Clause 7 - Right to request permission to keep a pet

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 23 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:30, 23 Tachwedd 2023

I beg to move amendment 183, in clause 7, page 8, line 36, leave out “42nd” and insert “14th”.

This amendment would ensure a landlord gives or refuses consent in writing within 14 days of the request being made.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 182, in clause 7, page 8, line 37, at and insert—

“(d) the landlord may not review or withdraw consent once given.”

This amendment ensures that a tenant may keep a pet for the duration of their tenancy once consent has been given.

Amendment 184, in clause 7, page 9, line 2, leave out “42nd” and insert “14th”.

This amendment would ensure that where a request for further information is made on or before the 14th day after the tenant’s request, the landlord may delay giving or refusing consent for a further 7 days if that information is provided.

Amendment 185, in clause 7, page 9, line 15, leave out “42nd” and insert “14th”.

This amendment would ensure that where a request for the consent of a superior landlord on or before the 14th day after the tenant’s request, the landlord may delay giving or refusing consent for a further 7 days if that information is provided.

Amendment 186, in clause 7, page 9, line 16, leave out “7th” and insert “14th”.

Amendment 187, in clause 7, page 9, line 18, at end insert—

“(3A) Where the consent of a superior landlord is required for the purposes of subsection (3), the superior landlord must give or refuse consent on or before the 14th day after the date of the request from the landlord.”

These amendments require a superior landlord to give or refuse consent within 14 days of a request being received.

Amendment 181, in clause 7, page 9, line 27, at end insert—

“(7) The Secretary of State must, within 180 days of the day on which this Act is passed, publish guidance on what constitutes a reasonable ground for refusal of consent to keep a pet for the purposes of this section.”

This amendment would require the Government to publish guidance on what qualifies as a reasonable ground of refusal for a tenant to keep a pet.

Clause stand part.

Clause 8 stand part.

New clause 63—Prohibition of discrimination relating to pet ownership—

“(1) In relation to a dwelling that is to be let on a relevant tenancy, a relevant person must not, on the basis that a pet would be kept by a person at the dwelling if the dwelling were the person’s home—

(a) prevent the person from—

(i) enquiring whether the dwelling is available for let,

(ii) accessing information about the dwelling,

(iii) viewing the dwelling in order to consider whether to seek to rent it, or

(iv) entering into a tenancy of the dwelling, or

(b) apply a provision, criterion or practice in order to make people who keep a pet at the dwelling, if it were their home, less likely to enter into a tenancy of the dwelling than people who would not.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply if—

(a) the relevant person can show that the conduct is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, or

(b) the relevant person can show that the prospective landlord of the dwelling, or a person who would be a superior landlord in relation to the dwelling, is insured under a contract of insurance—

(i) to which section (Terms in insurance contracts relating to pet ownership) does not apply, and

(ii) which contains a term which makes provision (however expressed) requiring the insured to prohibit a tenant under a relevant tenancy from keeping a pet at the dwelling, and the conduct is a means of preventing the insured from breaching that term.

(3) Conduct does not breach the prohibition in subsection (1) if it consists only of—

(a) one or more of the following things done by a person who does nothing in relation to the dwelling that is not mentioned in this paragraph—

(i) publishing advertisements or disseminating information;

(ii) providing a means by which a prospective landlord can communicate directly with a prospective tenant;

(iii) providing a means by which a prospective tenant can communicate directly with a prospective landlord, or

(b) things of a description, or things done by a person of a description, specified for the purposes of this section in regulations made by the Secretary of State.”

This new clause would prohibit landlords and those who act on their behalf or purport to do so from adopting certain discriminatory practices which make it harder for people who have pets to obtain a relevant tenancy.

New clause 64—Terms in insurance contracts relating to pet ownership—

“(1) A term of a contract of insurance to which this section applies is of no effect so far as the term makes provision (however expressed) requiring the insured to prohibit a tenant under a relevant tenancy or regulated tenancy from keeping a pet at the dwelling.

(2) This section applies to contracts of insurance which were entered into or whose duration was extended on or after the day on which this section comes into force.”

This new clause provides for terms of an insurance contract to be ineffective so far as they would prohibit a tenant from keeping a pet.

