got the business rates, which need to be looked at site by site, as well as on a business basis. You have got changes in the VAT rate that are plugged in for hospitality. The VAT rate will change from 12.5% to 20%, so there will be a significant cost increase in tax that will be passed on to consumers. Therefore, you need to be able to look at what that will do to the end-point pricing, the affordability and the ability of those businesses to pay if we are not going to have inflation.
Order. I am sorry to cut across you in full flow, but I am afraid we are at the end of the time allocated for these questions. I thank the witnesses very much indeed. We will now prepare for the next panel.
Examination of witnesses
Melanie Leech and Astrid Cruickshank gave evidence.
Before we start with the next panel, I remind Members that they are expected to wear masks in Committee when not speaking. We will now hear oral evidence from Melanie Leech CBE, chief executive at the British Property Federation, appearing by Zoom, and Astrid Cruickshank, director of Lightstone Properties, also appearing by Zoom. For this session we have until 10.55 am. Can the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record? If there are any very brief introductory remarks, you are more than welcome to make them.
Melanie Leech: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning. I am Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, which is a membership organisation for all parts of the property sector in the UK, including owners, agents, developers, investors and advisers. We represent an industry that contributes over £100 billion a year to the economy and employs around 1.2 million people. Chair, I will follow the precedent of earlier witnesses by not making any introductory remarks and saving what I want to say for the questioning.
Thank you. Astrid?
Astrid Cruickshank: I am Astrid Cruickshank. Thank you for inviting me to join you. I run a small property company called Lightstone Properties. Our investments are mainly car dealerships, retail and leisure. We own all of our investments jointly with joint venture partners, who are all private individuals. I will also wait for the questions.
Thank you very much. Seema Malhotra?
Melanie Leech: We have surveyed our members at various points over the pandemic, and our latest survey, which represents around 16,000 leases across the whole of the UK and within our membership, shows that around 86% to 87% of those leases are now covered by some form of agreement. We believe that the challenge that is left for the arbitration scheme to solve and tackle is a very small part of the total market.
I must caveat that by saying that one of the challenges in all of this for Government, as much as for anybody trying to work to create solutions and outcomes, is that we do not really know how many commercial leases there are in the UK or in the retail and hospitality sector, which is the hardest hit part of the whole market by the pandemic. Business rates data from the valuation office suggests that there are about 620,000, but they vary immensely from very large property owners and very large tenants to individuals who may not be incorporated but who may have invested their savings or their pension pot in a single property and, similarly, sole traders who may be their tenants.
In any of the data that will be shared with you, it is quite hard to get a handle on what that represents in terms of the totality. There will always be a long tail outside any of the data that we present to you. What I can say is that, from the data that I have seen and that is available to me, we think that the vast majority of leases that we surveyed are now covered by agreements.
Melanie Leech: In most cases, we have seen people behaving well and coming together—not always immediately, but over time. Increasingly, there is a recognition that the relationship between a property owner and a tenant is an economic partnership and that the two partners need to work together and navigate a way through together. As I say, that has happened as time has gone on and everyone has seen that this is not a short-term hit, but a long-term challenge and problem that needs to be approached in that way.
We have seen a number of examples that have been quite widely reported of tenants who can afford to pay their rent but choose not to do so or to engage in any way, shape or form with their property owners. How do we know that they can afford to pay? Because we can see the backing that they have. We can see that, increasingly, they are now starting to pay dividends and bonuses to senior management and they are starting to invest in new properties. Our view is that if they can afford to do those things, it is a clear indicator that they are not in such distress that they need support with their rent. When they are not even talking to their property owners, they cannot have that conversation.
Astrid Cruickshank: For me, the absolute key is that they have good, sound financial knowledge; they are able to look at a set of accounts—both filed and management accounts—really understand them and work out from them how the underlying business is performing.
One of the things that helped me enormously in my negotiations was doing a compare and contrast of my landlord companies, because each of my properties is in a different one. I looked at my net assets and my cash balance, and at my tenants’ net assets and their cash balance, and then I used that, where I had a much larger tenant, as a way to explain to them our respective positions. I think it is critical that the arbitrators can understand the financial positions of both parties and the financial impact that their decision could have.
