MP in call for landlords register

Updated: 
To let signsA national register of private landlords is needed to stop vulnerable tenants being forced to live in sub-standard housing, a senior Labour MP said today.

Sir Alan Meale said many tenants were paying exorbitant rents to live in poor accommodation.

In one case, a tenant had been forced to pay £350 a month to live in a shed in Newham, east London, while in another a 33-year-old mother-of-two was killed after being electrocuted by a faulty heater.

The MP said there should also be stricter regulations for letting agents while the law should be changed to ensure all tenancy agreements are made in writing.

Proposing his Private Landlords and Letting and Managing Agents (Regulation) Bill in the House of Commons, Sir Alan said some agencies were charging unjustifiably high fees, including up to £250 just to check a tenant's references.

The MP for Mansfield said: " In truth, the private rented sector is not the market it should or needs to be.

"We are not talking about taking this under a state scheme or anything else. This is purely protection and lifting the private rented sector to a level that will give all our constituents the chance to live decently."

He added: "There are too many rogue landlords who particularly prey on vulnerable tenants. This small but dangerous minority of rogue landlords quite frankly make people's lives an absolute misery.

"They condemn their tenants... to live in rundown, unsafe and very often over-crowded properties. What is more, they regularly intimidate those who speak out.

"It is fair to say that despite an increase in prosecutions against such landlords, the problem is getting considerably worse."

But Tory MP Philip Davies (Shipley) said there should be less regulation of the sector, telling MPs the Bill was like using a "sledgehammer to crack a nut".

He said: "This sector has been going for years and we don't seem to have had any problems.

"We actually do have a wide-ranging set of rules and regulations and legislation in this sector. Because it has been developed in a haphazard fashion, it is very difficult for landlords to deal with all of this regulation and legislation.

"In fact, it may be better if we have a simplified set of regulations."

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) said a requirement within the Bill to pay an annual registration fee to sign up to a compulsory national register amounted to a "socialist tax".

Turning to his backbench colleague Mr Davies, he said: "Does it occur to you, as it does to me, that this is in fact a tax that is going to be introduced?

"It is another socialist tax."

Mr Davies replied: "This is absolutely a tax on private landlords."

He said the payment of an annual registration fee would open landlords up to "unlimited costs".

Mr Davies asked: "What control is there going to be over the registration fee?"

He added: "I t seems to me that if this Bill were to go through, not only would they be picking up a tab, they would be picking up an unlimited tab, because the fees would be completely beyond their control."

Mr Davies disagreed with the suggestion that the taxpayer would not take on any costs.

"That isn't necessarily the case. If the landlord is going to be expected to pay a fee, in many cases it could be an ever-increasing fee. I would suspect, through my cynicism, that if they were expected to pay this fee, it seems to me the likeliest scenario is that that fee would, in effect, be passed on to the tenant through higher rents, because that would be the way for the landlord recouping the money to pay for it," said Mr Davies.

"And obviously quite a lot of rents in the country are paid by the taxpayer."

Mr Davies suggested Labour was trying to introduce its own 'bedroom tax', a nod to the Opposition's tag for the Government's housing benefit cuts for people judged to have too much living space.

He also questioned what incentives there would be for landlords to register and how foreign landlords would be made aware they need to sign up and a pay registration fee.

Mr Davies said: "The best way of ensuring that there's a benefit for signing up, therefore, is to make it a free choice for people to sign up, not mandating people to do it.

"The only effect it will have on landlords is to make sure that they have to do something extra every year, renew their registration, pay from out of their pocket, and as (Mr Rees-Mogg) so wisely suggested, this is no more than a tax.

"It's a tax for letting your house out for other people to live in.

"And I'm not quite sure whether that constitutes it being called a 'bedroom tax' or not. But given most people who live in these houses will be occupying a bedroom, given that the cost is likely to be passed on to them, I think we can safely say this is the Labour Party's attempt to have a 'bedroom tax' that they wish to impose on the public themselves.

"Given that they introduced the spare room subsidy themselves when they were in government, it seems to me they are trying to introduce a new tax on people."

Mr Davies added he did not think criminal sanctions for landlords who fail to register were necessary.

He said: "Now when somebody inherits a property where there is an existing tenant, where does that person stand?

"Somebody has an awful lot more on their mind at the time when their parent dies than whether or not they are part of a registration scheme that they don't even know exists because they have never been a landlord before?"

He asked if it was Sir Alan's intention "that a person whose parents have died and they are trying to organise their affairs and organise a funeral or whatever, that because they are not registered as a landlord on the register have now not only lost their parent but are also a criminal because they haven't registered?"

He added: "I just think that is unworkable, and not only is it unworkable but potentially unjust to make those people in that situation a criminal. It seems to me completely wrong. "

Shadow communities and local government minister Andy Sawford criticised Mr Davies for his "laissez-faire" attitude.

He said: " I cannot support the laissez-faire attitude that has been advocated by the MP for Shipley, which to me represents not only laissez-faire, but frankly a lack of care for all the people that are currently being grossly ripped off around the country."

However, asked whether he believed that an introduction of a national register would put an end to unscrupulous landlords, he said: " Sadly, I feel that there will still be rogue practitioners in the industry."

But Mr Sawford insisted that the Private Landlords Bill was a "great step forward".

Mr Sawford said: "And we will increasingly marginalise those rogue landlords and make those practices ever more unacceptable. And I hope that we can go further to ensure that there are prosecutions and enforcement against rogue landlords."

Communities and Local Government Minister Stephen Williams said there was already a wealth of regulation in place.

He said: "In terms of problems that might be solved by a national register, there are already laws in place, passed by this place, and there are already opportunities for local authorities to introduce regulation in their own area."

On the Bill's second reading, which deals with the regulation of private sector letting agents and managing agents, he said the areas were "a lready quite heavily regulated" and joked that if Mr Davies and Mr Rees-Mogg were present to listen to the existing regulation in this field, "they would probably need smelling salts" by the time he finished reading out the legislation.

Mr Williams said: "There is a whole range of legislation that governs the activities of letting agents, ranging from Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, to the Consumer Protection Act 1987, the Consumer Credit Act 1984, the Price Marking Order of 2004, the Housing Act of 1998 and 1996, the Protection from Eviction Act 1977".

Mr Williams concluded: "The private rental sector represents an increasingly important part of the housing market.

"This Government wants to see that private rental market remain, we want it to grow and we want it to serve even more of our constituents.

"And that's why we are concerned that regulation is appropriate and certainly shouldn't stifle the growth of the market by poorly targeted and disproportionate new regulation."

He added: "The Government is taking action in this area, new provisions are just starting to come in, so we feel the time is not right for this Bill to proceed any further."

The debate on the Bill has been scheduled to resume next Friday, although it is unlikely to progress.

© 2013 Press Association