- The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman):
The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-7770, in the name of Alex Neil, on the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill.
- The Minister for Housing and Communities (Alex Neil):
I am pleased to open the debate and I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee for its thorough stage 1 scrutiny of the bill.
The committee took evidence from many of the key stakeholders and has clearly taken careful account of their concerns in drafting the stage 1 report. I am pleased to see so much common ground in the stage 1 report and that the committee supports the general principles of the bill. I am delighted that the committee has recognised the efforts made to consult on the bill, from its conception and throughout its development and introduction. I am continuing to work with key stakeholders to improve the bill as it progresses through its parliamentary stages, using the sounding board that I established for that purpose. I thank its members and, indeed, the private rented sector strategy group, which has been instrumental in preparing the lead-up to the bill and in acting as a sounding board.
I reaffirm the Scottish Government’s support for the private rented sector in Scotland, which accounts for about 8 per cent of all households. There is great room for expansion in the sector, which has a major role to play in the future of Scottish housing. When we publish our white paper on housing next month, members will see that the sector is very much part of the Government’s philosophy and vision for the future of housing in Scotland over the next few years.
I acknowledge the excellent work of the many good landlords in the sector. I am keen to support them by ensuring that regulation is proportionate while protecting the rights of tenants and landlords, and by developing a long-term strategy for the growth of the sector. The private rented sector strategy group has been charged by me with developing that strategy, taking into account the various demands on the sector. I am keen to work with others, including the United Kingdom Government, which I hope to persuade to remove barriers to the expansion of the private rented sector and, in particular, of the need for the reform of the stamp duty regime and the real estate investment trust regime. We all want a modern, thriving, high-quality Scottish private rented sector that is responsive to the needs of tenants.
The bill plays a key part in the development of the long-term strategy by protecting the reputation of good landlords and tackling the minority of bad landlords who are acting illegally. In that way we believe that we can enhance the reputation and performance of the sector.
The bill responds to the concerns raised by a broad range of stakeholders and expert practitioners, as well as the concerns raised in the Parliament, particularly throughout the passage of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010. In the main, the bill’s provisions originate from the strategy group’s recommendations, for which there was broad support. The bill improves the systems for landlord registration and the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, giving local authorities greater powers to tackle bad practice and penalise unlawful operators.
The bill gives new powers to tackle overcrowding, which can be a real difficulty in areas where problem landlords act irresponsibly when housing vulnerable tenants, such as migrant workers. It will improve tenants’ and landlords’ awareness of their rights and responsibilities and help landlords to carry out their statutory repairing standard obligations by enabling access to the private rented housing panel. It will crack down on the illegal pre-tenancy premiums that are often charged by unscrupulous agents or landlords, while clarifying the situation for responsible businesses.
I will deal in some detail with the key aspects of the bill, beginning with landlord registration and, in particular, the definition of a fit and proper person to be a landlord. I welcome the Local Government and Communities Committee’s support for the expansion of the fit-and-proper person test criteria. It is not an exhaustive list, and local authorities are able to use discretion to look at any material evidence that they consider appropriate. The criteria highlight the specific types of information that we expect to be taken into account as a bare minimum, such as antisocial behaviour by the landlord, or circumstances in which the landlord has not taken reasonable steps to tackle antisocial behaviour in his property, for example by one of his tenants.
The bill puts landlord registration guidance on a statutory footing, so that local authorities are required to have regard to it. It is my intention that the guidance will cover, for example, what should be taken into account when applying the fit-and-proper person test, such as how to consider antisocial behaviour.
The guidance will outline the benefits of the bill to the regime, along with showcasing the good practice and recommendations highlighted in the outcomes of the current evaluation of registration. It will highlight some of the existing good practice such as that at the local level between housing benefit and landlord registration implementation teams. For example, a number of local authority housing benefit teams are already not processing claims unless they have confirmation of the landlord’s registration number. The guidance will help to generate consistency across local authorities whilst allowing for flexibility in taking account of local issues. The statutory guidance will also cover the use of the new local authority power to obtain information from people who are associated with a house. That will include situations involving vulnerable tenants, which have been a source of concern to date. We are also extending the power to issue guidance on HMO licensing so that it can cover the same issue.
- Johann Lamont (Glasgow Pollok) (Lab):
I welcome very much the idea of sharing information that will mean that housing benefit will not be paid out unless the property where the claimant lives is registered. However, the minister said that there required to be “flexibility” for “local issues”. Why is that? Surely consistency is the absolute in delivering our shared aims in all this.
- Alex Neil:
It is more about the local process of how that is done. We already have two or three examples of local authorities where landlord registration teams are working closely with Department for Work and Pensions teams. As long as that happens, how things are done should be a matter for them. There are variations across authorities, including the size and the scale of the private rented sector in the area. The information that I have on places such as Edinburgh—I have visited the Edinburgh teams—is that people are helping each other. The landlord registration team is helping to identify housing benefit scams that the DWP can deal with and the DWP is helping to identify properties that landlords have not registered properly. There is mutual benefit in that system. Flexibility will be the modus operandi in achieving the consistency that we want at the end of the day.
One tortuous issue that we discussed with the sounding board and the committee is the registration number in advertisements. There was probably more debate on that subject than on any other aspect of the bill. We must be absolutely clear on the matter: the purpose of putting the registration number on the advert is enforcement—the number is an enforcement tool. If, in so doing, the number can also benefit the tenant, that is all well and good. However, the purpose of putting the registration number on the advert is to make it easier for landlord registration enforcement teams to ensure that whatever property is advertised is registered properly.
I know that the committee would like both the registration number and a kitemark to be used. Obviously, we will consider the committee’s point of view before we move to stage 2. Landlords are concerned about the length of the registration number—some may extend to 16 digits—which makes the number expensive to include in adverts. We have found a way of identifying each local authority that is similar to the way in which car registration numbers identify the county from which a registration number emanates. We believe that the Scottish Association of Landlords is now satisfied that registration numbers with fewer digits limit the expense for landlords and can therefore be used in adverts. I have dealt with the issue in a bit more detail than I would normally have done as it has proved to be a controversial aspect of the bill.
Houses in multiple occupation provide an invaluable housing solution for many people, not least students. I welcome the committee’s support for the HMO provisions in the bill, which strike a proper balance between tackling the issues that stakeholders raised and maintaining supply in the sector.
Clearly, a major part of the bill is the increase in fines, which I think is welcomed in general. We cannot rely entirely on the threat of increased fines to achieve all our objectives, however. The bill contains other measures in that regard.
One major benefit of the bill to the consumer is the information pack, which will now be placed on a statutory footing. Landlords will have to provide a pack with essential information on the aspects of the tenancy as well as on health and safety issues, including in relation to electrical appliances and energy systems.
The provisions in the bill relating to overcrowding provide other major benefits, without leading to the unintended consequence of a massive increase in homelessness. I take the committee’s point that, in future, we may need to look at whether we should register agents, as well as landlords. Regardless of who is elected on 5 May, the new Administration should address that issue.
I recognise that there is probably more to do, but the bill is a major landmark in improving the performance of the private rented sector in Scotland and will help to pave the way for the sector’s further expansion and growth.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill.
- Duncan McNeil (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab):
I am pleased to take part in the debate as convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee. I am experiencing a bit of déjà vu, however, as it is not long since we debated the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which contained quite a few of the provisions that are before us today. I thank all those who gave us written and oral evidence, our committee clerks, Scottish Parliament information centre researchers and my fellow committee members.
The committee looked first at landlord registration. As the minister outlined, the bill expands the fit-and-proper person test that the landlord must meet. We will support that expansion, which provides focus and direction to local authorities about the issues, especially antisocial behaviour, that they must take into account when assessing someone’s registration.
The bill also provides for all adverts for properties to let to include the landlord’s registration number. As the minister said, it was important that we had real discussion about the measure, if it is truly to be a means of and tool for enforcement. In the evidence that we received, there was general agreement that it was a good idea. However, as has been mentioned, a number of concerns were raised about how it would work in practice. As the minister said, one issue was that, generally, registration numbers are pretty long, so the number would probably not mean much to the public unless there was some kind of explanation. To let boards would be exempt from the requirement, apparently because it was thought that it would be impractical to have different numbers on different boards. We look forward to hearing more about all that.
The alternative of having a symbol or kitemark was suggested, but we recognised that there were concerns that any symbol would not be unique and might be too easy to copy. For that reason, the committee suggested that we replicate the system that trade bodies use, under which the kitemark denotes registration but is backed up by a list of registered organisations that are given unique registration numbers. We also thought that using such a system could get round the difficulties with to let boards, so that they might not have to be exempt.
The Housing (Scotland) Bill proposed increasing the fine for non-registration to £20,000. This bill proposes that the fine should be £50,000. Although we support increasing fines as a deterrent to rogue landlords, we were concerned about the lack of prosecutions, which we saw as, in effect, allowing bad landlords to continue operating outwith the system. We heard in evidence on the bill that the City of Edinburgh Council successfully prosecuted a landlord who had failed to register three of his seven properties, but that the courts imposed a fine of only £65 per property. If we compare that with the amount that it cost, according to the council, to prosecute the case, which was about £2,000 or £3,000, we find that there is hardly an incentive to deal with rogue landlords. The current level of fines is significantly lower than the current maximum, and there are a number of difficulties in pursuing prosecutions. That toxic combination left the committee doubting whether a fine could act as a deterrent whatever the level at which it is set.
