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Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 8 January be approved.

Relevant document: 42nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this draft instrument prevents enforcement agents—bailiffs—attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession except in the most serious circumstances. The instrument applies to enforcement action in England. It has been in force since 11 January and will expire at the end of 21 February. I refer to my interest as set out in the register.

The instrument renews the restrictions on enforcement agents carrying out evictions that were in place between 17 November 2020 and 11 January 2021. This will ensure that we continue to protect public health during this national lockdown, at a time when the risk of virus transmission is very high, and avoid placing an additional burden on the NHS and local authorities. The instrument continues to provide for exemptions from the ban in cases where we consider that the competing interests of preventing harm to third parties or taking action against egregious behaviour are sufficient to outweigh the public health risks.

The exemptions are as follows. The first is where the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown. The second is where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of: anti-social behaviour or nuisance; false statements; domestic abuse in social tenancies; substantial rent arrears, equivalent to six months’ rent; or where the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of the death of the tenant and the enforcement agent attending the property is satisfied that the property is unoccupied. The instrument contains a requirement for the court to be satisfied that an exemption applies on a case-by-case basis. This will ensure that there is a clear, uniform and transparent process for establishing whether an exemption to the ban applies.

As noble Lords will appreciate, this legislation is an extension of the previous ban on the enforcement of evictions in all but two respects. The first difference is that we have redefined the exemption for “substantial rent arrears” to mean arrears of more than six months. The definition in the previous instrument was arrears of more than nine months, not including any arrears that had accrued since March 2020. We have made this change to balance the impact of the ongoing restrictions on landlords with the need to continue to protect tenants. Because of action that the Government have taken as a result of the pandemic to protect renters, we expect that most cases that will fall within this exemption will relate to possession claims that began before the six-month stay on possession proceedings commenced in March 2020. In those cases, landlords may have been waiting for more than a year without rent being paid.

The second difference between this instrument and the one it replaces is that it permits writs and warrants of restitution to be enforced. These orders are issued in cases where a person who has been evicted from premises re-enters those premises illegally. It is therefore appropriate that they be excluded from the ban.

The regulations will be in place until the end of 21 February. We are considering whether and, if so, how to extend them, including how long any such further extension should be in place, and will provide more details as soon as possible.

It is important to ensure that our approach remains proportionate and strikes the right balance between continuing to protect tenants and ensuring that landlords can access justice. On 8 December last year, during the debate on the previous statutory instrument, concern was raised that the Government had not gone further to protect renters and support landlords, many of whom are individuals. The Government believe the best way to support landlords at this time is to provide support to tenants to enable them to continue to pay their rent, and have provided an unprecedented package of financial support which is available to tenants. This includes the fact that, in April 2020, we increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rents in each area to help prevent people getting into financial hardship. It also includes an increase of nearly £1 billion in additional support for private renters claiming universal credit or housing benefit in 2020-21, which will benefit over 1 million households, including those in work. Claimants will gain on average an additional £600 this year in increased housing support.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions recently announced that the increase to local housing allowance rates in April this year will be maintained in cash terms in 2021-22, even in the large number of cases where the 30th percentile of local rents has gone down. The continued investment in local housing allowance will support claimants in the private rented sector to manage housing costs. That is on top of the other provisions in place, which the House will know of, to help businesses pay salaries, with the furlough scheme extended to April and the welfare safety net boosted by billions of pounds. In this context, the Government have made £180 million available to local authorities and discretionary housing payments to help renters with their housing costs. All that is critical factual background when considering this statutory instrument.

We continue to require landlords to provide tenants with six months’ notice before eviction in all but the most serious cases until the end of March. That means that most renters served notice now can stay in their homes until June 2021, with time to find alternative accommodation. The six-month stay on possession proceedings put in place at the start of the pandemic could only ever be temporary.

The new court rules also respond to the pandemic and will be reviewed. These include a requirement for cases from before 3 August last year to be reactivated by the landlord and subject to a new review hearing at least four weeks before the substantive hearing. There is a need for landlords to provide courts and judges with information on how tenants have been affected by the pandemic—if that information is not provided, an adjournment will be made. There is a new review stage at least 28 days before the substantive hearing so that tenants can access legal advice, and all enforcement agents must provide a minimum of 14 days’ notice before enforcing an eviction. That is on top of new listing prioritisation arrangements which have been introduced by the judiciary.

Further, we are piloting from early this month a new mediation service to support landlords and tenants in seeking to resolve disputes before a formal hearing takes place. That will be free to use for both landlords and tenants, if it is considered at a review that the case would benefit from mediation and the parties so agree.

Our approach strikes the right balance between prioritising public health and supporting the most vulnerable renters, while at the same time ensuring that landlords can access and exercise their rights to justice. Landlords can action possession claims through the courts, but evictions will not be enforced except in the most serious cases. This SI strikes the right balance, and I therefore commend the regulations to the House.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

As an amendment to the motion in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, at end to insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations only provide protection from eviction for residential tenancies until the end of 21 February, and regrets that the Regulations permit evictions for arrears that have built up since the start of the pandemic, and that a case is deemed to involve substantial rent arrears if the amount of unpaid arrears outstanding is at least equivalent to six months’ rent, which contravenes Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment that nobody would lose their home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

My Lords, I have several declarations to make: I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association, chair of Heart of Medway Housing Association and a non-executive director of MHS Homes Ltd. Noble Lords will be further aware that my wife is my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, who is the director of Generation Rent.

