This piece was prompted by some discussions this morning on Twitter that I cant reply to in 140 characters and also by information from Safer Renting’s report and statistics on illegal eviction across England to be published in the next week or so after an 18 month uphill struggle finding the data. Figures we collated from the Ministry of Justice reveal that in 2020 just 23 prosecutions were advanced under the PFEA with only 12 successful outcomes.
I’ve been doing this for 32 years now so I have a fairly good idea why the figures are so low.
STAFFING AND TIME.
Going against a landlord or agent under the PFEA requires an inordinate amount of hours and not just for TROs but council legal teams as well. If an illegal eviction fetches up in reception you can pretty much take the TRO off the board for the rest of the week just for starters, which isn’t always practical when more complaints come in daily that also need attention. Two week’s back Safer Renting picked up 3 illegal evictions before 11am and when I was Lewisham’s TRO 2 or 3 illegal evictions a day were not unknown. Such things tending to come in spurts.
What do you say to the client who is sleeping in the park as a result of an illegal eviction that you cant deal with his case because you are working on another case of a person sleeping in the park? You tend to cut your cloth and go for quick wins, such as using force to re-secure the property, get the person back in and turn to the next one in the queue.
Due to austerity cuts many TRO posts have been axed altogether. Investigating under the PFEA is not a duty, only a power, so TRO have always been seen as a non-statutory role, therefore vulnerable to deletion when savings have to be made.
Sone councils tackle these incidents robustly and proactively, so when a suitable case does come in the TRO knows they have the support from the legal department to take the case forward but this isn’t the situation with all councils and it isn’t just down to whether the council is Labour or conservative controlled.
The oft heard mantra “We prefer to work with landlords” is not one I subscribe to but it is a common approach, particularly in local authorities well away from cities or large towns, where this view is adopted as simply a practical expedient because a) they actually don’t see as many illegal evictions as say Birmingham or Manchester and b) they have no staff skilled or experienced in the work.
DESPARATE SHORTAGE OF ACCOMMODATION FOR DISCHARGE OF HOMELESSNESS DUTIES.
This is related to the point above. The Localism Act kicked in around 10 years ago, which allowed for the discharge of the full homelessness duty (s193 Housing Act 1996) into the private rented sector, as long as the property is deemed suitable, so the days of a homelessness application being a fast track to social housing are long dead. Make a homelessness application from a PRS property, you might find yourself spending an age in temporary accommodation before finding yourself back in the PRS. That is simply the reality of it.
So, local authorities fall over themselves to sign up private landlords with a variety of inducements, financial and otherwise, creating a power imbalance where councils are seriously nervous of pissing off their local landlord communities.
TROs and EHOs often find themselves at loggerheads with local authority procurement teams, signing up landlords who are well known to the council’s enforcement teams.
APPLYING THE PFEA TO CRIMINAL LANDLORDS AND AGENTS.
In the past 12 years I’ve seen a massive sea change in the nature of rogue and criminal landlord behaviour. Spiraling rents alongside the denuding of local authority enforcement staff due to austerity cuts has seen a massive increase in individuals entering the market to make a killing in an environment of reduced risk.
This has also expanded massively with the growing trend in “How to make money from property without owning property” – the numerous weekend workshops a person can attend in a hotel to learn the tricks of the trade from gurus in the rent to rent market.
The highest proportion of Safer Renting’s caseload is taken up with rent to rent scamming, operated by people using aliases and chains of management responsibility using dodgy companies that may not even exist and taking advantage of the anonymity afforded by the internet.
When I started as a TRO most of our problems were with property owners as landlords. We had one or two dodgy agents in the London Borough of Lewisham back in the 1990s, these days it’s predominantly some form of agent you get complaints about, which effectively means you are trying to hit a moving target who will simply fold up business if finally brought to book.
On more than one occasion I have dealt with letting agents where each individual agent gives different names to different clients. So one tenant might know Phillip as John, whilst the same person is known to another tenant as Dave. Just getting coherent witness statements is a massive uphill struggle.
The PFEA is 45 years old and itself grew out of a previous Act that is getting on for 60 years old. The legislation wasn’t designed with today’s crooked business models in mind.
MAINTAINING CONTACT WITH TENANTS.
In my experience this has always been the big issue. When a person comes in, having been thrown on the street, perhaps assaulted and had all of their possessions destroyed, which is pretty standard these days, (no written tenancy agreement? No possessions? Difficult to prove you even lived there.), they are understandably furious and want to see justice done but, to coin a well worn phrase, the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly.” The fastest I ever had a case in Wells St Magistrates was 18 months after the offence, although in some areas it could be quicker.
The displaced occupier has several things on their mind as well, chiefly “Where am I going to live?” a not inconsequential question and they may end up sleeping rough or sofa surfing if they aren’t in priority need for homelessness assistance, which many of them aren’t.
You can see their interest waning as the weeks go by and nothing encouraging or newsworthy has happened to keep their commitment going. Also they realise that in a PFEA prosecution, their status as chief victim of all this is reduced to that of merely a witness in the council’s case, out of which they get virtually nothing.
Despite the initial anger people get on with their lives, they drift away, often out of area, gradually stop returning phone calls or emails until you get to the point after months of work, that you are just going to have to drop the case or continue and have to issue an arrest warrant for the witness for failing to attend the hearing, which trust me……….is not going to happen.
The PFEA needs a massive overhaul and thankfully it is being examined as we speak. Safer Renting are involved with this process and have had several meetings with DLUHC about our recommendations for not only updating the Act but plugging loopholes in ancillary legislation which we also see exploited routinely.
One of the main recommendations on the table is to make investigating complaints of harassment and illegal eviction a duty on local authorities, not just a power. If this is adopted it will help tackle the lack of TROs, because it will be a statutory service like homelessness that cant be opted out of.
By Ben Reeve Lewis