Our report makes it clear that there can be a proper deterrent only if courts recognise and impose the higher fines so that local authorities are more prepared to pursue cases. It is vital that the courts give sufficient weight both to landlord registration and to HMO licensing schemes. The committee has suggested that it might be worth having either a dedicated housing court or a housing tribunal. That said, we support the increase in the maximum fine as a step in the right direction.
During our scrutiny of the Housing (Scotland) Bill, and again during our scrutiny of the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill that is now before us, one issue that was raised time and again was whether the landlord registration scheme was working as it should, even with the improvements that were being made. There were also concerns that enforcement was not consistent across all local authorities. I am pleased to hear that the minister will be encouraging best practice in that regard, as we know that some schemes could be more proactive.
It seems that landlord representatives—the good landlords—were so disillusioned that they suggested that the registration scheme should be abolished. There was a worry about people not reregistering. We do not agree with that view, but we also do not think that the scheme is working as effectively as it should. When we scrutinised the Housing (Scotland) Bill, we said that we were not sure that the proposals in that bill were sufficient to tackle rogue landlords. We say that again with regard to the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill.
We know that the Scottish Government’s private rented sector strategy group will review the current registration scheme, so we hope that the group will look at how to tackle those issues. We support the bill’s provisions on landlord registration, but we recognise that they will go only so far. Guidance that the Scottish Government will produce subsequently, and the review of the scheme, will be very important.
The substantive provisions on HMO licensing that were originally in the Housing (Scotland) Bill are replicated in the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill. In our stage 1 report on the Housing (Scotland) Bill, we welcomed those provisions, as we felt that they could tackle the breaches of planning control that often result from landlords trying to maximise the letting potential of a property. We took the view that local authorities must use the tools at their disposal in housing and planning legislation to support sustainable communities and to maintain private sector housing.
The committee considered the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill’s provisions to deal with overcrowding. We know that overcrowding is a significant issue in certain parts of Glasgow—there was a lot of discussion about Govanhill and about the migrant workers who live there, as the minister mentioned. Everyone who gave evidence to us agreed that overcrowding is an issue that needs to be tackled, but a number of concerns were raised about the approach that the Government was intending to take. For instance, some organisations suggested that there should be a duty to deal with anyone who is displaced as a result of their living in overcrowded conditions.
It became clear to the committee that this is a very complex area: existing legislation can already be used to deal with overcrowding and local authorities already have duties to deal with homelessness in certain situations. On that basis, we support the bill’s provisions in that regard, although we have concerns about their practical application. We certainly do not want situations to arise where an overcrowding notice is served, but all that it does is to make someone homeless. That would mean solving one problem, but creating another. Neither do we want undue pressure to be put on the social rented sector, with private landlords quite happily breaching the legislation, knowing that local authorities will have to deal with the problem.
We noted that the minister had given reassurances that the provisions in the bill were not intended to give rise to either of those situations, but I re-emphasise the fact that the current position is complex, and it is really not possible to predict with any certainty how many cases of homelessness there are likely to be across Scotland, and therefore whether or not there will be sufficient capacity in the private and social rented sectors to house people who have been displaced.
The powers in the bill will be used at the discretion of local authorities and are likely to be used as a last resort, but there is uncertainty about how things will play out in practice and we are concerned about that. That is why we recommended that the Scottish Government consult widely on its guidance on the factors that need to be taken into account before the decision is made to issue an overcrowding notice. We also recommended that the Government monitor the number of overcrowding notices and local authorities’ reasons for issuing them. In that way we should be able to assess how effective notices are in dealing with overcrowding and what impact they have on levels of homelessness and the housing stock.
We need a fully effective landlord registration scheme to ensure that we weed out rogue landlords. We are not there yet. We welcome the improvements that the bill will bring, but it is clear that more needs to be done. Overcrowding is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. We acknowledge what the bill is trying to achieve, but we are concerned about the practicalities. With those caveats, we recommend that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.
- Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab):
I welcome another opportunity to debate a housing issue and I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Labour group.
The private rented sector in Scotland is not big, particularly in comparison with the private rented sector in many other European countries, but it has the potential to grow, as the minister said. Given our current housing landscape, in which the public housing sector cannot meet demand and owner-occupation is often an unreachable aspiration, especially for first-time buyers, we need a private rented sector that provides good-quality housing at reasonable rents.
That is why the bill is a little disappointing. There is a need to ensure that tenants and landlords understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to renting property, and there is a broad discussion to be had on the private rented sector’s role in providing housing. I accept that not everything will need legislation, but I do not think that the bill has started to tackle the issues. It tinkers with existing provisions, for example on landlord registration, rather than taking on bigger issues. For that reason and others that I will mention, the bill is not quite what it might be. The Government has missed another opportunity in that regard.
I can be positive about the measures in the bill. I will concentrate on three areas: landlord registration, HMOs and overcrowding. Landlord registration was introduced through the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004, as members will remember, when it was realised that in many cases it was impossible to deal with the antisocial behaviour of tenants in the private rented sector if we did not know who their landlord was. Registration was introduced for a particular reason, but it was always acknowledged that it could be expanded to provide a further service.
The first challenge that we faced was the way in which local authorities responded to the provisions on landlord registration. All members would agree that some local authorities have responded well and used registration to benefit tenants and their neighbours, whereas other local authorities have done little. Because of that inconsistency, many responsible landlords feel cheated.
The bill will strengthen landlord registration by expanding the fit-and-proper person test and increasing the fine for non-registration. I welcome the provisions. However, like Duncan McNeil, I ask the minister how the bill will make local authorities any more likely to pursue landlords and register them and whether it will encourage the courts to be stricter with errant landlords. I have doubts, and if the measures do not work many people will become even more disillusioned with the scheme.
- Alex Neil:
Is the member suggesting that local authorities’ discretionary powers in some areas should be made into statutory duties?
- Mary Mulligan:
I am suggesting that we need to work with the local authorities on how we incentivise them to be more proactive on registration than they are.
On HMO legislation, the bill again tries to build on what already exists. I suggested that the private rented sector may expand and, similarly, changes to housing benefit rules could result in increased demand for HMOs. The Westminster Government is wrong to propose to change housing benefit so that single individuals up to 35 years old—rather than 25—will be entitled to shared-room rate only. When people from the west end of Glasgow or St Andrews tell the committee that there are too many HMOs in their areas, we can only warn them and others that, thanks to the housing benefit changes, there may be more in the future.
However, I acknowledge the other side of that debate: that demand is not being met, which leads to higher rents. I thank the National Union of Students Scotland for its briefing on that. There is an issue with how we share the spread of HMOs within our towns and cities. I also support the NUS’s call for a strategy to be developed to address young people’s housing needs.
Pauline McNeill will say more on HMOs, so I will move on to overcrowding.
The overcrowding measures are the minister’s response to particular issues in Govanhill—Frank McAveety will say more on that—but overcrowding is generally more complicated than that specific issue. It may include extended families or ethnic groups or may have a variety of random reasons. Current legislation provides for overcrowding to lead to a homeless designation and there was, as Duncan McNeil said, some concern that that could lead to more pressure on housing waiting lists. Indeed, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has raised further concerns.
The measures in the bill are welcome as long as they achieve what is intended. We clearly have an opportunity to improve the bill at stage 2, and I look forward to working with the minister to do that. However, it will be disappointing if we again pass a housing bill while acknowledging that we will soon have to return to it to achieve what we intended in the first place.
- Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con):
The Scottish Conservatives always welcome the opportunity to debate housing and I am pleased to say that we will support the principles of the bill at stage 1.
The debate is well timed, in view of the increase in buy-to-let mortgage approvals, which coincides with a report from the Association of Residential Letting Agents—ARLA—that void periods between tenancies are decreasing while demand for rental properties is on the up. It is clear that, as the Government appears to have taken a scorched-earth approach to social housing funding, the private sector is playing an increasingly important role in providing properties for rent.
Crucial to the debate is the fact that a substantially increased proportion of ARLA members’ offices—34 per cent in quarter 3 last year, as opposed to 19 per cent in Q2—believe that they are seeing an increase in property coming on to the rental market because it cannot be sold. That group is now often referred to as the reluctant landlords. Therefore, it is vital not only that any legislation clearly articulates a landlord’s responsibilities, but that the legislation be enforced.
I welcome the substantial increase in fines for non-registration that the bill introduces, but there is little point in the increase if someone who is found not to have registered as a landlord is not prosecuted. Such a substantial fine as is proposed would certainly be a deterrent, but the fact remains that, as at May last year, not a single prosecution had been brought for failure to register under the current landlord registration scheme. That suggests either that all is well in the private rented sector—in which case, there is little need for the bill—or that there is a reluctance to prosecute. I am inclined to suggest that it is the latter, given the fact that councils had issued more than 1,300 late application fees and more than 1,200 rent penalty notices by 31 March last year.
That said, a commonsense approach must be taken. We are extremely supportive of the introduction of tenant information packs, but there is considerable concern about the level of information that they will be required to contain. Some of the suggestions for inclusion in tenant information packs that I have heard are simply not practical or are superfluous. However, if the right balance is struck, I am certain that tenant information packs will be an asset in promoting sustainable tenancies. That is vital, especially for more vulnerable tenants.
I welcome the fact that a more holistic approach is now being taken to houses in multiple occupation. Refusing an HMO licence that would breach planning controls will be possible. It is therefore important that local authorities use planning controls and local housing policies to maintain balance in their communities and ensure that they remain sustainable, especially in areas in which the vast majority of HMOs are aimed at the student population.
