Amendment 79

Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords am 5:30 pm ar 29 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Bailey of Paddington:

Moved by Lord Bailey of Paddington

79: Clause 57, page 70, line 10, at end insert—“(5A) The regulations must specify a broker’s reasonable remuneration at market rates as a permitted insurance payment.(5B) The regulations must exclude any payment which arises, directly or indirectly, from any breach of trust, fiduciary obligation or failure to act in the best interests of the tenant.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require “permitted insurance payment” to include payment of a reasonable sum to a broker at market rates for placing the cover, and to exclude any payments which have arisen from wrongdoing.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr

A lot of the Bill relies on secondary legislation coming through at a later date, meaning that we must all wait for many of the details of individual policies and cannot fully scrutinise them now. Last week we heard from the Minister that the commencement will be in 2025-26. In January last year, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, announced his intention to ban freeholder and managing agent insurance commissions—or “kickbacks”, as they are colloquially known—that fatten leaseholders’ insurance premiums and pad their service charges. He was right to do so.

In recent years, there has been a series of truly horrific stories about leasehold building insurance, including bribes, kickbacks and commissions galore. When the Financial Conduct Authority did its investigation into this recently, it found that broker remuneration had increased by nearly 40% in three years, with at least 80 million leaseholder-funded commissions going to other parties. Brokers passed on more than half the commission to the freeholder, or the managing agent in 39% of cases. Brokers could not provide any evidence to support the claim that those payments were fair value. The FCA says:

“The level of commission is high, with typical commissions of 30%-49%, and … up to 62%. We have also seen that remuneration is shared with the freeholder or property managing agent (PMA) in many cases, with 37-42% of commission being paid away”.

That is damning. The commissions are clearly excessive and totally out of kilter with other classes of business.

The total commission going to freeholders or managing agents can be as high as 60% of the cost of the premium paid by leaseholders. This comes back to my core problem with leasehold: the people paying the bills do not have control over those bills and lack the ability to fire the rip-off companies they have to deal with—unlike flat owners under different arrangements almost worldwide, who have far more power and control. As the FCA observed, policies are being

“selected on the basis of commission rather than product quality. There is a lack of pressure on freeholders, PMAs and insurance brokers to search for the policy that offers the best value-for-money or to switch to better-value policies which may benefit leaseholders. This is because they can recover costs from leaseholders. We have seen instances of freeholders, property managing agents and insurance brokers having commercial arrangements with particular insurers which benefit them but not leaseholders”.

That brings me to my concern. I am doing this on behalf of leaseholders countrywide and campaigning for insurance professionals who have a conscience. The crux of this matter is: are the Government not inadvertently entrenching commissions by rebadging them as “transparent fees” and having them disclosed?

I am no lawyer, but I understand that if a secret profit has been made, every penny is owed to the wronged party—the principal under the law of agency. If the Government were to force all the kickbacks to be disclosed, as the Bill proposes, would that not just weaken the position of leaseholders, because they would no longer be secret profits? Another point is that freeholders hold money on trust for leaseholders, so if they have made a secret profit they open themselves up to legal challenge on breach of fiduciary duty.

How will the Government decide the level at which the permitted insurance payment is set? How will that be set and who will be in charge? What will be the mechanism? Will it be someone’s will, or will we have an algorithm that does that? Is this not just a backdoor for freeholders to extract more money from hapless leaseholders?

In theory, a broker should do the legwork and get the best quotes for buildings insurance. Managing agents are already remunerated through the annual management fee that leaseholders pay, and they will usually also do the claims handling. So why do freeholders then get any money from the leaseholders’ insurance? My Amendment 79 would ensure that there is a backstop so that, if freeholders are getting any income from wrongdoing, leaseholders could still challenge it, despite the fees having been compulsorily disclosed to them. Having disclosure should not reduce the legal rights that leaseholders already have to challenge fees. All I am doing is providing clarity to the eventual definition of “permitted insurance payments”, so that

“any payment which arises, directly or indirectly, from any breach of trust, fiduciary obligation or failure to act in the best interests of the tenant” is excluded from the scheme. That will ensure that freeholders can no longer abuse their position of power—as the one placing the insurance policy—to profiteer from captive leaseholders who must pay the premium.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr

I beg to move. Excuse me—I am dyslexic, and procedure is massively hard for me. One day I will get it all right—and all at the same time.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing)

The problem is evident and not disputed, but the solutions are clearly debatable.

