Posted by: Jules Birch09/09/2010
If action against unscrupulous landlords is inadequate now, how much worse are things going to get when local authority budgets are slashed?
A parliamentary debate about the failings of the system in England yesterday coincided with the publication of new legislation against unscrupulous landlords in Scotland.
In a survey timed to coincide with the Westminister debate called by Labour’s Jon Cruddas, Shelter said that 90% of environmental health officers had encountered landlords harrassing or illegally evicting tenants.
Cruddas accused the government of failing to recognise the scale of the problem by scrapping Labour’s plans for more regulation, quoting Grant Shapps as saying that because the vast majority of tenants are happy with the service they receive, ‘I am satisfied that the current system strikes the right balance between the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords’.
‘Let us consider one basic statistic from Shelter,’ he said. ‘Nearly 1 million people throughout the UK have fallen victim to a scam involving a landlord or a rented property in the past three years, so on average, every MP will have just under 1,500 constituents who have been the victim of landlord scams.’
But communities minister Andrew Stunell told MPs that local authorities already had significant powers to deal with problems like illegal eviction and an extensive enforcement framework and the option to take repeat offenders to court.
Contrast that with Scotland, where the government yesterday announced plans for a Private Rented Housing Bill that will ‘tackle unscrupulous rogue landlords who operate outside the law and make life a misery for tenants and their neighbours and tarnish the reputation of the many good private landlords’.
However, there’s still some scepticism north of the border about how effective new regulation will be - especially given the failure of the landlord registration scheme. Shelter Scotland said tenants needed tenants more rights and longer tenancies and the legislation needed real teeth.
Back in England, the deep problems with HMO licensing illustrated only too clearly the problems of relying on local authorities with limited time and money to enforce regulation and even the previous government refused to act against one of the most blatant inequities in the system: retaliatory eviction of tenants who complain about conditions
Even within the legal system it’s hard to be sure about the effectiveness of legislation. In a written question on Tuesday, Conservative MP Robert Buckland asked how many landlords had been sentenced to custody or fined for offences related to lettings in the private rented sector.
The most recent available stats are for offences under the 2004 Housing Act but landlords cannot be separately identified from other offenders. In the most recent year available, 2008, 123 people were fined, three given a conditional discharge and three ‘otherwise dealt with’ (action that might include a restraining order or a night in the cells for example). No stats are available for prosecutions for offences under the 1977 Rent Act or 1984 Landlord and Tenants Act.
All of this is before local authorities have their budgets by 25% to 40% - a point directly addressed by Labour’s Tom Blenkinsop yesterday.
Andrew Stunell’s answer will not fill many tenants of unscrupulous landlords with much confidence. ‘The reality that we face means that there will be less public money to spend,’ he said. ‘The whole policy of the Department for Communities and Local Government and of the whole Government is to devolve the priority-setting process to local councils. If local councils share the hon. Gentleman’s view that increased enforcement is an essential core activity that they must build up, they will have much more freedom to do that. They will have to set priorities, just as the Government have to set priorities.’
How many councils will make private rented sector enforcement a core activity or even a priority after October 24?
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context