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

Clause 7 will add new provisions to the 1988 Act to strengthen the rights of tenants to keep a pet in their home, including a new legal obligation for landlords to consider requests to keep a pet while providing a route for them to refuse such requests when they can give a reasonable justification for why it would not be suitable. The clause also allows landlords to require insurance to cover pet damage.

We welcome the clause. As many of us know, pets are wonderful companions, and keeping them results in a host of benefits, not only for pet owners but for society. While it may be going too far to ascribe to them the status of a public health intervention, it is not in dispute that pets can help to relieve loneliness, boost physical activity, decrease stress and anxiety and, as I know from my own experience as the owner of a puppy called Clem, bring real comfort and joy to young children. We are therefore extremely pleased that the Government have delivered on the commitment they made in the White Paper to take steps to ensure that landlords cannot unreasonably withhold consent when a tenant requests to have a pet in their home.

We also welcome the fact that the Government have explicitly recognised the link between overly restrictive conditions on pets in the private rented sector and the number of animals either left on the street or given up to shelters each year. We know that such steps are required because there is extensive evidence that a significant proportion of landlords do not let to tenants with pets. Figures from the English private landlord survey 2021, which were quoted in the Government’s White Paper, suggest that nearly half of all landlords are unwilling to let to tenants with pets. The fact that so many landlords do not accept pets is not just an inconvenience for private tenants who own them; due to the constrained supply of properties in the private rented sector, it is also a significant contributory factor to the number of animals given up each year. It is telling that, last year, 10% of people who contacted the Dogs Trust with a view to rehoming their dog cited their reason for doing so as issues with accommodation, including being unable to find somewhere to live that was pet-friendly.

However, while we welcome the intent of clause 7, we are concerned that these provisions are not yet robust enough to ensure that the new “right to request” process will operate fairly and effectively in practice to prevent prospective tenants with pets from being disadvantaged at the point that they seek to secure a new periodic tenancy. The amendments to clause 7 that we have tabled in this group are an attempt to ensure that responsible pet owners can, as the White Paper promised, truly feel like their house is their home. We are pleased to have the support of both Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the Dogs Trust in tabling them.

Amendments 183 to 187 seek to reduce the period in which a landlord can consider a request made to keep a pet from 42 days to 14 days, with the ability to extend by a further 14 days should a superior landlord need to be consulted. We do not believe that the Bill, which currently would give landlords up to six weeks to determine whether to provide or refuse consent to keep a pet, is fair on tenants, particularly those who might already have pets and would presumably, absent a family member or friend temporarily housing them, have to cover the potentially significant costs of putting them in boarding kennels or catteries.

We have also taken seriously the concerns that Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has put to us about the possible impact of the proposed 42-day consideration period on rescue organisations. Its entirely justified fear is that if there are six weeks of uncertainty about whether tenants can live with their pets in a newly secured privately rented home, there is a real risk that a considerable number of animals could be surrendered to rescue organisations, thereby putting significant additional strain on those organisations. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has also highlighted another potential impact of the lengthy proposed period: private tenants looking to rehome an animal from a rescue centre or shelter in a newly secured privately rented home may find themselves unable to do so in a timeframe that the shelter can accommodate.

It is not clear to us why the Government believe that landlords will need up to six weeks to arrive at a decision on a request to keep a pet. If the Minister can provide a justification for why the Government chose 42 days as the period in which a landlord can consider such a request, we would be grateful to learn of it. In all honesty, we struggle to conceive of why any good-faith landlord would need such a lengthy period to make such a decision. It is our belief that a 14-day limit will allow tenants to better plan for pet ownership if they wish to acquire a new pet and make life easier for those who already own them. We hope that the Government will consider accepting these amendments.