For us, insolvency was a major concern, and it has been throughout, because if you have a company that owns just one property and it has bank debt, and that tenant stops paying, you are insolvent. All you can then do is inject additional cash. As I said, my joint venture partners are all private and have their own businesses that were also affected, so it is a difficult thing for me to then send them a note saying, “Please send me £10,000 by Friday,” when I know that their main business is hospitality, for example, and they are struggling themselves.
Melanie Leech: I largely agree with Ms Cruickshank. The key decisions that need to be made are about viability and affordability, which require a financial understanding rather than a particular understanding of property contracts and property leases, so I agree.
Melanie Leech: My understanding is that the Government want as few cases as possible to reach the arbitration process, and we share that ambition. We agree that that is right. For us, it is quite hard to see how the same scheme will be accessible both to very small landlords—including private individuals, either themselves or through syndicates and so on, and small companies—and to small tenants, as well as dealing with the very complex nature of the relationship between very large property owners and very large multinational tenant businesses.
The aim is for simplicity and a relatively straightforward and speedy system. I think that is more naturally likely to be able to deal with relatively simple relationships and relatively small-scale sets of books. It is much harder for us to see how larger players will be able to enter the scheme, particularly in a situation where there is either one tenant with multiple landlords, and you are trying to deal with multiple different relationships, or the reverse: multiple tenants with a single landlord. It is really hard to envisage how, in practice, the scheme will be able to cope with those kinds of relationships.
I suspect that it is the Government’s intention that those kinds of cases should not come to the arbitration scheme so that it can be kept simple. In that case, such things as accessibility and the cost structure, and people’s ability to go into it unsupported by ranks of advisers that they cannot afford to pay for, become much more critical. Ms Cruickshank can probably speak more to that.
Astrid Cruickshank: I am pretty pleased with the scheme as it has come forward for landlords of my size. I take on Melanie’s points about larger landlords—going back 20 years, I was a fund manager, and it is a completely different situation—but for me, I think the scheme works well. I like the fact that it includes references to ensuring that the landlord remains solvent, which was critical to me. In terms of fees, a sliding scale that is somehow related to the rent seems the easiest way to keep it affordable. I appreciate that there will have to be a minimum, but if it could be somehow linked to the sum in question that could work for us.
We have a sound issue, Ms Leech. Hold on one second.
Melanie Leech: Can you hear me now? I will abandon the headphones. Apologies. Our view is that for the larger, more complex relationships, this scheme should not be the way forward. They should be taken as they would have been before the pandemic. Outside the confines of the ringfencing of this scheme, that will be through the courts. These are, ultimately, legal relationships, and the courts are there to resolve legal disputes. I think the scheme can work well for smaller businesses and less complex relationships, but for those larger, more complex relationships, redress should be through the courts, as it always was and will be again outside the confines of the scheme.
Melanie Leech: I think what is really important, not only for the individual property owners in the sector but for the market, the health of the sector and the future—I go back to that £1.2 billion GVA that we create every year—is that certainty that you, the Government, understand the importance of contracts as part of what makes UK real estate an attractive investment proposition for pension funds, saving funds and those institutional long-term investors. When we talk about property owners, that is largely who we are talking about. We are talking about our money as individuals, our pensions and savings. In order to protect them appropriately in these circumstances and to secure the future—particularly thinking about the levelling-up agenda, for example, and the investment that will be needed across the country—it was really important that, as part of this announcement, the Government made clear that, if tenants can afford to pay their rent, they should pay their rent in full, and that this scheme is designed to support and facilitate agreement being reached between tenants that are vulnerable and need support and property owners that can afford to give that support. That builds on what has already happened in the market, where millions of pounds of support has already been provided to the most vulnerable tenants. That underlying principle protects the sanctity of the contract for the long term and protects UK real estate as an investment proposition, which we badly need in this country, while also allowing the outstanding cases in which agreement has not been reached to have some kind of resolution.
Thank you. Astrid, same question to you.
Astrid Cruickshank: I have to say that I think it is quite unfortunate that we need this system at all. I try to speak to all my tenants. I have four who just point-blank refuse to engage. I knew a finance director prior to covid who was always happy to take my call, so it was somewhat disappointing to find, when trying to speak to them to try to agree a way forward, that they just will not engage. I have to say that I have been able to unlock mine now, so unless there are further lockdowns—fingers crossed—I will not need to avail myself of this. I have stuck with the consultation process because I think it is important that there is a voice from a small landlord. People tend to assume all landlords are enormous, and I wanted to make the point that that is not the case.