However, there is growing concern about the variation in fees that councils across the country are charging for processing HMO applications. For example, a new application for a five-bed HMO in Angus, where HMOs are predominantly used to house migrant workers, may cost just £386 for the first year—the fee is reduced for renewal applications—but in the city of Aberdeen, the cost of the same HMO licence has risen from just £237 in 2006-07 to a staggering £1,500 in 2011-12, with no discount offered for renewals. I am aware that HMO licences in Aberdeen are for longer than one year, but that is still a substantial sum of money for a landlord to find in the first instance. Landlords must be assured that the fees that they are charged come to absolutely no more than the cost of processing the applications and running the system.
Given that the balance of tenure is shifting, with many people being forced to rent their home rather than buy because of stringent lending criteria, and more individuals becoming landlords because of a depressed housing market or a poor return on their savings, the Scottish Conservatives believe that the bill is a step in the right direction. It is certainly not, however, the comprehensive solution that may be required in the medium term. On that basis, we will support the bill at this stage, but we are disappointed that there is nothing in it to encourage greater investment in the sector by private institutions. In that respect it is, as Mary Mulligan would say, a missed opportunity. That said, I acknowledge the points that the minister made in his opening speech, in which he suggested that there are areas in which the national Government could help.
It is obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done. I urge the Scottish Government to remain open to the views of stakeholders in order to deliver a bill that is an important step forward in managing the expectations of landlords and tenants, so that a better relationship between the two, and better relationships with the wider community, can be achieved. The Conservatives support the general principles of the bill, and I look forward to working on it in its later stages.
- Jim Tolson (Dunfermline West) (LD):
I, too, thank the committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre advisers and fellow members for their work on the bill thus far.
The bill is an important part of the armoury to tackle the current housing crisis in Scotland. Underinvestment not just in affordable housing, but in affordable housing to rent has been going on for far too many years. We need to invest to tackle the overcrowding and poor housing in our communities. The Liberal Democrats will also agree to the general principles of the bill.
We have heard that one of the most controversial issues relating to the bill is the increase in the maximum penalty from £5,000 to £50,000. We believe that that increase is necessary to highlight to private landlords and the courts the seriousness with which the renting of poor or dangerous private rented housing should be treated. The vast majority of private landlords—large and small—run good establishments, and they have nothing whatever to fear from the measures in the bill because they currently follow most, if not all, of them. However, robust registration, review and—where required—penalties must be part of the package to ensure that the minority of private landlords who do not meet the prescribed standards either shape up or ship out.
I will look in more detail at some key areas of the bill. Part 1 deals with registration of private landlords. As has been intimated, landlord registration has been in place for a number of years, but it has not had the desired effect of weeding out the rogue landlords. Not only have rogue landlords not sought to register in some cases, but local authorities’ ability or willingness to enforce non-registration has left something to be desired. The proposals in the bill will do a lot to improve the requirements in relation to the eligibility and fitness of a person even to be considered as a private landlord. They will ensure that certain information is included in adverts to inform potential tenants that the landlord has met an approved standard, and the fine for breaching the registration regulations will increase tenfold, as I outlined earlier.
However, the first area of concern on which I seek clarification from the minister is local authorities’ ability to enforce the conditions in relation to registered properties and to check on non-registered properties. Only if local authorities can do those things will we be able to give tenants and honest landlords confidence that the system is robust and that it provides the necessary protection.
Part 2 covers licensing of houses in multiple occupation. HMOs are most common in our university towns and cities, although Alex Johnstone outlined another perfectly good reason why they are used. I have received representations from both the National Union of Students Scotland and permanent residents who live in or near HMO buildings. Although the NUS does not want the number of HMOs to be limited or reduced, it does not want students to be limited in their areas of occupation, either. Having spoken to residents of mixed student HMO and permanent residential areas, I know that there are, at times, significant concerns from the permanent residents.
- Mary Mulligan:
Jim Tolson mentioned students in HMOs. Does he agree with his coalition Government at Westminster that the age for shared occupancy should be raised to 35, which will encourage not just students but young adults into that situation?
- Jim Tolson:
I do not recall Labour proposing an amendment in that regard. Maybe that is something that Mary Mulligan will want to consider at stage 2.
The concerns that I mentioned relate not only to noise from within the properties and parked cars outside them when the properties are occupied, but to the effect on the community and its long-term viability when the properties are not occupied, especially during the summer months. I ask the minister to clarify how he expects to reconcile those different views from permanent and student tenants in mixed areas at stage 2.
Part 3 is on overcrowding, which is often the issue that brings irresponsible landlords to the authorities’ attention. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Government’s proposal to widen the categories of accommodation that are classed as HMOs. Indeed, I note that Hillhead community council and the confederation of St Andrews residents associations welcome the link between planning and HMO licensing. The provisions on statutory notices and tenant information and advice are welcome, as is the requirement for better information to be set out on the conditions that landlords are required to meet, and the appeal procedures.
We believe that the bill will not only provide better quality housing for existing tenants in the private rented sector, but will help to encourage more people to become landlords. That is seen by public, private and voluntary organisations as a key step in helping to tackle homelessness in our communities. The Liberal Democrats believe that there are some welcome proposals in the bill that will protect the rights of both tenants and landlords, but also believe that the Government has to do more work to protect the rights of permanent residents in HMO areas. With the minister’s assurance that he will help to improve the bill at its later stages, the Liberal Democrats will be content to support the bill at stage 1 at decision time this evening.
- John Wilson (Central Scotland) (SNP):
In speaking in this debate at stage 1 of the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill, I should say first of all that I have examined the issue not only as a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee but as a member of the Public Petitions Committee, which considered a petition on a range of housing issues, particularly private rented housing sector problems in the Govanhill area of Glasgow. I should also at this point put on record that I would have preferred the various pieces of housing legislation to be covered in one comprehensive housing bill but, as a mere back bencher, my suggestion fell on deaf ears.
The main policy thrust behind the bill is to amend the private landlord registration scheme and to improve tenancy rights for private rented tenancies. The bill contains important provisions, particularly on addressing problems of overcrowding. On a Public Petitions Committee visit, I, along with the then convener and constituency member, Frank McAveety, and my committee colleague, Anne McLaughlin, saw at first hand the intolerable and frankly inhumane conditions that some families are having to endure in the private rented sector in Govanhill.
That said, the Local Government and Communities Committee’s report sets out concerns about whether local authorities have sufficient financial powers to make the legislation work in practice. The current maximum £5,000 fine for letting, or attempting to let, a property without being registered is not acting as much of a deterrent. Under the bill, however, the maximum penalty for being an unregistered landlord will increase to £50,000. In the past, local authorities have been less energetic in their approach to private landlord registration but the bill, I hope, indicates a desire to adopt a more proactive approach.
As a councillor in the past and now as an MSP, I know that many areas have been wrecked by the proliferation of buy-to-let landlords and their letting agents, who are not always concerned about legal statute and have no commitment either to other residents in the area or, indeed, to the area in which they let properties.
The fact is that we must address the issue of unregistered landlords. Indeed, in its report “Landlord registration in Scotland: three years on”, Shelter Scotland rightly highlights issues that are faced by many private sector tenants, including repairs not being carried out, problems with hidden fees, and illegal evictions. Evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee made it clear that not all councils are properly using the fit-and-proper-person test that is set out in current legislation, and that enforcement action by local authorities is at best patchy and in some cases non-existent. The committee’s report on the bill states that the committee
“remains ... concerned that there is a lack of consistency across the country”
in that respect. For example, North Lanarkshire Council has not issued any penalty notices and, as has already been mentioned, in Edinburgh only one case involving a private landlord has been successfully prosecuted.
I also point out that, each year, a significant amount of housing benefit goes into the private rented sector. In the North Lanarkshire Council area, which I represent, there are 4,620 private sector recipients of housing benefit and it appears that, based on the average award, a total of £422,000 is allocated to the private rented sector in that area alone.
The bill proposes to provide detailed assurances for all private sector tenants. In committee, I was struck by how much the need for such a provision was evidenced by those who responded to the consultation on the bill, especially in relation to the quality, safety and impact of HMOs that breach planning law.
At this point, I caution members that they should not confuse HMOs with the issue of overcrowding; they are distinctly different matters. The committee report states:
“overcrowding is a significant and serious issue”,
and a number of organisations, including Shelter Scotland and the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, were concerned that the problem of homelessness might be exacerbated if local authorities do not have a duty to deal with people who are displaced through an overcrowding statutory notice. In its report, the committee seeks the Government’s assurance that it will assess and review any potential impact on homelessness.
The bill also attempts to address tenants’ concerns about what they can expect with regard to rent payments; the introduction of the compulsory tenant information pack will go some way towards achieving that aim.
I note from press reports on Monday that the minister announced the new Tenancy Deposit Scheme (Scotland) Regulations 2011, which aim to protect tenants in the private rented sector from having their deposits wrongly withheld by landlords and letting agents. I seek clarification from the minister about why that laudable aim is not part of the bill. I look forward to greater scrutiny of the regulations at a later date.
I welcome the stage 1 debate and the broad principles in the bill, and I look forward to its coming back to the Local Government and Communities Committee for further scrutiny. I thank all those who provided written and oral evidence on the bill, as well as the minister, the committee clerks and my colleagues on the committee.
- Pauline McNeill (Glasgow Kelvin) (Lab):
I welcome the committee report, the hard work that the committee has done on this important bill and the work that the minister has done to make some progress.
