Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 23 September.
“The Government have taken unprecedented action to support renters by banning evictions for six months, preventing people from getting into financial hardship and helping businesses to pay salaries. We have boosted the welfare safety net and increased the local housing allowance rates to cover the lowest 30% of market rents. We have made available £180 million for the discretionary housing payments this year, for local councils to distribute to support those renters who require additional support. We have now introduced comprehensive measures to ensure that renters continue to be protected over the autumn and winter, following the resumption of possession proceedings on Monday.
However, we must strike a balance so that landlords are able to access justice alongside measures to protect the vulnerable. That is vital to the long-term health of the private rented sector. We have worked with the judiciary to put in place new court arrangements that seek to ensure appropriate support to all parties within the current statutory framework. The judiciary will look to prioritise the most serious cases, including anti-social behaviour, fraud and egregious rent arrears. New court rules also require landlords to reactivate any claim they have made before 3 August and to provide information to the court on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the tenant and their dependants. A court would be likely to take a very dim view of any landlord who tried to circumvent this requirement or mislead the court by not disclosing relevant information where known.
To help to keep people in their homes over the winter, we have changed the law, increasing notice periods to six months in all but the most serious cases. Tenants now served notice will not be required to move over winter, while landlords will be empowered to take action where necessary—for example, where a tenant’s anti-social behaviour severely affects their neighbours’ quality of life. To further support renters, guidance has been issued to bailiffs by my right honourable and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to ensure that possession orders are not enforced in areas where lockdown restrictions are in place or over the Christmas period, except in the most serious circumstances.
Our package strikes a fair balance, supporting landlords to act in the most serious cases while keeping the public, including renters, safe. Comprehensive guidance has been published for landlords and tenants to explain these new arrangements and the possession process in courts. The Government are clear that all these measures are to protect renters over this period. They are kept under constant review in the light of evidence on public health, and we are prepared to take further measures as they are needed to protect landlords and tenants alike.”
In March, the Secretary of State promised in the other place that no renter who had lost income due to coronavirus would be forced out of their home. However, while the Welsh Labour Government have a plan to prevent evictions and homelessness, the Westminster Government seem determined to do the exact opposite. Yesterday, this House agreed the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede that regulations laid before this Government will not continue to protect tenants from eviction—contrary to their promise. Therefore, can the Minister please confirm when further regulations will now be introduced to provide such protection?
My Lords, I first declare my interests as set down in the register. I would not characterise the situation in Wales as being radically different from that in England. There is the same six-month notice period in place for evictions and we operate under the same court system and guidance that provides protections to renters. Admittedly, the Welsh Government have announced a loan scheme, without providing any timings or details of the extent of the loan. We will look at that in due course. But I point out that there have been a considerable number of measures to support tenants at this time.
My Lords, yesterday, in both Houses, Ministers emphasised the urgent need for private landlords to be able to evict in cases of domestic abuse. Does the Minister accept that there are currently no legal grounds on which a private landlord can evict a perpetrator of domestic abuse? Indeed, for social landlords, who can use ground 14A, this is restricted to use only after the survivor has left and does not intend to return. Will the Minister undertake to correct the record and ensure that the Government refrain, at all levels, from pursuing this damaging and misleading argument?
My Lords, I point out that the domestic abuse ground applies exclusively to the social sector. I will write to the noble Baroness providing clarification. This prioritisation of cases does not extend just to domestic abuse; it covers illegal occupation, fraud, egregious rent arrears, abandonment and anti-social behaviour. That is why we want to strike a fair balance between protecting the rights of landlords and of tenants.
Noble Lords will recall that in March, under the Everyone In campaign, some 15,000 rough sleepers were successfully housed in emergency accommodation. Many of them will now have moved on into privately rented accommodation. Given the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping, what assurances can my noble friend give that those rough sleepers can rebuild their lives and that, now tenancies can be terminated, they will not be evicted and return to the streets?
