Tenants often leave, without paying their utility bills. Indeed the problem is such a big one for the water utilities that there has recently been a consultation carried out where it was suggested that landlords should be liable if tenants fail to pay their water bills (note – if anyone has any information about the outcome of this please leave a comment).
However landlords are not always sure what they should do in these circumstances. Does the Data Protection Act forbid them passing any information on?
I recently had occasion to look at the Information Commissioner’s Office web-site (the Information Commissioner overseas the data protection legislation) where I found a page of helpful good practice guides. One of which relates to landlords obligations regarding release of information about their tenants.
The relevant paragraph about utilities reads as follows:
Can a landlord pass forwarding addresses of former tenants to the utility companies?
Yes. Sometimes a landlord will become aware that a tenant has moved leaving behind an unpaid utility bill or an account in credit. In addition a utility provider may need to contact a former tenant regarding continuing social support. In these circumstances landlords can pass a forwarding address (where known) to the utility companies as the Act is not intended to be an obstacle to disclosure in these situations. However, landlords must make tenants aware of these possible disclosures at the start of the tenancy.
So thats clear. You can, indeed you should, pass on any contact information you hold relating to your tenants whereabouts to utility companies if your tenant has left owning money, or if there is a credit due to him.
So far as making tenants aware of this possibility at the start of the tenancy is concerned, this is not something which commonly goes into tenancy agreements (although I will be looking to include something on this in my agreements at the next review). However it does not have to be in the tenancy agreement. You can inform them:
- in the tenants information form which they complete when applying for a tenancy
- in any separate ‘house rules’ or extra clauses which you may attach to the tenancy agreement, or
- in a separate letter, email or notice
Whatever means you use to let them know, it is a good idea to keep a copy.
However even if you have not formally notified your tenants that you intend to pass their information on, I do not think that there will be any problem with your doing so. The Data Protection Act was not passed to make it easier for people who don’t pay their bills. You should do all in your power to assist the utilities.
After all if people are allowed to get away without paying, that just makes it more expensive for all the rest of us who do pay.
Have you had problems with tenants leaving and not paying their bills? Do you have any tips for readers? Has anyone had any problems related to data protection in these circumstances?