I would like to work with the committee and the minister at stage 2 to ensure that the bill becomes strong legislation. We have made considerable progress in some areas but, as Mary Mulligan said, it is important that we keep pace in the housing strategy with what is happening in the housing market as it begins to change. We need firm regulation, planning and enforcement; indeed, the committee identified that we need to consider how we can ensure strong enforcement.
I want to talk mostly about HMOs, primarily because the issue dominates my casework in Glasgow Kelvin. There are very good landlords and I want to put it on the record that I support the existence of HMOs, because they are needed for a variety of tenants and are an important part of our housing strategy. What concerns me in my community is that places such as Hillhead and Woodlands are now unsustainable; in fact, there is a moratorium on licences there now, because there is a concentration of HMOs and there are too many. Next door to my office, there is a tenement block in which six of the eight properties are HMOs—35 people are living in a block that I am sure was intended for far fewer people.
I will address a couple of related issues that I know the committee has examined. One is the relocation of stacked services, which has become an issue in my constituency because, as landlords try to cram more people into accommodation, they try to create more kitchens and bathrooms. Members will understand the problems that ensue when a bathroom is above a bedroom and there are leaks. There is a case for there being grounds for refusal by local authorities when those stacked services are relocated. I think that the committee heard some evidence about some horrible cases, including one case in which an elderly couple were forced to move out because water was leaking into their bedroom from a kitchen above. The tenements were not designed that way; they were designed, for very good reason, so that the kitchens were aligned. The issue has also impacted on students who have people above them cooking or living their lives in an ordinary way, but it means that they are unable to study or sleep. It is a genuine problem.
Related to that is the subdivision of main rooms. I have asked on many occasions—even before the creation of this Parliament—how we could address the issue. I am always told, “Oh, that’s for building control. Oh, no—it is planning,” and such like. It has to fit somewhere. Landlords are subdividing properties; they are dividing windows down the middle. That is not good for tenants; it increases noise and disturbances and it certainly discourages the return of the properties to family use. There should be grounds whereby that is deemed to be not suitable so that local authorities can refuse permission. There must be a provision in the bill to prevent subdivision or, at least, to have firmer controls.
On illegal HMOs, there must be stronger enforcement when landlords fail to comply with the law. Other members have said that stronger fines are important and I have argued for those, but they will not be enough in themselves. Part 5 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 does not come into force until August. Alex Neil knows how I feel about the issue because, in 2005, when Johann Lamont was the minister responsible, I moved an amendment to the Housing (Scotland) Bill for higher fines. If I had thought that it would take until 2011 to get it enforced, I would certainly have tagged something on the end of that amendment. However, now the fine levels, which I support, will exceed the fines that we voted for in 2006. I accept that that is progress.
There is a proliferation of HMOs in some parts of Scotland, which is why there needs to be strong legislation in the bill for the 10 years ahead.
I want to be clear about what proposed new section 129A of the 2006 act will do. It is the link between planning and licensing. I understand that it is for local authorities to determine their own planning rules—in that sense, local authorities have discretion and I have no problem with that. Where there is an existing planning policy, a local authority can apply that. It can refuse to look at an application if it believes that it is in breach of planning control. Subsection (2) states:
“The local authority must, within 7 days of deciding to refuse to consider an
HMO application, serve notice of its decision on—
(a) the applicant,
(b) the enforcing authority, and
(c) the chief constable.”
My understanding is that the licensing committee does not even have to look at an application if it considers that it could be in breach of planning policy. In Glasgow, there is a planning policy for a limit of 5 per cent of HMOs in any given area—it is 10 per cent in the west end of Glasgow—and the maximum may already have been reached when an application comes before the licensing committee. Therefore, an application could be refused because that limit of 5 or 10 per cent had been reached. That seems to be the way forward. I want it to be made clear, however, that the licensing committees that choose to use that provision will not be challenged in the courts and that landlords will not find themselves before sheriffs. I want to make sure that, if a licensing committee chooses to use that provision, it is absolutely foolproof.
At stage 2, we will need to clarify whether objectors can submit evidence in that regard. Who will decide whether an application is in breach of planning policy? Can objectors say that they think that it is in breach of planning policy at that point? We may need to have a look at that to see whether the bill will do what it intends to do. For that to work, the planning procedure needs to be clear for those who want to give evidence, as there is a separate planning process in that regard.
On lawful use, when a landlord has had 10 years of operating already, they will get planning permission. However, there are cases in which landlords claim lawful use but do not have an HMO licence. I do not think that we should reward them for not applying for that licence—that should not be a way round the law.
We should think about other grounds for refusal. In effect, planning policy would be a ground for refusal. Local amenities and back courts being unable to support additional tenants should be a reason for a licensing committee’s being able to refuse an HMO licence, as granting such a licence would make a property unsustainable.
We are heading in the right direction. I look forward to stage 2 and welcome what the committee and the minister have done.
- Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow) (SNP):
I welcome to the public gallery members of Croftfoot housing action group. The bill came about in response to the growing problems that are faced by people such as them. By the time Parliament is finished with it, it should—and I am determined that it will—ensure that the law is on the side of people such as them and not on the side of the minority of unscrupulous landlords and letting agents who are currently making people’s lives a misery and being allowed to get away with it.
The bill will be better, stronger and more effective for the input of people such as those who are here today representing Croftfoot housing action group. If anybody knows the need for the bill, it is them. They are a group of individuals who have never been political in their lives, but whose experiences have forced them to become involved. They are, indeed, a force to be reckoned with.
I was invited by them to a public meeting. When I got there, not only were there around 200 local people in the audience, but they had also managed to get the local MP, two other MSPs and three councillors along. They have responded to the consultation on the bill and will submit evidence to the committee. They have visited Parliament several times and have spoken to Alex Neil, the Minister for Housing and Communities, on the telephone. They have met Government officials, they have referred many individuals to my office and they are here again today. They have become fearsome and effective campaigners in a very short space of time, and the reason is that they are highly motivated. After all, who does not want to be able to go home of an evening, shut the door and shut out the rest of the world?
I have gone into some detail about that group because they embody the strength of feeling that exists on the issue. If a person’s housing needs are not being addressed—by that I mean that, through no fault of their own, they are not living in a safe, secure and clean environment—it is extremely difficult for them to establish a decent quality of life. Croftfoot housing action group is one housing group in one area of one city, but the problems that it seeks to address are replicated throughout the country.
Given the importance of housing to our wellbeing, landlords have an extremely important relationship with their tenants. It is welcome, therefore, that the fit-and-proper-person test should be expanded to include sexual and firearms offences. Given the nature of some organised crime, where there is an accumulation of capital, investment in property might seem like a good way of hiding that capital and generating additional revenue. However, this Government has a strong record of going after the proceeds of illegal activity, and it is to be welcomed that all tenants will be able to have an increased sense of confidence in their landlord once the legislation is passed.
Going hand in hand with that are new powers for local authorities to deal with unregistered landlords and the agents who assist them in their activities. I believe that the existing powers—although they needed to be strengthened—have not been used nearly enough, so I urge local authorities, which are being consulted on the bill, to use the powers more often.
The bill will address not only the problems that are faced by responsible owner-occupiers in communal properties, such as those in Croftfoot, but will address the problems that are faced by private rented sector tenants who have to suffer the poor-quality housing and conditions that are offered by some private landlords.
I am sure that many of us here have experienced many of those problems ourselves. I have had significant problems in the past with neighbours whose landlords are absent and uncontactable. I should note that I rent out my old flat to a tenant and that I am, of course, fully registered—although, perhaps now that the legislation is being tightened, it might be decided that an MSP is not a fit and proper person.
I know that there are many good landlords, not just because I am one but because of my experiences during the 16 years of my life that I estimate have been spent as a private sector tenant. Although some of those experiences were first rate, I have had some pretty dreadful experiences, too. My colleague, Aileen Campbell, and I once shared a flat where water came out of the taps only on special occasions, but black gunge came up into the bath on what seemed to be a daily basis, and the landlord was in no particular hurry to do anything about it.
The problems that this bill seeks to address are myriad, but I argue that there is nowhere that is more representative of the entire list of problems than Govanhill in Glasgow's south side. I know that my Croftfoot friends would want me to put on record the fact that Croftfoot is still a nice area in which to live and that the reason for their campaign is to ensure that they stop the growing problems before they escalate in the way that the problems in Govanhill have.
Govanhill is also a lovely area. It used to have plentiful affordable housing and lots of small retail outlets. It has many community projects and is handy for town. It has always been a vibrant place of many cultures, and people there are used to welcoming new communities from different backgrounds.
Today, however, Govanhill seems to have been taken over by unscrupulous landlords who are more than happy to let a two-bedroom flat to families of sometimes 25 people, and who allow their properties to fall well below tolerable standard. For example, in the case of a young family whom I visited with John Wilson and Frank McAveety, the letting agent—acting as a front for the unknown landlord—seemed to think it acceptable to have bare electrical wires sticking out of the wall in the bathroom. Those unscrupulous landlords do not explain to their tenants that they have communal responsibilities to their neighbours and simply refuse to meet their own communal responsibilities until, as happened two years ago, whole tenements eventually collapse.
Govanhill has the entire gamut of problems, yet local people continue to fight for their area. They do not want to leave; they want to stay and restore Govanhill to the thriving, vibrant area that it once was. However, they cannot do that without support, which is why I was delighted when Nicola Sturgeon announced last year that an additional £1.8 million would be invested in renovating properties and funding a special hit squad to take on bad landlords in Govanhill.
That is one example of the SNP Government listening. This bill demonstrates that the whole Parliament is listening, too.