My Lords, my noble friend is right that it is a great achievement that 15,000 rough sleepers have been successfully placed in emergency accommodation. On 18 July we launched the Next Steps accommodation programme, under the leadership of Dame Louise Casey, and we are putting in two sources of funding: £161 million to deliver 3,300 units of longer-term, move-on accommodation in this financial year and £105 million of additional funding to pay for immediate support to ensure that people do not return to the streets. This Government have put in around £0.5 billion to date to ensure that we end rough sleeping and homelessness.
My Lords, the hospitality and restaurant sector has suffered hugely during this pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have extended the moratorium on the eviction of commercial tenants until the end of the year, which will be of great help? Can he confirm that the help could be extended beyond that? Many restaurateurs are really struggling to be able to pay rent when their businesses have been closed for such large periods of this pandemic.
My Lords, the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities were very grateful to be included explicitly in the Minister’s guidance to local authorities about their safety in relation to eviction, which was well implemented on the whole. Their situation, particularly in encampments—the noble Lord knows that there are not enough authorised sites—remains precarious, and they have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus. How will the Government enable their continued protection after the end of the moratorium?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises the issue of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and how we can protect them specifically. The Government are developing a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller strategy. It will include measures on how we can support those who are rough sleeping in the Roma community. I point out that the same rules that have been issued to the courts will also apply to that community, namely that there will be no enforcement of evictions in areas of local lockdown and over the Christmas period.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Not all private landlords are unreasonable and around half have only one property. Equally, not all tenants behave reasonably. Of course, homelessness is a tragedy. However, does my noble friend agree that it is only right, especially after such a long time with courts not operating, to give private landlords the ability to recover their property in cases where they need to and tenants are not behaving in ways that are fair to landlords?
My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. In fact, it was the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Mr Justice Knowles who made it clear that they want to see access to justice and the courts for both landlords and tenants. We need to strike a fair balance so that landlords are able to access justice, alongside measures to protect the most vulnerable. I think we strike that balance with these measures.
Can the Government accept the fact that, if anybody slips into homelessness, the cost to society and to those individuals of keeping them in homelessness doubles? Can the Government allocate funds so that we keep people in their homes and do not allow them to fall into the miasma of homelessness, which is very bad for everybody concerned? At the same time, can we look at making sure that the judges in eviction cases will never throw anybody out because of Covid-related poverty and unemployment?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his passionate campaign on behalf of people at risk of being made homeless and rough sleepers. I want to be clear that the new court rules and arrangements require landlords to set out any information they are aware of in relation to how their tenant, or any dependant of their tenant, has been affected by coronavirus. They have to do that, because if they do not they risk being put to the back of the queue. As I pointed out on previous questions, there have been a number of support measures, both in the welfare system and in direct payments to local authorities, to avoid homelessness.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of Generation Rent. Last week, I spoke to Peter, who lives alone and has lost his job. He received a one-off discretionary housing payment and while he gets universal credit, it covers only half of his rent. He received a Section 21 notice in May, so he has three months’ notice, and his rent debt means that he cannot get another landlord to take him on. Can the noble Lord advise Peter and other renters like him which element of the Government’s support package will stop them being evicted and made homeless?
My Lords, it is hard for me to get into the specifics of that case, but I would point out that the increase in the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rents has provided on average an extra £600 per household— £1 billion for 1 million extra households in this country. The noble Baroness mentioned that Peter has received the discretionary housing payment. Some £180 million has been sent to local authorities and the welfare net has been increased by some £9.3 billion. The overall measures also include £35 billion for the furlough scheme.
My Lords, I return to the question put by my noble friend Lady Wilcox. If the Minister looks at the Welsh situation more closely, he will find that the Welsh Government have indeed extended tenure to prevent evictions. He said that the Government might look at loan arrangements that help people keep out of debt. Can he set out exactly what the Government are looking at and when we might expect a similar response in England to that in Wales?
My Lords, what I said was that we would look at and consider the loan arrangement but that we are not making a commitment to it—indeed, it is based only on an announcement—so that we can see what the Welsh Government intend to do. I pointed out that there are great similarities between the situation in Wales and in this country regarding the court system and the six-month notice period.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who was the only Member who was not able to get in.