Examination of Witnesses

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:00 pm ar 16 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Samantha Stewart, Linda Cobb and Roz Spencer gave evidence.

Samantha Stewart:

Good afternoon, Committee. Thank you for inviting us to speak with you this afternoon. My name is Sam Stewart, and I am the interim chief executive officer of the Nationwide Foundation. Some of you know us, but for those who do not, we are an independent national charity that since 2013 has been supporting, testing and evidencing solutions to the UK’s housing crisis, particularly from the perspective of those most in need. Part of our work funds projects that aim to transform the private rented sector, including the Renters’ Reform Coalition, which you have heard a lot from this week, and the longitudinal RentBetter study, which is looking at the impact of Scotland’s tenancy reform. From our perspective, the evidence from Scotland is particularly helpful in understanding how the Renters (Reform) Bill can be strengthened to better protect those who are most vulnerable, which is our focus today.

Samantha Stewart:

We are very independent, but totally funded by it.

Samantha Stewart:

Swindon.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Swindon—fine. In that case, you are not a constituent of mine. Had you been, I would have been extra nice to you.

Linda Cobb:

Hello, I am Linda Cobb, the manager of DASH Services. DASH stands for Decent and Safe Homes. We are a local authority-led service aimed at improving standards in the private rented sector, and we work with landlords and local authorities across England.

Roz Spencer:

Hello, I am Roz Spencer. I run the third sector organisation called Safer Renting, which has been operating in the last eight years, providing advocacy support to private renters in what we call the shadow housing market. We see a lot of the worst-offending behaviour, and are somewhat jaded as a result.

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

Q I have two questions, the first of which relates to standards. The Government have tabled an amendment introducing a version of the decent homes standard. I wondered what your thoughts were on that and, importantly, on the ability of local authorities to enforce it. I am thinking of part 3 of the Bill, which will put a general duty on local authorities in a number of areas. If we introduce the decent homes standard in the way that the Government have proposed, will it materially improve residences, and will local authorities be able to enforce it effectively?

Linda Cobb:

In its current format, a property is classed as being decent if it is free from category 1 hazards as defined in HHSRS. The decent homes standard is linked to HHSRS, and many landlords and tenants do not really understand HHSRS. It is complex.

Linda Cobb:

The housing health and safety rating system. It is a tool that local authorities use, and a fundamental part of the decent homes standard.

Based on that, HHSRS was reviewed recently. It has gone through a two-year robust review, looking at how it is enforced, what will be included in it and how it will be altered. One of the workstreams in the review looked at the guidance for landlords and tenants. That review is now complete but has not come into force yet. As the decent homes standard relies on HHSRS and we need users to engage with it, it is really important that the reviewed HHSRS comes into force as soon as possible, so that enforcement teams and training providers such as DASH can embed it and get used to it, and so that landlords can get used to the tool as well. The decent homes standard is another layer of enforcement, which really goes to the point that local authority enforcement teams are lacking appropriately skilled and resourced multidisciplinary teams. There is lots of information there.

Finally, when we are looking at decent homes standards, we need to learn from the electrical safety regulations and the smoke and carbon monoxide regulations. When they came into force, they created huge spikes in demand: you could not get an electrical insulation condition report because there were not enough electricians around. You could not get hold of carbon monoxide detectors, which needed to be in every rental property, because there was not the supply of them. We need to learn lessons when looking at decent homes standards as well.

Roz Spencer:

Could I just add, from the point of view of how things work out in the shadow private rented sector, that the proposal in the Bill that enforcement teams have the right to go and inspect properties proactively, without having to rely on complaints, is important and welcome? Particularly in the shadow sector, tenants are quite unlikely to report and complain because of their fear of consequences, so even if it does not happen, the fact that it can be concluded that an enforcement team is acting on intelligence proactively and the tenant has not necessarily complained is a helpful protection for renters.

Samantha Stewart:

On the enforcement of standards, it is really important to add that one of the main findings from the Scotland research was that even if the law changes, it has limited effect without proper enforcement. Despite the changes, that research told us that tenants living in poor conditions still struggle to access local authority enforcement, leaving them without any other form of redress.