I support the general principles of the bill and look forward to assisting my constituents in contributing to its development.
- Patricia Ferguson (Glasgow Maryhill) (Lab):
I, too, have a slight feeling of déjà vu as I rise to speak this afternoon, as we have discussed a number of the provisions of the bill on a previous occasion. I argue that issues relating to houses in multiple occupancy, private letting or overcrowding deserve the attention of this chamber and require us to put in place sensible and practical regimes that work for the people who live in such properties and for people in the wider community.
We already have a system of landlord registration, but we would all accept that it could work better. The committee heard from local authorities where the system of registration is clearly working better than it is in other areas. Some of that seemed to be down to the level of resource that individual local authorities felt able to devote to registration. However, there was evidence to suggest that some local authorities—many, in fact—felt that there was little point in pursuing unregistered landlords because of the time that it takes to get a case to court and the fact that where convictions have been secured, the fine that the court imposes is minimal.
I appreciate that although the minister had proposed an increase in the level of fine to £20,000, he has now decided that £50,000 is more appropriate. However, the fact remains that unless the courts are willing to use the new limit, the deterrent effect will be minimal. The same is true of the fines that are proposed for offences in relation to HMOs. The justice system needs to give more weight to housing issues, including the problem of evicting convicted drug dealers. I welcome the idea of a specialist housing court or tribunal, although it is clear that that will now be for a future Administration to develop.
I welcome the expansion of the list of offences to be declared by applicants for registration. Many, although by no means all, of those who rent privately are vulnerable people. They can be young and living away from home for the first time, or new to our country with limited language skills.
The minister and I have debated, in the chamber and in committee, the need for a landlord registration number or mark to be used in publicity material. I genuinely believe that such an identifier will be very useful indeed. The minister said that we had a very robust discussion at committee, and that the provision was one of the controversial elements of the bill, but I do not think that it is controversial. It is common sense and something that we all care about, and we just need to have a bit of a discussion about how to get it right.
I and other colleagues have raised the issue of HMOs in the chamber many times. I do not have time today to detail the problems that many of the communities in my constituency suffer as a result of an overconcentration of HMOs—Pauline McNeill has already done a good job in that regard. Suffice it to say that the measures in the bill that will improve the interface between HMO licensing and planning are very welcome. The minister might want to say something about how that relates to building control, for the reasons that Pauline McNeill outlined. Rooms and individual facilities are literally cut in half, sometimes with no access to natural light or with that access divided right down the middle of a room.
I appreciate that the problem is complex: if it was easy, it would have been solved a long time ago, but it requires that competing demands be balanced. We must have a thorough investigation that considers the difficulties that are faced by communities, the needs of those who rent and the ways in which the situation can be improved. It should also consider specifically the needs of young people in the housing market. Such an investigation is now overdue, particularly given the current financial situation and the changes in benefits, which mean that many more people will be seeking other types of accommodation. I very much hope that whoever is standing in the minister’s place after the forthcoming election will commission such research and take its findings seriously.
We need to ensure that our accommodation is safe, and that people are part of balanced communities in which it is pleasant to live—as Anne McLaughlin said—and safe for those who live in properties that are occupied by more than one family or individual. We must ensure that that is the case not only for the few, but for everyone.
As a Glaswegian, I am acutely aware of the problems that are experienced in the Govanhill area of the city, and I expect that my colleague Frank McAveety will address those in detail. However, I have some concerns that those issues may not be resolved by the bill, and questions remain—which I feel obliged to raise—regarding the overcrowding provisions in the bill. For example, will a legal requirement to reduce overcrowding in the private rented sector amount to much if there is no additional provision of alternative accommodation and housing for those who are living in overcrowded conditions? Will the burden fall on the social rented sector, and if so, can we be assured that it has the capacity to cope? Without answers to those questions and those assurances, a legal requirement to reduce overcrowding will—at least in my opinion—amount to very little.
I am afraid that the bill does not do much to address substandard accommodation, which also blights the Govanhill area. Anne McLaughlin rightly referred to the sums of money that Miss Sturgeon made available, but there has to be a balanced package in the area that takes account of the problems that are experienced by people living in Govanhill—newcomers and people who have lived there for longer periods—and gets things right. The problem will move into other areas, because Govanhill simply cannot cope.
The bill seeks to tackle significant problems, but I am not yet convinced that it will do that. Unfortunately, we will be able to judge that only at a later stage. However, I hope that it can, and for that reason, I am happy to support it at stage 1.
- Sandra White (Glasgow) (SNP):
I am pleased to speak in support of the bill at stage 1. I have long campaigned for and supported the tightening up of HMO licences, as other members have done. Like other members, I deal with a great number of cases relating to the granting of HMO licences and the problems that that causes. Pauline McNeill eloquently set that out.
Glasgow has a vast proportion of HMOs, particularly in the Hillhead area and in other parts of the west end, so we desperately need to deal with the issue. Page 11 of the Scottish Parliament information centre briefing on the bill mentions that three quarters of HMOs are concentrated in four local authority areas—Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow. Those are all university cities. The city that I represent, Glasgow, has three universities and numerous colleges and it has many HMOs and private lets.
I will return to that issue, but first I will mention the tenancy deposit scheme, which John Wilson talked about and which will come into effect in March this year. That is welcome, and I know that the National Union of Students welcomes it very much. I have had many representations—as have other members, I assume—from tenants who have had their deposits withheld by letting agents but have been given no good reason for that. We have challenged that head on. I hope that, in future, such tenants will get their money back. I have long campaigned for such a scheme. Away back in the 1999 election and in the election preceding that, I and other members who are present campaigned to get a tenancy deposit scheme. I thank the minister for pushing forward the scheme, which I am sure will be welcomed in various areas.
Some members have criticised the bill for not going far enough. I agree that we have to consider it at stage 2, and I am sure that amendments will be made. As members have said, the landlord registration scheme is to be welcomed. However, other members, including Mary Mulligan, representing the Labour Party, have said that the bill does not go far enough and is not good enough. Mary Mulligan will have a chance to lodge amendments at stage 2. I certainly look forward to seeing the amendments that she lodges. We should not completely rubbish the bill at stage 1.
The debate has been consensual and the speeches from members have been good. Basically, we are trying to work together with all parties, so perhaps Mary Mulligan was a wee bit out of synch with the other members who have spoken. The bill should be welcomed. After all, the current Government has not been in power for long, but her party was in government long before that and did not propose various measures. I am not being disingenuous, but the member should think carefully when we are having a consensual debate. The bill is the right move and members can lodge amendments at stage 2. I look forward to seeing those amendments—I might lodge some, too.
To return to the subject of HMOs, all members will have visited such properties. I certainly have, and I have seen good ones and bad ones. We need new legislation to tighten up the link between planning and licensing of HMOs. I have met councillors in Glasgow and officials in the council planning department. As Pauline McNeill said, we need an assurance that councils that do not grant an HMO licence will not be taken to court. Will the bill tighten up that link? Will potential HMOs need planning permission before they become HMOs? We also need to look at how we deal with HMOs that were granted a licence previously. We need assurances on that.
Patricia Ferguson and Pauline McNeill mentioned the petition. I add that some properties cannot be partitioned viably. I have been in a property that we in Glasgow would call a room and kitchen, but which is being advertised as a two-bedroom flat simply because the main room has been partitioned down the middle to make space for two bedrooms. What I would have called, many years ago, a hole-in-the-wall bed, has been turned into a kitchen. The landlord is charging £600 or £700 a month for what is basically one room rather than a two-bedroom flat.
We have to look at situations such as that in order to protect not just the tenants who move into HMOs, but the other residents of the buildings. We have heard about numerous complaints—Jim Tolson mentioned Hillhead community council, charities and others. Sometimes people’s lives are made absolute hell when an HMO is right next to them and that property’s kitchen is next to their bedroom. The occupants of the HMO might be cooking, or up all night, when their neighbour is trying to sleep.
Patricia Ferguson mentioned building control, which is an important part of the picture. We need building control, planning and the licensing teams of local councils to work together to ensure that tenants have a decent home to live in and that residents can also live in peace.
As others have mentioned, we need to look at making enforcement robust. I look forward to the issues raised by members being lodged in amendments so that we can consider them at stage 2.
- Mr Frank McAveety (Glasgow Shettleston) (Lab):
There has been broad consensus on the subject of the bill irrespective of the political affiliations of colleagues on the Public Petitions Committee. The reason for our visit to Govanhill was to try to understand more about the situation. I have more knowledge about Govanhill than most because of the nature of the issues in my constituency, but we have built consensus. Equally, the Labour authority in Glasgow and the SNP Government share a commitment to find more resources to deal with the problem. However, those resources are not sufficient to deal with the scale of the problem. I hope that the contributions to today’s debate and whoever forms the Government after the May election will help to drive forward investment in housing and address the problems effectively.
Govanhill has been an important part of my life for three decades. I often tell the story of when I was eight or nine years old and I was packed away on the train to Govanhill when there was family turmoil. I arrived at Crosshill station, a part of Govanhill that has been most obviously affected in recent years. I used to see the beautiful sandstone villas and other tenemental property in markedly better condition than much of the Springburn housing before the demolitions kicked in the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, I taught in Govanhill and in the late 1990s, I was given the opportunity to serve the area as part of a wide parliamentary constituency.