We support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Bailey of Paddington, as we share his concerns. The insurance scheme in the Bill, without the permitted insurance payment being set at something nominal such as £5 or £10 a year, could become another cost centre for freeholders. We know how difficult it is for leaseholders, especially on larger developments, to get like-for-like quotes. Often, brokers will not even quote, which makes challenging at tribunal very difficult, especially when the freeholder claims that their fees are for works done and not pure commission. It is good for there to be a backstop in the insurance scheme in the Bill, so that brokers are fairly remunerated, while ensuring that other parties in the distribution chain, including freeholders, are banned from profiteering from the captive leaseholders who pay but do not get to choose the policy.

Amendment 82 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, and signed by my noble friend Lady Pinnock,

“would prohibit landlords from claiming litigation costs from tenants other than under limited circumstances determined by the Secretary of State”.

Clause 60 puts limits on the right of landlords to claim litigation costs from tenants. When the Bill was in the Commons, the Minister said that

“unjust litigation costs should not be incurred by leaseholders—and we agree—but the Bill as drafted does not go far enough in preventing that happening. There will be circumstances in which it is appropriate for leaseholders to bear those costs, but we believe that Amendment 82 makes provision for that. The presumption should be that the costs are not borne by the leaseholder, unless in circumstances specified by the Secretary of State.

My noble friend Lady Pinnock’s Amendment 80 would require the Financial Conduct Authority

“to report on the impact of the provisions in the bill around insurance costs in order to monitor progress on reducing costs passed on to leaseholders”.

I am pleased to say that the Law Society also supports the amendment. Rising insurance premiums have sent service charges soaring in the last few years, mostly due to the costs associated with remediation works following the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. That means that even the leaseholders who can access funding to help them pay for vital works to their buildings are still paying the price to remedy a problem that they did not cause.

Clause 57 places a limitation on the ability of landlords to charge insurance costs to leaseholders. This is a very welcome step in the right direction. It is essential that this provision works as intended to protect leaseholders from extortionate costs. The Financial Conduct Authority’s report into insurance for multi-occupancy buildings, published in September 2022, found not only that premiums were rising, with mean prices increasing by 125% in the period from 2016 to 2021, but that the level of commission rates for brokers was

“an area of significant concern”, with eye-watering rates of up to 60% being seen.

The FCA also found that brokers were sharing commission with the freeholder or the property management agent, meaning that they were unfairly profiting from leaseholders. Commission—and not cover or costs—was therefore the driving factor in the choice of policy. The provisions in the Bill to limit the ability of landlords to charge insurance costs to leaseholders, alongside the Bill’s increased transparency requirement, should—one hopes—go a long way to protect leaseholders. We also note that as of 1 January this year, the regulator will force insurance firms to act in leaseholders’ best interests and to treat them as a customer when designing products. They will be banned from recommending an insurance policy based on commission or remuneration level. It is clearly very early days, but we hope to see some improvement from that.

There is, of course, the argument that the Government should go further. A cap on service charges for leaseholds, especially at a fixed amount rather than as a percentage, has been suggested as a way to properly protect leaseholders from unreasonable costs. We would, therefore, want to place a requirement on the FCA, whose thorough report provided the impetus for these provisions, to assess whether it has had an impact in reducing costs for leaseholders and preventing freeholders and managing agents profiting off them. We hope that the provisions of the Bill will provide the necessary relief for leaseholders, who are clearly facing exorbitant costs. It will, however, be essential that the Government keep a close eye on the impact of Clause 57 and take action if it is not going far enough.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, does have some amendments in this group—I looked very worriedly at this point. On the surface, they appear to be about making the process simpler and easier, which is probably a good thing and worth consideration. I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord says.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I had assumed that the noble Baroness had risen to speak to the amendment standing in the name of her noble friend Lady Pinnock. I will speak to the amendments in my name in this group. Although there are eight of them, they fall into three broad topics, so I hope to dispose of them fairly quickly.

The first are Amendments 81 and 81A. These relate to the ability of right-to-manage companies to bring legal proceedings and charge the costs to the service charge. The effect of the Bill is that freeholders will not be able to charge legal costs to the service charge unless they obtain a ruling from a tribunal. In the case of right-to-manage companies exercising the functions of the freeholder, they have no source of income apart from the service charge. If they are not able to charge their legal costs to the service charge, then they will not be able to bring legal action at all. In fact, without that ability, they would not even be able to initiate legal action unless the directors of the company were willing to fund the preliminary legal activities from their own pockets. If they were willing to do that, and they proceeded to court, they might find that the court or tribunal did not find that they were entitled to recover their costs or find that they could recover only part of their costs as a result. Again, they would have no recourse to any source of funds apart from their own individual pockets in such circumstances.