In moving this regret amendment today, I make it clear that I do so as the official Opposition spokesperson for housing and local government, and not in a personal or any other capacity. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson; I have not had a chance to speak to him yet, but I have seen him in the Chamber and I am sure we will speak outside. I wish him well in his responsibilities.

From the start of the pandemic, the Government have made numerous announcements and promises. One such area is the private rented sector, where the Government’s mishandling of the situation has failed tenants and landlords. On 26 March last year, the right honourable Member for Newark in the other place, Mr Robert Jenrick, went on record saying

“no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic”.

These regulations confirm that that promise is broken: tenants across the UK are struggling to make ends meet right now; certain sections of the economy have had no help whatever; redundancies will be at record levels across huge sections of the economy when the furlough scheme ends; we are in the worst recession for 300 years and the economy is expected to shrink by 11.3%. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is on record as saying that the fiscal damage will be “lasting”, and the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted that unemployment will rise in 2021 to 7.6% of the entire workforce, or 2.6 million people.

These regulations satisfy no one. On the one hand, they extend the ban on enforcement of eviction orders which has been granted by the courts until 21 February, but they also expand the exemptions from the ban, meaning that tenants with more than six months’ arrears could be evicted. Citizens advice bureaux estimate that close to 500,000 renters are in arrears and are now at risk of a Covid-19 eviction because of the ban being lifted. Already, more than 174,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent. Even at the start of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of private tenants had no savings, on top of the 45% of private renters who have lost income since March.

We are asking the Government to stick to their word: that no one will lose their home because of coronavirus. In the months that preceded this debate, the right measures could have been put in place to ensure that the Government’s promise was honoured. They could have brought in the right support for struggling tenants that would have benefited both tenants and landlords, with changes to the universal credit system and an uplifted local housing allowance. They could also have announced a credible plan to deal with rent arrears. Instead, they leapt from crisis to crisis and wasted months, and tenants now face the same predicament they faced at the beginning of the pandemic.

Measures that could have been looked at include the setting up of a Covid-19 hardship fund to help support those in receipt of benefits who are struggling, or an increase in local housing allowance, but instead the Government proposed a freeze in cash terms from April 2021. All that achieves is that tenants in higher-rent areas get less support than those in lower-rent areas. The shared accommodation rate should have been suspended for at least 12 months, as called for by the Social Security Advisory Committee. The housing benefit cap should be scrapped and the £20 monthly uplift to universal credit kept. Those measures and similar ones would in most cases have the support of both landlords and tenants. Neither good landlords nor good tenants who find themselves in real difficulties should be penalised because of the pandemic.

Looking at the measures called for by landlord trade bodies and by tenant organisations, what is striking is the similarities between them. It is also worth noting that the BMA and others have warned of a potential rise in Covid infections if the Government force people into homelessness or overcrowded accommodation, the consequences of which would extend far beyond those directly involved. Look at the tragedy that lifting the lockdown measures over Christmas brought to families—this is a deadly virus, and measures that do not respect that fact and protect people accordingly will have deadly consequences.

I intend to test the opinion of the House on the regret amendment in my name. It is another plea to the Government to get a grip on the situation. People are really suffering, both landlords and tenants. They are really scared about their future. Landlords and tenants need help to get through this nightmare. We all need to get back on our feet and on the road to recovery. We all desperately want to see that.

There is a second regret amendment, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. I have great respect for her. She has considerable knowledge and experience of these matters. The House would do well to listen to her. I make it clear that I would have no problem voting for her amendment and fully endorse its aims.

My Lords, I too welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to his new role. We welcome the extension to 21 February but, for well-being, security and public health arguments, we believe that extensions of these measures should be linked to extensions of lockdowns. We regret that, unlike the first lockdown, eviction notices can still be served under these rules.

Given the UK and South African variants, the last thing we want is more families homeless, and the greatest cause of homelessness is the end of a private tenancy. I urge the Minister to agree to speak with and understand the plight of families who have had to find a new home to rent during the lockdown. I am sure that Citizens Advice would be willing to arrange this if he is amenable.

The Minister has been asked to deliver a highly significant change from the previous version of this statutory instrument—a change which suggests that there is a minimal understanding of what is happening to private renters. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has already said—this bears repetition—the Secretary of State promised on 18 March that

“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.

This change in the statutory instrument breaks that promise, by changing eviction guidance from a nine-month threshold to now ensuring that renters can be evicted with more than six months of arrears, including the period of this pandemic.

Last week in Oral Questions, I asked for the data behind this extraordinary decision. It was puzzling to me that the Minister kept resorting to the latest Citizens Advice report, New Year, Same Arrears, and using that as the rationale behind this change. Citizens Advice had revealed that tenants were £360 million behind in rent. But if they are behind in rent, surely they need support, not a change to include arrears during the period of the pandemic.

