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Coronavirus: Renters

Volume 679: debated on Thursday 10 September 2020

I wish to update the House on the comprehensive measures that the Government are taking to ensure renters affected by coronavirus continue to be protected over autumn and winter.

The Government have already taken unprecedented action to ensure that renters were protected from eviction at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, including agreeing with the courts to stay possession proceedings for a total of six months.

I would like to express my thanks to landlords for their forbearance in many cases, and my sympathy to smaller landlords and buy-to-let landlords, who in some cases have experienced hardship as a result.

We have also put in place a major package of financial support to help communities through the pandemic. Through the coronavirus job retention scheme, we have provided support for businesses to pay staff salaries and have also strengthened the welfare safety-net with a nearly £9.3 billion boost to the welfare system. This includes an extra £1 billion to increase local housing allowance (LHA) rates so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents, meaning we now spend £25 billion supporting households to meet the cost of rent in the private and social rented sectors.

For those renters who require additional support, there is an existing £180 million of Government funding for discretionary housing payments made available this year—an increase of £40 million from last year—for councils to distribute to support renters with housing costs.

We will keep these measures under review and our decisions will continue to be guided by the latest public health advice.

Whilst the measures we introduced were justified at the height of the pandemic, it is now right that we consider how we adapt our approach moving forward.

As we move forward, we will strike a balance of prioritising public health and supporting the most vulnerable over winter, whilst ensuring landlords can access and exercise their right to justice for the most serious cases, such as cases of anti-social behaviour.

On 28 August, we introduced regulations to require landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before they can commence new eviction action, except in the most egregious cases, such as incidents of antisocial behaviour and serious rent arrears. These regulations will remain in place until the end of March 2021, and provide reassurance to responsible tenants that they will not face new court proceedings during this time. This approach ensures tenants will remain safe and have additional time to find new accommodation, while empowering landlords to take action where necessary, for example if a tenant’s antisocial behaviour is severely impacting their neighbours’ quality of life.

We have been working with the judiciary to consider new court arrangements within the current statutory framework, to be put in place once possession proceedings resume, to ensure appropriate support to all parties. I am grateful to the Master of the Rolls and the working group which he established to consider those practical arrangements, and extend particular thanks to Mr Justice Knowles and all the members of the working group for their work on these matters.

The new civil procedure rules, made via statutory instrument in July will come into force on 20 September. This will require landlords to set out any relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including information on the effect of the covid-19 pandemic, when bringing a possession claim to court. Landlords will also be required to notify the court and their tenant where they wish to continue pursuing a possession claim that was already in the system before 3 August.

When possession proceedings resume, it is critical to ensure court time is used effectively. The listing of cases is a judicial function. The judiciary will look to prioritise cases, reflecting those issues highlighted by a broad range of stakeholders represented on the working group as putting the most strain on litigants. We understand this will include claims issued before the stay commenced in March 2020, as well as cases involving antisocial behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupiers and squatters or abandonment of a property. This will provide assurance to landlords, their tenants and neighbours facing the most egregious cases.

We are also taking steps to ensure that no enforcement of evictions will take place in areas where local lockdown measures are in force which restrict access to premises. Guidance will be issued to bailiffs to ensure that no enforcement of possession orders will proceed where local measures are in place to protect public health. This will prevent tenants being forced out of their home at an unsettling time In areas when the public health risks could be greater.

In addition, the Government are taking steps to prevent eviction action taking place over the Christmas period, other than in the most serious cases, ensuring vulnerable tenants are not forced from their homes at a time when public and local authorities may be dealing with the usual level of increased demand for services during this time. This too will be achieved through guidance to bailiffs that they should not enforce possession orders in the weeks of Christmas.

Comprehensive new guidance for landlords and tenants to explain all these new arrangements and how they impact on the possessions process in courts will be published shortly.

Taken together, these new arrangements strongly incentivise landlords and tenants to sustain tenancies as far as possible and to discuss their situation before bringing a possession claim to court. Where cases do end up in court, these measures ensure court time is prioritised effectively, that the most egregious cases are dealt with as a priority and that court users—both tenants and landlords—have the additional support they may need.