Fergus Wilson Panorama documentary – now available on iPlayer22:10 PM, 18th March 2019
About 2 days ago 92
Cross Hereditary Lord The Earl of Lytton (Full name: John Peter Michael Scawen Lytton) was taking part in a House of Lords Tenant Fees Bill debate on the 5th November. The Earl admitted to reading briefings from Shelter and Citizens advice, but not from the trade body concerned ARLA.
The Earl of Lytton contributed to the debate the following:
3:45pm: “My Lords, as I have not spoken at all on this Bill, perhaps it is right that I declare my interests. I do not in principle have an objection to quite a lot of what is in it. My interest is as a private rented sector landlord, but my involvement with the sector from when I was renting property in London as a student to the present day spans more than 50 years. For part of that, I have been involved professionally with the management and letting of residential property on behalf of others.
I share noble Lords’ views that we should make sure not only that we do not have bad landlords but that we do not encourage bad tenants. My principled objection to this Bill, if I have any, is that it does not provide that balance. It is entirely about the effects on landlords, not on controlling the activities of tenants. As with much legislation, the mechanisms chosen tend to be extremely blunt instruments. We are dealing with high levels of disparity across the country, including some acute hot spots in London. I know that that is the case there—one of my children is just finishing renting a property with others and has been renting for some time—as against, say, in the West Country, where I also have an interest. There, it is quite difficult to find a tenant in some instances. This legislation needs to cover the entire spectrum.
I will limit my comments during the debate on this part of the Bill to areas where I feel that amendments either would not have the intended effect or highlight aspects of the Bill that should be the subject of further consideration. On Amendment 1, I simply say to the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, that tenants can, and do, take things to the wire as far as landlords are concerned. By then, much of the work to check them out and make the arrangements of the tenancy has already been done, at which point they can walk. There is no contractual bond. As I understand it, the holding fee is to secure the tenancy, rather in the same way, I suppose, as asking a shopkeeper to reserve an item in their shop window. The only difficulty is that the fee given rise to by part of the activity has already been incurred.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned that. It is not so much a question of whether a fee is charged but whether the fee is reasonable. The geometry of the Bill says that the fees are, in principle, unreasonable. That is how it comes across to me and, I think, to many other people. In passing, I have read briefings from Shelter and Citizens Advice but I have not received or read a briefing by ARLA or any other body representing landlords’ interests, so my views at this juncture are entirely my own, based on my experience.
The noble Baroness gave the example of where somebody, for perfectly understandable health reasons, feels that they cannot go ahead so the entire consortium of renters falls apart. I understand that because it has happened to my offspring, but I ask myself whether it is the landlord’s fault, or that of their agent, that circumstances have given rise to that situation and an inability to proceed.”
4:00pm: “I accept entirely what the noble Baroness said; I am glad that we are probably much more ad idem in our approaches than I had thought from her earlier comments.
There must be some process for identifying what is a reasonable cost. I am not close to open-market lettings any more—I used to be—so I do not know precisely what goes into drawing up the agreement, checking references, doing credit checks or establishing from some government department whether somebody is entitled to be in the country or to rent property, but there are probably costs beyond the simple act of picking up the phone and checking a reference.
My fear—here I address my comments to the Minister—goes back my point about legislation being a blunt instrument. Unless things are reasonably black and white, administratively you are dealing with myriad shades of grey and trying to work out which point on the spectrum is the right one. The Bill does not contain an adjudication provision. I have pointed out, in a memo to the Minister, a suggestion that I think came originally from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who is not here today, which had some merit. The only provision is a fine and an appeal to the First-tier Tribunal if the imposition of that fine is disagreed with. There is no other surefire, reasonably cheap and cheerful adjudication provision. Were that to be put in place by a one-liner and means could be found to fund that in the same way as some other things are dealt with, a number of these things would disappear by virtue of there being that fallback. But so long as there is not, it is more like the law of the jungle.
Turning to Amendment 18, I did a little calculation and worked out that a rent of £5,000 per calendar month would produce a holding deposit of £493 and one of £800 per calendar month would produce one of £78 under the three-day provision. That £78 is much nearer the sort of figure you might get outside the larger and more hotly contested metropolitan areas, and seems quite a slight amount of money. As I have said, tenants could take the matter to the wire and walk away knowingly having run up costs. But landlords might be unlikely to offer premises on the same basis as before the Bill came into force and might simply not undertake to retain via a holding deposit at all, in the same way as some landlords have decided that the whole business of holding rental deposits has got too difficult, and do not hold deposits but make exhaustive checks on the nature and attributes of their proposed tenants. This means that the better parts of the market—the better landlords, perhaps with better properties, looking for the better tenants—occupy one part of the space and the rest are in the same difficulties as before. The people who might be in difficulty are those who really need to get into rented accommodation because they stand no chance of getting a mortgage. This is why this sector is so important. I worry that tenants at that end of the spectrum—I will not call it the bottom end: the less well financially appointed end—will suffer more. That would be a mistake.
However, I said I was not here to cause trouble. I have just outlined some of the things associated with this group of amendments that may have long-term consequences contrary to those that the tablers suggest they ought to have. Apart from that, I shall not resist whatever the Minister may feel, in his wisdom, is appropriate here, given what I have said.”
