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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Although I recognise that there may be deficiencies in the amendment, it is designed to ensure that we have a decent and well-ordered private rented sector. If we are to have that it is necessary that tenants can complain without fear of losing their home. That is not always the case at the moment.

I believe that the Minister and I are at one in believing that there are some rogue landlords who use the law to evade responsibilities for repair. While what I am insisting would have only a marginal impact on security of tenure, the small measure to stop retaliatory eviction would be supported by responsible landlords, of whom I am sure the Minister is one.

During the progression of the Bill through another place and this House, I understand that the Minister's department has shown interest in the idea of measures to prevent retaliatory evictions and has requested information on overseas legislation. It is difficult for me to say how far that has gone but perhaps the noble Earl, with the leave of the House, might wish to say a little more about that. We would welcome any proposals from the department which the Government may wish to put forward at Third Reading.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, with the leave of the House, there is not a great deal between the noble Lord and myself on the basic principle that there are a few rogue landlords who do not do their job properly and who ought to be dealt with. The difficulty is whether to set up a bureaucratic structure and a rigidity of tenure over the whole of the private rented sector just in order to catch those few people. By doing so one would then be in difficulty with the rest of that sector because landlords will not wish to let their houses and therefore the tenants will suffer. Those are the difficulties that we face.

The noble Lord asked how we were getting on with other countries. We told the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux that if it knew of overseas systems which worked, as it claimed, we would certainly consider those. That is as much as I can tell the noble Lord. There may well be systems used in overseas legislation which could be applicable here. We would like to know if that is so, but at the moment what we have to do--and I hope the noble Lord will agree with this--is not to prejudice the whole of the tenancy sector which is working well in order to catch just the few people who are behaving wrongly.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. As he says, there is nothing between us on the principle and I certainly will not press the amendment. However, I do believe that if there is evidence in other countries that sensible legislation or sensible guidance can be introduced it will be worthwhile for the Government to look at it. I am sure

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that the voluntary organisations which are involved in this sector will be studying the noble Earl's words with great care and will be making their submissions as and where appropriate. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Speaker: My Lords, I am sorry to say that there is a mistake in the Marshalled List. Amendment No. 148 has been wrongly marshalled, as it refers to Schedule 7. This is the right point at which the House should consider Amendment No. 148.

Schedule 7 [Assured tenancies: schedule inserted after Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1988]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 148:

Page 157, line 37, at end insert--

("Tenancies excluded by absence of written tenancy agreement

. An assured tenancy for which there is no written tenancy agreement.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am a little disconcerted, because I was prepared to deal with Amendment No. 129. I beg to move Amendment No. 148, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. It is concerned with short tenancies for which there is no written tenancy agreement. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that such a tenancy will automatically become a fully assured tenancy. The amendment seeks to create a new exemption from tenancies which are by default shorthold tenancies and would only allow a shorthold tenancy to be a full tenancy when there was a written tenancy agreement.

Currently, to create a shorthold tenancy which gives only limited security, a landlord has to give the tenant notice of this prior to the start of the tenancy. The benefits seem to me to be as follows. If the landlord is concerned that a tenancy would change, it is only proper that there should be written agreements. It seems to me not to be putting too much pressure on a landlord that he should have such a written agreement prepared, rather than let the matter go by default. After all, landlords are in the business of letting property and are therefore more aware of the legal position than are tenants who are in a rather vulnerable position in that they may not know the full impact of the changes. When there is a change in legislation it often takes some time before it becomes known to tenants, especially as some may become tenants only after the change has been made and the Bill enacted. They are faced with a situation of which they had little foreknowledge.

The amendment would change the balance a bit and give tenants more knowledge so that they would be in a better position to cope. The onus would be on the landlord to ensure that a written tenancy agreement was prepared, in the absence of which the tenancy would be a fully assured tenancy. I beg to move.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, I support this amendment, to which I have attached my name. As my noble friend said, without a written tenancy agreement tenants will not

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know their rights and their landlord's responsibilities. It is frequently the worst landlords who fail to tell tenants their rights and who seek to end the tenancy when the tenant complains that there is something wrong with the accommodation. By making tenancies automatically insecure, such tenants will have little chance of making their homes safe. Our amendment would require a landlord to issue a written tenancy agreement to create a shorthold tenancy and would allow tenants without such an agreement a fully assured tenancy, thus encouraging responsible renting and providing tenants with protection against irresponsible and incompetent landlords and indeed against landlords who are often both.

The Government maintain that if landlords and tenants wish to enter into a full assured tenancy they can do so. There is much talk about the free market, and so on, but the Government fail to acknowledge the weak bargaining power of tenants. Affordable accommodation is scarce--I repeat, scarce--and there is not a free market at all in many areas. If a tenant does not accept an offer of accommodation he may end up being unable to get any accommodation at all and having to sleep rough on the streets. Therefore, I hope the Government will look favourably on the amendment and consider realistically what happens in the real world, which is very different from the one they pretend to believe in.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I find the amendment rather worrying. I again declare that I have, and do, let property on shorthold tenancies. What worries me about the proposal is that there are a lot of informal agreements. For example, people may let a student into a property, and so on. As I understand it, if that was done without a formal written agreement, the student, or any living soul you allow into your property, under the provisions of the amendment, might become a secure tenant. That would be a deterrent and would catch many simple, innocent people who were acting out of goodwill. There are such things as verbal contracts in this country; I am worried about the position.

