Clause 24 - Landlord redress schemes

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 28 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:25, 28 Tachwedd 2023

I beg to move amendment 174, in clause 24, page 32, line 27, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

This amendment would impose a duty on the government to require residential landlords as defined in clause 23 to join a landlord redress scheme.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Amendment 196, in clause 25, page 34, line 17, at end insert—

“(ba) providing that complaints about deposits held in tenancy deposit schemes under Chapter 4 of Part 6 of the Housing Act 2004 (tenancy deposit schemes) may be made under the scheme,”.

This amendment would ensure that where there is a dispute regarding deposits this can be submitted to the ombudsperson for redress rather than just to the private schemes themselves.

Clause 25 stand part.

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

Amendment 24 is a simple and straightforward measure that is designed purely to ensure that the Bill guarantees that the private rented sector will be brought within the purview of an ombudsman. The Opposition are slightly concerned by the deliberate choice of the phrase “may make regulations” rather than “must make regulations” in subsection (1) of the clause, not least because it has been four years since the Government committed to extending mandatory membership of a redress scheme to all private landlords through primary legislation. We would be content to withdraw the amendment if we receive firm assurances that the Government will, at the earliest possible opportunity, bring the private rented sector within the remit of an ombudsman and if the Minister provides further detail about the Government’s intentions in that regard.

Turning to clause 25, the Minister will know that all other ombudsman-level redress schemes that have been set up in recent decades, including the new homes ombudsman, the legal ombudsman, the housing ombudsman and the pensions ombudsman, have all been clearly defined in statute as the only bodies responsible for ombudsman-level redress operating within the relevant sector. That is because the Government think it important to avoid having multiple redress schemes in individual industry sectors. As the relevant Cabinet Office guidance sets out, multiple redress schemes should be avoided because they may

“confuse consumers and may introduce uneven practices in investigation and redress”.

The Government have made it clear since the publication of the White Paper that they intend to introduce a new single ombudsman that all private landlords must join, yet clause 25 and others in this chapter deliberately refer to “redress schemes”, rather than a single ombudsman. Clause 25(6)(a) specifically makes clear that the regulations that the Secretary of State may introduce under clause 24 can provide for a number of redress schemes to be approved or designated.

Given the Government’s position, as outlined in the White Paper, I would be grateful if the Minister explained why it has been felt necessary to draft the Bill in such a way that it would potentially facilitate the creation of multiple redress schemes. Would he explain why the Government believe it necessary for multiple schemes to be set up and why it was not adequate simply to specify, as precedent would dictate, that a singular ombudsman be established in the Bill?

I have a final question for the Minister in relation to this clause that relates to the concern I flagged when speaking to amendment 173 to clause 23—namely, that chapter 2 of part 2 of the Bill concerning landlord redress schemes is too prescriptive. In the evidence he gave to the Committee two weeks ago, Professor Christopher Hodges made the argument for not over-specifying operational details in legislation but leaving a degree of discretion to the ombudsman and the portal operator.

However, rather than limiting the Secretary of State’s powers to approval of the scheme, this clause provides them with powers to direct the operation of the ombudsman in all manner of areas, including fee setting, the time allowed for complaints to be resolved, the circumstances in which complaints may be rejected, the types of sanction available for redress, and the general enforcement decisions made under the scheme. My question to the Minister is simply why do the Government believe that a different approach from the norm is necessary in the case of the new ombudsman with responsibility for the private rented sector?

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 9:45, 28 Tachwedd 2023

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and to speak to amendment 196, which stands in my name.

Amendment 196 aims to include deposits as an area that the ombudsperson can overview, and it touches on my hon. Friend’s point. The deposit schemes are three in number, which causes great problems for many constituents. Most believe that they will never get their deposit back, because they know that their landlords can run rings around the respective deposit schemes.

The outcomes of deposit scheme disputes are not published; they are secret. There is no precedent set when a scheme determines that a particular action puts someone at fault, and there is no cross-referencing between schemes. A constituent could be treated in one way under one scheme and a completely different way under another, even though the scenarios are exactly the same. It is a complete mess, and most other countries have one deposit protection scheme. I am not proposing that—that is outside the scope of the Bill—although I would love the Minister to look seriously at this when the deposit scheme licences come up. The New South Wales model is much more efficient and involves one scheme, the profits of which are rather large and pay for all legal aid in New South Wales. Early estimates of what would happen in Britain show that the amount raised would far exceed the cuts made to housing legal aid previously. There would be some real wins if the Minister got to grips with that.

