Charles Walker calls for greater protection of tenant deposits

Charles Walker MP speaking in Westminster Hall, 6th September 2017

Speaking in a debate on proposals to ban letting agent fees to tenants, Charles Walker welcomes moves to landlords to fund searches and referencing and calls on the Government to go further and require independent check-in and check-out so that the person checking the inventory does not have a direct financial involvement.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate this morning.

There are many good landlords, but it is clear that there are some pretty shocking ones as well. It is in the interests of good landlords to get a grip and ensure that the bad landlords and letting agents are pushed or driven out of the market. It is perfectly reasonable for landlords to fund searches and referencing. I do not think that is a problem; it is a price that landlords should pay.

There is a competition out there among letting agencies for those with properties to let. So if someone goes along to a landlord and says, “We will let your property, but we will charge you £1,000 for referencing,” they will probably get short shrift. However, if they say, “This is a market. We do thorough and good referencing that will cost you £250,” the landlord is probably more likely to use that agency. Landlords will do their research, look online and see an agency has positive endorsements, but with the great internet it is possible to find the agency out there that will let their property to tenants.

I think we need to go a little further because check-in and check-out can cause problems. It is hugely important that check-in and check-out is done by an independent person. My hon. Friend mentioned that 57% of properties are self-let, which creates a problem when the owner—the landlord—checks the tenant in and checks them out. That is not an independent check-in and check-out. It is possible that some landlords allow self-interest to interfere with what is fair and just. I want to see independent check-in and check-out so that when a property is let there is certainty that the person looking at the inventory does not have a stake in the game. It would be reasonable for the landlord to fund that.

Julian Knight

I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely; I am greatly in sympathy with him. However, in the case of an independent landlord doing the checking in and ​checking out, if it is not done properly and agreed with the tenant at the time, under the tenant deposit scheme any withdrawal of money or holding back of the deposit means it becomes null and void, so there is an onus on the landlord to ensure the tenant agrees with the check-in and check-out process.

Mr Walker

That is a very important point. At the time, the tenant may agree with the landlord that something was damaged before they moved in, but there is no guarantee that the landlord will fix it and then in 12 or 24 months’ time—this is particularly prevalent in student accommodation at universities—try to charge the tenants again for it. Of course, the landlord is often in an economically stronger position. I welcome the fact that there is a third-party deposit scheme, but it only works properly where a letting agent is used. If the landlord is self-letting, they are not obliged to lodge the money with a third party. They keep the money, but are required to insure it with a third party. So at the end of the tenancy, the landlord still has the cash, can hold back what he or she wants and can then say, “If you want to contest it, go and contest it with my deposit.”

I have spoken to Mr Hooker, the chief executive of MyDeposits, and we have a meeting coming up. He sees the flaw in the system. If someone is self-letting, they keep the cash and simply insure against it if there is a claim against them. A lot of tenants have not got the time, the wherewithal or the understanding to challenge the deductions. We particularly see that in student accommodation. I welcome what we are doing, but we need to do more.

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Later in the same debate, intervention during the Minister's reply

Mr Charles Walker

I hate to press the Minister on this, but a self-letting landlord is not required to lodge the deposit with a third party. The requirement is only to insure the deposit. They can keep the cash in their own account and, at the end of the tenancy, deduct money from that cash and challenge the out-of-pocket tenants, who are often university students, to come and get it back. We need to look at that; it is not a perfect situation.

Alok Sharma

I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about that point, which he made with great passion. I should be happy to sit down with him to have that discussion after the debate, perhaps with my officials as well.

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