Sadly, this change is only too transparent. It suggests that, when it comes to tenants, the Government’s assumption is that they are in some way irresponsible—but most evidence suggests that before this pandemic, well over 90% of tenants were not in arrears. Should not the assumption be that these are responsible people, the vast majority of whom until this moment paid rent in full on time, who are now often in the worst- case scenarios? Indeed, according to the Resolution Foundation, twice as many private renters have reported job losses as homeowners. The Government’s own Household Resilience Survey: Wave 1 found that private renters were by far the hardest hit by the pandemic.

When the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pushes his amendment to the Motion to test the opinion of the House, we will fully support him. I thank the noble Lord for his words of support. We feel that one vote is enough on this, and I will not push my amendment to a vote today.

When the Minister responds, I ask him to tell us what risk assessment has been conducted regarding the likelihood of families losing their home as a result of this substantive change.

The amendment to the Motion I have tabled explains the context in which so many private renters entered this pandemic and the devastating impact it has had on them. The Minister has already referred to the levels of support given. But, as my own amendment to the Motion makes clear, this support is given without an understanding of the context for most private renters at the start of this pandemic.

Renters had an average of £500 in savings at the start, and 60% had no savings at all. The average short- fall in support each month under the local housing allowance scheme, because it is only the bottom 30% of rents, is about £100—you do the maths. The benefit cap has also reduced allowances. So any savings—if renters did have them—are already gone, and many started with no savings at all.

Citizens Advice found that most tenants have accrued arrears of less than £600, but the people they help will take, on average, seven years to pay that back. The cost to the public purse right now to help those tenants through a support package of targeted loans and grants—a one-off financial boost that would pull them out of debt, so that they in turn can pay their landlord and stay in their home—would be less than the projected £360 million debt.

The final part of my amendment to the Motion refers to the need for just such a package of support to keep people in their home, proposed by the National Residential Landlords Association, Generation Rent, Citizens Advice and others. It is really important to note that, when we are talking about this balance issue with landlords, the NRLA is very clear that the real need is to tackle the rent debt crisis.

Let us put that £360 million debt in context. It is far less than the highly questionable £1 billion spent on lateral flow tests, devised by US firm Innova but made in China, and a tiny fraction of the staggering £15 billion spent in four months on test and trace, much of it on lateral flow tests. Let us think just for a second about the hurdles private sector tenants have to go through right now for support, and then compare it with the fact that only 1% of this massive test and trace expenditure has gone through any competitive tender, according to the National Audit Office. How different it is for renters, choosing between food, heat and rent.

For public heath safety, for security of a family home, and for mental health reasons alone, we should keep renters in their home. These measures fall far short of those aims.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, for whom I have the greatest respect and who knows a great deal, about this area. I welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench and thank him very much for setting out these regulations. I declare my interests as set out in the register, and I thank the National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent for their helpful briefings.

I am in support of these regulations, but I have some concerns. I see the need to protect public health and the risk of virus transmission—I am sure that we all do. We go through this bimonthly ritual of renewing these regulations, and I have to say to my noble friend, who seemed to indicate that there was as yet no certainty about renewing them, that we are only three weeks away from them running out. It seems to me that we should provide some certainty for both landlords and tenants.

I hope that we will renew the regulations, but that we will take a more strategic look at how we approach this situation. Here we are, many renewals in, with a very fundamental problem: the gradual accumulation of rent arrears, which is now substantial. That affects tenants and, of course, landlords, because we are not doing anything about the debt which is building up over time. There is a very real concern about credit ratings for tenants who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in this situation. Their credit rating is affected, and that will have a long-term effect on the tenancy market, which is a very important part of our housing area. We will need to take a much more strategic approach, rather than looking simply at the very important protection of tenants from eviction—that is, as it were, a given. I have great sympathy with looking at this on a wider scale rather than every two months, because I do not see this problem going away by 21 February. Surely we should take a longer look at this.

Could my noble friend give some thought, and perhaps some preliminary thoughts to the House, on how we might move forward, at least with hardship loans or funds to help tenants, and thus landlords and the sector? Otherwise, this will be a long-term problem that is building up over time. I sympathise with the situation that my noble friend finds himself in, and I can appreciate the great pressure that the Government are under on so many fronts. However, I think we need to take a step back and look at this not just in tactical terms of what we need to do for the immediate problem but at the situation that is building up.

I know my noble friend said something on this in opening, but I am not quite clear why we have moved from nine months’ arrears to six months’ arrears. What is the reason for that? The problem is more serious now, so I cannot quite square that with the fact that we seem to be bearing down with six months of debt accrued rather than nine months. However, it may be that I missed something there.

As my noble friend said, we have provided unprecedented help, but on the other hand, we are in a unprecedented situation, and it looks to me as if it will last for some time. Even as we come out of the public health hazards, as I am sure we will this year, the long-term economic position will have an effect on tenancies. I look forward to my noble friend saying something on that but, in the meantime, I support the necessity of these regulations.

We have had two speakers scratch, so I hope it does not come as a surprise that the next speaker is the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

My Lords, thank you, it does not. I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, said in March 2020 that

“no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.”