The area has seen a lot of change and I want to focus on how the bill can address that change. No one can claim brownie points for what they have done, because none of us has done enough to address the concerns of my constituents—until after May—on the south side of Glasgow. None of us—elected members and legislators—is quick enough to intervene to question the level of effective work done by landlords. Many landlords are good, but many of them are not good at all. Those landlords spend their time avoiding legislation and enforcement powers, because they know that it is hard to catch up with them as they move about the area.
We have heard from previous speakers about the scale of the problem. The Public Petitions Committee visited the area, but I do not think that any of us here can fully comprehend the scale of the problem. Constituents regularly send me images of the issues in Govanhill that are exacerbated by the behaviour of a minority of residents. I have a host of pictures that show refuse bags piled almost 4ft high from one back door to the end of a garden, because individuals who live in overcrowded properties have been dumping their stuff out of windows. Nobody should need to live in such conditions in this century.
What can we do about that? I welcome the cross-party support—whether from the Labour council or the SNP Government—for the hub that we have set up in the past year and a half. That is about co-ordinating activity in the area, so that the area can resuscitate itself.
The economics are pretty simple. The vast majority of Govanhill is a fantastic neighbourhood. As the elected member for the area, I stress that it contains good people who work hard and bring up decent families. However, pockets of the community have been badly affected by the explosion in private landlordism in recent years. We have a catch-22 situation. People who live in the affected areas must sell at such a reduced price that more private landlords can enter the housing market and make the position much worse. A pocket of the area is badly affected.
We need to deal with three issues, the first of which is a hard ask and applies not just to the bill. Do we have the leadership in the Parliament—now or after the election, if the Government changes—to address the concerns about resources that the minister has grappled with in an area such as Govanhill?
The second issue is the enforcement strategy. The local associations’ fear is that, if they have an obligation to deal with overcrowding, individuals might consequently access housing at the expense of many others. That is a complex matter on which we must pick our words carefully, but I will talk about it today, because we need to be conscious that we must deal with that pressure.
The third question is whether we can work better. From the hub that has been developed in the area, can we work better with services to make a difference?
I welcome the measures in the bill, which many other members can speak about in much more detail, because they are members of the committee that is examining the bill.
I am concerned that we have not prosecuted many individuals. When we have tried to pursue them, their response has been challenging. I have received regular calls to my office and one or two abrasive visits from landlords. I welcome and can deal with occasional abrasiveness.
We need to have the powers to deal with the area because, if what has been described can happen in Govanhill, it can happen in any built-up urban area in Scotland. Twenty-five years ago, people in the Gorbals were loving the idea of getting a house in Govanhill. In a sense, the position has been reversed because of the regeneration in the Gorbals. Now, people want to get out of elements of Govanhill.
What can we say to a woman who has brought up her family in Govanhill and who no longer feels that she can walk along the main arterial streets there because of concerns at some junctions? That is the result of the massive explosion I mentioned, which all of us have failed to deal with.
I hope that the bill will address some of those issues, but resources are also involved—that is the bigger picture that faces all members. I welcome members’ speeches and I hope that the minister will take them on board.
- Bob Doris (Glasgow) (SNP):
I will consider landlord registration as contained in the bill. My lasting impression of landlord registration is of how committed and professional the vast majority of landlords in the sector are. The vast majority of landlords—those who contribute significantly to addressing housing need in our country—sign up for registration. The landlords’ representative body, the Scottish Association of Landlords, typifies the professional and constructive approach that registered landlords take to meeting housing need.
However, the registration scheme’s strength should be its ability to tackle rogue landlords who do not bother to register and who provide accommodation for tenants that we would not consider to be safe or acceptable. I suspect that we all agree that the enforcement power against unregistered rogue landlords is a muscle that has never properly been flexed. I am well aware that barriers exist to potentially successful prosecutions by local authorities and I know that the minister has a working group that is looking at such matters. I would very much appreciate more information about progress on that.
As we heard earlier, the City of Edinburgh Council put effort, time, finance and commitment into securing the conviction of an unregistered landlord. The court imposed a derisory fine, which must have left the council thinking that there had been little point in pursuing the prosecution in the first place. Ironically, such an example is a real disincentive to local authorities to prosecute unregistered landlords. The bill will increase fines to a maximum of £50,000, which I welcome. There is now a potentially strong, financial incentive for rogue landlords to register. I say “potentially” because if convictions are difficult to achieve and rarely occur, and the fines that are imposed are tiny, raising the maximum fine to £50,000 may make little difference.
However, I take a far more positive view than that. I believe that increasing the maximum fine will send a clear message to courts about how seriously we expect them to treat cases involving rogue landlords. We must ensure that courts perceive landlords who refuse to register as being guilty of serious criminality. After all, councils indulge in prosecutions of unregistered landlords not as a first action but as a last option.
When councils are aware of a potentially unregistered landlord, they encourage the landlord to apply for registration, to register and to meet the minimum acceptable standards for private rented properties. The question that courts should ask themselves when prosecutions take place is why the landlord did not register in the first place and what a landlord who refuses to register has got to hide. What other forms of criminality might that landlord be involved in? Are some landlords trying to avoid the light that registration would shine on their business? That is why I welcome the bill’s extension of the fit-and-proper-person test criteria.
Our courts and our sheriffs need to be aware of such matters. Sheriffs who do not regularly deal with housing-related matters may not be aware of the social context and the damage that is done by rogue landlords—the misery that they can cause to tenants and the wider community, which we heard about from several members.
The fine increase should emphasise to sheriffs the importance that Parliament places upon the offence. Reform of the system of prosecution may also help. It has been suggested that we could have special housing courts involving people who are experts in the sector. Such courts could deal more appropriately and swiftly with a range of offences and disputes, including unregistered landlords. Perhaps that could be considered by the Government if it is re-elected. I seek the minister’s opinion on that.
We should make it socially unacceptable to use unregistered landlords. I accept that there will always be vulnerable sections of society, such as exploited immigrants or people who, for a variety of reasons, have chaotic lifestyles, that end up renting from unregistered landlords. That is unacceptable, but the rest of us, as consumers, should never knowingly accept accommodation from an unregistered landlord. Consumers would not knowingly buy a dodgy motor or a gas boiler, so why should they rent a dodgy flat? Consumers must exert a degree of responsibility for themselves. Indeed, the example of a dodgy boiler is quite pertinent because there is every chance that that is exactly what someone might end up with if they choose an unregistered landlord. However, we can expect consumers to make an informed choice only if they are given the correct information, which means a public awareness-raising campaign and the possibility of checking whether a landlord is registered. I would appreciate information on that from the minister.
I would also appreciate the minister’s views on whether newspapers should be allowed to advertise the properties of rogue landlords. Our newspapers can be great campaigning forces for social good, but they also have a social responsibility, which should extend to not advertising the properties of unregistered landlords. I am not suggesting that we require legislation on that, rather that we have a voluntary code and partnership with the newspaper industry. I have no reason to believe that the press would not sign up to that—in fact, I am sure that it would welcome such a code.
There is much more that I wanted to say but, given the limited time available, I will leave it at that. I will be delighted to support the bill at decision time.
- Ross Finnie (West of Scotland) (LD):
This has indeed been a largely consensual debate. The speech that brought together all members in the chamber was that which was made by John Wilson, who said how much better it would have been if we had had a single bill to deal with housing matters in a comprehensive way. Perhaps the only dissenting voice was that of the minister who harrumphed, albeit not very loudly. I think he realises that he could have done this better.
The bill is an important piece of legislation that addresses an important issue. As Frank McAveety pointed out, if we had been able to solve the problem over the years, we would not be here. It is not an easy problem. A number of conflicting interests are involved. That makes the behaviour of rogue landlords—a small but important minority—difficult to address.
As the minister correctly said, although the private rented sector represents some 8 per cent of the housing sector, there is no doubt that it could, should and ought to expand. There are a number of reasons for that, not least of which is the recent financial crisis. The crisis demonstrated that our previous housing model, which saw a rush to ensure that almost everybody owned a house, was not necessarily sustainable. We need to learn from the example of other mainland European states where the rented sector makes a much more important, and enduring and sustainable, contribution to the general housing market.
We have, of course, had landlord registration for some time and have rightly concluded that it is not working as it should do. The fit-and-proper person test is a welcome development in that regard. However, other forms of registration include the fit-and-proper person test and yet the test has not of itself resulted in things turning right. For example, there is a fit-and-proper person test as part of the registration process for those who sell alcohol. Regrettably, as members know, persistent breaches of the law have resulted in a disconnect. There seems to be a failure to understand that persistent breaches of the law give us the right to consider whether the individual licence holder has, by virtue of the breaches, rendered themselves not a fit-and-proper person to be a licence holder. Welcome though the test is as an extension to the present scheme, the important issue is how we apply it.
That takes us to the issue of raising the level of the fine. Again, the measure is welcome but it will not, of itself, necessarily produce a result. In the debate and the committee report, frequent reference was rightly made to whether the courts would apply the measure, or whether there would be more prosecutions. We should not blame the courts. Issues arise when a Parliament and a Government and its civil service introduce a range of complex measures. One wonders what liaison there is between the Government and its civil service and the courts and the prosecution service in order that they are properly informed and aware of the content and purport of what we seek. Ultimately, it is for them to decide, on the basis of the law, whether prosecutions should be brought. Nevertheless, they need to be appraised of the background to the new legislation.
