Leanne* contacted the Shelter Cymru Live helpline earlier this year because her landlord was trying to evict her and her children for rent arrears.
She knew there would be some arrears due to Universal Credit, but the amount the letting agent told her she owed was incredible to her. She’d been trying really hard to keep afloat, and she just couldn’t understand why the arrears were suddenly so high.
When she looked into it further, she discovered that the agent was charging her a default fee of £26.30 every single day that she was late with rent.
Just let that amount sink in.
It is £184 a week.
It is £800 a month.
A big part of the problem was that her Universal Credit was paid a week later than her rent due date. She’d tried to get both dates moved, but neither the DWP nor the letting agent would budge.
Why would the agent refuse this? Well, it might be because default fees are a tidy source of income for those unscrupulous agents who are happy to exploit people in poverty. For years we have been campaigning to ask the Welsh Government to ban tenant fees.
In June we were delighted to hear that our campaign supporters’ voices had been heard. The Renting Homes (Fees etc.) (Wales) Bill is currently going through the Senedd and is likely to come into force some time next year.
There’s a huge amount to welcome in the Bill. Tenants will no longer have to find hundreds of pounds in upfront fees at the start of a tenancy. The security deposit will be capped, probably at six weeks’ rent. Any holding deposit will also be capped at one week’s rent, and fully refundable.
It is going to make private rented housing more accessible for hundreds of thousands of people in Wales.
There are, however, a number of areas of the Bill that still need improvement. And the biggest area of concern is default fees of the type charged to Leanne.
Default fees are currently permitted in the Bill. A Senedd committee recommended that the Bill should be amended to require default fees to be ‘fair and reasonable’. This proposal was rejected by the Welsh Government, arguing that ‘fair and reasonable’ was a civil rather than criminal test. Instead they are proposing to issue guidance on what is and isn’t an unfair default fee.
This doesn’t give enough protection to tenants like Leanne and her children.
If this Bill became law as currently proposed, Leanne would need to take her agent to court to challenge the unfair fees. This is a completely unrealistic proposition.
Apart from the stress and worry of court action, there is no Legal Aid available for cases like these. Leanne would have to represent herself in court, unless she could afford a private solicitor, and she’d have to find several hundred pounds of court fees upfront. The court system is so overloaded that it would take months for the case to be heard, during which time she’d be risking a revenge eviction.
This wouldn’t be necessary if Leanne had been charged any of the other types of prohibited payment. She’d be able to go to the local authority or Rent Smart Wales and get a fixed penalty notice issued. Access to justice would be swift and fair.
This is why we want to see default fees defined in the Bill itself or in regulations. We’re not saying that agents should never charge a late payment fee in order to recoup the expense of chasing arrears. But we do think it is vitally important to ensure that tenants are not put in the position where they are essentially unable to challenge an unfair default fee. This will create a loophole open to exploitation, and it will be tenants on low incomes who suffer most.
We’re calling on the Welsh Government to amend the Bill so that:
- Default fees are defined in the Bill as two types of payment: late payment of rent, and lost keys. Other fees should be recovered via the security deposit
- Late payment fees are charged once a month only, and capped at a level to be set by Ministers and periodically revised
- Late payment fees cannot be charged until the rent is 14 days late.
If you agree, please email your Assembly Members as soon as possible to ask them to put forward amendments to protect tenants from rip-off default fees.
* Leanne’s name has been changed