That sounds like a promise, which the Government are breaking by cutting the rent arrears minimum to six months—only half the period for which the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been raging. I will also quote Shelter chief executive Polly Neate on this statutory instrument, which she described as

“the minimum required to keep … people safe in their homes”,

as the very useful briefing from Generation Rent on this SI notes. Eviction notices can still be served and possession notices are being granted, while the Government are asking people not to leave their homes—and all of this runs only until 21 February. To complete my trio of quotes, I will go to the Green Member of the London Assembly, Siân Berry: “Everyone has the right to a home.”

The Government doing the minimum here is really not enough. In Scotland and Wales more is being done. Both nations have loan schemes. Wales has a five-year loan with an APR of 1%, while in Scotland the loans are interest free, and there is also an increase in direct support to tenants. That is better than in England, although of course the problem with loans is that they still have to be paid back. For many households who were living permanently on the edge, even pre-Covid, in a society with a minimum wage well below the real living wage, and the horrendous insecurity of zero-hours contracts, it is hardly any relief from the massive pressure of poverty and inequality under which so many live to say, “Here, have a loan”. Clearly, what is needed are grants—support for the poorest, who have been utterly failed by our massively expensive, exploitative, privatised housing system, to lift them at least to ground level out of the massive financial hole they find themselves in through no fault of their own.

Progressively, over decades, under Governments of various political colours, we have destroyed a system that provided genuinely affordable, generally decent homes for all. Let us not forget that in 1979 nearly half the British population lived in secure council homes. Some of those were not as well built or maintained as they should have been, or were in areas with inadequate facilities and opportunities, but they were secure. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has just said, we replaced that with a market, and that is not a successful model for housing.

As noble Lords might predict from those remarks, the Green group supports both of the regret amendments, particularly that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, with its focus on the need to provide long-term security for tenants. However, looking at that longer term, we have to move away from regarding houses primarily as financial assets and instead focus on providing everyone with a secure, genuinely affordable home that meets their needs—although of course I acknowledge that that is beyond the immediate scope of this SI. I note research last month from Aldermore Bank showing that half of renters now regard their circumstances as unstable, with one in 10 struggling to pay the rent since March. Clearly, we have a broken housing system.

Coincidentally, I spent this morning chairing a Westminster Forum session about our broken food system. That is two basics of human existence—food and housing —on this planet, with a climate emergency and a nature crisis, where as a species we are smashing through multiple planetary limits while failing miserably to meet even basic human needs in a collectively wealthy country such as the United Kingdom. I have to say that we have a broken economic, social and political system. We have to rescue people in the immediate future, but we also have to think longer term about massive transformational change.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I too welcome my noble friend to his role and thank him for setting out this SI so clearly. I also thank Generation Rent and the NRLA for their briefings and their constructive work on these issues. It is absolutely right that tenants need to be protected against unreasonable behaviour by their landlords, and public health concerns absolutely mean that homelessness is really problematic and must be avoided wherever possible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, rightly says, the vast majority of tenants are responsible, but the vast majority of landlords are, too. The majority in fact own just one or two properties and look after their tenants with care. Some are pensioners, relying on rental income for their retirement security. Private landlords cannot be expected to continue to effectively pay to house people for free. That is a government role, and I agree with other noble Lords that there are important issues that we must address to support tenants who, through no fault of their own, and perhaps as a result of the pandemic, have found themselves in rent arrears.

This SI, which focuses mostly on tenants with large arrears who have engaged in egregious behaviour, anti-social behaviour, abusive behaviour or trespass, for example, does seek to balance the interests of landlords, who may indeed have suffered more than a year without any rental payments at all, and those of tenants who need a home. Of course, supporting tenants to help them continue to pay rent is a very effective way to help landlords, but there are cases where landlords will need to have their property back. That is what the Government are seeking and I agree that this is a very delicate and difficult issue that they are seeking to achieve.

The measures that the Minister outlined show that, even with the six months’ arrears and notice of eviction, tenants will be secure until June at the very least and, indeed, with the review stages being extended, it is likely to be quite significantly beyond that. They have time to either find new accommodation themselves or for social housing to be assigned to them if possible. I recognise that this is difficult and that in some cases we will be dealing with tenants who will find it difficult to be housed. However, I support the Government in their efforts to balance the interests of innocent landlords with the needs of good tenants, who also must be protected.

My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister how an individual who has been evicted will be traced—for example, there is tracing currently for the South African virus variants—or how they will be contacted for an appointment for their jab if they have been evicted.

I know that the Minister, his predecessor and his officials will have been involved in detailed discussions and research looking at this issue, which is obviously fundamental to getting out of the current health crisis. All my experience suggests that there is a direct correlation between the ability to interact with the NHS and the stability of housing. Therefore, the more that people are evicted and moved, the less their interaction with the health service will be, and the more vulnerable they and society will be—either by not being traced when there is an emergency requirement or by not being contacted when there is an opportunity for them to receive the vaccine.

What is the propensity for someone not to be registered with a GP who is trying to communicate with someone, having lost the address when that person has been evicted? It is a big issue for NHS business planning and is not new. What discussions have taken place over the past year between the Minister’s department and the department of health to clarify that matter? It is an important consideration now and in the future.

A second issue is a microcosm of a problem that I have raised previously but not with any success, relating to the Traveller community. It is more vulnerable to eviction under the criteria that the Minister has set out, yet it is by definition more likely then to move to another area. Given the context in which these regulations are made—the health pandemic—what specific attention has been given to the requirements of the Traveller community and its danger of being evicted, either from a fixed location or from within the community? Some Travellers are evicted by others in that community from less-fixed accommodation. How does that issue fit into the strategy?

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench. I have been involved in housing matters of a political nature for half a century. I was housing chairman for the London Borough of Islington, which at that time—the 1960s—was difficult for tenants and the economy under Harold Wilson. I have been deeply involved with the mutual movement and social housing. I am sure that my noble friend knows this but there are rogue, bad landlords around. We had Rachman and De Lusignan. Their equivalents are there today. There are also rogue tenants, who were a problem then and now.

The kernel of this SI is about normal tenancies and normal tenants who face particular difficulties due to the pandemic. I say to my noble friend, who is enormously welcome to the Front Bench: can we please plan ahead? Why did we not review this issue at least 10 days earlier? February 21 is two and a half weeks away, not even three. That is not long.

I have looked at the four categories and I am comfortable with three of them, but not with the category of substantial rent arrears. Questions arise. We—my Government—have done a good job on the homeless but, if we now find ourselves in another crunch period whereby people are made homeless, that will fall on the local authorities just when they have been working tremendously hard to make things operate as normally as possible. What are we going to do? I suggest two things. One should be to quickly announce that the scheme, whatever it may be—some revisions may be needed after this debate—will run until Easter. Secondly, I have looked at the schemes run in Wales and Scotland. I do not find much in favour of the one in Scotland but the tenant hardship loan in Wales has a lot going for it. It might need a bit of fine tuning to English conditions; nevertheless, it may be the way forward.

Frankly, I do not understand why there has to be a 1% charge. Are we not hoping that we are beginning to come to the end of the pandemic? There should be no interest charge but a hardship loan, with people implementing it who understand how it works and how tenants can ensure that they play their roles.

Finally, my dear and noble friend Lord Bourne asked a valid question about the change from nine months’ to six months’ arrears. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that housing was never an easy job but, at this point in time, the middle category of people who are genuinely good tenants in normal times are those who need this help.

My Lords, I welcome these discussions and particularly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to this place and congratulate him. The last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is important, although I do not agree with tenants having to be forced to take loans out. If the Government are considering that at all, there should be no interest charged whatever. We should not get into the circle of providing further opportunities to put vulnerable people into more debt.

The Housing Secretary made a statement that no one should lose their homes as a result of this health crisis. However, the legislation on eviction precisely allows that for arrears accrued since the start of this pandemic. The Minister will be aware that, between April and November 2020, a staggering number of some 207,500 households sought help with homelessness from their local council. Surely it is evident that families are suffering extreme hardship, and extending the ban on eviction until the end of February or even June will not resolve any of the grave consequences for particularly vulnerable families. That requires long-term and sustainable policy and action.

As a number of noble Lords have eloquently pointed out, families are facing the most serious job and financial crisis, and six months’ exemption is not good enough. I therefore support the regret amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and ask the Government to extend the ban on evictions and repossession until we are out of this health pandemic.

Housing reform, alongside all the associated safety nets, is required even more urgently now as more families become reliant on public housing. These regret amendments seek to prevent the enforcement of eviction and repossessions until such time as the pandemic eases. Unless we do so, such inhumane responses will make families prey to further stress and inevitably dire health consequences. Housing is a basic fundamental right. Therefore, the Government’s response is intrinsically, in effect, in breach of those basic rights. These matters go beyond any party-political ideology. They are about safety and preventing further stress on the NHS.

I support these regret amendments and ask the Government to commit to protect all those who are facing eviction, and to ensure that all families who need homes are provided with safe, secure and good-quality accommodation for the most vulnerable of our society.

I welcome my noble friend back to the Front Bench after his positive responses when the Domestic Abuse Bill was in Committee yesterday. I declare an interest, as I lease a property. As part of my training for the Scottish bar, I did an apprenticeship with Simpson & Marwick. One of the benefits of the Scottish training is that we work with solicitors first hand. One of my duties was as a debt collector. It impressed on me that people fall into debt not necessarily through any responsibility of their own but through misfortune. That has been compounded in the present environment and climate that we find ourselves in through Covid, with the dreadful consequences that other noble Lords have set out.

I welcome the regulations before us today, and I thank my noble friend for setting out the changes that they introduce from previous ones. I welcome them, as far as they go. In preparing for today, I am grateful to briefings from, among others, Generation Rent and the National Residential Landlords Association. The degree to which they agree on the way forward is stark. While I welcome the positive steps taken in the regulations before us, I share the misgivings of other noble Lords about the reduction in protection from nine to six months. It would be helpful to understand the reasoning behind that.

I also think it is important to recognise the generosity of support that the Government have given so far, but I hope that my noble friend urges the Government and department to look kindly on two proposals, in particular. The first is the tenant hardship loans, which we have seen work so effectively with similar schemes in Scotland and Wales. This measure has the support of, among others, the debt charity StepChange and Citizens Advice. The scheme has a proven track record in two other parts of the kingdom, and it bears further investigation. The second, as other noble Lords have suggested, is a Covid-19 hardship fund to be administered by local authorities. This could be boosted to support those in receipt of benefits.

