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CLG Select Committee on PRS and Draft Tenant Fees Bill - the chartered institutes

Monday 26 February 2018

Representatives from various housing related chartered institutes were the latest to give oral evidence in the CLG Select Committee's Private Rented Sector and Draft Tenant Fees Bill on 21 February 2018.

Standards in the Private Rented Sector

Opening the second session of the day, Helen Hayes MP (Lab, Dulwich and West Norwood) asked panellists for their experience of the scale of the problem of low standards in the PRS.

Melanie Rees, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing cited the English Housing Survey which had found that 27 per cent of private rented homes were below the decent home standard. PRS homes were generally older, she explained, and experienced problems such as damp and structural issues.

Tamara Sandoul, Policy Manager at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health noted there was a considerable cost to the NHS from housing related conditions, adding that the PRS had some of the worst problems in terms of adequate energy efficiency and smoke alarms.

Alison Farrar, Lead Officer for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute noted how trading standards dealt with issues such as fake landlords, tenants being misled or conned over fees, and other consumer protection issues.

Resourcing

The witnesses went on to detail the work each of their organisations did to improve standards in the sector, while Farrar cited a workforce survey they had undertaken which found only 36 per cent of local authority respondents were confident they could recruit and retain staff due to local authority cuts.

This was a major concern to the institute, Farrar added, with Hayes pressing the witnesses on what feedback they had had from members on resourcing.

Sandoul noted that different authorities had different approaches to enforcement and while some were well resourced, others had one or two officers working for whole county council areas which meant that their work could only be reactive.

Environmental health and trading standards

On a further question from Hayes on how environmental health and trading standards could be aligned more effectively, both Farrar and Sandoul noted that while local government structure varied and the two could sit at different levels or in different departments, there was scope for greater collaboration and partnership working.

Housing Health and Safety Rating System

Responding to a comment from Hayes suggesting research had found that environmental health officers had difficulty knowing what their powers were and how to use them in practice, Sandoul noted that officers could only graduate from their courses if they knew the law and how to apply it. However, she said problems arose from environment health officers working for local authorities which had differing enforcement policies, while there was also improvement to be found in the HHSRS system which she claimed was old, confusing and not consistent.

The statistics used in the guidance were over 20 years old, she added, and updating this would bring back consistency and ensure that a system which was described as evidence based was based on current evidence.

Rees added that while the HHSRS had been in place for some time, the market had changed considerably.

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill

Matt Western MP (Lab, Warwick and Leamington) asked how the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill could be improved.

Sandoul said while she supported the Bill, it was important that it would be aligned to other legislation, and raised concerns about the prospect of retaliatory evictions, and tenants feeling they didn't have a realistic chance in court if a landlord brought a barrister. Rees noted the CIH's support for the Bill, but added her voice to concerns over retaliatory evictions.

Farrar agreed that while tenants were often too scared to come forward and complain through worries over ill treatment or eviction, adding that it was also a difficult process for the average consumer to go through the county court process, especially when the other side came with experienced barristers. She also explained concerns surrounding the possibility of fake paperwork, and said that consumer redress was very important, with the strengthening of the ombudsman needing to be looked at.

Selective licensing schemes

Responding to a question from Platt on whether licensing was an effective way to improve the sector, Sandoul said that when licensing was accompanied by inspections it was. She has seen the merit in selective licensing, but said it should be up to local authorities to decide how wide the scheme should apply. Farrar suggested that consumer education was easier when there was a licensing scheme in place, while Rees agreed that licensing could be a useful tool, so long as local authorities had the freedom to decide how best to do it.

Alternative methods to drive up standards

Replying to a question from Platt on alternative measures which could be adopted to help drive up standards in the PRS, Soudoul suggested that the national registration schemes in Wales seemed like a good system. Rees said that opportunities for landlords to learn how to be better could only be welcomed.

Varying levels of enforcement work

Committee member Mark Prisk MP discussed the vast differences between neighbouring authorities in the area of enforcement, despite similar powers and demographics, asking why some were performing radically different to others. Sandoul said there were differing local priorities and differences also lay in terms of how many people were on each team while Farrar stressed the impact of local authority cuts.

Draft Tenant Fees Bill

Liz Twist MP asked whether the draft tenant fees bill would give local trading standards and appropriate level of enforcement, with Farrar reiterating the need for the necessary resources to enable proper enforcement.

On whether the financial penalties proposed in the Bill would be a sufficient penalty, Soudoul agreed that there needed to be a scale, while the level of consumer detriment, and whether it was a first offence, also needed to be taken into account. Responding to further probing from Betts, Rees said the CIH welcomed the proposals and wanted to see them come into effect as soon as possible. However, she said default fees were an area of concern, with a lack of definition of what this included and what reasonable charges might be. She said there was a concern this could be exploited considerably be unscrupulous agents, while also suggesting that the maximum tenancy deposit up to six weeks rent was quite high and that four weeks may be more appropriate.

Sandoul also welcomed the draft Bill, stressing the importance of removing as many barriers as possible to people moving from poor to better quality accommodation. She agreed there were concerns around default fees and said it was important that there weren't any loopholes in the Bill which would allow agents to charge tenants by a different route.

You can read our overview of evidence provided by borough councils in evidence session one, 21 February here.