Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau Y Bumed Senedd

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee - Fifth Senedd

20/07/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

David Melding AS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Mark Isherwood
Substitute for Mark Isherwood
Dawn Bowden AS
Delyth Jewell AS
Huw Irranca-Davies AS
John Griffiths AS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Emma Williams Cyfarwyddwr Tai ac Adfywio, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director of Housing and Regeneration, Welsh Government
Julie James AS Y Gweinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol
Minister for Housing and Local Government
Simon White Pennaeth Strategaeth Tai a Deddfwriaeth, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Housing Strategy and Legislation, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Catherine Hunt Ail Glerc
Second Clerk
Chloe Davies Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Hannah Johnson Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Jonathan Baxter Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Katie Wyatt Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Manon Huws Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 14:00.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 14:00. 

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

May I welcome Members to this virtual meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? We have received apologies from Caroline Jones MS and Mark Isherwood MS. David Melding MS will substitute for Mark Isherwood in accordance with Standing Order 17.48.

In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. In accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this decision was included in the agenda for this meeting published last Thursday. This meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. 

Apart from the procedural adaptation relating to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual, and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. I would remind all participants that the microphones will be controlled centrally, so please do not turn them on or off individually, but there will be a prompt to accept to unmute before anyone is called to speak. Are there any declarations of interest? No. Just for the record, if I drop out for a technological reason or otherwise, the committee has agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily Chair while I attempt to rejoin.

2. Bil Rhentu Cartrefi (Diwygio) (Cymru): Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 6
2. Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill: Evidence Session 6

Item 2 on our agenda today is the Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill, and our evidence session 6. I'm very pleased to welcome Julie James MS, Minister for Housing and Local Government; Emma Williams, director of housing and regeneration for the Welsh Government; and Simon White, head of housing strategy and legislation for the Welsh Government

Minister, unless you want to say anything by way of opening, we will move straight to questions. Okay, thank you very much. The first question then, from me—a general question, really—what would you say has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the timetable for implementing this Bill and, indeed, for the commencement of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016?

Thanks, John. Thanks, Chair. So, obviously, the pandemic has had a big impact on the timetable for this and every other piece of legislation. So, the first thing to say is that I'm very pleased to say that we've managed to maintain this in the legislative timetable for the rest of this Senedd term, because we've had to lose some very cherished legislation, as I know the committee is aware. So, I'm very pleased to have retained this legislation.

We would normally have been holding this particular evidence session back in March, and we should by now be well into Stage 2, so, obviously, there's been quite a big slippage. The Business Committee agreed the new timetable for the Bill last week, and I'm very grateful to you, Chair, and the committee for having worked with us to get that timetable in place. This committee is obviously looking after this and the other big local government and elections Bill, and it was really important to get them staged in across the rest of this calendar year, and indeed the Senedd term. So, I'm really grateful for that and for returning to scrutiny of this Bill as swiftly as you have. That's made a big difference to us.

So, the timetable we're now working on should ensure that we get Royal Assent by March, just before the end of the current Senedd term, and that's assuming the Senedd approves the Bill and everything else goes swimmingly. But, obviously, we timetable it on that basis. However, because of the delay, even if we do manage to do that, and I'm very hopeful that we will with the committee's help, the Bill will not actually be in force until the autumn of the next calendar year, and that's because we promised the sector that they would have six months lead-in time to prepare themselves for the new arrangements, which are quite extensive, and we want to hold to that because we want, obviously, the thing to go into operation in good order and with landlords being able to have the right documentation in place and all the adaptations to have been made. That's a real shame, because without the pandemic we would have done all of that, and it would have been done by the end of this Senedd term, but nevertheless I'm really very delighted that we've managed to retain it, because we've had to, to use a technical term, really stick our elbows out to make sure we've kept this on the legislative timetable. So, I'm really pleased with that, and thanks to my team in the Welsh Government for that as well. 

14:05

Minister, where does that then leave the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 in terms of its commencement?

Sorry, you're very quiet, Chair. Let me see if I can just turn you up a bit on this.

The Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, Minister—where does this leave us in terms of the commencement of that particular Act?

Yes, so we're still working on commencing. So, obviously this Bill isn't effective unless we've got the Bill that it's amending in place, so we're still working on doing that as well. I can hand you over to Simon, who's my guru on all things Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, and he can tell you exactly where they are, because there have been a lot of conversations at official level about the implementation process. So, Simon.

Yes, thank you, Minister. So, the situation is that we're obviously aware there's a huge amount of work for social landlords in particular, because of the number of contracts that some of them deal with. So, they have a lot of work to do in terms of converting existing contracts—because a key part of the 2016 Act is it doesn't just apply to new contracts that will start after the date it's implemented; it will also convert existing contracts that are operating. So, you're talking about several thousand, perhaps, in some cases, with large social landlords. We have been working already with those social landlords, so there's, for example, a working group that brings the large-scale voluntary transfer housing associations together specifically to look at the implementation of the renting homes Act, and myself and a colleague have been attending those meetings really to help those landlords prepare as best they can. Some of the work that I know has been going on out there is that some of the landlords have been undertaking audits of their existing tenancies to make sure that they can convert them—they know what tenancies are in place, et cetera, in order to convert.

And the other aspect, I think, that's probably worth emphasising is the impact on tenants, because obviously while the work may need to be done by landlords, it’s the tenants whose contracts are changing, and we want them to have a chance to understand the changes that will be happening. We will be consulting towards the end of this year and the start of next year on the model contracts that those tenants will use, and the landlords will use, so that they're clear, as soon as we can really, about what the impact of the Bill will be on their individual contracts.

