Examination of Witness

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 16 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Jen Berezai gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield 12:45, 16 Tachwedd 2023

We will now hear oral evidence from Jen Berezai, the co-founder of AdvoCATS. We have until 1 pm for this panel. Could you please introduce yourself for the record?

Jen Berezai:

Hi. My name is Jen Berezai; I am the co-founder of AdvoCATS. We are a wholly voluntary non-profit organisation. On the ground in the east midlands, we help landlords and tenants where there are issues concerning pets and rented properties. We help to produce pet CVs, obtain vet references and do anything else that will help to demonstrate responsible pet ownership so that a landlord can make an informed decision about allowing a pet in their property. Nationally, we ran the “Heads for Tails!” campaign, which was launched in September 2021: it was an umbrella campaign with big names supporting our proposals for a change to the Tenant Fees Act 2019 to make renting easier both for landlords and for tenants. We had support from the Property Redress Scheme, the likes of the NRLA and Propertymark and, on the animal welfare side, International Cat Care and the National Office of Animal Health.

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

Q Thank you for giving up your time to come and talk to us this afternoon. You will no doubt welcome clause 7. Do you have any concerns that landlords may attempt not to advertise or let to tenants with pets on the basis that, if they offer the tenancy, under the Bill they cannot unreasonably refuse the tenant the right to keep that pet? Relatedly, do you think the Bill is robust enough on what an unreasonable refusal might mean and how it is defined and used?

Jen Berezai:

Yes. We understand that there will be guidance on the grounds of unreasonable refusal, but the main reasonable excuse for refusing a pet is likely to be the existence of a head lease on a leasehold property. As I understand it, the head lease legislation is superior to that proposed by the Renters (Reform) Bill, so if there is a head lease on a property that prohibits pets, that will be a reasonable excuse. As approximately 20% of the housing stock in the UK is flats, that will have an impact on a lot of tenants. There is a huge lack of awareness within the tenant community, and among the general public, of what a head lease is and how it can affect you.

Sorry, but what was the first part of your question?

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

Q Do you think that there is a risk of discrimination, with landlords attempting to filter out pet owners so that they do not have to encounter the unreasonable refusal provision?

Jen Berezai:

Research that we have done, along with research undertaken by the likes of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Cats Protection, seems to indicate that a large number of landlords would be willing to consider pets provided that they are able to protect their own interests. That is why we proposed an amendment to the Tenant Fees Bill to add pet damage insurance to the list of permitted payments. Having said that, the rental market is very hot at the moment. I believe that there are something like 20 to 25 applications per property in London. In the east midlands, I think there are about 11 applications per property, and viewings are usually closed off at about 30. That means that landlords are able to cherry-pick tenants. A lot will take the course of least resistance and choose what they perceive to be the lowest risk.

Jen Berezai:

My concern is that it is an excellent step in the right direction, but it is probably going to benefit those who rent houses more than those who rent flats. That is because of the head lease issue. I know that leasehold reform is going through; it would be nice if the two things could work hand in hand. Giving landlords the ability to say either “You must hold pet damage insurance” or “I am going to charge you for pet damage insurance” will make a difference to a lot of landlords who are currently on the fence about allowing pets.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Q My tenant has a dog, and I was not aware that pet damage insurance was available. How widely available is it? Is there a market for people to choose a reasonably priced pet damage insurance product? Notwithstanding the fact that presumably it will mature if there is a lot of demand for it, is it there now?

Jen Berezai:

It is there now. There are only a handful of companies, to be fair, but it is there now. We at AdvoCATS tend to deal with one company called One Broker, which has been providing a product for quite a few years. Premiums start from about £15 per month, which gets a landlord £4,000-worth of cover. We are aware of people developing other products, because when the Bill goes through we foresee a lot more of them coming to market. In the course of preparing the “Heads for Tails!” report, we spoke to insurance companies, including the Alan Boswell Group. It developed and launched a pet damage policy for tenants, backed by SAGIC—the Salvation Army General Insurance Corporation—specifically as a result of our campaign and what we were calling for.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

Q One of the discretionary grounds for possession is deterioration of the property or its furnishings. Do you find that landlords use that ground where the pet has not been as well behaved as anticipated?