Finally, I focus on the expiry of the regulations in three weeks. As the furlough scheme has been extended, it would help if the schemes before us could be extended at least to reflect the same deadline as the furlough scheme. It is important to realise that tenants have fallen on hard times, not necessarily through any fault of their own. Many shops, retail businesses and others have closed at very short notice, in very short order. For example, many would not have been able to benefit from the extension to the furlough scheme in October, because they did not realise what was intended. We do not know what is going to happen when the furlough scheme expires, if that is the case, at the end of April.

I hope that my noble friend shows his benevolent nature and seeks to extend these regulations at the first available opportunity, and looks at schemes such as the tenant hardship loans and Covid-19 hardship funds, as others have suggested. Also, the deadlines set out in these regulations should be revised to reflect those in other regulations, such as the extension to universal credit and the furlough scheme. With these few words, I support the regulations before us, but urge my noble friend to look favourably on my suggestions.

The Government have extended protections against the enforcement of residential evictions until at least 21 February 2021, because of the third national lockdown in England. These measures have been criticised by Labour and others for not going far enough to prevent renters losing their homes during the pandemic. On 8 January 2021, the Government announced that, in view of the new national lockdown, they would extend the ban on bailiff-enforced evictions in England for at least six weeks. The regulations came into force on 11 January 2021. Both Houses of Parliament must approve them by 3 February 2021 for them to continue in force.

The regulations prevent enforcement of evictions through bailiffs attending residential premises in England to execute a writ or warrant of possession or to deliver a notice of eviction. However, evictions and repossessions can continue to take place where a court is satisfied of an exemption, such as a claim against a trespasser, or that the order of possession was made, wholly or partly, on the grounds of anti-social behaviour, nuisance, false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies or substantial rent arrears for six months, or on the death of the tenant, or when the property is unoccupied when the person attends.

The Government have said that restricting the enforcement of evictions would help control the spread of infection and prevent additional burdens falling on the NHS. These regulations will expire on 21 February 2021. They are necessary, but stopping evictions for a few weeks and reviewing the regulations again must cause considerable anxiety and mental health problems for those who are genuinely in arrears because they have lost their jobs. The processes described will benefit only lawyers and are an unnecessary waste of court time. Will the Minister confirm whether he will reconsider the regulations, as there is evidence that the pandemic will surge, again and again, until over 70% of the population has been vaccinated?

My Lords, I believe that, in these Covid times, these regulations are important for relieving anxiety and giving tenants the peace of mind that they will continue to have a roof over their heads, while ensuring a balance that allows landlords to repossess a property where the tenant is in significant breach of their lease—for example, due to their anti-social behaviour or a six-month backlog of unpaid rent.

I am a landlord myself, as disclosed in the register of interests. While I recognise that many landlords will think that some of these regulations are unfair and costly to them, there will be many tenants who think that they still favour the landlord too much. It is key to strike the right balance, and it is important that the Government consider a package of financial assistance to help tenants in arrears and landlords who currently have to bear those arrears.

In addition, I question the provision to allow repossession on the grounds that

“the dwelling house is unoccupied”

at the time of attendance. Given all the restrictions on international and local travel, and the possibility that the landlord may find it impossible to return to their property, should international tenants be given more protection from repossession, subject to paying their rent, when they are unable to return to the UK?

My Lords, I have previously queried whole swathes of illiberal legislation that have been put on the statute books, such as that which makes it illegal to leave your own house without an explanation or to mingle with friends in your own back garden. When I pressed for a date about when lockdown will end and asked if we can know exactly when these things will happen, my queries were met with great irritation and government Ministers saying, “We are following the evidence, don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?” This is one statutory instrument where I would actually like to see that kind of approach. Instead, here we have very specific dates, which are always time-limited, on-the-dot and short-term. I do not understand, especially given that homes are so important in this pandemic, why the Government are being so mean-spirited on this question.

That dreaded lockdown phrase, “Stay home”, resonates differently across society. For some, “Stay home” means saving money on the commute, or thinking about where to place the home-school workspace for the children or what bookcases are on display during business Zoom calls. But for many people, “Stay home” means how to rota the kids’ laptops on the dining room table in the cramped, gardenless flat. With this SI, it is about the fear and dread of whether or not being able to stay in the same home will be feasible once lockdown ends. This is one of the greatest causes of anxiety, with parents lying in bed at night worrying about debt and eviction. Many private renters are worrying about how to stave off homelessness for themselves and their families.

I of course welcome this temporary ban on eviction—I welcome it again, as it was only a few weeks ago that we renewed it for a further few weeks—but it feels too short-term and shallow to deal with the challenges of the continual closure of society. Surely the Government realise that this is storing up huge problems for the future. Tenants’ debts are mounting up, and, as other noble Lords have mentioned vividly, this is not their fault. Many of them would never have got into debt before. They are using their rent money to pay fuel bills because they are not allowed to leave the house with their families. As the months drag on, furlough, which was at first welcomed, now means a one-fifth cut in wages. This is unemployment delayed. In the past, those who managed to juggle their finances often had a number of part-time jobs to make do, but you can no longer have an evening bar job or a shift in Debenhams to make up the money because we have locked down.

