HCLG committee to debate private rented sector

Debate due at Westminster Hall this afternoon (Nov 29) follows the committee’s inquiry into the sector and subsequent report.

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The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee holds a Westminster Hall debate on the private rented sector this afternoon (Nov 29) as a follow up to its inquiry into the sector.

Over the course of the inquiry, the Committee heard evidence of retaliatory evictions, rent increases and harassment against tenants by their landlords.

The Committee urged the government to give councils greater powers to take action against landlords, including the confiscation of properties in the worst cases.

With one in five households now living in private rented accommodation – an increasingly long-term prospect – the inquiry found vast majority of private rented tenants are satisfied with the quality of their homes.

The committee focused on the lower end of the market: the 800,000 private rented homes that have at least one Category One hazard, such as excess cold, mould or faulty wiring; the 44% of tenants who said a fear of retaliatory eviction would stop them from making a complaint to their landlord; and the 200,000 tenants who reported having been abused or harassed by a landlord.

The main conclusions and recommendations in the report were:

  • Tenants need further protections from retaliatory eviction, rent increases and harassment so they are fully empowered to pursue complaints about repairs and maintenance in their homes

A specialist housing court would provide a more accessible route to redress for tenants and we urge the government to publish more detailed proposals

The committee found a “clear power imbalance” in parts of the sector, with tenants often unwilling to complain to landlords about the conditions in their homes for fear of retaliation.

  • The Law Commission should undertake a review of private rented sector legislation
  • The Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) should be replaced with a more straightforward set of quality standards

The committee found the legislative framework, through which councils derive their powers to intervene in the sector, is outdated and too complex, with a new approach required to bring more clarity for tenants, landlords and local authorities.

  • Enforcement by councils has been far too low and inconsistent

While prosecution statistics may not reflect the informal enforcement work undertaken by many councils, to the committee it was “striking” that six out of 10 councils had not prosecuted a single landlord in 2016.

While the government has introduced a range of legislation in recent years to strengthen protections for tenants and new powers for councils – including civil penalties and banning orders for criminal landlords – these powers were, the committee said, meaningless if councils do not, or cannot, enforce them in practice.

  • Councils do not have sufficient resources to undertake their enforcement duties
  • A new fund should be established to support councils with this work, especially those that prioritise informal approaches to enforcement

While councils welcomed their new powers to retain civil penalties and rent repayment orders, the committee found some felt this did not go far enough.

Councils that pursue more informal enforcement strategies were, the committee found, unlikely to generate significant funding through civil penalties.

Further, many councils told the committee there was often a financial disincentive to pursue prosecutions against criminal landlords, as the costs of investigations were rarely recovered through the courts.

  • A national benchmarking scheme should be introduced to support local authorities with enforcement
  • Councils should publish their private rented sector enforcement strategies online

The committee heard that some councils lacked the political will to address low standards in the sector.

To make the best use of limited resources, local authorities need to work together more effectively and share best practice, the committee said.

  • Councils should be able to levy more substantial fines, which might stand a chance of breaking the business models of the worst offenders
  • Councils should have power to confiscate properties from landlords committing the most egregious offences and whose business models rely on the exploitation of vulnerable tenants

The committee heard of a need for more robust penalties to deal with the worst criminal landlords, with civil penalties not being strong enough.

  • Decisions to implement selective licensing schemes should be made locally, where there is greater understanding of local needs and politicians are directly accountable to the electorate for their decisions
  • However, the Secretary of State should retain a power to require local authorities to reconsider a decision to implement a licensing scheme that does not meet the strict criteria already set out by the government

The committee received “mixed evidence” on the value of selective licensing schemes, reflecting the different circumstances that exist in different parts of the country.

Members believed the present of application to the Secretary of State to be “too slow, lacking transparency, overly bureaucratic and unduly expensive”.

The committee debate starts at 1.30pm.

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