So, what sort of timetable do you have now, then, Simon, for commencement for the 2016 Act?

Well, if this Bill is approved by the Senedd in this term, we've said to allow a six-month lead-in time for implementation to give landlords the time to do the remining work they need to do, so we're probably looking at implementation in the autumn of 2021, probably around about October, say, in terms of allowing all of the work to be done to allow the implementation to run ahead smoothly.

One of the things just to remind the committee of, because I myself need reminding of it, so I'm helpfully passing on the reminder that was given to me, because it's been hard to keep all the detail of this in the forefront of your mind through the pandemic, is that we did have one last lot of consultation to do anyway in order to implement the Bill, and the reason that this amendment Bill is much more complex than we originally imagined—because, when I originally imagined this Bill, I thought it would be a four-line Bill moving the notice period three months, but actually we've had a lot of practical experience of problems with the 2016 Act and the various bits of it, so this Bill is amending technical amendments to that Bill all the way through. So, they've become intertwined in a way that we hadn't immediately envisaged, but which has become very useful, because we'll have a much better Bill at the end of this in a large number of ways, not just for this notice arrangement. So, I'm very pleased with that, but it does mean that they are interlinked and will come into force together, effectively.

Yes, sure. Okay. Minister, at the moment landlords have to give three months' notice to tenants, but possession proceedings, as we know, are suspended until late August. We have various UK Government support schemes to help individuals and businesses, but they're going to be phased out, really, over—largely, anyway—the next few months, as far as we know at this stage, and I think there is a worry that this might lead to rent arrears and evictions as financial difficulties increase for tenants and landlords. So, would you support changing existing housing legislation to provide increased security for tenants, once the temporary coronavirus measures end and before that 2016 Act is fully commenced?

14:10

So, we've been looking at this all the way through. It slightly depends on what happens in the court process and what happens with the UK Government. I'm sure the committee is aware that the UK Government made some announcements last Friday about the extension of the pre-action protocols, and they've done that by way of saying that they'll issue a practice direction. We haven't seen the text of the practice direction yet. So, every time we are ready to do something, we get another announcement that we need to take into account. So, we just need to look at that now to make sure that that all marries up together. Unfortunately now, the committee is the Monday after the Friday that they made that announcement, so we've just got to take that into account. Then there are three other things to say about that. So, once we've done that, then I'll keep the committee informed and we'll be looking at that. We're very pleased about that, obviously, because it's one of things we were lobbying the UK Government about because we were aware that the protection runs out in August. So, yes, we're working on that still. Every time they make one of these announcements, it means that we have to take that into account before we can do anything. So, that's where we are at the moment. 

Then there's a bigger piece. I don't know if I'm crossing across something you're about to ask me later on, but, in policy terms—not really related to this Bill—there's a big issue about the debt that renters are in. So, we are working on some policy things to see what we can do to support renters to be able to pay those debts off in good time, with some support. So, I hope to be able to announce that shortly as well, John, but unfortunately this committee is probably just a week or so before when we'll be in a position to be able to do that, but obviously we're very keen to get that in place before anything happens that means that there's a sudden surge in the courts and we have all of the issues that would happen if we had that surge. So, apologies for that, but we're just in the throes of having had that announcement and it's messed up some of the things that I would otherwise have like to have shared with the committee. 

Diolch. Okay. Well, I'm sure you'll keep us updated as developments take place, Minister. 

Okay, we'll move then to question 3 and David Melding. 

Diolch yn fawr, Cadeirydd. Before I move on to my question, can I just clarify that the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 will be commenced at the same time as you envisage this Bill, should it become an Act, being commenced?

So, they will be commenced together. And the legal problems you were having with the 2016 Act, they've now been fully resolved, have they? This issue with the UK Government—I forget the details, but there was a holdup there, wasn't there?

Yes. We were having some serious problems with the IT system at first, because obviously these forms are all held by the central court system and they become very important from that point of view. At one point, we were imagining that that was quite a large problem, but actually it's turned out to be much less of a problem than we thought when we've gone into it. We were also delayed because we thought the UK Government was going to change its court system in its entirety, and we were caught up in that. I don't know how much detail the committee would like, but my team are very happy to talk about this for several hours if you'd like them to. 

I think a colleague will talk about the courts in a question later on. You also said that you'd envisaged this amending Bill being a four-liner, and then it's grown as you've reflected on the 2016 Act and practical issues. I dislike anyone saying, 'It's a technical amending Bill.' I don't think there are technical amendments; all amendments to the law are very significant, and, as you've indicated, this Bill has grown. So, do you envisage any substantial amendments being brought by the Government at Stage 2, given all this work and reflection you've been making on the system? We're not consolidating housing, but obviously they're very interrelated, as you are finding.

14:15

So, the short answer is, 'No, we are not imagining any major amendments to it'. There are two reasons for that. One is that we had done a lot of work upfront on getting clarity and consistency across the renting homes Act itself, and that was done before the introduction of this amending Bill, which is why it's more complex than we imagined, and that work has been done. So, subject to scrutiny and what the committee's got to say about it, we aren't currently planning to do anything major to it. 

Then the second one is, frankly, we just don't have the time. We don't have the legal and legislative ability to do that because our lawyers are currently absolutely flat out with all the COVID stuff. So, just getting the resource would be a problem. If we thought the Bill was defective in some way, we would get that resource, but at the moment we're very happy that it does what it's supposed to do. And subject to anything that the committee wants to say about it, we currently don't have any plans to do anything substantive at Stage 2 to it. There may be tweaky bits, but not that I'm aware of. 

That rather elegantly led me on to my final question for now. I would welcome an indication from you about how permissive you will be with suggestions in this committee's report or from the other political parties in the Senedd, given that this Bill, should it become an Act, will not be commenced by this Government but by a future Government. So, does that make you a bit more tolerant and open than, it's fair to say, the Welsh Government has been to date in the fifth Senedd?

Well, I'm not sure I quite agree with that second point there, David, but I won't take you up on it. But, yes, I'm always open to that. We want to make the best law we can, and so, if the committee has suggestions for making the law better, then I'm very happy to look at them, as always. At the moment, we don't see that it needs anything substantive done to it, but there may well be tweaky bits once we've gone through it with yourselves, and I'm more than happy to look at that. And then you'll see, once you set out with this Bill, that you have to have the renting homes Act sitting beside you in order to do it, because it's cross-referencing it all the time.

I take your point about technical amendments, but they really are: you know, 'We've left out a comma in paragraph 3 of the renting homes Act and it would be better if we put it back in again'—it's that kind of stuff all the way through. And then the Bill has grown as people have picked up those kinds of things. So, in a way, I see it as a way of being able to make what was already a good Act better. It's given us an opportunity to do that that we might not otherwise have had in commencing the Act, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do it. So, I think the short answer to that was, 'Yes, we're very happy to do that'. 

Okay, David. Minister, in terms of communication and awareness raising—the 2016 Act, could you tell us whether the communication strategy for that legislation has been finalised? Again, I'm sure it's been impacted by the pandemic, and, from what you said earlier about timings, I guess the originally envisaged time period over which that communication strategy would take place has probably changed. 

Yes. Chair, as you've rightly said, our communications capacity and pretty much all the capacity of the Welsh Government has been taken up over the last five months, is it now, with the pandemic and we haven't been able to work on things that we would have liked to have been able to work on—there's just no capacity to do it at all. But we are now back in harness doing that, so we are still in the process of finalising that strategy, so I'm not in a position to share it with you at the moment. When we are in a position to do so, I'm extremely happy to do so. 

Obviously, as Simon said in his opening remarks to the first question more generally, we absolutely have to make sure that the people renting their homes and the people renting their homes to them absolutely know what's going to come and how that works and what the interactions are. But I'm going to hand over to Simon because he's the one that's been working on the intricacies of it. 

Yes, thank you. Yes, we have had already quite substantial talks with stakeholders around the arrangements for communications and, in fact, Members may recall there was a campaign around welfare reform that was called, 'Your benefits are changing', quite some time ago, obviously, now, but that was something that was led in Wales on a cross-stakeholder basis. The benefit of that was all the partners had consistent messages that they were then able to convey, whether it was landlords they were speaking to or tenants. So, we've already sounded out stakeholders to work with us on that basis, and we think that's the strongest way in which we can make sure that everyone is getting a consistent message. And then, of course, also, in terms of working with landlords, we have Rent Smart Wales, who obviously provide training for landlords as well, and we've already had some discussions with Rent Smart Wales about the ways in which that training will need to be adapted and added to et cetera in relation to the renting homes Act.

So, I think that also builds across into training as well as awareness-raising. So, we've been thinking of having consistent learning materials, again, which—. Shelter Cymru do a lot of training, so do Citizens Advice, so does the National Residential Landlords Association. One of the strengths of the renting homes Act is it actually works on a landlord-neutral basis so we can have consistent material so everyone is getting the right message at the end of the day.

14:20

Okay. Just further to that, then, Julie—Minister/Simon—will equality considerations then be factored into this in terms of making sure that you reach all those that need to understand the legislation? And in terms of training, as you mentioned, Simon, will there be any face-to-face training on the 2016 Act for advice agencies, social landlords or other stakeholders?

So, John, on the equalities thing, obviously, yes—we're looking to reach as wide a range of people as possible. And I'm very happy, once we've sorted ourselves out, so we've got something that we can usefully call a strategy, to share it with the committee. It's just, obviously, we've been delayed. So, as soon as we've got that, I'm happy to share it with the committee. And then we have a whole training package in place that Simon—. I'll hand back over to Simon as Simon has been absolutely involved in sorting that out. So, Simon.

So, each of those organisations carry out their own training to their target audiences. So, we will work with them to develop materials that they can then incorporate in the training that they do. So, it wouldn't be so much training delivered by the Welsh Government, if you like: we would work with all of those organisations out there so that they can have the same core set of materials, core set of information and messages, and then they can add to that as they need to for their particular target groups. So, Shelter Cymru might want to add specific messages or information over and above what's provided in the core pack, if you like, and landlords' organisations might want to do the same. So, that's the approach we're looking to take forward here.

And also, John, just to add that over the course of the pandemic and in particular the outbreaks and incidents we've had towards this end of the pandemic, we've learnt an awful lot about getting in touch with hard-to-reach groups, because we've absolutely had a public health imperative to get out to hard-to-reach groups. So, we've learnt an enormous amount in terms of how we can get our comms out to people and we will be incorporating that in this, because those hard-to-reach groups involved in some of the outbreak incidents, for example, are exactly the sort of people who the renting homes Act will be there to serve and protect. So, we've learnt a lot from that, so we will be incorporating a lot of that learning into this as well.