Jen Berezai:

Yes. There is probably a bit of a grey area there. I understand that there are accepted industry standards for how long carpets should last, which are different for a couple and for a couple with children. Perhaps it is important to build in a couple, or a couple with children and/or pets, so that if a tenant is leaving a property with a 15-year-old carpet and the landlord says, “Look at the carpet—I’m going to claim on the deposit or ask you to claim on your insurance,” that could be seen as unreasonable because of the age of the carpet.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Ceidwadwyr, Walsall North

Q Jen, can I just say that I am a big fan of your work? I am delighted that this was included in the Bill. I appreciate that the Bill does not apply UK-wide, but we have about 35 million pets in the UK. We are a nation of animal lovers. Do landlords have a particular grievance with dogs as opposed to other pets? I occasionally babysit my daughter’s house rabbits, and they eat everything: the carpet, electric cables, anything they can get their hands on. Generally speaking, do landlords have an aversion to dogs?

Jen Berezai:

The first time I heard my father swear was when my rabbit ate through the telephone cable for the third time.

It tends to be split about 50:50 down the middle. Some landlords will say, “Dogs are fine, but I’m not having cats,” whereas other landlords adopt the opposite position. Each can bring their own range of risk behaviour, but there is also a problem with perception versus reality. For example, Cats Protection did some research when it ran its Purrfect Landlords scheme. One thing struck me as particularly interesting: for 63% of landlords who did not allow pets, their major concern was a flea infestation, whereas only 2% who did allow cats had ever experienced any problem like that. A horror story will get more traction than a good luck story, so there is a lot of education to be done. Vet referencing should definitely be used to demonstrate responsible pet ownership. Microchipping is becoming compulsory for cats next June. If an animal is microchipped, vaccinated, neutered, and flea and worm-treated, that rules out the majority of antisocial behaviours.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q I have a quick question about insurance, which you touched on briefly. Who should pick up the tab: the landlords or the tenants? Should there be something on that in the Bill?

Jen Berezai:

I think it is good that there is the option for either. We ran a survey with the NRLA and Propertymark called “What’s the Damage?” because we wanted to drill down a bit deeper into the landlord’s experience. Those who saw insurance as the way forward were pretty evenly split between the landlord paying for the insurance, or the tenant paying the landlord, or the tenant actually buying the insurance policy. That seems to be determined by portfolio size and, to a degree, average rent. I think it is good that there is the balance, because some landlords want one thing and some want the other.

At the moment, if you find a pet-friendly landlord, the likelihood is that they are going to charge you pet rent, which they can do under the terms of the Tenant Fees Act; it is only the deposit that is capped. The average is about £25 per pet per month, which means that you are paying £300 extra rent per pet per year. That is just per pet, whereas an insurance policy covers an address, so you can have a cat and a dog or a couple of cats—whatever it might be—and your premium is less than pet rent and the cover is greater.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Ceidwadwyr, Runnymede and Weybridge

Q I am also a massive cat lover—thank you for the work that you and Cats Protection have been doing in this area. It strikes me that some of this is about landlord attitudes. Are there any other ways in which the Government could reassure landlords with regard to taking on tenants who have pets? Could there be guidance on the interpretation of the reasonableness clause? What are the other ways and mechanisms we can use to help landlords not to be so afraid to take on tenants with pets?

Jen Berezai:

One thing that needs looking at is the current “yes pets” or “no pets” option. If you go on any of the search portals, those are the only options you get. There is no option for “pets considered”, but there needs to be because each case needs to be considered on its own merits.

As far as encouraging landlords goes, it is a bit utopian, but there could be some sort of incentive for a landlord not to discriminate against a pet-owning tenant. At the moment, if a landlord has 11, 15 or 20 applications for a property, they can choose the course of least resistance, take the easy option and ignore the pets. There could be some way of incentivising that, but I do not know what that might be or what might be realistic. I think it is more of an education exercise.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

As there are no further questions from Members, I thank our witness for coming to give evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Mr Mohindra.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.