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

Q Do I take it from your answers that it is partly a resourcing point, but it is not just resourcing; it is the skills and capacity?

Linda Cobb:

It is, yes. Enforcement teams across the country are producing some fantastic, life-changing results for tenants; however, they are doing so in a very firefighting, reactive way. This Bill and the decent homes standard do not change that—they do not magically change the fact that those teams do not have the staff or the training ability. Going back to what Sam said, DLUHC commissioned a report in 2022 that explored local authority enforcement and concluded that capacity and skills shortages in enforcement teams can undermine any potential gains from legislation and new powers.

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

Q On a completely different issue, we have spent a lot of time discussing chapter 1 of part 1—reforms to the tenancy structure, grounds for possession and so on—and relatively less on part 2, the ombudsman and the portal. Could you give us your general views on what the Bill does, on whether it is prescriptive enough and on what either or both of those things should look like in practice?

Samantha Stewart:

We strongly welcome the provisions in the Bill, particularly on the property portal. We believe that it will create an essential tool for the PRS to drive up standards and improve landlord compliance, supporting enforcement teams and also supporting landlords to understand their rights and responsibilities. This is something that the foundation has been calling for, for some time. As some of you will know, we funded a report called “The Evolving Private Rented Sector”, by Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, which was published in 2018 and called for a national landlord register.

As an important addition, that research also recommended ways in which the portal can work. One of those recommendations, which we support very strongly and which you heard about earlier today from Jacky Peacock, was for an independent property assessment. That assessment could confirm compliance with safety and other relevant checks on the property, and would also be required to be submitted to the property portal before the property can be let out. One of our beliefs is that the property assessment, alongside the portal, will help to shift the burden of compliance somewhat from overstretched local authorities to landlords and the property portal itself.

Roz Spencer:

This may be a statement of the obvious, but Safer Renting recently pulled together the best estimate it could from published data about the incidence of offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. Why did we do that? Because nobody else does it and there is no reliable centrally held Government data. This goes into a massively controversial space. People are always arguing on both sides of the fence: “Is this a big problem? Is this not a big problem?”

The absence of data fundamentally undermines the process of good policymaking and being able to identify, for example, the unintended consequences or omissions in legislation. It also undermines enforcement, which I think my colleagues will speak to more eloquently. Having big data is so important. Otherwise, how can you legislate, and how can you know the impact of your measures? When the public finances are so stretched—as we have heard from Linda, there is a problem with skill shortages and capacity in enforcement teams—you really need to have slick systems. That is what a well-designed portal needs to offer: a slick system that will support something that is really stretched for resources and needs systemic support desperately.

Samantha Stewart:

Do you want me to take the question about the ombudsman?

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

Q Thank you, everyone, for your evidence so far.

Roz, do you think the portal addresses the problems that you see in the shadow rented sector, in so far as it brings it into the light by making people aware of where those landlords are, highlighting their bad practices?

Samantha, I am very interested in the assessments that the foundation has done in Scotland. What big lessons have been learned from them which could inform how we shape this Bill?

Roz Spencer:

I think the devil is in the detail. You need a well-designed portal, and there are many seasoned professionals in the licensing and enforcement field who can tell you exactly what needs to be in that portal. Provided that it is well designed, I think it would be enormously helpful—both to hard-stretched enforcement teams and to people like me in the third sector, who are trying to advocate for tenants in the shadow sector who do not understand their rights—in empowering people to access that information to support themselves.

Samantha Stewart:

Are you wanting to understand the more general lessons that we have learned from Scotland around the PRS reform?

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

Q Yes, I think so, but also where this Bill is lacking and how we could strengthen it, based on your evidence from Scotland.

Samantha Stewart:

There is lots of evidence. The research commenced in 2019; it is a five-year piece of research. From the perspective of this Bill, it gives us key evidence on how English reform might and will impact vulnerable tenants. That is important, because we know that vulnerable tenants are the most at risk of being harmed by a poorly functioning PRS: they do not have the same consumer power, confidence or voice as their better-off peers. We know that vulnerable tenants have not benefited in the same way as their better-off peers from the reforms in Scotland.