As tenants’ debts mount up, they do not stand a chance of paying them off. It is now clear that when lockdown measures end there will not be a land of milk and honey but a serious economic depression with mass unemployment. If furlough is just redundancy deferred, then the inadequacy of this SI means that it is, I am afraid, eviction deferred. There is just no need; I genuinely do not understand why the Government— for whom money seems to be no object during this pandemic—cannot see that targeted loans and grants will get them out of this and help tenants and landlords alike. Why do they not write off the debt and have a debt amnesty? Remember that so many landlords, who are also suffering, are not property tycoons—almost half of them own only one property. They have spent their life savings or redundancy money on prudently investing in a buy-to-let for their income and pensions, and they too are now desperate.

I finish by saying that the Government have proved, through the magnificent vaccine rollout, that they can be impressive and swift, think in the long-term and solve problems. But, unfortunately, they also have the problem of making a mess of less challenging issues, from the cladding scandal and the throwing of leaseholders under the bus, to the home-school meals saga. I welcome the noble Lord to the Chamber, but I appeal to him to not follow in the same suit of making a mess of this, because it is easy to solve. Just solve it, and do not keep coming back with SIs for another few months.

My Lords, in this short debate I feel I have been assailed from all sides. I have been attacked for not giving enough protection to renters and challenged for not giving sufficient thought to landlords. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, said that I would satisfy no one—that may be the story of my life. I bear in mind the point made by my noble friend Lord Naseby that housing never was an easy job. It is certainly less easy when you are in the middle of a global pandemic and even more difficult when you are actually a Minister in the Ministry of Justice.

The experience of being castigated from all sides, however, has been ameliorated by the cogency, force and evident passion of many of the contributions to this debate. But the fact that I have been challenged from all sides is important. I am not making the simple, perhaps simplistic, point—attractive though it would be to do so—that the fact that both renters and landlords consider they have cause for complaint shows that we have got it about right. That would be superficially attractive, but it would not necessarily follow.

What does follow is the point that this is not a simple issue. It is not just a question of focusing on the position of renters or landlords, or even a question of focusing on renters and landlords. We also need to bear in mind the position of others, including neighbours, for example, who have a right to be protected from anti-social behaviour or nuisance. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, who said that this is not a matter of ideology. It is rather, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said, a matter of balance. This statutory instrument, as I have explained, seeks to balance those interests against an ongoing pandemic and, as I said in my opening remarks, in the light of the various financial support mechanisms that the Government have provided both for renters specifically and for people more generally.

It is against that background that I turn to the regret amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I sincerely thank him for his warm words and I am sure that we will work together, both in and out of the Chamber, on this and other matters.

However, there have been no broken promises. On the point made by the noble Lord, and repeated by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Uddin, because of measures taken in response to the pandemic, we calculated that it would be unlikely that a case would have yet reached the enforcement stage where a landlord had initiated possession proceedings as a result of rent arrears that had begun to accrue since the start of the pandemic.

First, the Coronavirus Act 2020 provides that landlords must give tenants longer notice periods before starting possession proceedings in the courts, apart from in the most egregious cases. Previously, two weeks’ notice was required, and between 26 March and 28 August last year, three months’ notice was required. Since then, landlords have been required to give six months’ notice where arrears are less than six months, and four weeks’ notice where the arrears are at least six months. We also take into account the amount of time it takes possession proceedings to progress through the courts, and the new arrangements that are in place to deal with the resumption of cases following the resumption of possession proceedings at the end of September.

Importantly, at each stage of the process the tenant is provided with time in which to seek advice or make alternative arrangements. If we were to consider a hypothetical case, where a tenant has rent arrears that only started to accrue since the pandemic began, that case will have been affected by the requirement for longer notice periods, the six-month stay on possession proceedings and then the need to follow due process in the courts. When we assess it, it is unlikely that such a case would yet have reached the enforcement stage.

There could, however, be cases where landlords have been waiting to recover possession orders where the rent arrears began to accrue before March 2020. In such cases, where there are very significant rent arrears, we consider that those landlords ought to be able to enforce those orders. But even in those extreme cases, where a court decides that an exemption to this instrument applies, and taking into account one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, bailiffs will not carry out an eviction if they are made aware that anyone living in the property has Covid-19 symptoms, is self-isolating or has been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable.

I now turn to the regret amendment put down by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, whose experience and knowledge in this area must be acknowledged by everyone in this debate; they are certainly acknowledged by me. Despite the fact that she is not pushing her amendment to a vote, I have to say that, with respect, the terms of the amendment do not meet the issue which faces the Government, and which the statutory instrument seeks to deal with.

The terms of the noble Baroness’s amendment state that it is regrettable that the statutory instrument does not

“link protection from evictions automatically to the extension of restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic”,

which is a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. It would be wrong to make such an “automatic” link—to use the word in the amendment—because policy in this area should not operate on an automatic basis. It would be wrong for a number of reasons. When assessing the issue of protection from evictions, it would mean that we would look only at the existence of restrictions resulting from the pandemic, which would be to look at only half the picture. It would mean that we would not consider that those restrictions have changed, and no doubt will change further over time. It would mean that we would overlook the help that has been made available and remains available to renters specifically and to people generally. It would also mean ignoring the protections that we have built into the system, and, as my noble friend Lady Altmann reminded us, taking no account of the interests of landlords, who also deserve consideration. Many landlords depend on the rent that they receive for their sole income; if no rent comes in, they can be placed in a precarious financial situation. Over and above all of that, linking protection from evictions automatically to the existence of Covid-19 restrictions assumes a correlation, and indeed a causation, where neither might exist. By contrast, the statutory instrument seeks to find and maintain a balanced approach, taking all matters into account.