Melanie Leech: I hope that a binding arbitration scheme will be a neutral process that allows both sides’ views to be heard and a resolution to be reached between those two positions. As I said in response to the Minister, the principles should be that someone who can pay their rent should pay it, but if they can demonstrate that they need support, because they cannot afford to pay their rent, that case should be heard, and a landlord who is able offer support should give it. I think those principles, if they remain in place and underpin the scheme, should lead to a fair outcome.
The other thing we have concerns about—although I think the process is designed to avoid this—is that it is not a case of both parties starting in an equal position. We start from the position that there is a contract that says that the tenant should pay rent, and the tenant is seeking support to set aside that contractual obligation. The evidence base is primarily driven by the tenant’s position; I have heard concerns that if a landlord wants to go into the arbitration process, they need evidence from the tenant to underpin their position, and, if the tenant does not provide that evidence, the landlord is at a disadvantage in the process.
The process is designed to deal with that by allowing them to initiate the process from a starting position that says the tenant should pay in full. If the tenant gives evidence to demonstrate why they need a concession, the landlord can consider that and put in a revised proposal before getting to arbitration. As long as that is in place, the landlord need not be disadvantaged by not having the information up front. It is important to recognise that the burden of proof for both viability and affordability is primarily on the tenant; it is only at the stage at which the tenant’s case is made, as it were, that the question of whether the landlord can afford to give a concession comes into play, at which time they also need to provide evidence. I think that the Government understand that, and that it is built into the process. That is one of the things that property owners will be nervous about.
There is an issue about landlords. I think you accepted that landlords agree with the principle that both landlords and tenants might have to share the burden of rent arrears that built up during the period of coronavirus restrictions, in the light of the examination of evidence. Do you accept the principle that there may have to be a sharing of the loss for both the tenant and the landlord? Unlike Government Members, I do not think that this is a laughing matter.
Astrid Cruickshank: May I answer that? Our tenants have had varying experiences throughout the pandemic, and some have made more profit during covid than they did the year before, which is down to their ingenuity—pivoting their business and moving more online. I have had at least five tenants file accounts with Companies House that show a higher profit in the first year of covid than the year before. In such a case, there is no loss to share.
Our tenants in hospitality and the gyms that we own have clearly made losses. We have restructured the leases in all such cases. We have put more money into our entities so that we could give them some rent free to help them through the lockdown. We extended the lease, got a break dropped or got some kind of quid pro quo.
Melanie Leech: In my experience, most larger landlords have been working to a sort of grid. They have tried to look at each of their tenants and see the position they are in, and they have prioritised support to help the most needy. The most support has been given to smaller business, independent businesses and businesses that do not have strong financial backing; it has been given overwhelmingly to the hospitality sector, because everyone has recognised that the majority of those businesses do not have the kind of alternative routes that Ms Cruickshank was just talking about. Millions of pounds have been given in rent write-offs already, as reflected in the data that I referenced at the start.
Forgive me if I was not clear in what I said; let me come back to my point. We believe that those tenants who can afford to pay their rent or who cannot demonstrate need should pay their rent in full. Tenants who can demonstrate significant impact on their businesses and have no way of paying should get support from landlords who can afford to give it. We absolutely believe in that principle, because we believe that property owners and their tenants are economic partners and they should be working together.
It is not, by the way, in a property owner’s interest to either evict a tenant or have a tenant go bust if they believe they are a viable tenant, because an empty building is generating no rent at all—whether it is a debt or whether it is being paid. It becomes a business rates liability that the property owner then has to pay. It becomes a dead building. When a month’s footfall goes from an area, it does not come back. If you have empty buildings, people leave that area and they forget what took them there in the first place. That has an impact on both immediate rent and on the value of the property. It is not in a property owner’s interest not to keep tenants in place wherever it is possible to do so.
Melanie Leech: I have not had any concerns about that raised with me by my members.
Astrid Cruickshank: I do not have any concerns about that either.