Okay. Again, even now, perhaps, in advance of other information you might share with us in terms of the communication and awareness-raising strategy, Minister, if you were able to provide details of those lessons that have been learned to date, exactly what the practicalities are, that might be useful for us, I think.

Yes, I'm happy to do that, John. Obviously, it overlaps. So, there will be statements coming out from Vaughan. Just this morning, for example, we had a lessons-learnt from the outbreak control teams for the outbreaks in Ynys Môn and Wrexham. So, there'll be a much more general one, but we can make it more specific for this particular piece of work for the committee as well.

Okay, thank you very much. We'll move on then to Huw Irranca-Davies.

Thank you, John. Thank you, Chair. Minister, I'm going to turn to a couple of aspects of the courts and court proceedings, and the first question I have is relatively straightforward—it may just be a 'yes' or 'no' answer. We've just had the recent court decision of Jarvis v. Evans, which made clear that if landlords are not registered and not licensed that they will not be able to serve section 21 fault-based and no-fault notices. Is it the intention of Welsh Government that this will now be the case within the subject of the 2016 Act—subject to the 2016 Act that this Bill will make this work here?

14:25

Yes, so it's always nice when the Court of Appeal agrees with you as to the interpretation of one of your Acts, isn't it? It's not always the case in my experience, but in this case we're happy the court's made the right decision. That's good of us, isn't it? But, obviously, we've only just got it, so officials are going through it in fine detail to make sure that there aren't things there that we need to make more clear, or whatever, to make sure that that's the outcome. And obviously, we don't yet know if it's going to be appealed up to the Supreme Court yet, so we have to keep an eye on it. But as far as we're concerned, that was the outcome we would have liked, so that's always good. But it's very recent, Huw, so we haven't completed all the work on the detail of that, that's for sure. 

Okay, thank you, Minister. But subject to you going through it with a fine-tooth comb, subject to there being possibly an appeal, it is clearly your intention, following on from your previous stated intention as the Welsh Government, to ensure that landlords would be prevented from serving these fault-based and no-fault notices if they're not registered, if they're not licensed by Rent Smart Wales. The answer to that is a straightforward 'yes', if you can nail this down.

Yes, absolutely. The whole point of the Rent Smart Wales registration is to regulate the sector. So obviously, one of the ways you do that is preventing them from doing things that if they didn't follow the system, they would be able to do if they did follow the system. That's kind of axiomatic to the point of it, so—. But we just need to make sure that, in going through the judgment, we understand exactly what the reasoning is. My understanding—. I've only got a—. Simon knows much more about it than me, as usual, but my understanding is that there are two bits of the legislation that say something slightly different, and the court has taken the interpretation we would have liked, which is that not being registered with Rent Smart Wales stops you from serving any notice, but it may be that it needs clarification to be absolutely certain that no other court takes a different view, so we'll have to just go through that and make sure. And, of course, we're going to have to wait for the appeal period to either expire or make it clear that there's an appeal before we do that work.

I can see Simon has unmuted as if he's ready to add something there.

Only to confirm that, yes, that is our situation. So, nothing really to add on what the Minister's just said. The decision basically does mean that you won't be able to serve a notice either on a fault or no-fault ground, which is what we think is appropriate. That's an example, I suppose, of a potential Stage 2 amendment, but we just need to do the work first before we come back to the committee.

That's really helpful, thank you. If I can move on to reforms, or potential reforms of the court service—in your response of 10 July, you mention, Minister, that your officials are in ongoing dialogue with Whitehall in terms of potential reforms. We've had stakeholders raising concerns about the inefficiency of the county courts, the time it takes to recover possession, but we've also heard concerns about spikes in possession claims when the courts start processing claims again towards the end of August. So, what would you like to see? What are you telling the UK Government you'd like to see in terms of reforms, and are they listening? Are they likely to hear what you're saying and act on it?

So, Huw, I'm just going to start, if you'll forgive me, by reiterating the Welsh Government's position in general on this, which is that we think that starting eviction procedure should be an absolute last resort of any landlord in any sector. They should have worked through with their tenants all of the issues in good time before that, and made sure that people have access to all of the advice that they need in order to be able to conform with their tenancy and all that kind of stuff. So, we're absolutely clear that this is a last resort.

But having said that, then, obviously, we are aware that there have been backlogs in the court before, and that there are a number of problems with that. So, the first thing to say is that there's a resource problem, so we don't want justice diminished because the Government isn't resourcing the court system properly. So, to use the analogy: I'm not personally—it's not a Government view—I'm not personally in favour of a reduction of jury trial on the basis of that speeds things up; my own particular view, very personal view, is that what you should do there is resource the court system sufficiently to be able to have the right sort of trial.

So, I personally extend that view right across the system. The first thing to do is look at the resourcing. The second thing is that we knew there was a problem in the courts anyway, so we now have an arrangement in place with the registered social landlords across Wales that they will not evict people into homelessness. That doesn't mean they won't ever evict anyone—for anti-social behaviour, for example—but they ought to be rehousing them at the same time, so they ought to be working with people. So, unfortunately, prior to this, a large amount of the evictions processes in courts were from the registered social sector, so we're hoping that that will lighten the burden on the courts in a big way. And then, secondly, we have been working with the UK Government—coming on to the very specific nature of the question you asked me, Huw. We have been working with them, reducing the time in which a hearing might be listed from eight to seven weeks, reducing administrative burden from bailiffs serving it and introducing the new IT systems, which were the beginning—we started this session at the beginning of that, to make sure that the IT systems were more efficient and effective so that things go through more administratively efficiently.

