In the second in a series of blogs for LandlordZONE on rental reform, Sean Hooker, Head of Redress at the Property Redress Scheme, shares his reaction to the Bill and what stands out for him.
So the wait was finally over and at shortly after 2.15pm on 17th May 2023, the Bill was presented and had its first reading.
Historic moment For those geeky people, like me, who are into all this, we had Parliament TV on in the background waiting for this historic moment and having sat through a debate on bus funding and hearing about the problems of the number 622 from Doncaster to Keighley in what seemed reminiscent of eavesdropping on a pensioner conversation in an afternoon session of a local Wetherspoons, the bombshell was dropped and yes, like an amateur astronomer waiting hours to see an alignment of the planets, it came and was almost immediately over. The long title of the Bill was read out by a Whip, the sponsors (MPs supporting the Bill) named and the Speaker of the House asked for the date of the Second Reading, to which the response was ‘tomorrow’. The order to print the Bill was given but it took a good half an hour more of refreshing the Parliament website, where the printed version of the Bill was to appear, for me at last to get my hands on it.
The first thing to note was yes, the name of the Bill had, as predicted, changed. However this only involved the insertion of parentheses around the word (Reform) and the dropping of the problematic apostrophe after Renters’. Yes, a senior civil servant confirmed to me, they toyed with the idea of changing the name to something akin to the ‘Rented Homes Bill’ or similar, but had reverted to the original name at the last minute. The addition of the brackets was to keep in line with the correct parliamentary convention for naming bills. It was also made clear that the delay in the presentation was done purely because of procedure, something to do with ‘Royal Protocol’ rather than any rebellion of backbench MPs, although this may come later.
Sandwiched in the news The other thing that was obvious was the length of the Bill, just shy of 90 pages. This was after we were led to believe the Bill was to be on the light side. A lot of reading was in store! That was fine, but given that I was due to appear on the Vanessa Feltz show on Talk TV for my instant reaction to the proposals, a lot of skim reading was required to get the gist of the proposals. A mad panic and a page of scribbled notes later, I had enough for an educated comment, however as the 4pm deadline for my Zoom appearance on the TV show approached, the breaking news of a near catastrophic car accident featuring Meghan and Harry bumped the story down the pecking order and it was a further hour till my 15 seconds (almost literally) of fame. I even had to wait whilst a panel debated the merits or not of former MP Ann Widdecombe’s Marie Antoinette utterances on a cheese sandwich! What does that say about where the biggest shift in the private rental sector lies in the media’s mind?
Still, the following day and having absorbed as best as I could the fine print of the Bill, I was reassured that, as suspected, the proposals do not contain any huge surprises and the direction of travel is broadly where most informed commentators believed it was going. Yes, there were some glaring omissions, for example there is absolutely no mention of Decent Home Standards, however I have been reassured that this will be introduced, but how and when is to be decided.
Commons speak The other thing that confused me was that despite what was said the day before, no Second Reading occurred. However, I subsequently learned that in parliamentary parlance, “Tomorrow” does not actually mean the next day but is a mechanism to get the Bill on the list of upcoming business. My apologies if myself and other commentators misled you on this and suffice to say the next stage of the Bill’s passage will not now occur until sometime after the Whitsun Recess in June or July. I love the arcane parliamentary jargon – tomorrow evidently never comes!
What stood out for me in the Bill? Well, of course the most detailed part of it relates to the scrapping of no-fault evictions and the introduction of new periodic assured tenancies. Of course, this is hugely important, however there are far cleverer people than me looking at this and I will politely defer to them to give their analysis in the first instance. However, two areas I want to briefly comment on at the moment, not least as I have had the most input with the Government on these, are the introduction of landlord redress and the form landlord registration will take.
A different story Firstly, I must note that what the Government announced they are putting forward, both in their White Paper and their press release just before the Bill went live, differs slightly from what is actually in the Bill’s wording.
The press release said, “A new Ombudsman will provide quicker and cheaper resolutions to disputes, while a new digital Property Portal will enable landlords to understand their obligations and help tenants make better decisions when signing a new tenancy agreement. This will give confidence to good landlords, while driving the criminal minority out of business.”
The Bill however says they may introduce landlord redress schemes and a private rental sector database and confers powers on the Secretary of State to procure these provisions in a manner they see fit. We will therefore get both a register and redress, but when and what this will look like remains to be seen.
My view on this is that it is positive and helps address the gap in dispute resolution for tenants whose landlords do not use an agent or where the issues fall under the obligations of the landlord and not their agent. It should be emphasised that the final details of what will be put in place have yet to be revealed and the Government is still working on the model.
Happy to help We at the Property Redress Scheme will work with them to help develop a joined up and easily accessible system that helps raise standards in the sector and provides the reassurance and protection to the tenant that is needed.
I am excited about the introduction of the Property Portal as it has the potential of improving the transparency and information available to tenants, but also allows for the opportunity to help and assist landlords, and indeed agents, to understand and comply with their obligations and be able to measure themselves on what ‘being good’ looks like. It will also make it harder for bad operators to hide and help focus enforcement effectively on those who flout the law.
Devil in the detail Of course, the caveat is that the technology is correct and the process of registering and complying is straight forward and affordable, and we await the details of how this will be achieved in a realistic timescale as it is the lynchpin of so much of the other reforms proposed.
The Bill also introduces penalties for landlords not registering or joining a redress scheme, which is welcomed. However, as has been continuously stressed, the success of the Renters (Reform) Bill will be predicated on enforcement.
There is a huge amount of work to do and I hope and anticipate that the Government will press on with these plans as soon as possible after this becomes law and we can get on with the job!
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