The second amendment, Amendment 81A, would extend this provision not just to right-to-manage companies but to residential management companies. Right-to-manage companies were established under the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, but there are other residential management companies that exist that are not right-to-manage companies under that Act. These two amendments are alternatives; they are both probing.

I have heard that the Government are aware that this is a problem and are willing to do something to address it, so I hope that this particular probe will find a positive response from my noble friend on the Front Bench, because it cannot seriously be the Government’s intention to make it virtually impossible for anyone to become a director of a right-to-manage company without having to face serious personal financial risks that were never envisaged when RTM companies were established in 2002.

Amendments 81B, 81C, 81D and 81E all work together. They relate to a different problem, which is that the Bill allows a court or tribunal to award costs to a freeholder in certain circumstances specified in the Bill. However, if these costs are not paid, the only recourse the freeholder has is to go back to the court and seek a new judgment to have the costs awarded to them, whereas the normal method of dealing with such a matter is to make a simple online claim for a judgment in default. That course of action is precluded, as I understand the Bill, in the case of freeholders seeking to recover the legal costs that have been awarded to them. All this will do is burden the courts with more applications, which can and should be, and are normally, dealt with through an online process that takes a few weeks to go through. That surely should be available to freeholders.

The third topic in this group relates to Amendments 82A and 82B. These, again, are probing amendments to understand why the Government are extending the protection in relation to legal costs to all leaseholders, when surely the intention must be to extend it to those leaseholders who are home owners—that is, who own the property that is the subject of the legal dispute. The Bill has the effect of giving this protection also to investor leaseholders—those who hold the property entirely as an investment. I do not understand the Government’s logic in doing this, and these amendments probe that by suggesting that it should benefit home owners only.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bailey of Paddington, for introducing this group, setting the context for this debate about insurance payments and asking for clarity in relation to his amendment, which I am sure was also the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, in asking for clarity with one of his amendments and probing efficiency in his other amendments. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, about the extortionate increases in insurance charges passed on to leaseholders. We found that the risk price that insurers charged between 2016 and 2021 pretty much doubled. The brokerage charge increased by more than three times. The service charges added on increased by about 160%, so they more than doubled, and those charges were passed on to leaseholders.

I will quickly speak to Amendment 82, in the name of my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage. This new clause would prohibit landlords from claiming litigation costs from tenants other than in limited circumstances determined by the Secretary of State.

We support scrapping the presumption that leaseholders will pay their freeholders’ legal costs when they have challenged poor practice but, in merely limiting the ability of landlords to do so, the Government are creating an incentive for freeholders to litigate in a way that is likely to erode the general presumption that they are seeking to implement. As we argued in the other place, a far more sensible approach would be to legislate for a general prohibition on claiming litigation costs from leaseholders and then to provide for a limited number of defined exceptions to that general rule by means of regulations; for example, in cases where the landlord is a leasehold-owned company or the costs are, in the opinion of the tribunal, reasonably incurred and for the benefit of the leaseholders or the proper management of the building. Our Amendment 82, which would create a new clause to replace Clause 80, provides for a general prohibition on claiming legal costs from tenants and for a power to specify classes of landlord who would be exempt from it.

I look forward to the Minister’s response and, I hope, to some positive engagement in relation to these amendments.

Photo of Lord Gascoigne Lord Gascoigne Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:00, 29 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lord Bailey of Paddington and Lord Moylan, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for their amendments in this group. I will take them in turn.

Amendment 79, moved by my noble friend Lord Bailey, aims to ensure that insurance brokers’ remuneration is linked to market rates. It also aims to prevent wrongdoing. We share the intent of this amendment and are committed to introducing a fair, transparent and enforceable approach to insurance remuneration. We also recognise that insurance brokers are an important party in the provision of insurance. Given that, this amendment pre-empts the content of secondary legislation. Following Royal Assent, we will consult on what would constitute a permitted insurance payment, then lay the necessary secondary legislation before Parliament. This will clarify what remuneration will be permitted by those involved in the arranging and managing of insurance. My noble friend Lord Bailey spoke with his customary passion. We continue to welcome his views and the Minister remains keen to meet. I hope that, with that reassurance, my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.