And then, finally, we're now in the end time of this Senedd term, but if we were two years ago, then I would be talking to you about the work necessary to make sure that there's a specialist housing court or tribunal—probably court—in place, but obviously we're not in a position to do that now; it's something that I think all parties will probably have a look at for their manifesto, because there is something to be said for specialist courts that allow people to have the right support in place. And housing is pretty fundamental to people's lives, and it shouldn't really, in my view, be in the same court as ordinary debt proceedings and so on. So, I think it is something we would have looked at, but obviously we're not in any position to do that now, given where we are in the cycle and given where our legislative programme is. 

14:30

But it sounds like, on that last point, that's something you'd like to return to.

Absolutely. I will certainly be, as we go towards to Senedd elections, working hard to make sure that our party's manifesto commitment has something in it along those lines. But, actually, having working with both Delyth and David—if you don't mind my saying so—throughout this thing, I think we're probably like-minded on it. I think it's not something that's very controversial, and it clearly, very seriously, enables tenants to protect their rights and good landlords to do the right thing in a more effective way than just having it all clogged up in a normal county court-process style. So, I don't think it's controversial to say that we would like to look at that.

We've got all colleagues nodding in agreement here.

Minister, my final question on courts and court proceedings: in your response on 10 July, you said that the new five-year agreement on rent policy will include a requirement for social landlords to work to minimise all evictions, not to evict into homelessness, and you've touched on this a couple of times this morning. So, the big question is, then, in what timescales do you expect this to be achieved, particularly in light of the justice impact assessment that the net effect of changes in the legislation will be neutral?

So, this isn't about the legislation, this is about an agreement between the Government and social landlords right across Wales—both councils and RSLs—that, after long negotiations about the social rent levels in Wales and what we agreed to do just before Christmas, before we knew any of this other stuff was going to happen, we would get them to enter into a pact with us that they would not evict into homelessness. And actually, one of the absolute triumphs of the pandemic—dreadful circumstances though it has been for absolutely everybody—has been the collaborative response to homelessness across the sector in Wales. I mean, I cannot speak highly enough of officials from Government, of officers from local government and from the entire charity sector and all their volunteers that go with them—they've pulled together in a way that you just would never have thought was possible. They have just stepped up to that plate like nothing I've ever seen, and we have proved that you can stop social evictions in Wales because we are currently doing it. We always knew it was possible in a theoretical way, but we've just proved that it is in fact possible, and so, actually, I'm really upbeat about our ability to carry that forward with them, and they're all very keen, they're all making individual announcements about their particular policies about how they're managing that and so on. Then for the private rented sector, we're saying to the courts that they should prioritise anti-social behaviour-type evictions, and not rent arrears evictions while people try and sort their lives back out, because most people are in this for no fault of their own, of course.

So, I remain really hopeful about it, Huw, and I think you cannot sing more loudly from the rooftops how successful in Wales we have been, working across sector, across party. We've all pulled together to make this a really triumph, actually, and what we've done is prove that it's possible.

Thanks, Minister. And I think I'll echo that in what I've seen on the ground as well with local partnerships working in this area—it's been quite phenomenal. I better pause—I better stop there, while you're on an upswing, Minister, and hand over to somebody else.

14:35

Diolch, Gadeirydd. Well, very fittingly, my questions are about the effects of this Bill on homelessness. You've said, Minister, that it isn't necessary to strengthen the powers that local authorities have in order to prevent—well, surrounding illegal evictions. You've said that the public awareness raising should be enough to alert tenants and landlords to the fact that an eviction can't take place without a court order. Could you explain how you came to that conclusion, please? If you think that there will not need to be any increase in powers for local authorities, do you think there'd need to be an increase in resources for them?

So, the starting place here is that an illegal eviction is illegal. That's the point: you're not allowed to do it. The legislation already says, 'You're not allowed to do this.' What this is about is enforcement of that. You don't need more powers to do that; it is already illegal. What we need to be sure about is that all of the parties involved around an illegal eviction react in the right way.

So, in response to any unlawful eviction taking place during lockdown, we've engaged with Rent Smart Wales and with Shelter Cymru to make sure that landlords and agents are reminded of all of the legal obligations around evictions at this time. We've also engaged with the police to ensure that, on those occasions when officers are called to evictions, they are absolutely clear who's in the right and who's in the wrong in terms of who they're supporting, so if the eviction is illegal they are supporting the tenants.

Officials have been working on that with the police all of the way through, and I propose, now that we're coming out of COVID a little bit, to start meeting with the commissioners about the way that the commissioners instruct their police forces across Wales, in terms of unlawful evictions as well.

So, it is about enforcement. They are already illegal—that's the point—so you don't need to make them that. We just need to make sure that the system reacts properly to that, and that a landlord who's engaged in that kind of activity has consequences, so it has consequences for them in registration and all the rest of it.

It's about making the system work, and, actually, during COVID it has been working. We've had a number of attempts and we've been able to react to those. So, I stand by what I said in the first place: it is always about making sure that enforcement and the consequences that follow somebody trying to undertake an unlawful eviction are in place.

Okay. Thank you, Minister, for that. That's welcome, particularly what you were saying about working with commissioners about enforcement—that's really welcome.