Amendment 181 simply seeks to require the Government to address the present lack of clarity on what constitutes a reasonable ground for refusal. Subsection (4) of proposed new section 16B of the 1988 Act states that the

“circumstances in which it is reasonable for a landlord to refuse consent include” those in which a pet being kept would breach an existing agreement with a superior landlord. Yet aside from the circumstances set out in paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4), the Bill is silent on what would constitute a reasonable refusal in those circumstances. Are we to take it that paragraph (1)(b) of proposed new section 16A, which provides that consent to keep a pet is

“not to be unreasonably refused by the landlord”,

applies in all circumstances other than those in paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4)? In short, can private tenants who wish to own or already own a pet now be confident that a landlord cannot reasonably refuse a request to keep a pet, unless accepting such a request would breach an agreement with a superior landlord? Or do the Government intend for there to be a greater range of circumstances that could provide legitimate grounds for a reasonable refusal?

I hope the Minister will accept that this is not simply Opposition nit-picking over specific subsections of legislation, because the answer to that question is key to how the provisions will operate in practice. Tenants need to know whether the right to request to keep a pet must be accepted in all but the most extenuating circumstances, or whether there is a broader range of situations where landlords can legitimately refuse. In an attempt to clarify the present ambiguity, our amendment 181 would require the Government to publish guidance on what qualifies as a reasonable ground of refusal for a tenant to keep a pet. We hope the Government will give it serious consideration.

Another area where we believe the Bill would benefit from greater clarification is the nature of the consent once given. Our amendment 182 would ensure that, once given, landlord consent for a tenant to keep a pet cannot be reviewed or withdrawn. That would provide tenants with far greater confidence that, once a consent had been awarded, the landlord could not change their mind, and that they would be able to live with their pet for the duration of the tenancy as a result. We hope the Government will look favourably upon amendment 182, but even if the Minister does not ultimately accept it, we hope that he will provide some reassurance today that, once a consent is given, it cannot be withdrawn or revoked.

Turning to new clauses 63 and 64, as I touched on at the outset of my remarks, not only do we believe that changes are required to clause 7 to ensure that it operates fairly and effectively in practice, but we are concerned about the risk of prospective tenants with pets being disadvantaged at the point that they are seeking to secure a new periodic tenancy. As drafted, the clause applies only to existing tenancies and not prospective ones.

Given that we know that a significant proportion of landlords, perhaps even a majority of them, do not allow pets, we are concerned that any restriction may mean that landlords who do not wish to have a pet in their property, but who are unable to reasonably refuse a right to request from a sitting tenant, may instead seek to screen out tenants who are existing or prospective pet owners. New clauses 63 and 64 would prevent landlords from discriminating in that fashion, thereby ensuring that those with pets can move between properties as freely as those without. We hope that the Government will consider our new clauses carefully and, if they are not minded to accept them, will at least consider what might be done by way of statutory guidance, for example, to ensure that existing or prospective pet owners seeking to agree a new tenancy are not discriminated against.

Before I conclude, I want to touch briefly on how and whether tenants will be able to seek a review of a decision to give or refuse consent by a landlord. The White Paper stated that the Government would

“legislate to ensure landlords do not unreasonably withhold consent…with the tenant able to challenge a decision”,

yet there are no provisions in the Bill to deliver upon that commitment. The only reference to any kind of challenge to non-fulfilment of a landlord’s responsibilities under these provisions is to be found at subsection (5) of proposed new section 16B, which states:

“In proceedings in which a tenant alleges that the landlord has breached the implied term created by section 16A, the court may order specific performance of the obligation.”

If that is indeed the only means of redress available to tenants who have a request for a pet refused, it would be disappointing and, we believe, contrary to what was implied in the White Paper. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether that is the only means of potential redress in the case of a refusal and, if so, whether the Government are at least considering alternative means of non-statutory redress, for example via appeals to the new ombudsman.

I hope that Minister will take these amendments in the spirit in which they are intended, namely as a constructive attempt to ensure that clause 7 works fairly and effectively in practice and that there is no discrimination against pet owners once the new system is in place. I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Ceidwadwyr, North Warwickshire

I want to make a brief contribution on clause 8, to satisfy my inner insurance nerd and get some clarification. I declare an interest as chair of the insurance and financial services all-party parliamentary group. My understanding from speaking to officials and the Minister—I thank them for their time—is that the clause is intended to allow either landlords or tenants to obtain insurance to cover damage by pets, with the cost then being passed on where it is obtained by the landlord.

