Workshop: Case Study - MPs vote to protect tenants' deposits

Francois Le Goff

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Background: Government statistics show that almost 130,000 tenants have up to £65m-worth of deposits unjustifiably withheld each year by their landlords. This causes financial hardship and debt, and can be a real barrier to many people finding somewhere decent to live when they move on, as they cannot afford another deposit.

Homelessness charity Shelter works to improve standards in the private rented sector to make it more attractive to potential tenants, and is in frequent contact with people complaining about how difficult it is for them to get their money back.

In 1998, a report from Citizens Advice called Unsafe Deposit drew the attention of ministers to the problem. Soon after, the Government indicated that it was keen to take action but, in the summer of 2003, it decided not to legislate.

In response to this U-turn, Shelter and Citizens Advice launched the rent deposit rip-off campaign in August.

Aims The two charities aimed to convince the Government to include a protection scheme for tenants' deposits in the Housing Bill, which is scheduled to be introduced in December.

The campaign targeted ministers, MPs and civil servants, as well as private tenants at risk of being ripped off, such as students, young people, and the elderly.

How it worked Shelter and Citizens Advice set up a website where those affected by the issues could find campaign materials to send to their MPs and ministers. To reach a wide range of people, the campaign was presented as a consumer issue and posters were distributed among student welfare officers and local advice centres.

The campaign was bolstered by a coalition of key organisations including the Association of Housing Advice Services, the Association of London Government, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the Consumers' Association, the Law Society and the NUS.

Meanwhile the two charities worked closely with a number of MPs, notably Des Turner (Labour), who put down an early day motion and campaigned for amendments to the Bill.

The campaign focused the media's attention at key moments throughout the legislation process such as the ODPM Select Committee report into the draft bill, which recommended the introduction of a tenancy deposit scheme, and the Commons committee and report stages in early May.

Other media tactics included linking up with the NUS to secure stories about students facing a summer of debt, and setting up case-based features in national newspapers' money sections, including the Daily Mirror Money.

Results More than 180 MPs, including 150 Labour MPs, supported the early day motion tabled by Des Turner.

On 19 May, the Government announced that it would introduce amendments to the Housing Bill to provide protection for tenants' deposits. Now, if landlords want to hold a deposit, they will have to sign up to a tenancy deposit scheme to ensure that decisions on the return of deposits are made quickly and are properly enforced. Shelter and Citizens Advice believe that the move will bring greater confidence and security to the renting market, which will increase access and improve the prospects of potential tenants.

Adam Sampson, director of Shelter, said: "This is a vital step in delivering a healthy, thriving private rented sector."

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