Another concern that we've heard is that local authorities may—there's a danger that they may not support individuals who are at risk of homelessness unless the risk that's facing them is within 56 days. I appreciate that you've said that that wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of the legislation, but, obviously, those concerns are very much still there. We've heard, as a committee, a number of reports about, well, a nervousness about that. What more will you do in order to ensure that all local authorities do more than the basic statutory requirement and that they don't just stick to the letter of the law here, but that they actually do provide support, considering especially that there will be, potentially, more people in a very precarious situation in the coming weeks and months?

Absolutely. We've always been very clear that the 56 days are a safety net, they're not a target; they're akin to a speed limit. The fact that the speed limit is 70 mph on a motorway doesn't mean that you have to go at 70 mph—it's the maximum. So, we've been working with local authorities all the way through to say, 'Although you must act at 56 days, you ought to have acted substantially before that.'

One of the other things that's been great about the response to the pandemic is that it's shown local authorities stepping up to that plate and working to the spirit of the law. I really cannot emphasise enough, Delyth, the sea change that's gone through homelessness in Wales. People have really understood, for the first time, what is possible when you really work together like this.

We've housed 2,000-odd individuals in emergency accommodation over this time. It's an amazing thing that we've done. If you'd told me in December that we were about to house 2,000 people in an emergency, I would have just said, 'Don't be ridiculous, of course we're not going to be able to do that', but, actually, we have been able to do it and people have absolutely worked themselves into the ground to make sure that this happened. There are all kinds of tales of individual heroism and seriously working beyond the call of duty to make sure that people are safely housed and so on.

What it's done is it's made people realise that it's possible. So, whereas before it was kind of a hope and a dream and something we were aiming towards, now it's a reality. We've done it. So, why on earth would you go back to not doing it? That's the real issue, isn't it?

So, we've embedded the approach, authorities have changed the way that they react to it, and we've prevented 23,000 households from becoming homeless and housed 2,000 people in emergency accommodation. So, it's really something, you know; it's really hard to sing it from the rooftops loud enough. So, I remain absolutely convinced now that local authorities will start seeing that for the safety net it is. Many of them were already doing that. There are many local authorities that were absolutely exemplary. We did have a few still tending towards it being a target not a safety net, but I'm now very happy that that's not the case across Wales.

And we've just had the homelessness prevention phase 2 plans in, and we were starting to announce the phased acceptance of those plans. So, some announcements were made last Friday. I'm looking at Emma to nod at me if that's the case—yes. Certainly, I saw them on Friday. So, they were the first tranche of agreements to the phase 2 plans, and there'll be another tranche, because we were able to add money to it as a result of the land transaction tax decisions that we've made here in Wales. So, there's £30 million there for social housing.

I remain hopeful, as we go into the recovery phase, that we'll be able to add more and more money to that so that we can build and rehouse people in much more suitable accommodation. So, we're talking there about either remodelling or refashioning existing buildings or new-build modern methods of construction stuff, and people really have stepped up to that plate.

So, I think it was good legislation in the first place. I think you're right it was being perceived as a little bit of a target in a few places; not many, but in a few. But now, we're pretty confident that, right across Wales, nobody is reacting like that to it, because they're proud of what they've done in the pandemic, frankly.

And then the last thing I just wanted to mention on that—sorry, Chair, I know I go on at great length about this, but I'm really quite evangelical about it—is that, of course, we have the housing action group report into the rapid rehousing thing, and we've implemented that. So, we're really keen on that, and the local authorities are helping us to do that as part of their homelessness strategy. So, that's another added layer to why they won't be going back to using it as a target, I think.

14:40

Thank you, and finally from me—. Well, I would just put on record how I agree that it is an extraordinary thing that's been achieved, and it's so important to ensure that there is no slipping back.

So, how do you intend to monitor the impact of the Bill on homelessness? I know that you've indicated to us in a letter that you intend to work with the sector to monitor that, and obviously we welcome that. Could you just—? I'm trying to think of the English word for 'ymhelaethu'. Can you please go into just a little bit more detail on how you intend to do that? I can't remember what the word for 'ymhelaethu' is.

I don't know either, I'm afraid, my Welsh is not up to that. I can just about order a pint. [Laughter.]

What we're doing is we're working to make sure that the data we collect across Wales gives us some real value added in terms of what we know is working and where it's working, so rather than having anecdotal responses to things, we've got actual data on the ground. So, we've been working really hard to look at the data, and we've just funded a partnership with the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence for a feasibility study into the collection of case-level homelessness data in Wales, so that we can get granularity, as they call in English—maybe that's the word you're looking for—in terms of what is the data; what does it tell us and how can we improve on services; what do we know about particular trends in particular areas; and are there specific responses we need in rural areas as against urban—all those kinds of stuff that we know. So, we'll have much better data in terms of what people are currently dealing with, so that we can help mould policy off the back of that data.

Thank you, Chair. It's just on this 56-day—I don't know what you call it—indicator, then, which is obviously aligned with current legislation. If the 56-day indicator is there as a spur to the dilatory rather than a sign of best practice, and given that a local authority that's waited until 56 days before an eviction is way off what you'd hope they would be doing, wouldn't it be better at least to raise that, say, to 84 days if not six months, as some have called for? I mean, I can see why you might think that's not necessary to have in law, but 56 days, I mean, it's such a short period.