4:30pm: “My Lords, I am very pleased that these amendments have been tabled. They enable me to make one or two comments. On Amendment 2 on transferable deposits, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, what he has set down might make for an awkward arrangement requiring quite a raft of safeguards so that landlord one can transfer a tenant’s deposit out of their account into the account of landlord two, which, as I see it, is what happens.
I am a practising chartered surveyor. Those involved in residential property management have to accord with all sorts of professional regulations, including rules on holding clients’ money. Tenants’ deposits would certainly come in that category. They have to be very punctilious about what they do and very transparent about the process. I know that not every agent or, for that matter, landlord holding a deposit is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. It might be different if they were, but that will never be likely. I am saying that there are two parallel sets of requirements. It will be interesting to know what discussions or information had been obtained from others such as ARLA on this sort of transfer, how it would be documented and how we would ensure it was seamless.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raises a valid point. For tenants to have to wait for a deposit to come back to them and to pay another deposit at the same time—in other words, a double overhead—is awkward, but other things lurk here. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned one, but there is the other question of whether any unpaid services and outgoings lurk there. Sometimes these do not come through for some particular period. Noble Lords will know from dealing with utility companies and this sort of thing, including some of the cut-price ones, which seem extremely difficult to deal with at times—no names mentioned here, though—that it can be quite difficult to make sure that you have closure on the amount of money for which a tenant might be responsible. There is an issue relating to the period to which the amount might apply. That might depend on the circumstances, such as whether it was a furnished or unfurnished letting, or fully equipped as well as being furnished. Obviously, the amount of damage that can be done and what might become apparent would not necessarily be known until right at the end of the lease. While I am pleased to confirm from my experience that the majority of tenants have been absolutely excellent people, the odd ones are feckless, overload electrical systems and do other damage that is not immediately apparent.
I wish there was a better way of dealing with this. I can see where the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is coming from. It is a valuable thing to raise because of the rigidity it creates within the tenant cohort. We should be doing things to make sure that there are not those rigidities because that, in effect, is a barrier to them renting property in the first place. However, I see a number of technical difficulties with the amendment. I hope that the Minister will comment on some of them.”
4:45pm: “My Lords, in connection with what was mentioned earlier about tenants who do not have a particularly good track record or who come from abroad, perhaps I may pick up on one point. One of the bones of contention is that the tenant pays a not insubstantial deposit and it is held by and on behalf of the landlord. Is there not an opportunity to have a third-party deposit holder who, in effect, would hold the money and provide a guarantee of the tenant’s performance so that it does not become a bone of contention for students, those from abroad and people with no track record? Could we break that particular logjam so that it is not seen as the landlord accruing a sum of money and hanging on to it as a sort of financial bludgeon? Could this be defused in some way? Perhaps the working group could look into the possibility of something along these lines.
5:00pm: “My Lords, the first part of this amendment is, to put it bluntly, a no-brainer. It is perfectly right and proper that there should be clear and comprehensive information. If I have any reservations, one is a very small item in proposed new subsection (4)(b), which refers to a website. Given that a significant proportion of landlords are individuals with perhaps only one or two properties, they may not have a website. Perhaps a tweak of the wording might be needed there.
On proposed new subsection (6)(a) and (b), there is a duty on the landlord or prospective landlord to,
“have regard to the likely needs and characteristics, in respect of the provision of information, of persons to whom the information in question is to be provided”.
It goes on to refer to the provision of that information,
“otherwise than in the way in which it would normally be provided”.
I scratch my head a bit about this, because I was beginning to try to work out what I, as a landlord in the middle of Sussex, might need to acquaint people with. It seemed to me that one characteristic might be a physical disability and another might be linguistic—those two immediately came to mind. I would be interested if the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, could actually spell out what he intends from those two provisions. It might be a bit of a hostage to fortune in either providing something unnecessary or having to try to second-guess what the particular characteristics and the method of delivery might need to be in any given instance. That said, in an area where people come from an Asian heritage background, I can see no objection to publishing it in languages other than English. That would be perfectly possible. However, to do it as a generality would be difficult. Therefore, putting this in guidance and providing for what the Secretary of State will do with it might be a hazardous operation.”
7:00pm “My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for raising this. I wondered slightly about the procedure of deletion and adding in, but I will leave that to others. I will touch on one or two things.
We must start from the standpoint that under the terms of a lease, a tenant is provided with exclusive possession of and control over the property of their landlord within the terms of the lease. It is perfectly possible for tenants to do a lot of damage in a short period of time. Mercifully, very few of them do, but the occasional one does, because they are ignorant, because they have strange lifestyles, or for whatever reason. I thought, when I looked at this part of Schedule 1, that the default, defined as performing an obligation or discharge of a liability, was probably too wide. It did not surprise me that the noble Baroness has picked up on that. To that extent, she has a point. First, the landlord absolutely must substantiate the amount in question. The noble Baroness would introduce the concept of fair condition, then limit fair condition to two items. She has explained that, but I can think of eight or 10 others that I could add to the mix, all of which could objectively be seen as fair conditions of properly occupying and generally looking after the premises by a tenant.”
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