My amendment 196 would at least allow for an appeal process. If someone does not believe that the deposit schemes have come to a fair and just conclusion, they can go to the ombudsperson for determination—that is important, because the ombudsperson’s deliberations would be public, which would allow the schemes to take into account what they were each doing—just as we would have to go through a local council complaints system, but can then go to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman if we feel there is a problem.

I would expect most complaints to still be resolved within the deposit schemes. However, where there is disagreement and the threshold of going to court is too high, and where maladministration, which is the main part of an ombudsperson’s remit, can also be identified, the ombudsperson can redress that and then publish their findings, and we can ensure harmonisation in the deposit system, which does not currently exist.

If we do not explicitly identify deposit schemes as falling within scope, there is a danger that the anomalies in the deposit system will never be addressed. I therefore hope that the Minister will give me some reassurance that there is an intention to address these problems with deposit schemes, where judgments are sealed and there is no idea of the outcome. It is also important, in relation to the property portal, for residents to know whether the landlord routinely—or every time—keeps the deposit. That would show a pattern of behaviour, which would be important information for tenants. Bringing it within the purview of this Bill is therefore also important.

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

Amendment 174 would legally oblige the Government to make regulations requiring residential landlords to be members of a landlord redress scheme, rather than giving the Government the discretion to do so. The Government are committed to requiring private landlords to be members of an ombudsman, and a binding obligation is not required on the face of the Bill. We have taken powers in the Bill to allow the Government to ensure that the ombudsman is introduced in the most effective way, and with the appropriate sequencing.

Amendment 196 would require the ombudsman to handle complaints about tenancy deposits. It would be unwise to list in the Bill specific issues that the ombudsman can or cannot look at. The ombudsman would need the flexibility to consider any complaint duly made, but also to direct a tenant elsewhere if more appropriate. As tenancy deposit schemes already provide free alternative dispute resolution, the ombudsman may decide that the case is better handled elsewhere, but it will ultimately depend on the circumstances of each case. The ombudsman will have the final say on jurisdiction, subject to any agreement with other bodies.

We have made provision under clause 25 to enable the ombudsman to publish a Secretary of State-approved code of practice, which would clarify what the ombudsman expects of its landlord members. The ombudsman scheme will also provide more clarity about the circumstances in which a complaint will or will not be considered. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown not to press his amendment.

As discussed, clause 24 provides the Secretary of State with powers to set up a mandatory redress scheme, which all private residential landlords of a relevant tenancy in England will need to join. We intend for the scheme to be an ombudsman service, and will look to require former landlords, as well as current and prospective landlords, to remain members after their relevant tenancies have ended, for a time specified in secondary regulations.

Members have asked for clarity about who the new PRS landlord ombudsman will be. No new ombudsman can be selected until after regulations have been laid following Royal Assent, but we can show the direction of travel. We have listened to the debates and the evidence given to this Committee, and our preferred approach at this time is for the existing housing ombudsman service to administer redress for both private and social tenants. As an established public body already delivering redress for social tenants, the housing ombudsman is uniquely positioned to deliver the private sector landlord redress scheme. Having one provider for all social and private renting tenants would provide streamlined and simple-to-use redress services for complainants.

To be clear, we are not ruling out the possibility of delivering through a different provider; we are still in the early stages of designing this new service. We now intend to explore how best to deliver on our ambition for a high-quality, streamlined and cross-tenure redress service.

To address the point that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made about multiple redress schemes, the intention is to approve a single ombudsman scheme that all private landlords will be required to join. However, allowing for multiple schemes in legislation offers the Government flexibility, should the demand for redress prove too much for a single provider to handle effectively. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Member will withdraw his amendment.

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

That is useful clarification from the Minister. Based on the assurances he has given, I do not intend to press amendment 174 to a Division. I understand fully, with the caveats that he has just given, what he is saying about a single ombudsman. We would welcome the Government’s preferred approach—for the housing ombudsman to take on responsibility for the private rented sector. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 does not distinguish between tenures, and we think that the ombudsman is probably best placed to provide that service and to do so quickly.

I would push back slightly against what the Minister said about how the clause is drafted, purely because, in a sense, it diverges from precedent. Most other Bills that we have looked at are very clear about establishing a single body and not being too prescriptive about how it operates. The Government have taken a different approach here. The Minister has given as one reason for doing so that the ombudsman might be overwhelmed by demand. Our response would be that we should ensure that the ombudsman that is given responsibility is properly resourced and adequately supported to do its job, rather than contemplate setting up additional redress schemes. However, it has been useful to hear the Government’s response, so we will not push the issue any further at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.