The explanatory notes state:

“Clause 8 amends section 1(4) of the Tenant Fees Act 2019 to allow landlords to require a tenant keeping a pet to enter into a contract with an insurance company to cover pet damage.”

That suggests that it is very much about only tenants obtaining that cover. As somebody with a background in insurance, I am very pro insurance contracts. The more people who can take them out, the better, but I have concerns about this measure and how it could be interpreted.

First, I am not aware of a specific product that covers pet damage in isolation. Currently, the only way to get it is normally through a tenant’s contents policy, with pet damage added on, so the tenant would have not only the cost of additional cover, but the cost of taking out a tenant’s contents policy. To give the Committee an idea of this, the current take-up rate of tenants taking out contents policies is somewhere between 10% and 15%, so we will have 85% more people having to take out that cover. If they take out that contents cover, it normally applies only to their own contents, not to the landlord’s property, which I think is the aim of the clause.

We heard good evidence from a lady from AdvoCATS. I looked at the policy that she mentioned on the website, but as far as I could see it covered only damage by somebody’s pet to their own contents; it would not cover damage to the landlord’s contents. Even if it did, I still have concerns. This is where I get a bit insurance nerdy.

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Ceidwadwyr, North Warwickshire

Yes, there is, but there are still some problems, which I will explain now. Even if the market does respond, that cover is not available now, so it might not be available from day one. It might respond in future—the hon. Member is right—but that leads me on to insurable interest. Usually, someone insures only something that they own. If they insure somebody else’s property, they have the potential to make a claim on it and that money goes to them as the policyholder, and they are not obliged to pass it on to the property owner. For that reason most insurance contracts are tied around an insurable interest, which is an important point because what we are trying to do here is cover the landlord’s property.

There could be an instance where a policy is taken out, a dog chews through a cable or something like that, and the tenant claims for it, but does not pass the money on. I will come to how we get round that. Also, Shelter mentioned that—there was a conversation over the weekend with the British Insurance Brokers’ Association —when financial shocks come, insurance products are normally one of the first things to be cancelled. So there is a worry for the landlord that the tenant might take the cover out at the start of the term, but there is nothing to say that that continues through the whole life of the tenancy and that the payments are made and maintained.

The third point is about the ability of a tenant to obtain cover, anyway. There are various barriers that might leave people unable to take out an insurance policy. There might be previous convictions or a previous claims history, or it might just down to the postcode and the particular area. Often such barriers would exclude some of the most vulnerable people who would benefit most from the cover.

The simplest solution is for the landlords to take responsibility for the policy covering their buildings insurance. It is their cover and they can make sure that the correct cover is in place and that there is not an onerous excess on the policy that might exclude payments coming out. They can make sure the cover is in force.

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

A point has just struck me. We heard from several advocacy organisations and charities that were sceptical about the need for this provision. Their concern was primarily about the impact on the finances of tenants, particularly vulnerable tenants, in the current cost of living crisis. Does the hon. Gentleman worry that if landlords have to take out insurance, they might pass on unreasonable and inflated costs in addition to the insurance policy? How would we verify that only the cost of the policy was being passed on?

Photo of Craig Tracey Craig Tracey Ceidwadwyr, North Warwickshire

My understanding from officials is that only the cost of the additional cover would be passed on. There is always potential for what the hon. Gentleman describes, though, so we do need to prevent it, because we want only the additional cost passed on. However, it comes back to the point that the landlord seems to be the best placed to take out that cover. It gets rid of a lot of the issues and means that the cover could start from day one.

I understand what the amendment is designed to do, but we need a bit more clarity. We do not want the unintended consequences that I have mentioned to prevent people from having a pet in their home, and the lack of insurance being blamed for that being the case.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for tabling the amendments, and I am glad that we are in agreement about the positive role that pets can play, especially his pup Clem—I wonder who that is named after. We know that pets can bring happiness to their owners and provide a vital source of companionship.

Clause 7 will help tenants to make their house a home by introducing a new implied term that strengthens their rights to pet ownership. In future, landlords will be required to consider each request for a pet on a case-by-case basis and will be unable to refuse a tenant’s request without a reasonable rationale. The clause also inserts new section 16A into the Housing Act 1988, setting out that the landlord has to respond to a tenant’s request to keep a pet within 42 days. The landlord can also request more information from the tenant within this time and will have a minimum of seven days to respond once the information is received. That will give landlords adequate time to consider a request, while preventing them from unfairly avoiding or delaying giving tenants a response.

