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Housing: Rent, Evictions and Covid-19

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on 18 March about the complete ban on evictions and additional protection for renters affected by COVID-19, what progress they have made to ensure that “no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.

I point to my relevant residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. There has been a six-month stay on repossession proceedings and we have established an unprecedented financial package. This includes spending over £39.3 billion on the furlough scheme and boosting the welfare system by more than £9 billion. There are now new court arrangements and notice periods of six months, except in the most serious cases, to help keep tenants in their homes over winter.

Does the Minister accept that this is a promise that cannot be met if mandatory evictions have resumed and infections are rising? What protects tenants in tiers 1 and 2, such as Michelle in Nottingham, who says:

“Rent alone each month is £575. I lost my job in March due to the virus and am now trying to survive on universal credit but I’m getting into debt with bills and barely have anything left for food”?

How do we now keep her safe?

My Lords, I repeat that there has been an unprecedented level of measures to support renters and we will continue to do what is needed to keep as many safe as possible, but it is fair to say that there will be cases where renters will have to potentially seek other places to live.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I am glad that housing associations have said clearly that they will not evict anyone suffering because of this crisis and are supporting residents in accessing financial help. What will the Minister do to encourage landlords to act with compassion in the coming months? Does he accept that, with a record 8 million people in England in housing need, the best way in which to protect renters in the longer term from unaffordable housing costs is to build homes for social rent?

My Lords, I commend registered social landlords for their leadership but point out that in the wider sector, according to the latest data, 89% of tenants are paying their rent in full, only 7% are in rent arrears and 4% have arrangements in place with their landlords. The vast majority of landlords seem to be acting sensibly.

My Lords, the welfare of tenants should be safeguarded fairly without destroying the financial viability of innocent landlords, who have an interest in maintaining good tenants. With rent arrears above £400 million and to avoid a future homelessness crisis, have the Government considered developing an equitable solution for both tenants and landlords by providing a financial package to pay off rent arrears built up as a direct result of the coronavirus?

My Lords, I have pointed to the unprecedented support that we have given to renters, including raising the local housing allowance, which is also important. The housing benefit bill and universal credit housing element total well over £20 billion. However, we need to get the balance right between the rights of renters and protecting and safeguarding the interests of landlords.

My Lords, my noble friend rightly refers to the recent generous increase in the local housing allowance, which will help tenants struggling with their rent. However, the increase runs out at the end of the year and, unless further action is taken, LHAs will revert to the previous, less generous levels in 2021. Does my noble friend agree that that would be a retrograde step, leading to an increase of some £54 a week for some tenants? The right thing to do would be to keep the 30th percentile at current market rents.

My Lords, my noble friend makes reasoned points. The increase to the 30th percentile of the local housing reliance will remain in place for the duration of the year, until March 2021.

My Lords, in 1942 William Beveridge fought five giants—squalor, want, ignorance and the other two. He might now have added a sixth: homelessness. In order to fulfil a sacred duty—“sacred” is a word used by the Chancellor—we have to make sure that every person has a home. Homelessness exists outside the time of this virus. There are 57,000 homeless families in the UK, of which about 6,000 are in Wales. Should we not be ashamed of ourselves if we are not able to tackle this with the same vigour with which we tackled squalor, disease and ignorance in the past? Will the Minister assure me that he will make every possible effort to give this homelessness problem, not only in the short term but in the long term, his absolute first attention?

My Lords, the mission to end rough sleeping is at the heart of what this Government are trying to achieve. I point to the Everyone In programme, led by Dame Louise Casey, and the Next Steps programme, which have given significant support to ending rough sleeping. This is our endeavour as a Government.

My Lords, we all understand why the Government are seeking protection for renters affected by Covid-19. As others have mentioned, should there not also be some form of protection for landlords suffering as a result of Covid-19? A lot of landlords are elderly people and their source of income may be the rental from one property. We have to look at both renters and those who are renting.

My Lords, we are seeking to get this balance right. I thank my noble friend for raising the importance of protecting the interests of landlords in the relationship between landlord and tenant.

My Lords, if we take the bigger issue behind the discussion about evictions, Britain is the only one of the G7 countries that is removing support during the period of Covid-19, ending it at the end of this year. Can we not take a leaf out of the IMF’s recommendation that we spend, spend, spend and keep the receipts? Will the Minister ask Mr Boris Johnson to save our children and our children’s children from homelessness and degradation? This Government have a responsibility if only to follow what other G7 countries are doing. Those countries are carrying on their support way beyond the period at which this Government are stopping.

My Lords, this Government are spending to a considerable and unprecedented degree. We must remember that, at the end of this pandemic, it will be our children and our children’s children who will pay back the debt.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register. It has been a year since the Government closed the consultation on their new deal for renting, which was to lead to a Bill to end evictions for no reason. The Government are now saying that they will bring forward the promised renters’ reform Bill only when

“there is a sensible and stable economic and social terrain on which to do it.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/9/20; col. 950.]

How do the Government define

“a sensible and stable economic and social terrain”?

What are they measuring and how will they know when the conditions to move forward with the Bill are met? If the noble Lord cannot say today how these criteria will be defined and met, will he write to let me know?

My Lords, our focus has obviously been on supporting renters during the pandemic. I will write to the noble Lord on that matter.

My Lords, the cost of temporary accommodation for homeless people is already in excess of £1 billion. This can only rise as hardship increases. Have the Government made any assessment of whether it would not be better value, as well as more humane, to put the money into helping people to stay in their own homes using, for example, a scheme similar to that in Spain?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for this helpful policy point about the Spanish experience. I shall write to her on that matter.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Many landlords have mortgages and ongoing repair costs. What measures are proposed to protect them from the hardship imposed on them by those tenants who are financially able but who have decided that they are not willing to pay their rents in the knowledge that they can shelter under the new government umbrella from any immediate consequences?

My Lords, that is precisely why the evictions moratorium had to end. We have to protect landlords from egregious rent arrears as well as from cases of abandonment, fraud, anti-social behaviour and, in the social sector, domestic abuse. That is why the judiciary called for a start on proceedings, to focus on the most difficult cases first.

My Lords, I remind the House that the Procedure Committee has recommended that supplementaries should not last longer than 30 seconds. During the last Question there were examples of questions by Members from nearly all parties and groups that went on for longer than that. It would be of benefit to all noble Lords if Members restricted their supplementaries to 30 seconds.