Astrid Cruickshank: Personally, I would like to see them be in private if I were to take part in one, because I would be disclosing confidential financial information to make the point about my solvency and what I can and cannot offer. Potentially, that would even go as far as who is behind you, who the actual owners are and their ability to inject money or not. I am pleased to see that the Bill says that you would not be required to restructure, so that is good. I feel that in order to make my case properly, I would want to share confidential information. Therefore, I would like it to be private.
Melanie Leech: I would agree with that. By the nature of this, there is going to be a lot of confidential information that is going to be disclosed.
Melanie Leech: I think there are precedents already in the legal system for dealing with sensitive information. The principle is well understood. I am assuming that the Government will look at those precedents to shape how the scheme will work in practice. There are parts that will not be sensitive, and there are parts that will be. Whether it is better to have the whole thing protected or whether it is possible to split the evidence and have it dealt with in two parts, I am not sure.
The other point to make is that some of this may not be heard, as it were. It may well be a paper process at a desk, in which case it does not seem to me that there is any particular need to do anything other than give the documents to the arbitrator in confidence and for them to deal with it. I assume that there will need to be some kind of public statement on the outcome, because I assume that arbitrators will want to see precedents emerging and a pattern of what is happening, particularly if there are multiple situations of different cases with the same tenant or landlord. As I say, I am sure the Government are well aware of these kinds of issues.
Melanie Leech: We have worked quite a lot with various small property owners, although they are not in our membership, over the last 18 months. What I have heard from them is that unless there is a cap at a relatively modest level, the scheme will not be accessible to them. Clearly it is a different matter for larger companies. As for poor behaviour, yes, we absolutely think that if parties do not go into or act through this process in good faith, the arbitrators should be able to award costs against them as part of the outcome.
Astrid Cruickshank: I would agree with that. If the example that I gave you—three tenants just refusing to acknowledge any attempt to communicate with them—ended up in arbitration, it would seem entirely unfair that I should be picking up the costs, when I was prepared to make them an offer but they were not willing to even acknowledge that I had made it or respond in any way.
Melanie Leech: We have a lot of the larger ones as part of our membership, so yes, I think so. They act for both property owners and tenants, so I have been able to draw on their advice about what is happening in the market—what the relationships are—as well as some of the data that is published. The remit data in particular is drawn from the evidence that they collect. The one thing that they would say, and that I would say, is that we were disappointed that service charges were brought within the ringfence and the protection, because that is money that has already been spent by property owners and agents in maintaining buildings. The tenants might not be able to use them for their primary business purpose while they have been shut, but the buildings still need to be maintained and kept safe, and those costs have increased in some cases.
I know that some on the tenants’ side have suggested that those costs should be reduced because the buildings cannot be occupied. Where we can see that service charges have been reduced, that reduction absolutely should be passed on to tenants—I am not for a minute arguing against that—but where those costs have been incurred, we think that they should be paid and that they should not have been able to benefit from the protection of the ringfencing in the Bill, because that is money that has already been spent by property owners. That is debt that has already been incurred, so we were disappointed by that, and I think the agents would echo that point of view. Beyond that, I think they are supportive of this Bill, as we are.
Thank you. Are there any final questions? No. In that case, I thank the witnesses very much for their evidence.
Examination of witness
Lewis Johnston gave evidence.
Lewis Johnston: Thank you, Chair. My name is Lewis Johnston and I am assistant director for policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. We are a professional body for all forms of alternative dispute resolution. We have 18,000 members across the world, operating across all forms of ADR—arbitration, adjudication and mediation—and we have 6,000 members here in the UK. I will keep my introduction as brief as possible, following the previous witnesses.
Lewis Johnston: In common with some of the previous witnesses, I suggest that financial and accounting expertise will be quite crucial. Obviously, the Bill makes provision for some quite detailed assessments of viability and affordability. There are provisions about the kind of evidence that would have to be given regard to in reaching some of those decisions and making the award, and one of the impressions we got from digesting the Bill was that some of that analysis might require some reasonably in-depth expertise. Within the arbitration profession, there are experts across lots of different fields: there are surveyors, there are property experts who have already acted in property dispute schemes, and there are also financial experts, accountants and so on, but I would say that financing and accounting are probably near the top of the list, given the nature of the decision-making process.