Amendment 80 was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. I assure all noble Lords that this Government are committed to banning building insurance commissions for landlords and managing agents and replacing these with transparent handling fees, to address excessive and opaque commissions being charged to leaseholders. The amendment seeks that within one year of the day on which Clause 57 comes into force, the FCA conducts a report into the impact of this clause in reducing instances of unreasonable insurance costs being passed on to leaseholders.

We agree in principle with monitoring the impact of the clause and, more widely, that insurance costs must be reasonable. The FCA has been closely monitoring the multi-occupancy buildings insurance market in recent years, has strengthened its rules on fair value, and provides regular updates. The most recent update to the Secretary of State was published on 29 February. We will continue to work closely with the FCA and other stakeholders to develop our secondary legislation and in monitoring buildings insurance. Please be assured that this is an area on which we, and the FCA, are keeping a close eye. I hope that with this reassurance, the noble Baroness will not move this amendment.

Amendments 81 and 81A were tabled by my noble friend Lord Moylan; I will take them together. Amendment 81 seeks to exempt right-to-manage companies from the requirement for landlords to apply to the relevant court or tribunal to recover their litigation costs from leaseholders through the service charge. This amendment would apply where the right-to-manage company is exercising the functions of the landlord. Amendment 81A seeks to exempt “non-profit entities” from the requirement for landlords to apply to the relevant court or tribunal in order to recover their litigation costs from leaseholders through the service charge. The amendment provides examples of types of “non-profit entities”, including resident management companies and right-to-manage companies.

Clause 60 seeks to protect leaseholders from being charged unjust litigation costs from their landlord. It does this by requiring landlords to successfully apply to the relevant court or tribunal in order to recover their litigation costs, either through the service charge or as an administration charge. The court or tribunal will make an order that it considers just and equitable in the circumstances.

We understand the intention behind my noble friend’s amendments. The Government recognise the position of resident-led buildings. That is why the reforms also include provision to set out in regulations those matters which the relevant court or tribunal must consider when making an order on an application. The Government will carefully consider the detail of these matters with stakeholders and the tribunal, including where a building is resident-led. We would be concerned that the exemption provided by Amendments 81 and 81A would leave leaseholders with little protection from paying unjust litigation costs where a resident management company or a right-to-manage company is in place. I ask my noble friend not to move his amendments. However, it goes without saying that this is a complex area of reform and we are considering the issue carefully.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

It is unsatisfactory if this is to be left to secondary legislation. Bearing in mind that the directors of the right-to-manage company are elected by the leaseholders, and can be replaced by them, and that they are really one entity, what is to happen if the tribunal decides not to make an award of costs? How are the directors to recover that money and who would become a director in those circumstances if they did not have that assurance in advance?

Photo of Lord Gascoigne Lord Gascoigne Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I will have to pick that up at a later date. There are a number of variables in that circumstance. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for not having an answer to hand. I will certainly take this up with the department, rather than saying something that is incorrect at the Dispatch Box. My noble friend is absolutely right to raise it as an issue. It is under certain circumstances that those individuals find themselves in that situation, but I am more than happy to take that away and then write to my noble friend.

I turn to Amendments 81B to 81E, also in the name of my noble friend Lord Moylan. As I have previously said, Clause 60 seeks to protect leaseholders from unjustified litigation costs by requiring landlords to successfully apply to the court or tribunal to recover their litigation costs from leaseholders. This replaces the right that leaseholders currently have to apply to the courts to limit their liability for landlords’ litigation costs. The relevant court or tribunal will make an order on a landlord’s application that is just and equitable in the circumstances.

Amendments 81B and 81D seek to amend the provision that allows the court or tribunal to make a decision on the landlord’s application for their litigation costs that it considers

“just and equitable in the circumstances”.

Instead, the amendment stipulates that where a landlord is successful in relevant proceedings, the court or tribunal will allow the landlord to recover their litigation costs from leaseholders—unless the landlord has acted unreasonably. We understand the intention behind my noble friend’s amendments—to minimise the amount of court or tribunal hearings. However, the Government have a few concerns with the amendment.