I will write to noble Lords whose comments I have not been able to refer to specifically. In the time that I have left, I will pick up on a couple of the main points which were put to me during the debate, beginning with the limited-time nature of this statutory instrument and what my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth called the “bi-monthly ritual” of this SI. I would always be grateful for any opportunities to come to your Lordships’ House for an interesting debate, but I accept in principle that we may wish to raise our eyes and look for a longer period. That is difficult in the midst of a continually changing pandemic, but we will do our best. We are looking at the future and, if we can, we certainly will.

As to the loans scheme, which was put to me by a number of noble Lords, the problem is that any loan scheme must have affordability criteria, which may make it tricky for those most in need to access. With a loan, you must be able to get it and then you must be able to pay it back. We believe, therefore, that the best way to support people in need is through the existing welfare system that provides ongoing support, and that is what the extensive pack of economic support is doing. In that context, the increasing of the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile is extremely important.

My noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth and other noble Lords asked about the change from nine months to six months. The rent arrears exception has been redefined to cases with rent arrears that are greater than six months because that is proportionate, given where we are in the pandemic, given the other protections in place and given the support that has been put in place for renters specifically and for people more generally. It is a question of balance, and that is where we consider the balance is best struck. We anticipate that most of the cases in which an exemption applies will involve a significant level of rent arrears that predate the pandemic and where landlords may have been waiting over a year without rent being paid.

I hope that I have replied to the main points that were put to me in this debate. I am conscious of the limited time that I have had to reply. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked a very specific question about the Traveller community. I hope that he will forgive me for not dealing with it now, but it would perhaps be more appropriate for a housing Minister to respond on that point.

We consider that the balance that this statutory instrument has struck is the appropriate one. It provides tenants with protection from eviction and provides landlords in appropriate cases with the ability to recover sums due. Therefore, I commend this instrument to the House.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, and the Minister for his considered response to the points raised. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, that we need a much more strategic solution to the crisis, a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby.

As I and other noble Lords have said, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, made clear, it is striking how much agreement there is between landlord and tenant organisations as to the solution to these problems. I thank both the National Residential Landlords Association and Generation Rent for their very helpful briefings, and mention has been made of the similarity in the solutions that each has put forward to the Government. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, that there are good landlords and good tenants, and both need our support. The tragedy is that much more could be done to help landlords and tenants, but the Government are just failing to get this right. I hope that passing this regret amendment will encourage the Government to look again at the welcome proposals being put forward; they very much need to do so.

I also think that it is worth reflecting on the very short extension of this order, a point that many noble Lords have made. Landlords and tenants must be treated a bit better in this regard by the Government. An extension of less than three weeks, frankly, is no way to behave. We can do much better than that.

The Minister made the point about hypothetical cases. We can all draw them up to support our own positions. The problems is that it will be of little comfort to a tenant who has lost their job or who has little work due to being a freelancer, and on top of all that, they have the fear of sitting in their home waiting to be evicted in the next few weeks. They have all the legal papers there and are very worried. It is of little comfort to them. There is also very little comfort to the landlord, as the rent arrears accrue at the same time and they can see no end to that. The Government should take away the proposals put forward by the landlords and the tenants, look at them carefully and come up with a proper strategic plan for this crisis. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Amendment to the Motion

Tabled by

As an amendment to the motion in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, at end to insert “but that this House regrets that the Regulations do not link protection from evictions automatically to the extension of restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic and so do not provide long-term security to tenants; further regrets that the Regulations do not take into account factors such as (1) the shortfall between support from Her Majesty’s Government and median rents, (2) the level of personal savings held by renters at the start of the pandemic, (3) the loss of income and jobs experienced by private renters during the pandemic compared to mortgage holders, and (4) the high proportion of income spent by renters on housing compared to other tenures, and that these factors have led to renters missing bill payments or reducing spending on food due to their level of debt; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to bring forward a support package that will ensure that private tenants are housed and landlords paid during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

I thank all noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in his new role as Minister. I congratulate him on the extensive use of the word “balance”; it was used more times than I have ever heard it used in a speech in my lifetime. “Balance” suggests that the opposite is somehow division, but I strongly stress that there is a lot of unity within the sector, in that landlords’ and tenants’ organisations alike say that some kind of support package is desperately needed.

The Minister made a very coherent argument against loans but most noble Lords were talking about the use of grants. When he writes to noble Lords, I look forward to him writing to me about that and about taking up the invitation set up by Citizens Advice to sit down with some of the affected family groups.

The House has already given a view on this and therefore I will not move my amendment.

Baroness Grender’s amendment to the Motion not moved.

Motion, as amended, agreed.

Sitting suspended.