Ah, the How to Rent Guide. Is there anything that would so predictably cause problems and yet has been so frequently messed up by MHCLG? The latest instalment of the saga goes like this.
On 21 July 2021, MHLCG updated the ‘How to Rent Guide’ page. But apparently this was not to update the existing ‘How to Rent Guide’ – I’ve checked and can’t see any difference – but rather to add an ‘Easy Read’ version. Both have been added to our How to Rent archive page, in case.
Easy Read is a style of document aimed for ease of comprehension by people with a range of learning difficulties. It is therefore, in principle, a good thing – particularly in the context of understanding tenancies.
However, this update presents issues – firstly in respect of the Guide’s status as a legally prescribed document. The correct version must be given to a tenant and if it is not, no section 21 notice can be served.
The problem is this. The Assured Shorthold Tenancy Notices and Prescribed Requirements (England) Regulations 2015 identify as ‘prescribed information’ that must be provided:
the version of the document entitled “How to rent: the checklist for renting in England”, as published by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that has effect for the time being.
The trouble is that both the Guide and the Easy Read version are entitled “How to rent: the checklist for renting in England”. However, they are most certainly not the same document (more on that below).
So, the immediate problem that presents itself is does the Easy Read document count as the prescribed information for the purpose of the 2015 regs? If a landlord only gave the tenant the Easy Read document, would that be sufficient?
If not, would the landlord have to provide copies of both the HTR guide and the Easy Read version? Or could they only provide the HTR Guide and still be OK, even though the Easy Read version is arguably the most recently updated (21 July 2021) version of the document entitled “How to rent”?
Yes, I know this appears to be like holding a pin up for the purposes of counting angels on the head, but it matters. This is a statutorily prescribed document, on which depends a landlord’s ability to serve a section 21 notice. Therefore certainty about what it is is of paramount importance.
(Don’t forget that MHCLG once just changed the title of the document, then had to change it back in a hurry once it was pointed out that there was no ‘prescribed information’ any more. There were also a couple of ‘silent’ changes in 2019. They have form on carelessness here.)
For what it is worth, my view is that the non-easy read HTR guide should be provided to all tenants and that this should suffice for the 2015 Regulations. However, for anyone who requests or may need the Easy Read version, this should additionally be provided, given its existence, as a reasonable adjustment under Equality Act 2010. A failure to do so – now it exists – may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act. Providing the Easy Read version alone seems to me to be a high risk approach.
That said, given that currently the Easy Read version is the most recent version, a truly safe approach would be for the landlord to provide both at the same time.
(And what if the Easy Read version is not itself updated at the same time as the the next change to the HTR guide?)
Then secondly, what of the contents of the Easy Read version itself? I would be the very first to admit that putting landlord and tenant law, obligations and rights into an Easy Read format is a challenge, to put it mildly. However, I do think that any such document needs to have the key information that its readers would need to know to understand when and how their rights had been breached.
Sadly, I fear that the Easy Read version of the HTR guide falls short of that at points. For example, here is the Easy Read guide on papers the landlord must give you about the deposit:
The landlord must give you “paperwork to show you paid a deposit and they will keep the money safe.”
And here is the HTR guide version:
Deposit paperwork. If you have provided a deposit, the landlord must protect it in a government approved scheme within 30 days and provide you prescribed information about it. Make sure you get the official information from your landlord, and that you understand how to get your money back at the end of the tenancy. Keep this information safe as you will need it later.
Neither are exactly perfect (what ‘prescribed information’? No link) but the Easy Read is lacking the two elements particularly necessary for anyone to understand if there has been a breach – the 30 days requirement, and the ‘official information’ (from the deposit scheme). This leaves it as practically useless advice.
There are also issue with the structuring of the Easy Read – eg information on permitted and excluded payments under the Tenant Fees Act is there but separated by many other sections – that strike me as confusing and not a good approach, but those are best left to people with expertise in Easy Read.
Now if MHCLG had add a guide on when and how to use the Easy Read version, and its status, we wouldn’t be here – or at least not on the statutory validity point anyway. But they didn’t, they just chucked it up on the page without any thought. Once again, housing lawyers are scratching their heads and identifying the safest (if potentially unnecessary) course of action. Hopefully, once again, we will see a correction or clarification by MHCLG before long.
We might also hope that they have another go at the Easy Read version to make sure it has the necessary information in it.