Australia has a very simple solution. Everyone renting a property in New South Wales uses a particular form. I suppose you could have a more elaborate document drawn up by your solicitor, but no one does. They go to the local paper shop and buy this text, which complies with New South Wales law. Everyone understands it and it seems to work very well. I know that you can get forms here from the Solicitors' Law Stationery Society, and similar places, and I do not know why more of them are not used. Perhaps it is because the legal profession rather likes the fees for drawing up something more elaborate. Even agencies who let properties often charge quite a high amount both to landlords and tenants for supplying a very simple type of agreement for an assured shorthold tenancy.

The amendment is worrying. I ask my noble friend, when he replies, to say whether it could be interpreted to mean that anyone you let into your property becomes a

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secure tenant. If that were to be the case, I think it would terrify people and they would not let anyone inside the door.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, leaving aside the interesting point raised by the noble Baroness and based on the earlier part of the discussion, it seems to me that there is a good deal of merit in the amendment. I hope that my noble friend will deal with it very fully.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the poor unfortunate noble Lord, Lord Dubs, found himself disconcerted in moving the amendment because, as he said, he was prepared to deal with Amendment No. 128. All of a sudden he found himself having to deal with Amendment No. 148. I find it rather disconcerting too; it is what is called keeping us all on our toes. If I may say so, the noble Lord acquitted himself remarkably well considering that he was not immediately prepared for the amendment.

The noble Lord said that the purpose of the amendment was to try to change the balance a bit. Frankly, that is what frightens us somewhat; I shall tell your Lordships why. The amendment seeks to exclude tenancies from being assured shorthold tenancies where there is no written agreement. A prudent landlord would of course want to have a written agreement, as indeed would the prudent tenant too. After all, it provides a perfectly clear statement to everyone as to who is responsible for what. It would also put the landlord in a much stronger position if anything should go wrong or if he needs to seek possession. A landlord can only recover his property, using the accelerated possession procedure, if he has a written agreement with the tenant. I was interested to hear the experience of my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes in New South Wales where, she said, you can purchase a document which is used throughout the country. I do not have too much personal experience of that, I must confess, but it would be interesting to discover more about it.

But I have difficulty with the noble Lord's amendment. It would create exactly the procedural trap for landlords that Clause 95 proposes to remove. It is much better for tenants and landlords to have written agreements and it is rather imprudent not to do so. But there is no reason why a landlord should face the disproportionate penalty of having a shorthold tenancy suddenly converted into a fully assured tenancy simply because the landlord has not provided a written tenancy agreement.

We believe, however, that tenants with oral agreements with their landlords should have a right to evidence of the main terms of the tenancy in writing if they want it. It is for this reason that we listened to concerns which were raised in another place and introduced Clause 96, which places a duty on the landlord to provide the tenant, on request, with written details about the important terms of the tenancy relating to rent and security of tenure.

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This will provide a safeguard against the minority of landlords who might seek to exploit the rights of their tenants. Where a landlord fails to comply with his tenant's request within a period of 28 days and there is no reasonable excuse for his failure, he will be liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to £2,500. That should slow up those people who are trying to pull a fast one on their tenants.

My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes was concerned that this would have a tremendous effect on everyone. I agree with her about the risk of letting, for example, a student into a flat only to find that you are stuck with the person. If that were to happen, that would be a very bad position in which to be. We do not wish to risk that happening.

Your Lordships may remember that some years ago people were concerned with precisely that, because if you let in a student, so the theory went, who was at, for example, Oxford, Cambridge or another university, he would have security of tenure. Therefore, so the argument went, everyone went rushing around trying to find Chinese or Greek students because they went home when they had finished their course and did not get security of tenure.

There is a standard tenancy: law stationers sell standard forms and most letting agents have a standard form. Therefore, they do exist; they can be useful; but they do not have the universality of the forms which are available in New South Wales.

Where the tenant does not agree with any of the terms in the statement, it is important that he should be able to pursue this with the landlord. Subsection (5) of Clause 96 therefore makes it clear that there is no presumption that the landlord's statement provides conclusive evidence of the terms agreed. A court would not be obliged to regard the written statement as a binding document but would take into account all the facts of the case, including the views of the tenant on the nature and terms of the tenancy.

In view of the new right which we have introduced for tenants to obtain written details, on request, on the main terms of the tenancy, which the landlord will be bound to provide, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will feel that that satisfies the majority of his concerns. It is odd that people are happy to have oral agreements, but the provisions which we have introduced to overcome the difficulties of that solve the problem which the noble Lord has drawn to our attention.

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