14:45

So, I guess, David, it's the speed limit analogy, isn't it? It's a safety net. It's the point in time at which the statutory duty of the authority kicks in and they absolutely must act by the time they've got to there. And there will be, for whatever reason, there'll be cases that get to there, for whatever reason the authority hasn't been aware of. I'm reminded that it was 28 days previously, so we doubled it in this legislation and it's been pretty effective. But the point we keep making to local authorities is that it's not a target; it's the end point, and you should never get anywhere near there, because when people present as homeless, or potentially homeless, you should act immediately. You absolutely have to act; it's a breach of duty if you don't at 56 days. But, you know, frankly, if you're always driving at exactly the speed limit on the motorway, you're not being a very good motorist, and that analogy really does work.

So, if we had a lot of evidence that a lot of authorities were taking it to the wire like that all the time, then I think we probably would consider putting it up, but we haven't got that evidence—that's the truth. We did have a few that were struggling around there occasionally, but I think, over the pandemic, it's been shown that that's just not so. However, when we've got this data I'm talking about—we'll have much better data going forward—if there's evidence that that time limit is causing a problem, then I'm sure that a future Senedd will have a look at increasing it. But at the moment, I don't think there's a case made out for that.

Thanks, Chair, and I've just got a couple of questions on minimum notice periods, and particularly the new Schedule 8A, which exempts certain occupations from the six-month notice requirement. Can you update the committee on that particular issue, where you're at with that, and just talk a bit about whether amending the new Schedule 8 after it's enacted, whether consideration would be given to bringing forward an amendment at Stage 2 on that?

Yes. I mean, there's lots of anecdotal evidence about people using different grounds for different things because they're quicker or not quicker and so on, but it is quite anecdotal. But one of the reasons for introducing this Bill is to encourage landlords to use all the appropriate grounds for possession that they could use and not just bunch it all together into section 21 because they can't be bothered to figure that out, to be honest. That's a caricature, of course, but we don't want people to do that. I'm often told, 'Well if you extend the notice period, I won't be able to do this', and the answer is, 'You will be able to do that because you're telling me your tenant is committing anti-social behaviour or is damaging your property or is in rent arrears, and those are all grounds for possession.' So, you start the eviction proceedings on the basis of the thing that's causing you grief and not just in a catch-all because that's 'easier'. And then, we want judicial discretion there as well. So, we want to be in a position where the judge says, 'Well, I'm sorry, that's not appropriate. You should have started it as rent arrears or whatever, so it's not appropriate to have bundled it together like that.'

I want everybody to start from 'eviction is the last resort', including private sector landlords. So, what can I do to make sure this tenancy is successful; what help does this person need; do they need to be referred to support services and so on? And that just as much goes for people in the private rented sector as it does in the social rented sector. So, what is the cause of the anti-social behaviour; have you got domestic violence happening; does somebody need mental health support? You know, it's that kind of stuff. So, we want them to go through all of that.

And also, for anti-social behaviour, there are quite draconic things that landlords can do. So, you can serve notice on a contract holder and make a possession claim to the court on the same day if you've got really bad anti-social behaviour. So, the Act has a number of things in it that are designed to assist landlords in doing the right thing. So, I'm going to hand over to Simon in a minute, because he's probably grimacing at my complete garbling of the lovely provisions in his Act. But I do constantly say to Members of the Senedd that it is worth reminding yourselves of what that Act does. It's really radical, you know. It does a lot of stuff.

But it was specifically, Julie, around the new Schedule 8A and the occupational exemptions for the minimum notice period. I think that was the specific point of my question on that.

14:50

Right. All we've looked at there is whether there are specific occasions where somebody has employment associated with a contract, like a religious minister. So, we've just looked to see whether there is any real evidence that that is necessary; that's where we are with that. So, whether there is some justification for the exemption. So, we've—

I'll hand you over to Simon on that, because he's the one that's been diligently working on it. Simon.

Thank you. We're planning to meet with Cytûn on the query that's been raised in relation to ministers of religion. As far as whether or not this is done as an amendment or through the regulation-making power, it would be feasible to do this as an amendment, but, under current circumstances, with the pressure we're under in terms of getting this Bill through—as you said earlier, we want to try and minimise the number of amendments that we're bringing forward at Stage 2. Certainly, the powers that are already there will allow us to do what we need to achieve in order to make an exemption, if that's the final policy decision that is taken. So, we think that it's not necessary to bring it forward as an amendment, because we have the ability to do it, even if it was during the six months during the lead-in time to implementation of the 2016 Act. So, that's the likely approach on that. 

Okay. Thanks for that. I think my second question, actually, Minister, was probably what you answered from my first question, which was about security of tenure in the private rented sector and the social rented sector. Because you will have seen the additional written evidence from Community Housing Cymru above the no-fault evictions, and I think that was the question that you were answering—that if there are certain behaviours, they are subject to action, regardless of the minimum notice periods and so on.

Yes—sorry. These things all get interlinked in conversations that you have. The other one is with students. There's always a conversation about whether students should be a specific exemption from various things as well, and I'm not persuaded of that, I have to say. I don't see why students should be treated more poorly than anybody else, or be subject to more insecure tenure. There's nothing worse than trying to study something whilst also worrying whether you've got a roof over your head. I really don't think that's a good way to go.

So, things like tenancies associated with contracts of employment—religious ones are the ones that happen often, but there are others—students; there are a number of exempted—. But as Simon said, we've been working through—. We're not terribly convinced by that. I don't see why people in the private rented sector should have any less secure tenure than anybody else, to be honest.

