Examination of Witnesses

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:29 pm ar 14 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Fiona Rutherford and Professor Christopher Hodges gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield 3:48, 14 Tachwedd 2023

We will now hear oral evidence from Fiona Rutherford, chief executive of JUSTICE, and Professor Christopher Hodges OBE, emeritus professor of justice systems at the centre for socio-legal studies at the University of Oxford. We have until 4.30 pm for this panel. Could the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?

Fiona Rutherford:

I am Fiona Rutherford. I am the chief executive of JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights charity that covers the entire justice system across the UK. I could expand further but, as you probably know, we have published a report that is specifically on some of the areas that will be touched upon. I am very grateful to have engaged with many of the stakeholders involved, including the Government Departments.

Professor Hodges:

Good afternoon. Thank you for the invitation. I am Chris Hodges. I am not an expert in the property sector, but I claim to be an expert in dispute resolution systems—courts and ombudsmen and anything else—and regulatory systems, which takes you into things like the portal and enforcement issues.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you both for coming to give evidence. As you know, the Government have now explicitly tied the enactment of chapter 1 of part 1 of this Bill to the court reforms, and the concern is that the nature of those reforms is unspecified. To what extent do you think the court system, as it applies to matters in this Bill, needs improving? I ask that because the county court system is working relatively well vis-à-vis other parts of the criminal justice system; the guidelines are being met and the then Minister extolled the significant improvements that have been made in recent years.

To the extent that the system still needs to be improved, what is your understanding of what the metrics are? My reading of the Government’s response to the Select Committee, what is in the White Paper and what was in the King’s Speech briefing notes is that there is a whole set of different metrics—end-to-end digitalisation, new digital processes, bailiffs and so on. How are we to know, because the concern is obviously that the abolition of section 21 could be years away, if we have court improvements that are undefined or are large in scope?

Fiona Rutherford:

That is one of the concerns that we have. Looking at the history of the reform project, while there have clearly been some successes, there have also been quite a few delays. And we are also concerned given the implications for the tenants in particular in relation to section 21, and given that a proper argument has not been made as to why that dependency between the two exists.

I am just thinking of the court performance, which you have just raised. Civil court performance, even during the pandemic, was better than that of most of the other jurisdictions and even now section 21 is taking roughly 28 weeks from notice to point of repossession, versus the estimation that the Government have made that section 8—the new approach in the new Bill—would take possibly the same time, maybe even a week less.

We would say, first, that a proper rationale has not been put forward as to why that dependency exists and why section 21 cannot proceed. Secondly, the implications for the tenants themselves are so considerable that it is not at all clear to us why that cannot proceed as fast as possible.

Professor Hodges:

I tend to look at things in terms of quite long stages of evolution. Going back a hundred years, we had courts that administered law. One realises, and I speak as a professor of law, that law is not the answer to everything; in fact, in some situations it is not the answer to very much. A lot of colleagues would shoot me for saying that, but I profoundly believe it.

What we have discovered is that human behaviour, and therefore psychology and other forms of dispute resolution and supporting people to work together and restore relationships, is important. The answer to that is usually not law and the process is usually not an adversarial process involving courts or judges, however sympathetic they are.

We then started talking about a technique of mediation and that went into an institution of alternative dispute resolutions, or ADR, and the courts are sort of playing with trying to put these things together at the moment. Actually, that has been leapfrogged by things like ombudsmen, in the private sector as opposed to the public sector—parliamentary or local government ombudsmen. In the private sector, virtually every regulated sector now has an ombudsman—financial services, energy, communications, motor vehicles, lawyers, blah blah blah. It is quite a long list.

There are various reasons why that is true. The first is that the ombudsmen usually deal with codes—codes of behaviour—and not just legal rights. They can and do decide legal issues, but it is usually codes. They are looking at the underlying behaviour of the bank or the rail company or whatever it is, and therefore you need a different process as well. So it is not adversarial and it is usually free to the consumer, because the business is made to pay or pays for the infrastructure of the ombudsman.