There are two main things we know are happening. The first is about enforcement, as I have already said. Even if the law changes, it has limited effect without proper enforcement. Tenants living in poor housing still struggle to access local authority enforcement, leaving them with no resource at all to address their problems. The second relates to the new mandatory grounds. When the Scotland equivalent of section 21 evictions was removed, some landlords found that they could continue to carry out revenge evictions by abusing the new grounds on sales and on landlords moving in.

I will give you an example. Take Luke, a renter who lived in a property with rats and maggots falling out of his ceiling. The landlord refused to address these issues for months after Luke asked, but was forced to do so by the Scottish tribunal—great. However, shortly afterwards Luke was evicted from his home by his landlords, using the new possession grounds, and soon after he moved out, the property was re-let—not so great. That is just one example of how an unscrupulous landlord can abuse the new grounds if there are not sufficient safeguards.

We know that it is vulnerable tenants who will suffer most, for reasons that I have already mentioned. Based on that evidence, in order for the Bill to benefit vulnerable tenants, it needs amending to provide additional protections for them. First, landlords using grounds 1 and 1A—moving in and selling—should be required to provide adequate and appropriate evidence that they are selling or moving back in. Secondly, landlords who evict tenants using the new grounds should be prohibited from re-letting for a year, not three months. Three months is just not good enough—it is not a meaningful deterrent to landlords—but we believe a year would be. Thirdly, the Bill should be amended to provide a clear legal mechanism for tenants to seek redress, such as through a rent repayment order. Those are the three areas that we feel would really strengthen those mandatory positions.

I will finish by saying again that we really, truly believe that good landlords doing the right thing, who are the majority, would not be affected by changes along these lines, because they truly believe that they are providing homes.

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

Q Is there anything in the Scotland reforms that you are pleased that we are not replicating?

Samantha Stewart:

That is a really good question.

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

Also, forgive me—I cannot remember which panellist mentioned Jacky Peacock earlier on, but she talked about this idea of an MOT in order to access the portal. Each of the panellists has mentioned that local authorities have struggled for resource. How would an MOT help? Who would verify such an MOT? I suppose, if we were to go down that route, it would mean local authorities facing even more burdens.

Samantha Stewart:

In answer to your first question, there will probably be some. I will definitely make sure that we cover that in our written evidence, because I am sure there will be something we can contribute that we are pleased not to see. Forgive me—I do not know that answer right at this moment in time.

On the MOT, we all know that it is not an easy thing to do, but there is certainly a lot of detail in the Rugg and Rhodes report about how we could go about that. Again, I would be really happy to put that in our written evidence.

Linda Cobb:

I manage a large landlord accreditation scheme across lots of different local authority borders, and obviously landlords then register on to a portal, so I am aware of the complexities of managing such an unwieldy beast, so to speak. As part of our landlord accreditation scheme, we have a property check—similar to what Jacky was saying with the property MOT. We do a sample compliance check. DASH and Unipol looked at about 2,000 properties that we had inspected; we assessed those inspections, and we had actually helped our landlords to remove or reduce almost 1,500 hazards that simply would not have been removed or reduced by simply registering on a portal and just self-declaring. Those were good landlords; they were landlords who were willing to make the change, and they made it quickly. But there is an argument that with just self-declaring, we have to be careful about the digital policing of a portal and giving false assurances. We can learn from landlord accreditation schemes and from schemes that are already going on. We really need to do that with the portal as well.

Samantha Stewart:

It’s true. It is about taking the best in class as well, isn’t it?

Linda Cobb:

Yes. We also have to be careful about avoiding duplication. From my landlord accreditation scheme, I know that landlords do get a little bit confused—they have licensing, accreditation, deposit registration and so on. If we are going to add an ombudsman, we will have to be very careful about avoiding duplication.

