Enforcement by local weights and measures authorities

Part of Tenant Fees Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 12 Mehefin 2018.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 9:25, 12 Mehefin 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.

As we have heard and read in the evidence from the likes of the Local Government Association, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and the Chartered Institute of Housing, there are significant concerns about the enforcement powers being conferred on the local weights and measures authorities around the country. For the avoidance of doubt, we are talking in this clause about local trading standards teams. As I have mentioned before, they have a wide and varied remit. They enforce laws on behalf of consumers on matters such as age-restricted products; agriculture; animal health and welfare; fair trading, which includes pricing, descriptions of goods, digital content and services, and terms and conditions; food standards and safety; intellectual property, including counterfeiting; product safety; and, of course, weights and measures.

Trading standards cover more than 250 statutory duties, including providing businesses with advice. The CTSI says that the service is already overstretched and underfunded, with just £1.99 per head being spent. The situation has been recognised by the National Audit Office, which has said that there is a direct threat to the consumer protection system’s viability as a whole, yet here the Government seek to add another layer of responsibilities, technicalities and duties to those of the service without giving due consideration to the implications of the request, and simply assuming that their assessment that the scheme will be fiscally neutral after two years will come to pass. That seems a rather carte blanch approach to me—a “close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope for the best” kind of plan. It is not robust and it is not a process modelled on the evidence of the experts who operate in the roles, day in and day out. There is time for the Minister to correct this.

Our constituents will mostly know trading standards for tackling rogue traders. My constituency being a port town, we have a very active trading standards department, which regularly discovers dodgy goods that people try to smuggle in, including recently some dangerous counterfeit cigarettes, filled with anything up to and including asbestos, for sale cheap on the black market, with a street value of around £8,500. Trading standards are often the first in a position of authority to come across goods linked to organised crime and criminal gangs, and they provide essential eyes and ears within local communities.

Is the Minister confident that the addition of these tenant fees enforcement powers to trading standards’ responsibilities, with only pin money for start-up and roll-out, will not impact on its already essential role protecting consumers? How can he be sure, and what steps will he take to ensure that that is the case going forward? We heard of cuts to trading standards departments of 40% to 50% at a local level.

Across the country, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute tells us that there has been a cut of more than 50% of skilled officers. Does the Minister seriously think that trading standards will be able to effectively implement these new powers? If so, how? What priorities should trading standards officers have? If faced with tracking down an influx of poisonous fake spirits, surveilling for evidence to prosecute the sale of knives to under-18s or taking action against a landlord requiring a £150 prohibited fee from a tenant, which would he suggest the officers pursue as urgent?

If the Minister concedes that the loss of money is likely to be less urgent in its nature than the matter of illegal spirits or the selling of knives to teenagers, at what point does he anticipate that an officer ought to get around to looking into the issue of the prohibited fee? Given the restrictions on time and staffing levels, is not a TSO, rather than acting in an individual case, far more likely to deal with a single landlord facing multiple allegations of charging prohibited fees? It will be dealing with the big fish, rather than the small fry, that will be a reasonable and proportionate use of staff time. Has the Minister thought about the practicalities of enforcement? Has he compared it with how enforcement of housing matters is currently dealt with, or even tried to plug some of those gaps?

In order for the London Borough of Newham’s landlord licensing scheme to be effective, it had to bring together several different agencies, including the police, the UK Border Agency and specialist housing officers, and had to invest in systems to accurately identify those properties that were incorrectly licensed. While it has drawn in significant revenue for the Treasury and the council, it took a laser-focused determination from the political leadership in Newham to get their processes up and running to tackle landlords operating outside the regulations. Can the Minister guarantee that the same will happen to trading standards departments around the country, when it could be said to be somewhat of a Cinderella service? How will he monitor that, and what will his measure of success be?

The Local Government Association said in its evidence that, given the reduction in capacity of trading standards across many authorities, there should be flexibility for local areas to determine whether the ban is enforced by local trading standards or private sector housing teams. Does the Minister agree? The LGA went on to say that the Government had ignored the findings of the working group, which concluded that there should be enforcement of mandatory client money protection by local authorities, rather than trading standards. Is the Minister content to ignore the working group’s findings?

Has the Minister listened to the CTSI when it says that a self-financing enforcement model would potentially create a disincentive to provide regulatory compliance? That certainly seems to be the case with the current system around the display of fees. The fine acts as neither a disincentive for the businesses nor an incentive for the enforcement teams. The LGA pointed out that the Government’s theory that funds generated by fines will increase when non-compliance increases does not add up if companies close themselves down, only to re-emerge under a different name or structure in order to avoid a fine.

The CTSI also says that the costs of providing advice and guidance to a company that is subsequently compliant are not factored into the Government’s calculations. Of course, there was the issue raised by CTSI in our evidence session regarding the differences in the burden of proof and the framework of enforcement. The enforcers, in this instance the trading standards officers, will be required to prove offences beyond all reasonable doubt. What does this mean in practice for people—for families—who are already likely to be afraid about not securing the property that they want to live in and perhaps are under pressure to secure it because they have given notice on a prior residence, or are being thrown out of a property that they already reside in? Will this substantial basis of evidence encourage people to come forward, to make a complaint and seek redress? Let us remember that they are already in a significantly less advantageous position than the landlord or the lettings agent. They are not the experts in renting and even less so are they experts in the most recent legislative changes.

It goes back to the point I made earlier: the reality is that enforcement officers are far more likely to try to build up a stronger case with multiple complainants than deal with breaches on a single case-by-case basis. Does the Minister consider that this is serving tenants’ best interests? The remedy would not be sufficient in financial terms for the local authority, nor will the legislation be seen as fit for purpose by those it is intended to protect. Is he really content to preside over this? The CTSI says that most consumer rights breaches and the Estate Agents Act 1979 are obtainable on a balance of probability test. Why does he not consider amending the Bill to reflect this modest yet effective change? If it is the case that the higher the evidential requirement, the more work is involved and the more risk there is for the local authority, and the less likely it is that the Act will be easily enforceable, should he not just do the right thing and make the amendment now? I say that because one of the biggest frustrations of my constituents is around laws that are not enforced. Whether it is parking restrictions, dog mess or fly-tipping, they expect the rules to be fully and fairly applied. Where they are not, the blame comes back on an unfairly overstretched local authority, trying to do its best against the financial odds—financial odds that I know the Minister has recognised in previous comments that he has made.

I do hope that the Minister will take my comments on board. These are the views of royally chartered organisations, which work within the current legislative framework and can anticipate the difficulties of seeing this legislation in operation. It is only through proper enforcement with enforceable regulations that we can hope to see this law do everything the Minister has set out for it to do; otherwise, I am confident that it will be left wanting.