However, there is a very considerable advantage of an ombudsman over a redress scheme, and many of the redress schemes are still somewhat old-fashioned because they are basically arbitration and basically adversarial, and therefore the larger party will bowl up with a whole load of expensive lawyers and you just maintain cost—an adversarialism of not bringing people together. And there is an imbalance of power in that situation.

That does not happen with an ombudsman, because it is a question of “Let’s talk to each other.” The mediation technique is automatically in the process—you encourage communication. If it is not going to work, the ombudsman makes a decision.

Another big function of why the ombudsman is really useful is that they collect data. In all the sectors I can think of, and critically in financial services, energy and so on, ombudsmen are the data controller for the sector because they can tell the banks or the regulator what is going on and what consumers are worried about. That is a feedback system within which people can see in real time exactly what is going on and can therefore respond to it. You sometimes then need responses. On the legal side, the responses may be enforcement of law by a court, or by a regulator if you have one—we do not have one in private rented yet, but we are, perhaps, close—and on the other side, you can have decisions by an ombudsman that are then put in place.

It was very interesting listening to Dr Rugg, who knows much more about the sector than I do. She spoke about support for landlords. Every regulatory system I know needs support for all the actors—tenants, landlords, agents, whatever. Ombudsmen can help with that, but I think there is a gap in local boots-on-the-ground support. Enforcers, like local authorities, or a national regulator if there is one, are sometimes able to support and help, but we have a missing piece.

Summing up, therefore, my view is that this Bill is a very important step forward in modernising towards a useful, effective future system. It is taking an ombudsman as being a central institution, as well as the portal where you get data—admittedly, it is a regulatory portal, rather than a disputes portal, but we may evolve; it is fairly easy to evolve once you have it. These are absolutely critical elements of what a really good future system would be.

I would go further, with just a couple of sentences. One point is that one needs to think about boots on the ground, with people supporting people. An ombudsman is national, so one has to fill that gap. Actually, I think tribunal judges, ombudsmen, local authorities and maybe others—I have had discussions with people about this—could fill that gap. It is critical for everyone. The other part is that one should ensure that everyone knows where to go—“Where do I go to get support? Have we got too many people?” On the dispute resolution side, do you go to court, a tribunal or an ADR scheme? How many ombudsmen are there? We already have three in the property and housing sector. Proliferation is never a good idea, and there are other sectors that show that. The objective is to pull things together. The inevitable logic of this means that you squeeze together the courts, the tribunal and the ombudsmen.

At their request, I chair an ad hoc committee involving the president of the tribunal, the various ombudsmen and the property redress scheme, who, in the past year, have worked on working together on service charges. It has been very effective. I am not sure it has actually been announced yet, as such, but it is not secret. They are working on how to work together. From the point of view of the tenant, certainly, but also the landlord, you want a simple pathway: where do you go? The data reason for that is that if you have a pathway where you have one database, you are going to maximise it; the data is all over the place at the moment, and we do not collect it.

I see this as a direction of travel. The answer to your question on when we will be ready to institute it is: do it now. I would be bold and move the county courts into the tribunal. We already know that the tribunal and the ombudsman can work together. You just squeeze people together one way or another. Then, you will have a fantastically good system, which is the basis of a very self-regulating regulatory space.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q Thank you, Professor Hodges, for your in-depth explanation of the benefits of the ombudsman. I wonder, Fiona, whether you have reflections on the ombudsman, particularly on some of the things that Christopher has just mentioned about how we get people to engage in the process and to engage in mediation and settling early, rather than getting lost in the court system.

Fiona Rutherford:

Thank you for the question. I think I am going to quote Dr Rugg again—I am afraid I only joined recently—but I thought the point on supporting the tenancy was really good: it is about neither the landlord nor the tenant, but the relationship. That is key to ensuring that, whatever solutions are put in place, you are looking at that as being your key outcome, as opposed to trying to take sides, as we have seen all too often.

The other thing that we have seen—Professor Hodges has strongly alluded to it—is the disaggregation of the amount of services that exist. To some extent that is great, because it means that there are potentially lots of places to go. However, the reality is that most landlords and tenants do not know that those services exist or how to access them. Whether or not that is through another ombudsman—I have some concerns about creating more and more ombudsman, and whether there is a way to streamline the available services—I think the most important thing is that those services are signposted to individuals, which means landlords and tenants, and also that the services are provided.

JUSTICE alluded to that in the report we published in 2020, where we talk about our long-term vision of adopting a multidisciplinary approach to avoid escalation and address the common underlying features behind tenants going into arrears, such as debt, family issues or employment issues. If there is a way to keep the longer term in mind, while not delaying on things like section 21, but also thinking carefully about addressing the disaggregation of services and including signposting and information, then ultimately, as far as I am concerned, all those things will be ingredients to success.

Professor Hodges:

I have a quick comment. Your question was, “How do we get people to engage in mediation?” It is automatic in the pathway. It is not in courts; it is in ombudsman, and to some extent it is now in tribunals. The Ministry of Justice has just introduced a mediation stage for low-value cases, but it is not necessarily automatically in the pathway.

All the consumer ombudsmen have been using this for up to 20 years, automatically. You put in your complaint and the ombudsman then says, “Okay.” It is investigative and collaborative, rather than adversarial. You do not need lawyers; they do not do anything. You just say, “Tell me about it,” because you have a central expert. It is not that you have two lawyers and a judge—who are not there. Rather, you have one ombudsman in the middle, so it is efficient and quick, and they are saying, “Tell me about it.” So you pull all the evidence in, and then you say, “Okay, what do you say? And you?”

That is automatically mediation, and most cases settle at that stage, because they talk to each other. If it is not going to work, you know fairly quickly, in which case you just get more evidence and then make a decision, unless they agree. So it is in the process. The courts are moving toward that but, because of the cost of public provision, they cannot do it as well as the ombudsmen.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Your comments there just provoked a thought. It might be too early to tell, but are there any lessons about signposting from the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023? We had the issue with that legislation, which we touched on earlier with Richard Blakeway, the ombudsman, about what the regulator can now do, which is to look at systemic things but also dip into cases. You have the ombudsman taking cases but has a view on the systemic side, so there is a potential conflict of interest. I think the Government are trying to get around that by saying to tenants, “Here’s where you go for each particular type of problem,” or “This is when you might go to the courts.” Are there any lessons from that, or anywhere else, where signposting has worked well, so that we can try, on the basis of this Bill, to send tenants to the right place in the first instance?

Professor Hodges:

The signposting is to have a single ombudsman.

Professor Hodges:

I would have one for the entire property and housing sector, and this is not the first time that I have said that. My ombudsman and judge colleagues know that, and quite a lot of them would not disagree. Fiona mentioned that we have a number at the moment. It must not proliferate. I am fairly confident that, if the Government just send the right signals, they might not have to legislate and that we can get adhesion on the ADR and the ombudsman side—people joining up spontaneously, if they are encouraged and pushed—so that you actually get there.

What we are doing here is filling a gap in private rented. We have already got the property ombudsman, which largely cover agents, and the private rented redress scheme. Then you have got have got social housing—let us converge. If you converge courts and tribunals as well, that is a major step forward for all the players, and certainly tenants and landlords. You will deliver things more quickly, basically, and everyone will know where to go.

As I said, look at every other sector. In financial services, you have the Financial Conduct Authority and the Financial Ombudsman Service; in energy, you have Ofgem and the energy ombudsman; and so on. It is not 100%, but it is well over 95%. In social housing, you have got a regulator. We have not got one in private property. We could have one, which would be a regulatory space involving these elements in a new and very effective way, within which you would not have, if you like, an old-fashioned regulator. Rather, you would have a system regulator, but all the people would work together in the system on supporting good practice, because codes already exist for that. The decent homes standards is just a code. It should apply, obviously, and then everyone would work towards that, whether it is local authorities, or the system regulator, the various ombudsmen, or the various self-regulatory bodies that exist—everyone knows where they are.

I am involved in several discussions like this, in totally different regulated sectors. If you say to people in your sector, “We’re all going to work together, and this is how we’re going to do it,” and if you have responsibilities to everyone—if you are no longer just a self-regulatory body on your own, but you are an ecosystem, and it has to work—then that works incredibly well, if everyone realises that is the game that has to be played.

Fiona Rutherford:

I agree with a lot of what Professor Hodges said, but I am not sure that everybody does know where to go.

Professor Hodges:

No, they don’t.

Fiona Rutherford:

To answer your question about where there may be good examples, the health justice partnerships, which we have seen work together, are good examples to look at. They do not rely on a tenant or a landlord to know what they cannot know or do not know, and that is what is missing. The health justice partnerships are where we have seen lawyers, or support workers or sometimes NGOs, sit in doctors’ surgeries, so that when a GP sees a patient who is suffering from mental health issues, or various other physical illnesses, and they have it diagnosed that it is probably related to something outside of a medical solution, then there is somebody in the building who that person can go to—if not immediately, then an appointment can be booked. That stops us relying on what are sometimes very vulnerable people, or people who are at vulnerable points in their lives, to seek out support services and help themselves.

Professor Hodges:

Just to add one sentence, which was implicit in what I said at the start: in the regulated sectors where you have an ombudsman, such as financial services or energy, no one goes to lawyers or courts—they disappear. People have voted with their feet, because the procedure is faster and more user-friendly, it is free, and it delivers a broader range of behavioural outcomes on the part of the energy companies, or whoever it is, and does not just ask, “Are they breaking the law?” If you feed that in to the ombudsman, you might get a decision, but you will also get the point referred up to Ofgem, or whichever regulator it is, so that it can do something systemically about it, if necessary. It is an ecosystem, but everyone knows where to go. I am afraid that lawyers and courts are toast.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q The amount that the ombudsperson can award is currently capped. Should the cap should exist, and if so, should it be fixed at £25,000, or should it be linked to another, more sensible amount, bearing in mind that that is a year’s rent on some properties?

Fiona Rutherford:

I would like to make a separate comment about the fine in the enforcement process within the Bill, but that is not your question, so perhaps Professor Hodges might start.

Professor Hodges:

The amount of money that either a judge or an ombudsman should award must be relevant to the dispute, because you cannot have people not being compensated. Therefore, there should be a mechanism for the amount to be amendable over time. Personally, I would not waste your time with that—coming back again and again to put it up. I would put a mechanism in the Bill, so that someone can set it, whether that is a Minister or whoever. You cannot have people not bringing forward claims because they will not get fully compensated, or bringing forward claims that are not fully compensated when they should be.

That takes you over, however, into penalties or sanctions for behaviour. That is a complicated issue, but the point is that usually we have a national regulator, and here we have a lot of local authorities, and they need the right powers as well, but quite often the right powers are not fines. I am afraid that there is rather a lot of psychological and other evidence that deterrence does not work—which is a shock, the first time that you hear it. Therefore, other, quite significant penalties—such as talking to people, explaining, informing and giving supporting about how things ought to be different, or, in the extreme, removing the licence to operate and saying, “You cannot let this property”—are the ones that work. A broader toolbox of responses and interventions—I am not using the word “enforcement” here—is what actually delivers good outcomes.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q So are you saying that for local authority enforcement, it should be easier for them to effectively de-list or bar someone on the property portal from re-renting that property?

Professor Hodges:

That would concentrate minds.

Fiona Rutherford:

And even before enforcement, there is something about transparency. There is something about everybody going into a tenancy—going back to that focus on tenancy—knowing a fair amount of history on both sides.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q So the property portal should be accessible for you to see that detail of it—potentially in public generally, or for the potential tenant?

Fiona Rutherford:

Importantly for the tenant. It is there that transparency matters the most. I think that there are possibly bigger issues with making it fully public.

Professor Hodges:

One of the points about the portal is that it is a very effective self-regulatory—or indeed managerial—system, because it says, “Have you got an insurance certificate? Have you got a fire certificate? Well, upload it.” It is done, and then you get a reminder saying, “You’ve got to do the next one.” Everyone should be able to see that. There is nothing secret about that information, but it delivers a baseline of regulatory compliance—“Are you compliant with the decent homes standard? Where’s your certificate?” or whatever. It is self-policing, and provides a very simple mechanism for doing that.

Just to give one dramatic example of sanctions, the Civil Aviation Authority never fines airlines in relation to safety issues—although it fines them now and again. It has an incredibly good culture among all the players—air traffic control, the airlines, engineers, and so on—and has constructed that deliberately, and it is the only reason why planes stay in the sky and we have confidence in them. It never fines anyone, but it uses the ultimate sanction—rarely—that I was talking about of saying, “I’m going to stop you operating your aircraft or your airport.” That concentrates the mind and gets the result of them saying, “Okay, we’ve fixed it,” very quickly.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Ceidwadwyr, Runnymede and Weybridge

Elaborating on that point, would you do that based on a landlord or based on the property itself? Would there not be a danger of evasion through the property group being put in someone else’s name, or using a different landlord, to escape that enforcementQ ?

Professor Hodges:

Personally, I am in favour of the broadest possible enforcement powers, but not necessarily their regular use. Therefore, whoever is involved in management and responsibility should be within scope of the discussion, and then of the potential response or intervention.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Ceidwadwyr, Runnymede and Weybridge

Q I am just thinking that in terms of the aviation sector, which you gave the example of, it is very difficult to evade that—but I wonder whether in practice, with what you are describing, that would be easy to get around.

Professor Hodges:

Well, whoever owns, or shadow-owns, a building, if you stop people letting the building, that will have an effect on anyone, will it not?

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Ceidwadwyr, Runnymede and Weybridge

Q Then you have a different problem: if you sanction by property, the property essentially gets blacklisted. How do you switch that if it genuinely does change ownership?

Professor Hodges:

You would have other powers against beneficial owners by saying, “You’ve done this several times; you’re out,” or, “Do it right otherwise you’re out.” That is a regulatory power.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Ceidwadwyr, Runnymede and Weybridge

Q Then you would need a separate database of people who are registered landlords.

Professor Hodges:

Not necessarily. I think one database is enough, frankly. You should be able to capture all the data about, “Who owns this?” We have been talking about foreign-owned companies and things in other contexts, and there are techniques for identifying them.

Fiona Rutherford:

I am going to make a point in relation to enforcement that I referenced earlier. Local authorities have been brought into this as we are talking about the widest panoply of options that might be available. I am going back to the penalties that I referenced earlier, so forgive me—I am moving out of the ombudsman perspective and the regulatory questions—but this is possibly related to enforcement. While there is a plan with the penalties as and when section 21 can be moved forward, and while the local authorities get a benefit from those penalties, a rate of £5,000 probably does not go far enough to act as any kind of incentive, in so far as you want enforcement to work in that way. Of course, there are other examples: £30,000 is the maximum financial penalty for a breach of the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Act 2022.

The other thing to say about local authorities is that while they benefit from the financial gain of any fixed penalties as a result of section 21 breaches, there is a real problem with local authorities’ resourcing. I am probably not saying anything that is particularly new to the Committee, but we are asking local authorities to do something more: it is not only enforcing section 21, but the other obligations to investigate antisocial behaviour appropriately. I again reference a report on behavioural control orders that we have looked into and the poor quality of data and understanding around antisocial behaviour. This means that the resources required are quite simply not going to be delivered through the proposed fixed penalties. We very much urge serious consideration around proper resourcing in a wider sense, but specifically in relation to antisocial behaviour and the section 21 enforcement regime.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Briefly on the breaches and penalties, how extensively do you think rent repayment orders should run through the Bill as a back-up? I am talking about the clause 9 and 10 breaches and the ombudsman portal registration breaches. Do you think we should have a much wider inclusion of rent repayment orders—probably as a final resort; we do not want to throw all the onus on tenants—as another deterrent?

Professor Hodges:

Following the principle that the pathway and the process should be as simple as possible, we should not have a system in which people have to go to different institutions—a judge, an ombudsman, a regulator or a local authority—to get everything fixed if that can be done in one place at one time. The logic of that takes you towards giving power to the ombudsman, the judge and the regulator to issue rent orders at the end of a case. Why should anyone have to start again and go somewhere else to get that result? They should say, “Okay, on the proposition, the landlord was wrong—badly wrong, probably—in this particular circumstance. Fix it and we will come and make sure you’ve done all this stuff. The right result is to repay the rent.” Give them the power to do that and to be holistic.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

If there are no further questions, I thank both witnesses for their evidence.