Clause 52 - Financial penalties under sections 26 and 47

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:45 am ar 28 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:45, 28 Tachwedd 2023

I beg to move amendment 71, in clause 52, page 55, line 5, after “section” insert “(Financial penalties),”

This amendment provides for the provisions about financial penalties in Schedule 3 of the Bill to apply in relation to penalties under NC10, which relates to discriminatory practices in relation to the grant of tenancies, as well as in relation to penalties under Part 2 of the Bill.

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.

Government motion to transfer clause 52.

Government amendments 72 to 75.

Schedule 3.

Government amendments 80, 104 and 106.

Government motion to transfer clause 56.

Government amendments 113 and 125 to 129.

Government new clause 8—Prohibition of discrimination relating to children.

Government new clause 9—Prohibition of discrimination relating to benefits status.

Government new clause 10—Financial penalties.

Government new clause 11—Discriminatory terms in a tenancy relating to children or benefits status.

Government new clause 12—Terms in superior leases relating to children or benefits status.

Government new clause 13—Terms in mortgages relating to children or benefits status.

Government new clause 14—Terms in insurance contracts relating to children or benefits status.

Government new clause 15—Power of the Secretary of State to amend Chapter 2A to protect persons of other descriptions.

Government new clause 16—No prohibition on taking income into account.

Government new clause 17—Interpretation of Chapter 2A.

Government new clause 47—Power of Welsh Ministers to make consequential provision.

Government new clause 48—Prohibition of discrimination relating to children or benefits status: Welsh language text.

Government new clause 49—Prohibition of discrimination relating to children or benefits status: English language text.

Government new clause 50—Amendment of short title of the Renting Homes (Fees etc.) (Wales) Act 2019.

Government new clause 51—Regulations under sections 8C and 8J of the Renting Homes (Fees, Discrimination etc.) (Wales) Act 2019.

Government new clause 52—Amendments of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 regarding discrimination.

New clause 61—Ending blanket bans on renting to families with children or those in receipt of benefits—

“The Secretary of State may, by regulation, specify behaviour which, for the purposes of Part 4, Equality Act 2010, shall be considered unlawful discrimination unless the contrary is shown.”

This new clause would ensure that blanket bans on renting to families with children or those in receipt of benefits are presumed to be unlawful discrimination unless proved otherwise.

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

Blanket bans on letting to families with children or people who receive benefits have no place in our modern housing market. We agree that landlords and agents must not discriminate on that basis, and should fairly consider individual prospective tenants. Our package of amendments and new clauses prohibits landlords from discriminating against families with children or people who receive benefits in England and Wales. The blanket ban measures respond to calls for additional safeguards for some of the most vulnerable renters, while confirming that landlords can ensure that a tenancy is affordable, and that they retain the final say on whom they let to.

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

Clause 52 simply provides local authorities with the power to impose financial penalties on those who do not meet the requirements of the private rented sector database, as set out in clause 39, or an offence relating to it, as set out in clause 48.

The large group of Government amendments and new clauses that we are considering with this clause add proposed new chapter 2A to part 1 of the Bill. It includes several new clauses, commenced by regulations made by the Secretary of State, that seek to prohibit discriminatory practices associated with children and benefits status in relation to the grant of tenancies, as the Minister made clear. Incidentally, proposed new chapter 2B will provide for the same clauses to apply in Wales, pending commencement by order of Welsh Ministers.

Without question, we welcome the intent behind the amendments and new clauses. As I am sure the Minister can see, we have consistently expressed concern since the Bill’s publication that the commitment in the White Paper to ban so-called “No DSS” or “No kids” practices was not on the face of the Bill. The Government deserve credit, as they do for deciding to extend a decent homes standard to the private rented sector and for seeking to make these important changes through this Bill rather than separate future legislation.

The case for prohibiting “No DSS” and “No kids” practices is indisputable. All renters should be treated fairly in their search for a safe, secure, decent, and affordable place to call home, regardless of whether they are in receipt of benefits or their family circumstances. Yet in addition to the various informal barriers to renting privately that we know exist, some of which we debated when considering advanced rent payments in relation to clause 5, there is incontrovertible evidence that some landlords and agents acting on behalf of landlords actively discourage, or even prevent, people in receipt of benefits or with children from renting their properties.

We know that some landlords refuse to allow benefit claimants to even view an affordable property or to consider them as a potential tenant, and prospective renters across the country will be familiar with messages in property adverts such as “No DSS”, “No benefits”, “Working households preferred” or “Professional tenants only”. The scale of this discrimination is almost certainly significant. Successive YouGov surveys of private landlords in England have made clear not only that a comfortable majority of them prefer not to rent to people in receipt of benefits but that a significant minority operate an outright ban. Outright bans on renters with children may be less prevalent, but they are still extremely commonplace. The result is that hundreds of thousands of families have been unable to rent a home that they wanted and could afford, simply due to their benefit status or because they have children.

