Renters (Reform) Bill update: Commons Committee

The committee stage of the Renters (Reform) Bill took place in November. After the Second Reading debate, this is the first time MPs get a chance to discuss the Bill line by line, and try to amend it. While Generation Rent are pleased that the Bill has come this far and is therefore closer to becoming law, the process itself was a disappointment.  

The Prime Minister’s decision to sack Rachel Maclean, the Minister previously in charge of this Bill, just one day before the start of this committee stage, got proceedings off to a rocky start. While we did not expect this stage to lead to sweeping pro-tenant changes, as the government has a majority on the committee and does not often concede to the opposition at this stage in the process, the vital changes that this Bill needs to be effective for tenants were not given proper debate. As such, the government has not given out sufficient reasoning or evidence why amendments we supported were not accepted, and renters remain in the dark as to why many loopholes and limitations in the Bill have not yet been changed for the better.  

The government did amend the Bill just before the beginning of the committee stage, including the positive steps of introducing the Decent Homes Standard and banning discrimination against children and benefit claimants. This was discussed in a previous blog available here

This blog focuses on the line-by-line analysis of the Bill undertaken by the committee, who are all members of the House of Commons. It will run through some of the key changes proposed and the responses (or lack thereof) given by the government as to why they were not accepted. Our Chief Executive Ben Twomey gave evidence to the committee scrutinising at an earlier stage and you can watch this below. 

Delay to ending Section 21 evictions 

No information was given as to when the abolition of Section 21 no-fault evictions will come into effect. The government have stated that the court system will need to be reformed before these arbitrary evictions can be banned, but the committee stage shed no light on when this will be or what these reforms will look like. This is disappointing – and end to Section 21 evictions must happen as soon as possible. 

Extended notice periods when a no-fault eviction is used 

Although Section 21 will be abolished, the Bill creates new legitimate grounds for no-fault eviction including sale of the property. Labour put forward a proposed amendment which would have extended the notice period tenants were given in the event of a no-fault eviction to four months, instead of the currently proposed two. Without this, tenants who receive no-fault evictions will be in no better position than they are under the current rules, and therefore the Bill is not improving their circumstances at all.  

The Minister did not see it that way, speaking of the “balance for both tenants and landlords,” and stating that the proposed change “is not fair for the landlord either. A landlord who wants to move into their property for whatever reason—we do not know the reasons, but it could be a reasonable ground—or sell it would have to wait an additional two months.” This is a disappointing response that ignores the fundamental difference between managing an asset (for which you are still receiving rental income) and our need to have a roof over our head.  

Generation Rent will continue to call for longer notice periods throughout the parliamentary process. 

Grounds for eviction for rent arrears and anti-social behaviour 

Concerns were raised by opposition members on the potential problems that could arise from the changes to grounds for eviction on both repeated rent arrears and anti-social behaviour. For the former, extending the period which can be considered for a tenant to be evicted for rent arears – from one year to three years – leaves renters vulnerable for longer and will leave many walking on eggshells regarding their finances. Opposition members outlined a number of scenarios where tenants, through no or little fault of their own, had fallen into arrears that could leave them vulnerable to this eviction. However, there was little engagement on this from the government, claiming instead the need for landlords and tenants to “work together” when arrears occur and the need to protect landlords from tenants who allegedly “frustrate possession proceedings” by paying off small amounts of the arrears. It is unfortunate that the larger context surrounding our concerns were not addressed directly by the government. 

The proposed anti-social behaviour ground is also of significant concern to Generation Rent. The lowered threshold of proof required, now encompassing behaviour “capable of causing” nuisance, to evict a tenant and the shortened timeframe of two weeks’ notice when an eviction is taking place risks making tenants homeless in a rushed process. We have cited victims of domestic violence and those with mental ill-health as especially likely to find themselves caught up in this new system, forcing them into even more vulnerable situations.  

The government did not address these concerns in a meaningful way while defending this legislation. The Minister said in relation to this that “lowering the threshold for this ground will help landlords to recover their properties when tenants engage in antisocial behaviour, even if it cannot be proved that it has caused or is likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance in any given case.” This does not sufficiently justify these changes nor provide answers to our worries on this issue, and as such Generation Rent will continue to push for these grounds to be changed to protect renters from the harm they are capable of causing. 

Rent Repayment Orders 

Generation Rent have been calling for rent repayment orders to be extended to a number of circumstances where landlords have not met the required standard, as a mechanism to both allow tenants to be properly compensated when they have been wronged, and to incentivise them to take an active role in the enforcement of the rules – taking the burden off the local authority. An amendment was tabled which would have seen them introduced in cases if a property is let out within the no-let period after an eviction, and if the landlord does not sign up to the property portal or the ombudsman. 

The government did not accept these changes but they did give an indication as to why they chose not to. The Minister stated that rent repayment orders should be reserved for criminal rather than civil matters, and that “extending rent repayment orders to cover non-criminal civil breaches … would be disproportionate.” He did however commit to continue dialogue on this issue, and Generation Rent will continue to push for tenant compensation in such cases as we believe it is just and that it will greatly enhance enforcement of the rules. Simon Mullings, the co-chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, argued in the evidence he gave to the Committee that “rent repayment orders create … army of motivated enforcers, because you have tenants who are motivated to enforce housing standards to do with houses in multiple occupancy, conditions and all sorts of things,” and we agree wholeheartedly with those points.  

The government would be remiss not to use this “army” of us as tenants to drive up standards in rented homes. 

Protecting tenants from economic evictions 

The Bill as proposed contains a loophole which allows landlords to effectively evict tenants through an unaffordable rent increase, whereby they can propose a rent increase that is too high for the tenant to afford. We describe these as “economic evictions”. A proposed amendment would have limited the amount that the landlord could raise the rent within the tenancy to the lowest of inflation and wage growth, meaning that rent increases would be largely manageable, and these economic evictions would have been blocked. However, the government did not properly engage with this point either, citing the rent assessment process at the first tier tribunal as a mechanism that protects tenants from unaffordable rent increases. In theory, the tribunal stops landlords from charging more than the going market rent, but this is still very often means an unaffordable increase for the tenant. We know that more must be done in this area while market rents spiral out of control and cause these economic evictions at a faster pace. 

Conclusion and next step 

At the end of committee stage, tenants are left needing the Renters (Reform) Bill to deliver far more if it is to truly make private renting fairer and more secure. The government did not extend our rights further through amendments to the Bill and in most cases did not justify why it was not doing so. Generation Rent hopes that there will be more constructive engagement in the remaining nine stages of the Bill’s passage through parliament and will continue to fight for the changes that tenants desperately need to see for their experiences of renting to be improved. 

We are hoping to see the next step, known as the ‘report stage’ in the House of Commons, happen as soon as possible in 2024. This is when MPs debate the Bill further and have the chance to propose more amendments.  

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