I turn to amendments 183 to 187. Although I appreciate that tenants will want an answer to their request as quickly as possible, 14 days is simply too little. A landlord could easily be on holiday or in hospital, meaning that they would be in breach of the 14-day deadline. Forty-two days gives enough time for landlords to do more research and give due consideration to requests, but it prevents them from delaying indefinitely.

On new clause 63, we expect that the reforms will increase the number of pet-friendly properties from the outset, as landlords will know that they cannot unreasonably refuse a request once the tenant is in situ. There would therefore be little for landlords to gain if they sought to discriminate against pet owners prior to the tenancy starting. We believe that strengthening the rights of tenants within tenancies means that landlords will have more confidence to advertise properties as pet-friendly from the outset. We are bolstering that by allowing landlords to put an insurance policy in place or to ask the tenant to pay for insurance, so that they can recover the cost of any damage. We therefore do not think that legislation is required to achieve this change.

On amendment 182, I reassure the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that when a landlord gives permission for their tenant to keep a pet, it is an implied term of the tenancy that the tenant may keep the pet, so consent cannot be withdrawn. It is clearly important that tenants are aware of their rights, and we will seek to make that point clear in guidance.

I turn to insurance and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. Clause 7 provides reassurance to landlords concerned about damage to their property by allowing them to require the tenant to take out insurance covering pet damage, or to be reimbursed for the cost of getting the insurance themselves. Clause 8 amends the Tenant Fees Act 2019 to allow landlords to require tenants with a pet to take out an insurance policy to cover pet damage. Separately, we will also amend the Tenant Fees Act 2019 so that landlords are able to charge the cost of an insurance policy covering pet damage back to the tenant. This will be delivered using an existing power in that Act, and we will bring forward the secondary legislation before the measures in the Bill are implemented.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the single insurance product that is available at the moment. I really do welcome the Labour party’s position on the open market—it is a new one. As has been discussed in Committee, we feel that the lack of products is a result of the fact that very few landlords currently accept pets, so there is simply no market for it. We do think that will change with the introduction of this legislation.

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

With regard to passing on the costs of those insurance products once the market responds—as a social democrat, I make no apologies for using that phrase—how will we ensure that those costs are reasonable and transparent? There are lots of practices throughout the private rented sector where that is not the case.

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

That is certainly a role the ombudsman can play, which brings me on to the point raised by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich as to whether a tenant requesting a pet could challenge the landlord’s decision. We feel that the ombudsman could play a role in that ahead of any court proceedings.

On new clause 64, tabled by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, it would be unusual for an insurance policy to explicitly ban pets as a condition of insurance. It is much more likely that pet damage simply would not be covered. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter, and we will consider whether further action is necessary in relation to the new clause.

On amendment 181, we must ensure that the Government are able to work flexibly with stakeholders and properly align our planned guidance with implementation. I am happy to commit on the record today to guidance being issued, but it is vital that the Government are not constrained by the imposition of an arbitrary deadline. In the light of those points, I kindly ask the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to withdraw the amendment.

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

I will not press the amendment to a vote. I welcome the clarification from the Minister about guidance being forthcoming and in a number of other areas. I think all our concerns could be addressed if we had greater clarity on what constitutes a reasonable refusal and the circumstances in which a landlord could draw upon that. As I said to the Minister, all I can see in the Bill is proposed new section 16A(1)(b) of the Housing Act 1988, which says thats

“such consent is not to be unreasonably refused by the landlord.”

We need to know whether there is only a very narrow set of circumstances where that can be drawn on by landlords, or a wider range. The 42-day period does not matter in some ways if tenants have robust assurance on the reasonable implied period. There will also be far fewer ombudsman cases if there is only a narrow range of grounds on which a pet can be refused. I urge the Minister to write to us, perhaps before Report stage, to give us a bit of clarification around the circumstances in which landlords can reasonably refuse that request. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.