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Volume 804: debated on Monday 13 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that there is no increase in homelessness once the ban on evictions is lifted.

The Government have provided an unprecedented package of support to protect renters. We have provided income protection schemes and have boosted the welfare system by more than £6.5 billion to prevent people getting into financial hardship. These measures will ensure that those most in need will avoid the risk of homelessness once the stay on possession proceedings ends.

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for that encouraging sign. Do the Government know of the Big Issue’s ride out recession alliance, which is bringing players together to help the Government and local authorities so that they can keep people in their homes? If they slip into poverty and homelessness, it is very difficult to get them out of it. I also draw attention to the work of Shelter, which is calling for a change in the law so that magistrates will not authorise eviction if it is caused by Covid-19 poverty.

The noble Lord is helpful in raising those initiatives by the Big Issue and Shelter. He will be aware that there is ongoing work, through the Master of the Rolls, looking at the guidance on this.

My Lords, ultimately the way to prevent an increase in homelessness is rent controls and the abolition of no-fault evictions. However, given that Shelter and Crisis have predicted thousands of possible evictions next month, the Government should enable emergency legal provisions to allow judges to prevent evictions where people have complied with reasonable and affordable repayment arrangements or are awaiting decisions on their benefit entitlement. Does the Minister agree? If not, why not?

The noble Baroness will be aware that I do not agree with the policy of rent controls. It is far more important to follow the guidance and find solutions other than eviction. Our guidance encourages landlords not to seek to repossess their properties during the period where their tenant may be sick or facing hardship due to Covid-19 and to work with their tenant to agree a plan that works for both parties. That is better than the kind of intervention that she suggests.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the Resolution Foundation, private renters are twice as likely as home owners to have struggled with housing costs due to the pandemic? Why, then, in last week’s financial Statement were home owners awarded a stamp duty tax cut worth £1 billion, in addition to all the other previous measures, while the 20 million renters got nothing?

I do not agree that renters have received nothing. The noble Baroness will be aware that we have strengthened the welfare safety net with a boost to the welfare system of over £6.5 billion, and that we have increased the local housing allowance rates to cover the lowest 30% of market rents. In addition, a budget of £180 million has been made available for local authorities to distribute in discretionary housing payments.

My Lords, did the Minister see the headline in last Friday’s Times:

“City landlords fear for future of offices with trains still empty”?

Would not a practical solution be for people who will possibly be made homeless to have an opportunity to rent this type of office? It would have to be with government approval, but it would help to deal with the panic over what will happen to businesses in the future and it would also help homeless people, at least on an emergency basis.

I thank my noble friend. She will be aware that over £0.5 billion has been made available to support rough sleepers and get them into longer-term move-on accommodation. We expect local authorities and registered providers to bring forward units of accommodation from a variety of sources, and this could include repurposing buildings such as offices, where appropriate.

My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. Has the Minister had a chance to consider the arrangements introduced in Spain to prevent evictions? Tenants with rent arrears caused by Covid-19 are entitled to an interest-free government-guaranteed loan to pay the landlord and remove the grounds for eviction, with the loan being repaid over a six-year period.

I believe that the noble Lord has raised the Spanish initiative several times. Instead of following that model, our intervention strengthens the welfare safety net, increases the local housing allowance and provides discretionary housing payments to support renters.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as listed in the register. The Government deserve credit for quickly getting homeless people off the streets in response to the pandemic. Does the noble Lord agree that a return to a situation where people are sleeping rough on our streets would be tragic and unacceptable, that it must not be allowed to happen, and that it is for the Government to ensure that it does not happen?

I agree with the noble Lord that the mission should be to ensure that those whom we have taken off the streets and placed in emergency accommodation, of whom there are some 15,000, are moved into settled accommodation as soon as possible and do not return to the streets. That is the mission of the task force led by Dame Louise Casey and, as a Government, we will strain every sinew to achieve that.

I know that the Minister is fully supportive of local authorities. When Andy Burnham was made Mayor of Greater Manchester, his first pledge was to end homelessness there. What consideration has been given to providing an in-year increase in funding for the Government’s rough sleepers initiative? This would support our local authorities to boost outreach and get people more quickly into safer accommodation. Time and resources are needed to get this multiagency approach right for people with complex needs and to prevent homeless people being back on our streets.

The noble Lord is right to highlight the importance of multiagency working to tackle homelessness. However, I point to the fact that we have made several announcements in the last two months, including £105 million to support the ending of rough sleeping and, in the previous month, £433 million to provide thousands of additional long-term homes for vulnerable rough sleepers. This money can be used for that endeavour.

My Lords, no hero should be homeless. Of 343 local authorities, 252 do not include Armed Forces veterans in their housing strategies. One hundred and seventy-six local authorities fail to even consider the needs of these valiant veterans in their homeless strategy. Indeed, housing allocations for these homeless heroes have declined by nearly 11%. What steps will the Government take to remedy this unjust situation?

I note the noble Lord’s raising of the issue of support for our Armed Forces and will write to him on the initiatives that we as a Government are taking on that front.

My Lords, given the current uncertainties, would it not make sense to extend the moratorium on evictions beyond September to allow three things to happen: first, for the consequences of the Government’s stimulus to the job market to be felt; secondly, for the amendment to the pre-action protocol overseen by the Master of the Rolls to be delivered and understood; and, finally, to give time to amend housing legislation to allow judges greater discretion with regard to eviction cases? Does my noble friend agree that this action is preferable to introducing measures against a rising tide of evictions in the autumn?

My noble friend will know that we are exploring a number of options to further protect tenants, including a pre-action protocol for claims for possession by private landlords. This might not be the way to achieve our objective, so our priority is to work with the judicial working group convened by the Master of the Rolls on arrangements, including new rules, that will mean that courts are better able to address the need for appropriate protection of all parties once the stay on possession proceedings ends in August.

My Lords, with many office spaces and other commercial buildings remaining empty as people work at home and no doubt continue to do so, at least partly, in the future, will the Government consider ways in which, working with local authorities, these spaces can be refurbished initially as temporary homeless shelters but later be converted into permanent homes for a wider range of people needing housing?

I refer the noble Baroness to my previous answer. Certainly these buildings could be repurposed where appropriate. We expect local authorities and registered providers to bring forward enough units to deal with the issue of finding longer-term accommodation for the homeless.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now move to the fourth Oral Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey.