Examination of Witness

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 16 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Jacky Peacock gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield 12:30, 16 Tachwedd 2023

We will now hear oral evidence from Jacky Peacock, who is the head of campaigns for the organisation Advice for Renters. We have until 12.45 pm for this panel. Could you please introduce yourself for the record?

Jacky Peacock:

I am Jacky Peacock from Advice for Renters, which I guess does what it says on the tin. We have a legal aid contract to deliver advice that we complement with other services, such as money and debt advice, and so on. We also have a brilliant team of volunteer mentors who provide support for our clients when they need it. After the last session, I should add that we could not provide the legal aid service without getting independent grants from charitable trusts; it does not even cover the salaries or the fees, let alone the overheads.

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

Q Thank you for coming to give evidence to us. Chapter 3 of part 2 sets up a new database as a prelude to the portal, and we very much welcome it. We think it is actually one of the more exciting aspects of the Bill that could really make a difference. Assuming you agree with that, do you think there are any ways in which we might want to amend the Bill to be more prescriptive about what the portal needs to do and what conditions those registering on the portal need to meet? Do you have any concerns about how the portal might potentially operate?

Jacky Peacock:

Yes. I did listen to some of the sessions that you had on Tuesday and I was quite frustrated because, with all the problems that people were grappling with, they were not being seen in the context of the portal and its potential to avoid or minimise—certainly lessen—the problems that have been cited. So yes, it absolutely has a huge potential, and I think that it would be crazy to try to implement this legislation without having the portal in place. Although the intention is that it will be introduced through regulations, I do think that as the Bill progresses through the legislative process, the more flesh that can be put on the bones of it, the better.

I am trying to be as brief as I can. One reason why we think this is so important, although much in the Bill is welcome, particularly the measures to improve tenants’ rights—so that they can exercise their rights and will have security, can challenge poor conditions, and so on—is that we do have to be realistic. At the end of the day, the majority, if not the vast majority, of tenants will have no more idea what is in this Bill or what their rights are when it is enacted than they do now. If there is anything more important than giving the tenants the right to challenge poor conditions, it is ensuring that they do not have poor conditions to start with.

The portal has the potential to regulate the sector so that landlords cannot let properties unless they are safe, fit for human habitation and competently managed. We have worked with the Lettings Industry Council, which represents all stakeholders across the board, to develop a model. We have called it the MOT, and we have used the car analogy. If you want to drive a car or any vehicle, it is a pretty simple process: you register once a year through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, you provide evidence that the car is roadworthy—of course, the MOT is separately uploaded to the site—and you have a driving licence. All we are asking for is a similar system to operate for the private rented sector.

The other important thing is that the portal is an opportunity to put all the legal requirements in one place. We are not asking for any duties on landlords that do not exist already. But they are in a whole range of different pieces of legislation, and the landlord, with the best will in the world, finds it difficult to know exactly what they are and are not supposed to do. It is all in one place. Whether it is called the decent homes standard and incorporated in that does not matter: it is there on the portal. All the landlords who want to know how to do things properly can find it.

In order to let, landlords have to register and provide objective, independent evidence. All that exists already: the building insurance, the energy performance certificate, gas safety, electricity and so on. There is no reason why that cannot be either scraped from other sites or uploaded directly. The only thing that is missing is that you could have all those and still have a property, for example, with damp and mould that is not fit and that has category 1 hazards. The simple answer to that is for landlords to employ a surveyor to produce a surveyor’s report, which also gets uploaded by that person. Provided that everything is there, the legislation goes through.

I go back to the car analogy. If you want to register, you pay your annual fee; if you have forgotten to get your car insured or something, that will be flagged up—“Gosh, I have to sort that out”—and then you go back and do it. It is all very simple, and nobody complains about it.

Jacky Peacock:

Well, that outlines it; I can give more detail about how it works if you like.

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

Q Thank you very much for giving up your time. I understand what you have already said, but what are your views on applying the decent homes standard to the private sector? We could pass this Bill tomorrow, and a tenant would not necessarily know how their rights had changed. Do you agree that the simple act of abolishing section 21 is likely to give tenants more confidence when applying for tenancies?

Jacky Peacock:

I think it will in a number of cases, yes, but neither section 21 nor the Bill as a whole will make a dramatic difference to the landlord-tenant balance or relationship. I know the most robust, feisty tenants, but the idea of going to court and defending themselves is terrifying. In the vast majority of cases, if a landlord tells a tenant to go, they will go; they are not going to question whether they have a right to remain or what process has been followed—they will go. We still refer to the land “lord”—a direct descendant from a feudal stage—and we have not changed that relationship very much. We need to protect tenants by making sure that, without the tenant’s having to exercise the rights, even if they have them, the property is safe and competently managed.

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

Q Most of the grounds at the moment are non-discretionary or mandatory, and a few are discretionary. Is that balance correct, or should tenants be able to make specific hardship claims around financial issues, for example, or delay an eviction based on selling the house? For instance, if the tenant were receiving cancer treatment, they might seek a delay for a few months. Could you tell me about that distinction? Would that create more work or less?

Jacky Peacock:

We think that all the grounds should be discretionary. There is no more draconian decision that a civil court could make than to deprive someone of their home. The thought that they will be prevented from looking at all the circumstances before making a decision seems, in principle, unfair. Judges are not soft. If they have discretion, they will still grant possession in the majority of cases where the evidence is there and it is the fairest thing to do. But to deprive them of being able to look at every single circumstance in any of those cases before taking someone’s home away is not justice. It does not deliver justice. I have seen many cases of possession orders being issued against the tenant that have been grossly unfair for all sorts of reasons but, technically, the decision was mandatory.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Q Some tenants are keen and able to exercise the right to purchase. What are your views on how that relationship might work in terms of when grounds are sought for a property to be put up for sale?

Jacky Peacock:

I should first of all say that we are not happy with the sales ground. If a landlord wants to sell the property, we think that there is no reason that it could not be sold with the tenant in situ. Obviously, if it is sold to another landlord, that is a big advantage because they do not have to have any void periods while the property is going through the process of sale.

I also suggest, whether or not that remains a ground, that tenants should be given the right of first refusal. There is a precedent for that under the Rent Act 1977. Qualifying tenants—in other words, Rent Act tenants and/or non-leaseholders—have that right at the moment under certain circumstances. I will not tire you with the details of that, but as far as I am aware, all the parties are in favour of increasing owner occupation and this seems to be a very sensible way of doing it.

Even if individual tenants could not afford to buy, they may well have a relative that could buy it for them and they could own it eventually or it could be offered to the local authority, a housing co-operative, a housing trust or whatever. I hope that is something that is given serious consideration. It also means that the property is not being lost if landlords leave the sector. Certainly, if we have the portal as we would like to see it, a lot of appallingly bad landlords will be leaving the sector—good riddance—and that property could be bought by someone else, such as the local authority.

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

Q Someone going through a no-fault eviction must pay the cost of moving. Should there be some sort of recompense? Earlier this week, it was suggested that the tenant could be exempt from paying, say, the last two months’ rent.

Jacky Peacock:

Yes. I have not given a lot of thought to the way the legislation could cover that. To be honest, it is not unusual. We had a case recently where tenants were sharing with another family, but the landlord wanted the other family to move out. The families were sharing the rent and the landlord therefore approved £20,000 rent arrears. We were able to negotiate a date by which they would move; the landlord would not have to go to court to ask for possession, but he would not pursue the arrears.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

Thank you for your evidence and time, Ms Peacock.