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

Q The market is fragmented. Lots of rented property is owned by people who only have between one and four properties. Those people are essentially unprofessional, even if they are willing. I am worried about how they might slip through the gaps because, if they are not using a letting agent or a management service, they may be unaware of changes to the law or of how to register. How do you think we should address that so that landlords know what they need to do? How can we ensure that tenants know that they have access to this information and the right to challenge? I doubt some of those people are following what is going on in this Committee.

Linda Cobb:

I will take the landlord bit. I think that to call smaller landlords unprofessional is not quite right. The majority of landlords in our landlord accreditation scheme have between one and four properties; most have just one. We see very professional behaviour.

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

To clarify, I do not mean that they are deliberately unprofessional. I just mean that they may not be on top of all the legislative changes.

Linda Cobb:

Yes. I think we need to change the way we communicate with landlords. We need to get information out there, because what we found through trying to drive up numbers in our accreditation scheme was that a landlord could be anywhere. Marketing was very difficult. Where do you go to advertise this information? It has to be very mainstream. Look at gas safety certificates: the campaign when they came in was very effective because it was a mass campaign. Safe Suffolk Renters is doing something very similar and we can learn from its work. Going back to what Sam was saying, we should learn from what has been good in the market at getting messages out there.

Roz Spencer:

From a renter’s perspective, there is the obvious problem of renters’ knowledge about their rights. I think there are three reasons why renters’ understanding of their rights is poor: landlord and tenant law is so complicated; tenant rights are so slim; and the expectation of enforcement is at a low ebb. Renters have challenging lives and other things to think about. Their bandwidth to pay attention to something complicated, thin and unlikely to deliver for them is quite limited. If you get things right around renters reform, raising renters’ awareness of their rights will be much easier.

Linda Cobb:

I am a big fan of going back into schools and doing work at that very early level. The majority will go into rented accommodation at some point, and we need to get into schools to show young people what a good tenancy is like and what their rights are from a very young age.

Samantha Stewart:

That is a really good point. Let’s face it: renters are going to be renting for a long time, so getting them to understand things early, right from the start, is a fabulous opportunity.

Linda Cobb:

Yes. They should understand what their responsibilities and rights are.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

Sam, I was interested in what you were saying about maggots falling out of cracked ceilings. I was a councillor for a long time and a cabinet member responsible for public protection. That included environmental health. I was regularly shocked by how often tenants lived in such dreadful conditions until someone said, “You should report that to environmental health,” and then there would be a notice to improve. Surely there are protections now, but tenants do not know about the Environmental Protection Act 1990 or the Housing Act. This Bill will strengthen things like that, but what can we do to improve people’s knowledge of the fact that they can still go to environmental health to get their housing sorted?Q

Samantha Stewart:

I think we just have covered some of the ways that we can do that. We just have to repeat the message consistently: there are fabulous organisations out there that advocate for and help tenants, and there are fabulous local authorities that can do the same. I can speak more from a vulnerable tenant perspective, because that is our focus. Even if they know where to go, they do not go, because they do not feel they have the power and they fear eviction if they tell anyone.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

Q Do you think that that will change under this?

Samantha Stewart:

Not without a significant increase in safeguards around the new grounds for possession.

Linda Cobb:

In the 2021 Chartered Institute of Environmental Health report, 56% of local authorities reported vacancies in their teams, so that phone call is going to go unanswered, and that email is going to go right to the bottom of the pile, even if they did complain. Then people will say, “My auntie complained to the council and nobody got back to her”—that sort of mentality—and they will not feel that they will be listened to. The report also said that 87% were relying on agency staff to fill that gap, and they are obviously expensive, so you can have only one of them as opposed to two full-time equivalents.

We are looking to stem that bleed with local authorities, and we are looking at ways to increase the training in the industry. We are losing very good local authority environmental health officers, because they are either retiring or leaving the sector because they are tired of it. We want more of the one-year private rented sector enforcement training courses, so we are working with our local university and training providers to get those up and running. We also want an apprenticeship-levied housing practitioner training course, which would help with these multidisciplinary teams. The team could then deal with all aspects—as well as physically going out, it could offer information about what the tenant can do themselves.

