Sub-letting of social or council houses may become a criminal offence.

Current housing minister Grant Shapps has unveiled plans to make the sub-letting of social or council houses a criminal offence. The government has identified the practice as one of the reasons for the UK’s crippling shortage of social housing and has decided that action must be taken against those who are making a profit from renting out their council properties while they only pay the low rents charged by local authorities.

It is a practice which is actually already illegal, but punishment usually takes the form of an eviction because of the way the law is worded. However, plans to change that legislation could see those found guilty of tenancy fraud not only losing their council housing but being fined or sent to prison too. The fact that council housing is let out at heavily subsidised rates does make subletting a tempting way to make some extra cash, especially if a couple move in together but they do not want to give up their “second” home.

Estimates of the scale of the problem range between 50,000 and 160,000 sublet council houses in theUK, though only a handful of cases ever make their way to court at the moment. Tackling the problem of subletting social housing is a good idea; no-one should profit from something which has been given to them because they were in need, especially when there are so many young people and families on the waiting lists for council houses and flats.

Unfortunately, the way the government intends to tackle tenancy fraud will probably do little to resolve the problem and is unlikely to result in any kind of increase in convictions as it adds very little to the existing law. It seems to be legislation for effect; the government wants to be seen to be doing something to tackle a problem that has many people feeling rightly angry.

But the public will soon realise the toothless nature of the new legislation and it will no doubt soon be compared to Labour’s addition of alcohol banning orders to the ASBO scheme which was such an unmitigated failure. There are two pieces of legislation already in existence that are perfectly capable of tackling the problems of tenancy fraud, as long as local authorities and landlords are willing to do the investigative work to catch a tenant subletting their property.

Both the Fraud Act 2006 and the Theft Act 1968 can be used if a tenant lies to their landlord about what they are using a property for and if they are profiting from that use and not declaring the income to the owner of the property. Camden Council even managed a successful prosecution under current legislation when they took tenant Oladapo Talabin to court at the end of 2011. However, prosecutions of this type are still few and far between.

It is easier for landlords to bring private prosecutions against unscrupulous tenants in the civil courts where the burden of proof is not so heavy. In the majority of these cases, the councils are more interested in having the present tenant evicted than they are in seeing them punished.

It can be a long and expensive process to prove in a criminal court that the tenant has been subletting their property and the proposed changes in legislation are unlikely to make it any easier. The housing minister would be better off supporting efforts to tackle the problem of subletting without attention grabbing court cases rather than seeking to introduce unnecessary legislation.