Lewis Johnston: The essence of this choice is about the balance between prioritising the scheme’s affordability and accessibility—obviously, it is meant to be a simple, low-cost way of obtaining redress and getting a resolution—and the need to ensure an adequate supply of suitably qualified arbitrators. As you mentioned in your previous question, some of the required skillsets would be quite specialised, and may be at premium. There are precedent models for this kind of thing. One example, which is not a direct parallel, is the business arbitration service run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, which is designed for relatively low-value disputes—between £5,000 and £100,000. The costs are fixed at £1,250 plus VAT per party, and that includes the appointment fee and the fee for the arbitrator. It may differ in this regard, but there would need to be certainty and transparency, certainly for the parties involved, and one of the benefits of the business arbitration scheme is that there is no chance of the costs spiralling out of control.
The other thing to mention, which may be a pertinent lesson from the business arbitration scheme, is that it is designed to be a documents-only, very simple, quite streamlined process, which will not require representation for either party, because representation can take up quite a good proportion of the costs. It is done with an assumption against having an oral hearing. Obviously, there is always the option of having an oral hearing if the parties require it; that is in the Bill. I think it is correct that that is open to them, but I suggest that the default assumption should be against that and for it being a documents-only process. Given the simplicity of the kind of cases that are intended to go to the scheme, that would be a good way of managing the costs. I note that the Secretary of State will have the power to introduce either a cap or a sliding scale, and again I emphasise the need for really forthright clarity. It needs to be very simple so people understand how it would apply to different levels of dispute.
Lewis Johnston: There is a degree of uncertainty around that, based purely on the pipeline of cases. As the previous witnesses alluded to, most of these cases, most of these disputes over the ring-fenced rent, will be or already have been settled through negotiation, so you are talking about a relatively small proportion, although it is still going to be quite a high number. There is a margin of error to take into account. On the supply side, in terms of the level of interest, there are lots of very well qualified arbitrators out there who would be forthcoming to handle cases like this. As I say, there is quite a strong precedent of arbitrators with the requisite level of skills and experience taking on fixed-fee or low-fee cases like this, but again I point out that the low fee would still have to take account of and cover the fact that a certain skillset and investment of time would be required. It is important that quality is not compromised. I think, overall, there is a good level of interest and there would be a healthy pipeline of arbitrators to take these cases.
Lewis Johnston: Certainly. I was pleased to see, in clause 21 of the Bill, that guidance will be provided. There are several areas in which guidance might be necessary. The first is something that I know will be coming when applications open for approved bodies to appoint arbitrators, and that is around the precise skillsets needed. We have a reasonably good idea of what that would entail, but a bit more detail would be helpful. For the arbitrators themselves, I think the crux point is around viability and affordability. The Bill and the code of practice go into a bit of detail about the kind of evidence that could be assessed as part of that. I think there should be clarity over exactly how much power the arbitrator will have to be inquisitorial as part of the process, the extent to which they can order discovery and so on, and the kind of evidence they can ask for from the parties.
The Bill is very clear about its intention to balance the interests of tenants and landlords and to maintain the viability of otherwise viable businesses, while also having regard to the solvency of the landlords. There may need to be more guidance, and I appreciate that that might come when cases start to go through the system, about balancing the request of the tenant on what is viable for them with what is consistent with maintaining the solvency of the landlord, when those are at odds. Exactly how that could be decided is a bit of a moot point at this stage.
Lewis Johnston: That is a good question, and the discussions we have had with the BEIS team initially focused on the question of capacity, because obviously we are talking about quite a large number of cases. The decision to go for more of a market-based approach, with a list of approved bodies rather than a single monolithic provider, was probably the right one. I appreciate that the Bill is taking more of a principles-based approach than saying that the arbitrators have to be accredited in a certain way. It is more about having the competency and impartiality.
Each of the bodies, if they are to be approved, will have to meet the criteria in one way or another. Speaking just for the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, all our members are bound by our code of ethical and professional conduct, which covers issues such as integrity and fairness, disclosing conflicts of interest, ensuring that you are competent to take on the appointments you are given, trust and confidence in the process, and transparency around fees. That would address a lot of things.
Also, anyone that we were to appoint—should we become one of those approved suppliers—would have to make clear and sign a declaration at the outset, which disclosed any potential conflicts of interests or anything that might be perceived as such, as well as declaring they were competent and had the capacity to take on these cases. That would mitigate the risk of them having to resign or of delays in processing the case.