Samantha Stewart:

I will just finish by saying that we also fund seven organisations across the UK that are working with tenants, particularly in the more vulnerable part of the sector, to help them strengthen and increase their voice. One of the reasons we are doing that—helping them to enact and effect these changes themselves, speak up for themselves and know their rights—across the UK with very different types of organisation is so that we can learn what works best and then use that evidence to inform policy.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Q Can we go back to the issue of illegal evictions? Roz, you said that there is a lack of data in that area, which is absolutely right. Your organisation, probably more than almost any other, has a wealth of anecdotal information about what is happening. What can you tell us about the trends and characteristics? Is there any sense that some people pursue that route because of the problems in the court system? We have had quite a lot of discussion—other witnesses may have a view on this—about the proposed delay because of the problems in the court system, and some witnesses were very clear that there are no justifications for delay. What does your experience tell us about that, and what have you picked up about the reasons for such evictions?

Roz Spencer:

Thank you for asking. You heard it here first: the safer renting count, which was first established in 19—sorry, 2021; I am showing my age—established a methodology that looked at five different sources of data that could be collected on an established, reliable basis, and did not involve any significant overlap between the data points, and we have just updated those figures from 2021 to 2022. The trend between those two years is an 18% increase in reported offending under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977—so, those are illegal evictions and cases of extreme harassment likely to give rise to the loss of a home. That 18% uptick is of significant concern. I have no evidence to suggest that the performance in courts has had any bearing on that, and I would be surprised if it had.

There is another figure that is interesting—I think it is buried in the Government’s H-CLIC data. All local authorities report on trends in Protection from Eviction Act offences leading to homelessness. That is a very big, stable and reliable time series for the data. Interestingly, during the pandemic, when there was a ban on section 21 and a subsequent inability to use bailiffs to enforce lawful evictions, there was a substantial drop in lawful evictions between 2020 and 2021. There was no such drop in the number of unlawful evictions. In fact, those numbers held up, sadly, at more or less the same level. As a proportion of evictions leading to homelessness, the figure came close to doubling.

The interesting suggestion buried in that statistic is that it is so important, when you are quite rightly considering replacing section 21 with new grounds for possession, that you avoid the unintended consequences of those changes in access to lawful eviction increasing the number of landlords who feel that they can get away with just doing it anyway.

I have another statistic to offer you. If you look at our count of what we think is a very conservative estimate of the number of unlawful evictions and the Ministry of Justice statistics for the number of convictions in a year, the figures show that in more than 99 out of 100 offences, the person who commits the offence, the landlord who undertakes the unlawful eviction, walks away scot-free, so it is little surprise that people do not regard the enforcement of the law as adequate.

Your clause 58 in the Bill is so important because it corrects one of the major defects in what is a 46-year-old piece of legislation, the Protection from Eviction Act, which does not do what it says on the tin. It has not been preventing evictions because nobody has a duty to enforce it. That is a very long answer to your question, but there is a lot of support for what I am saying in those data.

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

Q We have spoken a lot about data and the portal in this session. How do you think we can use that data to judge the effectiveness of the reforms? Going back to our discussion about lessons learnt, in 10 years’ time we will need look back on this and are, “Where were the improvements that we could have made differently?” How do you think we can use the data to help to shape that thinking?

Roz Spencer:

Our count report is in the House of Commons Library. It argues strongly that the Government need to start counting the data. I would not have thought it would be problematic for the Government to introduce their own mechanism for counting, and we talk about the methodology at some length in the report. I would advocate that you start showing, as Government, not only that the law and enforcement matter, but that you understand that the impact assessment needs to be based on data that you simply do not have at the moment.

Samantha Stewart:

I am not saying that we are going to fund this, but we should all think about something similar to what we are doing with funding in Scotland. If you want to really understand how impactful the legislation is, we should start tracking it pretty soon, using the data and everything else at our fingertips.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

As there are no further questions from colleagues, I thank our three witnesses for their evidence: Samantha Stewart, chief executive of Nationwide; Linda Cobb, services manager for DASH; and Roz Spencer, director of Safer Renting.