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4 Dec 2002 : Column 1015continued
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): I wish to present a petition from my constituent Mr. C. Foster, signed by 340 of my constituents and others supporting the campaign for choice in natural health products. I understand that the petition forms a small part of a national petition that has so far collected nearly 1.1 million signatures. It reads as follows.
The petitions therefore request that the House of Commons requires that the Secretary of State for Health does all in his power to protect the rights of UK consumers by ensuring that such European legislation does not unnecessarily and unacceptably restrict the availability of natural health products.
And the petitioners remain, etc.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to discuss the topic of tenancy deposit schemes, because it is of great relevance to many of my constituents in Cambridge.
The idea of securing an Adjournment debate on this topic arose as a result of my visiting Anglia polytechnic university to hold one of my regular student advice surgeries. While I was there, I spoke to Emma Gray, the education and welfare officer at the student union. She told me that unreturned deposits are a major worry for many of the students that she sees.
There are more than 8,000 registered APU students on the Cambridge campus alone. The university has only 836 bed spaces under its direct controlin its halls of residence, or in the shared housing that it managesso nine out of 10 students at APU are living in accommodation in the private rented sector. Although unreturned deposits are a major problem for APU students, they are much less of a problem for Cambridge university students who, for the most part, are accommodated in colleges, or in houses owned or rented by the colleges.
The APU accommodation office has 650 landlords on its books, with whom there is an agreement to advertise accommodation within the campus, and to try to resolve any problems. APU students would expect to pay about £80 a week for a bed-sit or a room in a shared house. A standard deposit is about four times this amount: £320 per student. A shared house with four or five students will therefore collect a deposit of between £1,200 and £1,600a sizeable sum. This money is usually very important to the students, because they may be relying on the return of their deposits to secure a deposit on the next rented accommodation.
Another problem is that APU has a very high proportion of students from abroadinternational students, as they are known. At the end of their studies, such students are usually keen to get back home as quickly as possible. They do not want to hang around to argue with their landlord about the return of their deposits. Many landlords therefore enjoy a windfall at the end of the tenancy, and there is a greater chance of that happening if they delay handing back the deposit.
I would readily agree with those critics who say that an 18-year-old student living away from home for the first time may not be the ideal tenant, but many young people are responsible and will look after their accommodation well. I think it true that most tenants will respect the property, particularly if they have clear contracts that make specific mention of the standards of cleanliness expected on relinquishing their tenancy. However, the current system is weighted in favour of the landlord, and the non-return of deposits for no good reason is a problem to which the student or other tenant appears to have little redress.
The most common reason given for keeping all or part of a deposit is for cleaning after students have vacated the premises. I was told of one student who, although he had repainted his room in the original
An international student had part of her deposit kept back. The landlord had provided what the student felt was a magic number for the cost of cleaning that took place after the student had left the premises. In fact, the landlord listed all the cleaning that had taken the place, and how much it cost. When the student returned to visit the premises, she found that the landlord had done none of the cleaning or repair of fixtures that he said he had done, and for which she had paid.
Such complaints are very common. My local citizens advice bureau receives an average of five complaints a week about non-returned deposits. Because of the high proportion of students in my constituency, the complaints tend to be clustered around the beginnings and ends of terms, when students change their accommodation. Those figures suggest the scale of the problem in Cambridge, but about 20 per cent. of tenants nationally have the same problem with deposits that are not returned for reasons that they do not consider to be completely fair.
It is important to note that many reputable landlords run a professional and fair service in providing accommodation. One landlord was especially commended by my local CAB for putting deposits in a separate account and paying them back, with interest, on the day that tenancies ended. The three main professional bodies are the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the National Association of Estate Agents. They require members to hold deposit money in a separate client account. I am pleased to say that those bodies also e-mailed me to tell me that they all strongly support the tenancy deposit scheme.
The tenancy deposit scheme was introduced as a pilot by the Government in 1999. When I applied for this debate, I did not know that the Government were on the point of publishing a consultation paper, but I have since found it extremely useful. It is called XTenancy Money: Probity and Protection" and from it I learned that two schemes have been piloted.
The first option is the custodial option, which requires landlords or agents acting on their behalf to place a tenancy deposit in a ring-fenced account operated by the Nationwide building society. When disputes occur, the independent housing ombudsman promptly decides who is entitled to what proportion, and instructs Nationwide to pay each party accordingly.
The second option is the insured option, which enables landlords or agents to hold the deposit during the tenancy if they take out an insurance policy with an accredited insurance company. In the pilot scheme, that company was the CGU guarantee society. In a dispute, if the independent housing ombudsman determines that some or all of the deposit should be returned to the tenant, the scheme insurers are instructed to arrange speedy payment. The insurers then ask the landlord or agent to reimburse that sum within 10 working days. Both schemes seem very good, and there has been much satisfaction with their operation.
The Government so far have spent £490,000 on the pilot schemes, and a further £300,000 has been allocated to extend them for a further two years. The tenancy deposit scheme has been quite expensive for the landlord and agents who have participated. Although the target was to attract 1,500 landlords and agents covering 30,000 tenancies, only 102 landlords and 74 agents had joined the tenancy deposit scheme by June 2002.
I am sure that that has nothing to do with the quality of the scheme or the way in which it has been handled by the independent housing ombudsman. All the arrangements appear to have been made very satisfactorily, and the schemes have been greeted with a high degree of satisfaction from participants. However, it is probably not surprising that there has been a lower take-up than anticipated. The good landlords will join and are probably already operating a reasonable and fair system. Of the 650 landlords used by APU's accommodation office, around 250 operate some kind of tenancy deposit scheme. Those who do not join obviously do not like surrendering control of deposits and probably do not see the need for itthey are the landlords with whom students have the most difficulty. In many cases they probably deliberately use the deposits as a source of extra income to which they are not entitled.
From the students' point of view there is a definite need for this scheme and I hope that Ministers will be brave and bold in moving it forward. I know that many of the professional organisations that advise tenants on their legal rights are disappointed that the Government feel that they have insufficient evidence to press ahead with a mandatory scheme at present. I was pleased to read that the Government are to encourage more landlords and agents to participate in the pilot scheme, but in my view a voluntary scheme will founder. I urge Ministers to come forward with some new legislation in this area. There is an excellent opportunity in that the forthcoming housing Bill would offer a perfect opportunity for a mandatory tenancy deposit scheme to be introduced.
If the Government were to be sufficiently brave, the Minister would have the undying gratitude of many of the students who attend Anglia polytechnic university and many of the tenants in my constituency.