The Bill gives landlords plenty of opportunity to be able to get rid of a tenant that is causing them difficulty and acting unreasonably. It's not taking that away from them. What it is taking away is an ability to just say, 'I can't be bothered to look at it, I'll just do the easiest thing possible', which is not what we want at all.

Yes, there has to be a proper process. My final question, Chair, is just—I think, actually, Simon, you were touching on that in your answer, actually, which was about whether Schedule 8A can be amended by regulation and whether it is appropriate to do that. Is that too fundamental a change to be amended by secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation? That's more of a technical point, I guess.

Well, actually, it's a policy point, isn't it? What we want to be able to do is keep some of these things under review. So, this is quite ground-breaking stuff we're doing here, and you don't want to have to do a whole new Act because the notice period needs to be one month more—what we need there is an entire new Act to change it.

If you don't mind me harking back to the 56 days, it's one of the things that is in the Act and maybe it shouldn't be, because maybe we should be able to look at moving it around a little bit. It's quite a sledgehammer to have to put a piece of primary legislation through to extend something by a month. I just think that's—. So, I don't think it is a fundamental change. I think it's one of those things that we can keep a weather eye on, and if the data exercise that I was just referring to earlier, in answering Delyth, is successful, then we'll have a lot of information, as well, on which we'll be able to base some of those things. So, I think we don't want a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

And then, just to point out that it is an affirmative procedure—the regulations. So, it's not something you can just do. We would be taking it through the Senedd, it's just you don't need a whole new Bill in order to do it. So, personally, I think it's proportionate and, to be fair to Simon, that's a policy decision. It's not been—

14:55

Okay. Diolch yn fawr, Dawn. And finally, I think, David Melding. 

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Quite a focused question to finish, Minister. The Residential Landlords Association has suggested it would help landlords manage their portfolios—I think particularly those that only have one or two properties—if they were able to serve a no-fault notice within the first six months of contract, but to be applied after the full 12 months. Are you minded to accept that suggestion and allow that sort of flexibility? I think it means that if you were in a position where you had to sell the property and were wanting to put it on the market, or you or a relative may want to move into the property, it would be useful to be able to start that in terms of at least indicating that the contract was not going to be renewed after 12 months. 

I'm afraid, David, I'm not persuaded by it, because what they're basically saying is that small landlords might not get the date of the time that they could serve the notice quite right, and so they'd have to wait a little longer, as against being able to serve it the day after you go into occupation, and then living under a notice of possession for the next 12 months, which I think is not something that we would want to have happen. So, my answer to that is that we'll keep an eye on it, we'll make sure that we haven't got a bevy of small landlords who are good landlords but who have found themselves in difficult positions, put into the position you've just described, because we'll make sure that our guidance and the training that we were talking about, and the stuff that goes out through Rent Smart Wales, makes it really obvious what you have to do to be able to do that. But the RLA's suggestion would genuinely let somebody be served a notice two days after they moved in that they would then live under for the next 12 months, which is a horrible way to live your life in accommodation, isn't it? So, it's about that balance all the time. I can take the point that, if you're just Mr and Mrs Jones and you've got the one house that you rent out, that's pretty onerous, but Rent Smart Wales will be helping with that, and we would expect most people to be using the standard form documentation, so they should be able to do that, and also lots of landlords use professional agents, of course, to do that kind of work. So, I take the point they're making, but it is just about understanding what the date is that you can do that, and that doesn't elongate the process, so I don't really want the tenant to have to live under that kind of shadow for the whole of their tenancy, potentially. So, I'm not persuaded, I'm afraid.

I commend you on your clear answer, but you did, in a previous answer on homelessness, say that you'd expect—in fact you'd demand—local authorities follow best practice, and therefore 56 days is there as a speed limit, an ultimate sign. And I'm sure that's what the RLA were thinking—that people wouldn't abuse it, they would only use it when there were real practical needs and they were given the assistance and flexibility, say, to market a property or to prepare to move into it themselves. So, I don't think the example you gave was a particularly fair one, especially since you take a very different attitude in local authorities applying best practice, as I'm sure landlords would apply best practice in the overwhelming number of cases. Obviously there's the occasional bad one.

Well, we'll probably have to agree to disagree, I think, but it is just a question of knowing when you can serve the notice. It doesn't disadvantage you to have to do that. What the RLA are saying is that for small landlords, that might be onerous, it might be difficult for them to hold that in their head, and so on. I think it's not that difficult to do, that's the truth of it. So, I think, with the help of Rent Smart Wales and the standard form documentation and the explanation of what landlords can and can't do at various points in time, that ought to be something that embeds in the system. So, we'll have to see how that works out, but I take the view that I think a tenant having to live under that notice for all that time in order to prevent the landlord from having to remember the date is not something that I want to live with.

Okay. Thank you very much. Well, that concludes our evidence session today, Minister. Thank you very much for coming along virtually to give evidence, and thank you to your officials, Emma and Simon, as well. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy in the usual way. Diolch yn fawr. 

3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i Benderfynu Gwahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod ac o'r Cyfarfod ar 14 Medi 2020
3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting and from the Meeting on 14 September 2020

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod ac o'r cyfarfod ar 14 Medi 2020 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and from the meeting on 14 September 2020 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

The next item on our agenda today is a motion to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of our meeting, and, indeed, from the meeting on 14 September under Standing Order 17.42. Is committee content to do so? Okay. Thank you very much. We will, then, move into private session. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:00.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 15:00.