As we have touched on numerous times during the Committee’s proceedings, the number of such families in the PRS has increased markedly over recent decades, with woefully inadequate social housing supply and rising house prices making private renting the only option for many families, including working families with children. Of course, such discrimination does not affect all people equally. The reality, particularly in hot, competitive rental markets, is that women, disabled households and people of colour will be disproportionately affected by it. For example, we know that the overwhelming majority of single parents receiving housing benefit are female. I grew up in one of those households; the challenges they face daily are considerable enough without having to navigate discriminatory and potentially unlawful policies in the private letting industry.

Whether they are the result of landlords’ misperceptions, of frustrations with the workings of the benefit system or of ill-informed advice from letting agents, blanket bans of the kind in question are simply unacceptable. They are not only unacceptable but almost certainly already unlawful by virtue of the premises provisions in the Equality Act 2010, which provide for a prohibition against discrimination in letting, managing or disposing of premises. However, although a number of court rulings have confirmed that rejecting tenancy applications because of an applicant’s benefit status or family circumstances is a breach of the 2010 Act, proving discrimination is incredibly difficult. As a result, despite the growing body of case law, “No DSS” and “No kids” practices remain widespread.

The Government amendments in this group perfectly demonstrate the nature of the problem. They specify discriminatory practices that are already unlawful under part 4 of the Equality Act 2010. Indeed, Government new clauses 8 and 9 even mirror the language of the Equality Act—“provision, criterion or practice”—in relation to discriminatory practices, yet they do nothing to clarify that the various practices are henceforth always to be deemed discriminatory. As such, although we welcome the motivation behind the Government amendments in attempting to provide for a strict prohibition of such practices, we are concerned that they will not achieve that objective, because, although they will have the effect of removing terms discriminating against benefit claimants and families with children from contracts, they will not prevent the underlying discrimination from occurring in practice.

What we propose, by way of our new clause 61, is that the weaknesses of the various Government amendments in question are resolved by ensuring that the underlying conduct is clearly unlawful by making it a breach of the Equality Act 2010. Our new clause is aimed at prohibiting indirect discrimination and discrimination arising from disability, by giving the Secretary of State the power to define, by regulation, what behaviour is, for the purposes of part 4 of the 2010 Act, considered to be unlawful discrimination unless the person accused of discriminating can prove the contrary. It would remove, for example, the need for a female prospective private renter to prove that a “No DSS” blanket ban had a disproportionate impact on her as a woman. It would mean that, in any court proceedings, the first threshold stage would always be passed unless the landlord in question could convince the court that the ban had no discriminatory impact—which, of course, would never happen.

By forcing landlords to prove that some objective justification exists for refusing to rent to people in receipt of benefits or with children in order to advertise or market a property on the basis of a “No DSS” or “No kids” ban, our amendment would have the effect of ensuring that such discriminatory practices were finally banned in practice, because the number of privately rented properties where there could be such an objective justification is tiny.

I hope the Minister will respond to this amendment in the spirit in which it is intended—namely, as a constructive means of compelling the Government to consider whether their proposed new chapter 2A to part 1 of the Act may fall short in practice. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for tabling new clause 61. As I set out earlier, we agree that blanket bans against letting to families with children or to people who receive benefits have no place in our modern housing market. That is why our amendments to the Renters (Reform) Bill make express provisions to ensure that landlords and agents cannot discriminate on that basis.

Our measures take direct action to address blanket ban practices in the private rented sector, and our targeted approach tackles both overt and indirect practices. We have designed our enforcement approach with the tenants that are most vulnerable to this type of discriminatory practice in mind, and we understand that their priority is finding a safe and secure home in the private rented sector. Unlike the provisions in the Equality Act 2010, we are giving local councils investigatory and enforcement powers to tackle unlawful blanket ban practices. Tenants will not have to shoulder the burden of taking their complaint to court; local councils will be enabled to take swift and effective enforcement action. We think that it is right that prohibitions on blanket bans in the private rented sector are part of the Renters (Reform) Bill and that they are incorporated into the enforcement framework, rather than the Equality Act 2010.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are of one mind when trying to stop these blanket bans, so I am happy to have further conversations with him to that effect. I therefore ask him to withdraw his amendment.

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

I absolutely agree with the Minister that we are of one mind in wanting to ensure that these blanket bans are prohibited: he is right that they have no place in our modern housing market. However, we remain concerned—I do not think that the Minister addressed the specifics of our new clause—that the Government’s amendments will not achieve that objective. As I said, although they will have the effect of removing, from contracts, terms discriminating against benefits claimants and families with children, they will not, in practice, prevent that underlying discrimination from occurring.

We feel very strongly about this issue. If the Government do not get this right and these practices are not abandoned, we will have to return with a future piece of legislation to ensure that they are prohibited in practice. For that reason, we will seek to press the new clause to a Division at the appropriate time.

Amendment 71 agreed to.

Clause 52, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered,

That clause 52 be transferred to the end of line 30 on page 57.—(Jacob Young.)

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 71 which expands clause 52 so that it is no longer limited to penalties under Part 2 of the Bill. This amendment moves clause 52 into Part 3 of the Bill (enforcement authorities). Part 3 is expected to be added to so as to include other provision about enforcement generally. Clause 52 is expected to form its first Chapter.