The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has announced a U-turn on giving tenants access to the Government’s new rogue landlord database, following a damning report from the Guardian and ITV News.
The investigation revealed that not a single name had been entered onto the rogue landlord database since its inception six months ago, and that, even when landlords’ names were listed, the public would not be able to see them.
In a swift U-turn, May’s official spokesperson announced: “Our rogue landlord database has only been in place since April and has been warmly welcomed by councils as an important enforcement tool.
“As we have said, only offences committed from April this year can be included, and it can take several months to secure convictions. We are clear that we expect to see entries in the database from the New Year. We also intend to make information in the database available to prospective and existing tenants.”
The Government estimated before the launch of the database that there were 10,500 rogue landlords operating in England, and expected more than 600 of the worst offenders to be entered onto the system.
Before May’s change in policy, the contents of the database were kept secret from the public. The Government claimed that it was “not in the public interest” to explain why that decision had been made.
The secrecy and sparsity of the central Government rogue landlord database has contrasted sharply with a separate scheme run by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. The capital’s online Rogue Landlord and Agent Checker is available to all Londoners and has received over 1,000 entries from local authorities. However, only around 300 are currently viewable, as entries expire after a year.
Khan insists: “Millions of renters have to put up with totally unacceptable conditions and the Government is failing to do what’s necessary to overhaul the outdated system. The Government must step up to help renters.”
The central Government system also possesses much tougher rules for local authorities to enter records of rogue landlords, and some housing experts wonder how many names will eventually make it into the system.
John Healey, the Shadow Housing Secretary, is baffled: “It beggars belief – six months after its launch – that none of the more than 10,000 rogue landlords ministers said should be named and shamed have yet been put on their database.
“It’s not just renters who lose out when the minister lets landlords off the hook. Taxpayers pay the price too, when millions are being spent on housing benefit to bad landlords letting dangerous accommodation.”
The Prime Minister’s announcement, which did not give a timeframe for the U-turn, came as the Government’s efforts to police rogue landlords were branded weak, following further revelations in the Guardian and ITV News investigation, which found that convicted landlords were continuing to operate by exploiting loopholes in the law that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable tenants.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Leader, responds: “It is clear from this investigation that this legislation is too weak and is not being properly enforced. There’s no justification for treating rogue landlords more lightly than other people who break the law.”
Property industry experts have joined politicians, by also calling for a review of the legislation designed to govern the private rental sector.
Julie Rugg, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy, has suggested that the Government should rewrite housing legislation from scratch, while the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) called for a thorough overhaul of the current system.
The trade body said that council should use their existing powers to ask tenants in rental homes to identify their landlord on their Council tax returns, to help prevent rogue landlords from evading scrutiny.
The RLA would also like a new housing court to be established, to more quickly and effectively deal with cases.
While there are many pieces of legislation that could be used against rogue landlords, critics say that the law contains loopholes and that councils do not always have the resources to effectively enforce these rules.
According to the tax and spending think-tank IFS, overall local authority housing budgets are down by 53% in real terms between 2009-10 to 2017-18, having dropped from £3.2 billion to £1.5 billion.
David Cox, the Chief Executive of ARLA Propertymark (the Association of Residential Letting Agents), comments: “[Wednesday’s] announcement that the database for rogue landlords and letting agents is going to be made available to tenants is a triumph for the industry. Keeping it hidden was a prime example of when the Government didn’t think about the unintended consequences of the policy, which is why we have branded it ‘truly ridiculous’ up until now.
“We’re pleased they have finally listened to what the industry has been saying since it was put into the Housing and Planning Bill nearly three years ago. We hope the database will now fulfil the objective of professionalising the sector, which we all wanted it to.”