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Housing: Rent and Covid-19

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 8 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the survey conducted by Shelter into the experience of renters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register

My Lords, I refer to my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. The Government have noted the results of Shelter’s attitude survey of 5,077 adults. We have introduced unprecedented measures to protect renters. Not only have we increased notice periods to six months, but we have extended financial support for workers and strengthened the welfare safety net by over £9 billion. We continue to take action to improve standards and supply, we recently introduced stricter electrical safety standards, and we are announcing £12 billion of investment in affordable housing.

My Lords, thousands of renters are shocked to find the amount of benefit they receive does not cover their rent payments. I am sure the Minister will say that the tenants concerned can apply for discretionary housing payment—but the problem is that although there was a modest increase in DHP this year, it was announced in September 2019, so it was intended to deal with a non-Covid level of demand. Can more money therefore be made available for discretionary housing payments to deal specifically with the extra demand due to Covid-19, and to help renters with growing rent debt, due to the benefits cap, to stave off the risk of eviction? If the noble Lord cannot answer that question today, will he agree to write to me with a full written answer?

My Lords, I would point out that discretionary housing payments have increased by some £40 million, to £180 million. We do not have great data on rent arrears: the data from the National Residential Landlords Association indicates that about 7% are in arrears. However, I will write to the noble Lord, as he requested.

My Lords, in answer to an Urgent Question on this very subject a fortnight ago, my noble friend the Minister said, of measures to help renters:

“They are kept under constant review in the light of evidence of public health, and we are prepared to take further measures as they are needed to protect landlords and tenants alike”—[Official Report, 24/9/20; col. 1948.]

Since then the public health evidence has, sadly, deteriorated significantly, so will my noble friend now introduce the further measures that he then referred to? Might those include the recommendations of Shelter’s recent report, Renters at Risk?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that there is no evidence yet of an eviction epidemic. We have established an unprecedented package of support, and the Chancellor has announced in the other place the Government’s winter economy plan to support people through the winter, and to support jobs, including the new job support scheme. We have increased local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile, which will remain in place at least until the end of March 2021.

My Lords, 300,000 people are now reported to be behind on their rent. As the Minister will know, debt because of rent is one of the major causes, if not the major cause, of anxiety, and it is very prevalent at this time. The Government are to be commended on the steps they have already taken, but in view of the seriousness of the present situation, and rising anxiety levels, will he consider a special coronavirus relief fund for private renters?

My Lords, the Government are always receptive to creative ideas. We will continue to keep the position under review, and will consider such ideas if we need to.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation. A report by the federation and Heriot-Watt University found that within the last two years, the number of people in need of social housing has increased by 5%, supporting Shelter’s findings. We now have almost 4 million people living in inadequate and overcrowded homes and in desperate need of social housing. As we move into winter, this is going to get worse. Will the Minister look carefully at both reports and commit to building the 90,000 social homes a year we need as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, the Government have set out clearly a very significant investment of £12.2 billion for affordable homes, around 50% of which will be social housing and 50% intermediate homes to provide the housing ladder of opportunity. We have to recognise that what we have actually seen is a collapse in home ownership, from a peak of 71% down to 64%. It is that that we are trying to address, to ensure that we give people the opportunity to own their own home, as well as providing the social homes that this country needs.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this report shows a 40-year legacy of failure to build sufficient social housing? Blackpool, for example, has two-thirds of private renters on benefits but no AHP grant funding locally to build social housing. Does he accept that levelling up will remain a pipe dream if poor quality private rentals are the only option available to people on benefits?

My Lords, I accept the challenge that we want to see more councils building council homes. I am delighted to point to Wandsworth, “a brighter borough”, which has announced the building of 17 three and four-bedroom properties in Roehampton. There is a growing recognition among councils that they can build again and they should: that is part of their core role.

My Lords, despite the court ruling earlier this year that made blanket bans on renters who are on benefits unlawful, such renters are still being discriminated against. Landlords and letting agents are still stating that landlords’ mortgage and insurance policies prohibit them from letting to tenants on benefits. A number of people are now on benefits due to Covid. Can the noble Lord confirm that any reference implying this prohibition on renting to people on benefits in mortgage and insurance policies and on property websites should be removed immediately? If he is unable to do that today from the Dispatch Box, will he write to me to clarify the situation?

My Lords, there is no obvious indication of discrimination against people who require housing support, housing benefit or universal credit. As noble Lords know, the increase in the housing benefit bill is substantial, but I will write to the noble Baroness on the matter.

We should congratulate Shelter on outlining that 60% of people in the rented sector are only one paycheque away from falling into arrears. That is the kind of information we need to work on. I suggest that the Minister speak to the Government. If we are to have a Cockaigne, as suggested by Boris Johnson at the party conference recently, we need to support people who will fall into evictions because of Covid-19. The only way to do that is for the Government to pay now, rather than later, when these people slip into homelessness.

My Lords, I just point out that as a Minister, I am part of the Government and I will always try to respond as such. We do not see an eviction epidemic. We are fully behind the noble Lord’s mission to end homelessness, as he knows, and we will invest in that endeavour.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of the people in arrears and liable to fall into homelessness are young people working in the hospitality or entertainment industries, which are very much at risk now? Will he urge his Treasury colleagues to lift the benefit cap to support them and others like them through the winter? Does he agree that this is bound to be cheaper and more humane than the cost of more homelessness?

My Lords, we recognise that this is a terribly difficult pandemic, and a number of renters have had to move back home on losing their jobs. That is the kind of mobility you see in a seismic pandemic such as this, but the Government have increased the benefit cap, which has cost £9 billion in total. We will take further measures if necessary.

Noting my register of interests, I ask the Minister this: more than 1 million households are registered on council waiting lists; the number is rising, due to the Covid crisis. Meanwhile, the number of homes for social rent has plummeted. Can he explain how the housing needs of desperate families are to be met now?

My Lords, the statistics do not bear that out. We have seen a slight drop in social housing, down from 20% in 1999 to 17% in 2018, but there has been a seismic collapse in the levels of home ownership. Of course, we need social homes, but we also need those intermediate homes that enable people to get on in life.

My Lords, I commend the work of Shelter. Changes to permitted development will have a profound impact, as many living in the shadow of Canary Wharf will testify. For the past 30 years, they have heard promises of job creation and social housing for local people. With 75% of the workforce coming from outside, leaving the boroughs with severe shortages of family housing, and rising numbers of expensive apartments leading to a further need for family housing, will the Minister engage with local authorities and housing associations to ensure that 1 million inbuilt permissions for housing are mandated to commence immediately, with guarantees of at least 50% social housing for families? Otherwise, the rental generation will remain the purview and gesture of the Prime Minister’s podium rhetoric.

My Lords, I will not give that precise assurance; however, it is important, when we develop schemes such as that at Canary Wharf, that there is social value, that jobs are created for local people and that the benefits of redevelopment and regeneration spread out to the whole community where such schemes take place.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed and I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who has not been able to put her question.

Sitting suspended.