Landlords get to ask tenants for a reference, but there's no way we can check what a prospective landlord is like. That's why we've long been calling for a central database that names and shames criminal landlords.
From today we've got one. But there's a catch: only local councils can access it.
The main purpose of this blacklist is to allow councils to check if landlords who have got into trouble elsewhere are operating in their area, and allow them to target their enforcement work accordingly.
Landlords and letting agents who have either been convicted of an offence or slapped with two or more civil penalties (an easier way of fining negligent landlords that avoids lengthy court proceedings) can be placed on the list.
For really bad operators, another new measure coming into force today allows councils to ban criminal landlords and agents.
In new guidance, the government has encouraged councils to publicise any banning orders they make, to help make tenants aware of local criminals, and serve as a warning to other landlords who might be tempted to cut corners. They also say that councils should give tenants access to information about banned landlords on request.
Since this database was announced in legislation in 2015 we have been pushing for it to be opened up, so it's nice that the Ministry of Housing recognises the need for access to this kind of information.
But they've missed a couple of tricks in what they've announced today:
- Tenants should have a right to know if their landlord has a criminal record, and not all such people will be banned
- The information tenants need is already on a national database, yet they're asking 300-odd councils to devise and implement a process of providing the info to tenants who ask for it.
Instead, the government could have a national website that makes information available on all criminal landlords - banned and un-banned.
The government has already defended its decision to restrict access to the database, in a Lords debate in 2016:
"The information on the database will relate to criminal records and is highly sensitive. Releasing this information to tenants or prospective tenants could jeopardise individuals’ rights to privacy and cause unnecessary anguish."
The Minister speaking, Viscount Younger of Leckie, had just used an analogy of a driver who had points on their licence not wanting this to be on the public record. But other road users don't buy a service from a random motorist, like a tenant does from a landlord. Indeed, you can buy a service from a taxi driver, but first they need to be licensed by the council.
Guess who doesn't need to be licensed by most councils? A landlord.
As soon as you start letting out a property, you are no longer a mere individual, but a business. That means your suitability as a provider of a service (particularly one as significant as someone's home) becomes a matter of public interest. So landlords should either get a licence, or let us see their criminal record.
Let's hope that the government will reconsider their analysis.
There is, of course, information already out there on criminal landlords - in 2015 Environmental Health News forced the government to release a list of all landlords that had been convicted under the Housing Act 2004. And convictions are often covered in the local press - a Google News search for "landlord" and "fined" brings up 30,400 results.
But a user-friendly online tool that allows someone to type in an address and see if the owner has a) a criminal conviction or b) a banning order would be much more valuable, and is not a massive leap from what the government is already doing: sharing the database between councils.
Ultimately, we'd rather see national registration of all landlords and blanket licensing to ensure that poor practice cannot fall through the gaps. Sign our petition
Until then, it feels like criminal landlords have merely been placed on Double Secret Probation.
There are a number of existing ways of checking what your landlord is like without relying on Google News to have picked up a local news story about them: several sites are listed on our Resources page.