I turn to the HMO provisions. There is no question but that Pauline McNeill and Patricia Ferguson made absolutely clear what the problems are. However, I was unclear and I remain unclear on the confusion about the linkages that ought properly to be made with the planning system. I was slightly confused by what Shelter said about this being only about land use. Unless I have missed something, in the granting of planning permissions, particularly for residential occupation, planning conditions should apply that describe in clear terms the density that has been approved. Insufficient attention is paid to that when a property is altered. Indeed, properties can be altered without anyone knowing about it. The landlord is demonstrably in breach of planning conditions. That may have to be spelled out in clearer and more explicit terms. If an organisation as excellent as Shelter does not appear to understand the connection between enforcing existing law and using it to good effect, we have a communication problem regarding what the minister and the bill are trying to achieve. That is an issue.
As has been made clear, if we use existing law, we must take into account the other aspect—building control, rather than planning control—to deal with the stacking of services. That point was well made and has been made before, including in the chamber. It needs to be addressed if we are to deal with the general conditions that apply in properties that have been altered in such a way.
There is a complete distinction between HMOs and overcrowding. However, addressing the condition of properties and whether conditions of density have been breached may have the unintended consequence—this is the connection—of displacing people, if we deem a property not to be fit for the purpose for which it is being let. That creates additional demand. Unless we address that demand as part of wider housing policy, simply enforcing the law will not necessarily benefit every citizen, especially those to whom such properties are no longer available. The minister made that point in relation to overcrowding, although the point was well made in the debate that we should not confuse HMOs and overcrowding.
As my colleague Jim Tolson made clear in his opening remarks, it is clear to the Liberal Democrats that we are moving in the right direction in the three main parts of the bill. There are a number of issues—which have been well ventilated and articulated in the debate—that will need to be addressed at stage 2, but the Liberal Democrats are content to support the bill at stage 1 this evening.
- David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con):
Many thoughtful, measured speeches have been made in this debate on the bill, especially by members representing Glasgow and Glasgow constituencies, who highlighted problems in some communities there. Graphic though those descriptions were, and horrendous as some of the problems that have arisen are, the lesson for those of us who do not represent the area is that we should not be complacent and should not think that those problems cannot come to affect communities that we represent.
As a member of the Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee until the end of last year, I had the opportunity of participating in the evidence sessions on the bill, before moving on to the arcane pastures of fiscal autonomy and the Scotland Bill Committee. So it was that it fell to my colleague Alex Johnstone to assist with the compilation of the committee’s stage 1 report to the Parliament. We have heard today that the bill is worthy, and worthy of support, but less than perfect. My experience of the evidence sessions supports that conclusion.
We might ask, for example, why we are making piecemeal changes to the landlord registration scheme in advance of the publication of the comprehensive review of the scheme that is under way and is due to be completed in a few months’ time, in spring of this year. I say that because landlord registration was introduced without a full and proper consultation, as an adjunct to the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004. Without underestimating in any way the importance of dealing with antisocial behaviour—which, as all of us know, features heavily in our surgeries with constituents—we must acknowledge that the primary focus of a landlord registration scheme should be on housing, not behaviour. The primary test of the scheme is not whether it helps us to cope with the antisocial behaviour of a tiny minority of tenants but whether it fosters good relationships between landlords and tenants, and encourages both parties to fulfil the obligations that their leases impose on them. If it does, we will be able to encourage more landlords into the marketplace to provide people with homes that suit their financial and personal circumstances, which may vary from time to time.
I entirely agree that there is very little point in increasing the fine that is payable for a failure to register, bearing in mind the lamentable failure to police the existing legislation. There has been only one prosecution, which led to a derisory fine being imposed, as a number of members highlighted.
Although we would have preferred to await the outcome of the comprehensive review before passing new legislation, and although there is an element of tokenism in the way in which fines and other measures in the bill have been approached, there is no doubt that if we are going to have a registration scheme it must be properly administered and enforced. There needs to be joined-up government—to use that hackneyed phrase—to create an effective registration scheme that includes the sharing of information between departments. In that way, links can be established between properties that are the subject of housing benefit claims, and whether the homes concerned are owned by registered landlords can be determined. I was encouraged by the exchange between the minister and Johann Lamont on that subject, and by the fact that guidance is to be issued to councils to ensure that those things are done.
As members have highlighted, judges need to understand that serious breaches of the law in relation to failure to register are not trivial offences that arise because of naive or innocent landlords losing their way in some bureaucratic jungle. Rather, they are serious offences against the good order of society and a frustration of our attempts to improve the quality and standard of housing in Scotland. Toleration of such failures is a slap in the face for good landlords and decent, responsible tenants. As Ross Finnie hinted, the Lord Advocate should be drawing to the attention of our courts and prosecutors how seriously we view such matters in the Parliament. We need to set some examples in the courts that encourage respect for the law, rather than contempt for it, which I fear is the case at the moment.
When we consider detailed proposed legislation of this nature, it can sometimes be easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture. In this case, the bigger picture is that the private rented sector accounts for nearly 233,000 homes in Scotland, which is approximately 8 per cent of the total, as the minister told us. The sector has expanded, with many investors attracted into it through buy-to-let schemes and by the—now distant—prospect of capital appreciation in a booming housing market.
The Brown-Balls neo-endogenous housing bubble might have burst, but one beneficial consequence of that growth is that we now have more privately rented housing to meet important housing needs and demands. It is not simply a matter of meeting the demands of mobile groups such as students, itinerant workers or young professionals; the private rented sector has been enlisted, through partnership arrangements with councils such as the City of Edinburgh Council, to provide affordable homes for the homeless in return for guaranteed rents and the factoring and management of those homes on behalf of their landlord owners and investors.
Although they have not been perfect, such schemes illustrate what can be done through partnership working by councils and the private rented sector to tackle social housing needs. We should build on Edinburgh’s experience and encourage other authorities throughout Scotland to do the same, particularly at a time when the affordable housing budget is contracting.
We need a good working relationship between the Scottish Government and Her Majesty’s Government to co-ordinate policies that will encourage investment in housing for social and market rent. I very much welcome the positive comments that the minister made in that respect in his opening speech. One of the key elements of that, from the standpoint of landlords, is the reintroduction of a system whereby local housing allowances can be paid directly to them, thus avoiding the benefits system being ripped off by unscrupulous tenants—
- John Wilson:
Will the member give way?
- The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson):
No. The member is just about to wind up.
- David McLetchie:
Those are tenants who rob the taxpayer of money that was meant to be used to pay their rents but is not being used for that—and that is all at the expense of the landlords. That is being reviewed by HM Government at the moment, but reform cannot come soon enough.
We also want to examine the introduction of tax rules to incentivise investment in housing for rent, because we must face the fact that in a housing market in which people who want new mortgages are being asked for 25 per cent deposits, house purchase is currently outwith the reach of many people. For people in that situation, renting in the private sector could provide a longer-term solution that meets their needs, but if that is to happen we need to raise the status and reputation of private renting and stimulate institutional investment.
Regulation has an important part to play in confidence building in that regard, and that is the test that we apply to the bill, which takes steps in the right direction.
- Johann Lamont (Glasgow Pollok) (Lab):
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and I assure Sandra White that I will strive with every sinew to be as consensual as possible.
The private sector plays an important role. I hope that the minister is alive to concern about what is happening in England. If there is a squeeze on funding in the social rented sector and rents rise as a consequence, we will end up in a position in which the only people who can afford to rent in the social rented sector will be people who are in receipt of housing benefit. That is a serious issue, which must be addressed.
- John Wilson:
Will the member give her party’s view on the United Kingdom Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government’s policy of starting to cut benefits by 10 per cent for people who have been unemployed for a year or more?
- Johann Lamont:
We have been explicit in saying that we find the policy incomprehensible and deeply worrying. Another concern to do with housing benefit relates to the transfer of Government spend. Cutting capital spending and allowing housing associations to raise rents will mean that any improvements will be made on the back of people who are on housing benefit.
A large number of private landlords are excellent at what they do, but at the heart of the issue are people who think that renting out a property is an investment opportunity and not a business, so they take no responsibility for their tenants or the communities in which their tenants live. In some cases at the extreme end of the spectrum, the sector provides opportunities for organised crime to settle into a community for the purposes of money laundering and extending control over the community. Those are serious issues.
Landlord registration is therefore not just about the relationship between landlord and tenant; it is about what is happening in our communities. We should remember that the private landlord registration scheme came out of concerns about antisocial behaviour, and for good reason. Nothing stands still in our communities, and if problems are not addressed people give up and move out, property values go down and people with dodgy reputations and dark backgrounds buy up properties and put tenants in them. The issue is not just the tenants’ antisocial behaviour but the collusion between landlord and tenant in doing nothing about the behaviour. In my experience, even if a way is found to remove the tenant, the tenant who replaces them is not managed or challenged. If the focus is only on the tenant, the community still has the same problem.
It is critical that we understand the problem in the context of ordinary people’s experiences. I welcome the people from the Croftfoot housing action group who are in the gallery. Mary Mulligan and I are Labour’s representatives on housing issues and I assure our visitors that Charlie Gordon keeps us well informed about their concerns, which are reflected in other parts of Glasgow, too. It is possible for people to earn money from a community while damaging and destroying it.
It might be for individual tenants to be aware that they should ensure that their landlord is registered, but that is a small issue in comparison with the way in which the public purse often funds the problem.
The bill builds on previous legislation, and if ever a lesson can be learned about the limits of legislation, one can be learned from the experience of the private landlord registration scheme. I welcome the extension of the scheme through the fit-and-proper person test, but if people do not feel the need to apply for registration it will not matter what we put in the test. The test will be irrelevant. I am concerned that good landlords are asking why they should register, if we are not addressing the problem. I support any measure that will strengthen the private landlord registration scheme. When he was Minister for Communities and Sport, Stewart Maxwell was assiduous in pressing local authorities on what they were doing, and I hope that that pressure has been sustained.
