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Lord Monkswell: I am sorry to hear that my intervention seems to concern a couple of Members on the Government Benches. However, as I understand the Minister, if a landlord lets premises to a tenant and says to him, "You can be my tenant for as long as you like and I shall charge you rent as and when I feel like it", it effectively puts the landlord in a very powerful position. He can subject the tenant to all kinds of different conditions or demands for rent. As soon as the
I am sure that that is not the Government's intention. One of the difficulties when dealing with this whole subject is that the Government start off with the presupposition that the problem is difficult tenants for good landlords, whereas there is a tendency on this side of the Chamber, I suspect, to feel that the problem is bad landlords for good tenants. We should be seeking a solution which protects everybody and does not put any particular party, whether landlord or tenant, in a situation in which he can be exploited.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I always try to be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, because he takes a great deal of interest in all the matters which come before the Chamber and he always brings interesting points to our debates. Indeed, such is his workload on the Bills for which I have been responsible that I wonder that the Party opposite should ever think of abolishing hereditary peerages--it gets so much work out of the noble Lord. It seems a reasonably good advertisement for the hereditary peerage. I am surprised that the Opposition Front Bench is so determined to remove his right to sit in this Chamber and ask questions of Ministers.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Of course, hereditary peers play a very important part in this Chamber and bring to it a wide range of views. But I am not in the position of wishing to abolish my noble friends' right to sit here and take an active part in proceedings. It is the party opposite which wishes to do that.
In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, and without attempting to duck out of this debate, the point that he raised relates to the whole principle of Clause 89. I do not want to make a speech at this point and in a few minutes' time by and large repeat the same speech when his noble friend Lord Dubs moves that the clause should not stand part of the Bill. I wonder whether the noble Lord can contain himself a little until we come to that point, when we can perhaps address the wider issues.
If a landlord and tenant decide that they should enter into an agreement which is a full assured tenancy, the tenant right from the very outset must have a properly written document to show that it is a full assured tenancy. However, if there is just a casual arrangement and, once the tenant gets in, he feels that he would like to know where he stands, then Clause 90, as I explained, can be triggered by the tenant. He can go to the landlord and say, "I know that we made an oral agreement but
So from the point of view of the kind of case hypothesised by the noble Lord, the tenant has the right to have that clear statement. But the general question of whether, in the absence of a strictly drawn up piece of paper, a tenancy should be considered a fully assured tenancy, as it is now, or a shorthold tenancy, to which we propose to move, is a subject for the debate on whether the clause shall stand part of the Bill.
Lord Dubs: There is one weakness in the Minister's argument. He says that under Clause 90 the tenant can ask the landlord for the necessary documentation or agreement. The difficulty is that the tenant may not be as well versed in the law as is the Minister; he may simply not know what his rights are. He will find, by default, that his tenure has been altered. It is that point which the amendment seeks to address.
If all tenants were well informed, there would be no need for the amendment. They would know what right they had to obtain an agreement from the landlord and that would be fine. The problem is that tenants do not necessarily know that. They are not aware and therefore a little protection would not come amiss. After all, it is not onerous to produce a written agreement--shops do it all the time for hire purchase. It is common for shops to have agreements available, and the onus is not on the purchaser to demand the document for a hire purchase agreement; the onus is on the shop selling the goods to provide it. I should have thought that in relation to something as important as a person's home, that is not an unreasonable position.
Lord Dubs: I hope that this will give the Committee an opportunity to hear the Government justify what is a fairly significant change in the conditions of housing tenure brought about by Clause 89. It is my contention that this clause completely changes the nature of the private rented sector into a predominantly insecure form of housing and forces that situation even when there is no express intention to do so. As has been said on a number of occasions, it is the default tenancy which then becomes the more important one.
When the Housing Act 1988 was passed, the Government claimed that the deregulation of rents was needed to encourage private landlords to extend the private rented sector. But when the Government developed their forms of tenure under the 1988 Act, there was no suggestion that within a few years we would have the significant change now being introduced--a change which goes against what the Government suggested at the time.
At the time the Government were clear that shorthold tenancies were not expected to become the norm. Now they certainly will become the norm. I am unhappy with Clause 89. The conditions for many tenants in our country would be better if the clause did not exist and I therefore ask the Committee not to accept it.
Lord Strabolgi: As another hereditary Peer, perhaps I too may attempt to intervene. I support the arguments of my noble friend Lord Dubs. This is yet another erosion of the security of private tenants which we have seen occurring ever since 1988.
The so-called "assured shorthold tenancy" is a complete euphemism. It means very little. There is no assurance in it at all. If the tenant asks for a written agreement, there is no proof that he asked for it. The landlord may say, "I am not going to give you one because I would rather you did not have the flat. There are a lot of people after it and I shall give it to someone else". If the tenants complain about the lack of repairs and so forth, they often face eviction.
The case arose of a married couple who rented a flat in Fulham which they moved into in 1993. They had a 12-month shorthold tenancy. Before they moved in the landlord promised to carry out some repairs, including the fixing of a loose, dangerous cooker socket. For almost a year they asked their landlord to carry out the repairs and his reply was simply that they should leave if they were unhappy with the situation. Eventually the couple got fed up and called in the Environmental Health Department after a December night when British Gas had to come in the middle of the night and disconnect their boiler because it was too dangerous to use. The couple took legal advice and instigated proceedings against their landlord to get repairs carried out and to claim damages. What happened? The landlord immediately issued a notice to quit and followed that with possession proceedings. That is what happens in the real world.
The 1988 Housing Act allows tenants with shorthold agreements to refer their rents to a rent assessment committee if they consider it to be unreasonably high and the landlord will not agree to a lower rate. That is all very well in theory. But very often a referral of that kind in the real world leads to eviction. So there is little security of tenure for tenants and the landlords can now do exactly what they like.
The Minister claimed that according to a survey there were only 4 per cent. of so-called "rogue" landlords. That may well be true. But surely legislation of this kind is introduced to protect tenants against rogue landlords. I do not know whether noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite read the evening papers; the Evening Standard particularly has printed some horrifying stories. It seems that the ghosts of Rachman are still abroad. I hope that the Government will realise that and think again regarding further protection to the tenants.
Lord Monkswell: Can the Government say what is the standing of a verbal agreement under Clause 89? As I attempted to mention earlier, a situation could arise where a tenant and landlord come to a verbal agreement
If, during the course of the tenancy, the tenant complains--similar complaints to those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi--what is the situation? Does the tenant have any security at all? If the tenant takes advice and through advisers asks the landlord to provide a written agreement to confirm the verbal agreement that he thought they had, the landlord can effectively institute a shorthold tenancy in the absence of a written agreement. My understanding of English law is that a verbal agreement can be upheld in court. Presumably the wording of the Bill destroys that ability. Perhaps the Minister can explain how a verbal agreement for an assured tenancy can be protected.
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