The amendment would mean that the court or tribunal would always need to make an order that the landlord can recover their litigation costs from leaseholders where the landlord had been successful in proceedings in whole or in part. The only exception is where the landlord has acted unreasonably. Of course, where a landlord is successful in bringing or defending a claim, we would expect that the court or tribunal would allow them to recover their litigation costs from leaseholders. However, there may be a range of variables and nuances that occur in disputes which need consideration on a case-by-case basis.

The Government think the relevant court or tribunal is best placed to assess applications for costs, taking into account the circumstances of each case. In addition, the measures currently provide for regulations to set matters which the court or tribunal will consider when making a decision on costs applications, which we will consider carefully with stakeholders and the tribunal.

Amendments 81C and 81E seek to allow landlords to recover their litigation costs, where allowed under the lease, without needing to make an application to the relevant court or tribunal in certain circumstances. These circumstances include where proceedings before the county court are subject to a judgment in default, where litigation costs have been incurred in relation to forfeiture proceedings or where proceedings against a landlord have been struck out or are settled before the first hearing. Again, the Government have concerns about these amendments. For example, if a landlord is unsuccessful in proceedings of forfeiture against a leaseholder, this amendment would allow them to recover their litigation costs from a leaseholder regardless. These amendments would also make the provisions more complex, with different rules applying to different scenarios. We completely understand the intention behind my noble friend’s amendments. However, for these reasons, I ask that he does not press them.

Amendment 82, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor and Lady Pinnock, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, seeks to prohibit landlords from recovering their litigation costs from leaseholders apart from in excepted circumstances to be set out in regulations. Clauses 60 and 61 already seek to rebalance the litigation costs regime for leaseholders in an effective and proportionate way. As I have previously noted, Clause 60 will require a landlord to successfully apply to the relevant court or tribunal in order to recover their litigation costs from a leaseholder. This applies whether the landlord is seeking to recover their litigation costs as a service charge or an administration charge. I also note that Clause 61 gives leaseholders a new right to apply to the relevant court or tribunal to claim their litigation costs from their landlord. For both landlord and leaseholder applications, the relevant court or tribunal will make a decision on costs in the circumstances of each case. Taken together, these measures will rebalance the litigation costs regime and remove barriers to leaseholders challenging their landlord. We believe the Government’s approach strikes the balance of being robust but proportionate. Therefore, I respectfully ask that they do not press this amendment.

Finally, I turn to Amendments 82A and 82B from my noble friend Lord Moylan. Currently, in the tribunal and for particular court tracks, leaseholders can claim their litigation costs from their landlord only in very limited circumstances even when they win. This may deter leaseholders from being legally represented or from challenging their landlord in the first place. As I have previously said, Clause 61 gives leaseholders a new right to apply to the court or tribunal to claim their litigation costs from their landlord where appropriate. As with the landlord application for costs, the court or tribunal will make an order that it considers just and equitable in the circumstances.

Amendments 82A and 82B seek to amend the new leaseholder right so that it applies only to home owners rather than investor leaseholders. Amendment 82B provides the definition of a “homeowner lease” so that the leaseholder right applies only to a leaseholder of a dwelling which is their only or principal home. Exempting certain leaseholders from this right would restrict access to redress where we are seeking to remove barriers. For example, there may be instances where a leaseholder who privately lets their flat needs to take their landlord to court because they are failing to maintain the building, which is impacting their property. In these circumstances, we would want the leaseholder to feel able to hold their landlord to account. Providing leaseholders with rights, regardless of whether they are home owners or investors, is in line with the approach we have taken throughout the Bill. Such an exemption would be out of step and will add complexity to the measures. Therefore, I ask my noble friend not to press his amendments.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

May I ask the indulgence of the Committee? I should have declared when I spoke—as I did earlier in debate—that I live in a building which is run by a right-to-manage company of which I am a director, as is shown in the register of interests. I should have said that in my opening remarks, but I hope I will be forgiven for adding it now.

Photo of Lord Bailey of Paddington Lord Bailey of Paddington Ceidwadwyr 6:15, 29 Ebrill 2024

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 79 withdrawn.

Clause 57 agreed.

Amendment 80 not moved.

Clause 58 agreed.

Amendments 80A and 80B not moved.

Clause 59 agreed.

Clause 60: Limits on rights of landlords to claim litigation costs from tenants

Amendments 81 to 82 not moved.

Clause 60 agreed.

Clause 61: Right of tenants to claim litigation costs from landlords

Amendments 82A and 82B not moved.

Clause 61 agreed.

Clauses 62 to 65 agreed.