My concern is that local authorities are saying that the resources necessary to enforce registration do not exist at a local level. There was dedicated funding in the early days. What has happened to that money? Have we sustained that level of investment in enforcement? If not, we need to think about how investment can be sustained.
I welcomed and was interested in what the minister had to say about information sharing. I understand that he was talking about pilot projects. We need to do more to ensure that that approach is rolled out.
I am interested to hear what more the minister has to say about his discussions with the UK Government on information sharing. When I was a minister, I was involved in such discussions but, sadly, I was not sufficiently persuasive. For me, this is the bottom line: if it is an offence for a landlord to receive rent on a property that they have not registered, why is the public purse paying out money on such properties? That is completely ludicrous. I welcome the pilots and the voluntary approach, but the housing benefit review provides a great opportunity to say that a landlord must have a registration number to show that they have registered.
We will stop many of those problems if we stop people trading outwith the system. We create the incentive for landlords to trade outwith the system and we need to deal with that.
It is important for the culture that renters—particularly young people and students who are becoming renters for the first time—should expect registration. There should be evidence of that and it should become the norm. We should not be having a discussion with the Scottish Association of Landlords about the number of figures in the registration number. As the minister said, we can find a system of making the registration numbers shorter. The point is that people need to be able to ask for the number before they rent at all.
On HMOs, we all wrestle with the conflict between the need of students to have accommodation at a rent that they can afford and the rights of communities to be mixed and stable. We can build a consensus to work our way through that conflict, too.
On planning, it is possible to establish a quota, but it would be essential for prospective landlords to know ahead of investing in an HMO that there was no point in applying if the quota had already been reached. There are important issues in that regard.
Our Lib Dem and Tory colleagues will have to reflect on the consequences of the housing benefit changes, which will increase the number of people who live in HMOs.
In some parts of our cities, particularly in Glasgow—I reflect on the authority that Frank McAveety brings to the question—it is not possible to address overcrowding through housing policy, because the issue is closely tied up with employment. Migrant workers come in and are exploited in relation to the quality of the accommodation that they get. We need to ensure that we use more than one policy to address that. There are big challenges that may be linked to the gangmaster legislation and on which we need to reflect.
I welcome the interesting suggestions of a housing tribunal or court. As with antisocial behaviour legislation more generally—we can also think of other circumstances—it is hugely frustrating that the justice system seems simply not to understand what problem is being addressed.
The courts think that it is an issue of a tenant being evicted because the landlord has suggested something simple, which they think is unreasonable. They say that fines of a certain level are unreasonable, because they have no comprehension of the scale of the problem or the scale of the damage that is inflicted on communities. It would be useful to inform them of what we are talking about and to have people with a degree of expertise. Certainly, in my area, there is an active disincentive for housing associations and other landlords—I am sure that it applies to the local authority as well—to spend money that they can ill afford only to find that the court clearly does not understand the problem.
The measures in the bill build on what we did before, but the lesson is that, without enforcement, legislation is just words on a page. Our colleagues in the public gallery and in our communities remain frustrated. We must do what is in the bill, but we must also take it beyond that. There are critical, hard enforcement issues that we need to address.
We look forward to working with the minister and others to ensure that we strengthen the legislation across that range of issues and raise the necessary questions about enforcement.
- Alex Neil:
Like other members, I think that the debate has been very good. It has been fairly consensual, and several constructive suggestions have come out of it.
It is obvious that there are time constraints on us, but in moving from stage 1 to stage 2 after the vote, I will be happy to work with all the parties, if they want to lodge amendments. I will put the Scottish Government’s resources at their disposal and will be happy to see whether we can reach agreements on stage 2 amendments not just between two parties, but ideally between three or four parties, particularly to deal with the higher-priority issues that have been identified during the debate. The bill provides a good example of a subject that is close to the hearts of all of us and on which we can work together as a Parliament.
I want to deal with a number of the more important issues that have been raised in the debate and how we can take them forward. It is clear that enforcement is a major concern for all members. I want to make three particular points about that. First, there are in some local authorities resource issues that need to be addressed. I pick the example of Govanhill. Glasgow City Council, with additional funding from the Scottish Government, has identified that the level of resources is not the only issue; the way in which resources are organised is, too. In particular, it identified the need for a more integrated approach by its teams that deal with landlord registration, its environmental health teams and its planning and building control teams. Through the hub in Govanhill, it is creating a unified team to deal with the whole gamut of issues that arise there. I hope that that model will be repeated throughout the rest of Glasgow and elsewhere. The early indications are that a more unified and comprehensive approach is arising from the integrated approach that we have worked on developing with Glasgow City Council and with the help of Frank McAveety and others.
The second point is not a matter for the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed to allow the revenue from fines to be recycled to the local authorities to incentivise them, that would at least send a clear message to them.
- Bob Doris:
I have championed the campaign for that for some time, and have written to Michael Moore about the issue, but the response that I received was not positive. Perhaps I can give Alex Neil that response, and he could redouble our efforts to persuade the Government on the matter.
- Alex Neil:
I have written to the Government more than once about the matter. I am not relying on the proposal and am not saying that it is a magic bullet, but it would send a clear message to the local authorities.
Thirdly, the failure of the justice system to follow through adequately where there has been a clear breach of the law has been raised several times in the debate. That issue has to be tackled, and there are two ways of doing so. First, it can be done through amendments at stage 2 to strengthen the bill’s enforcement aspects. We will be happy to discuss that and are open to practical and sensible suggestions.
Secondly, I undertake to write to the Lord Advocate as a matter of urgency after the debate to draw to her attention the number of members throughout the chamber who have expressed concern about the judiciary’s failure to follow through and impose fines that match the scale of breaches and the importance and seriousness of offences, where clear breaches have been proven. That will be important. I will be happy to report back at an appropriate time on the discussions about that with the Lord Advocate. I accept that enforcement is the key issue and that, no matter what legislation we pass, if it is not adequately, properly and enthusiastically enforced we are clearly presented with a problem.
If the bill is passed at stage 3, we will have powers to deal with any recommendations that are likely to arise from the landlord registration review, and we will, through secondary legislation—the bill will allow us to do so—introduce additional measures that are recommended by that review.
I am also of the view that we need a dedicated housing court or tribunal. Lord Gill made that one of his recommendations in the review of the court system last year. My view is that the tribunal method would be better than a court system because it would be much less expensive and could deal with cases much more effectively. All disputes on matters relating to housing could be channelled through it. That is a debate for after the election, but I hope that whoever wins the election will look seriously at introducing legislation to create a much more robust system along those lines.
Another major issue about which concerns have been expressed today and in evidence to the committee is the consequences of implementation of the bill’s provisions on overcrowding. In particular, there is a fear that if a local authority issues an overcrowding order without thinking through the consequences, one of the unintended consequences could be a sudden and, in some cases, significant increase in the number of people who present themselves as homeless under homelessness legislation, and who are therefore entitled to a new house from the council, or to a housing association.
We have had discussions on the matter, particularly with Glasgow City Council and COSLA, and neither we nor they envisage that implementation of the legislation will operate in that way. Where there is clearly overcrowding, the intention is to manage it down to the point at which there is no longer overcrowding, and while that is happening no additional people will be allowed to reside at the address. The idea is that the relevant housing support services will work with the landlord registration team and the implementation and enforcement team to manage down the number of people in the property so that they can be properly accommodated—in many cases, I suspect, that will be elsewhere in the private rented sector. That will be the approach so that we do not, as an indirect and unintended consequence, end up creating a whole new category of homeless people.
It will be important for local authorities to manage overcrowding in that way because, if it looked as though imposed overcrowding orders were going to make a lot of people homeless, there is a danger that that would become a scam. People might deliberately overcrowd as a fast way to get onto the homelessness register, thereby also abusing the homelessness legislation. In detailed discussions with Glasgow City Council and COSLA, we have been clear that the provision should be managed in the way that I have described.
- Patricia Ferguson:
Will the minister clarify that he will ensure that no anomaly will be created, given that section 5 referrals under the homelessness legislation, where overcrowding exists, already result in people who are in that situation being considered to be homeless? Will the bill dovetail with that rather than create an additional problem?
- Alex Neil:
Absolutely. I gave in my evidence to the committee a commitment that that would be the case, and I am happy to reinforce that commitment today. We will work with our local authority partners to ensure that legislation dovetails and that there are no unintended consequences between the homelessness legislation and the private rented sector legislation.
I do not have time to cover all the points that were raised in the debate, but I want to mention one point, and I will do so in a consensual tone. I draw members’ attention to the potential unintended consequences of a number of the housing benefit reforms that the UK Government has announced, some of which will come into effect fairly soon and some of which will not come into effect until 2013. We have already done a great deal of work on the matter and we published detailed information today on the potential adverse impact of the reforms. Other organisations, including the Scottish Council for Single Homeless, whose chief executive Robert Aldridge is a councillor in Edinburgh, have also done a lot of detailed work on the potential consequences of some of the changes. Some of them seriously need to be reconsidered because they could have an extremely disadvantageous impact on the private rented sector and the individuals concerned. I make that point in a consensual, rather than accusatory, tone.
On that note, I look forward to a unanimous vote this evening to back the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill at stage 1 and I emphasise that, in moving towards and during stage 2, I will work with all the other parties and seriously take on board any new ideas or suggestions for amendments, particularly with regard to how we might further reinforce enforcement.