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Covid-19: Poverty and Mass Evictions

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risk of mass evictions resulting from COVID-19-related poverty; and what steps they will take to prevent such evictions.

My Lords, I am grateful for this chance to talk about something which has caused me a lot of sleepless nights. Thirty years ago, I started the Big Issue. In the past 30 years, including through the Covid period, we have been working with in the region of 7,000 to 9,000 homeless people a year. With some notable exceptions, they are people who were socially prepared, almost from birth, to fall into some kind of crisis. The most common thing among them—apart from the fact that a lot of them have depression, drug and drink problems, social problems such as the breakdown of relationships or come from the working poor, the long-term unemployed or broken homes—is that they did very badly at school. We have 7,000 to 9,000 people. It used to be a bit more in the days of Mr Cameron, but it seems to have gone down a bit, which is a good sign because I do not want one vendor of the Big Issue, to be quite honest. Those people have been socially prepared, and I mean that in the nicest sense of the word; I am not blaming anybody. I am just saying that if you meet them you know that their circumstances are often wretched but they come from wretchedness. Often their family are working poor and their grandparents were working poor and all that, so you could say they have been socially engineered to become the army of people who are homeless.

Last year, when in the region of 35,000 people were taken in from the streets it was wonderful—absolutely marvellous. It was enough to make you cry, and I say that with full sincerity. The way that the Government put their arms around homeless people was incredible. I have never known anybody do that in such a large and manifest way. The figures were that something like 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people were expected but it turned out to be nearer 35,000 people. If you look at the profile of where they come from, you can expect the result that could lead to the streets. As an ex-street person, I was socially prepared from a very early age. This does not mean that everybody born into poverty has to end up as a John Bird sleeping rough and in the prison system and all sorts of things like that, but a majority of people come from that profile.

Covid-19 has introduced us to a much more frightening reality. We have those people—quite a small number in the region of 50,000 to 60,000—who are rough sleepers throughout the United Kingdom but there are in the region of about 250,000 to 300,000 people who fall into what is called homelessness, whether they are sofa surfers, in hostels or temporary accommodation, with a small cohort to be found on the streets. So you could say that there is in the region of about 300,000. I am not one of those persons who is going to stick with any figures because I have heard contradictory figures from all sorts of people and organisations. If you believe some of the figures, you get up to nearly 300,000; if you believe another lot, you would think that it was 500,000. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that you have socially prepared people who have failed at school and failed in many ways. They have all sorts of problems around drink and drugs—a cocktail of problems.

Covid-19 has thrown up a completely new group of people. If 2 million people are expected to lose their jobs—we know that the Government are trying to do wonderful things there—and a large amount of people fall into homelessness because of Covid-inspired evictions, you have a completely different group of people. In many senses, it will include middle-class and professional people—people who have had all sorts of support in their lives and should never have become homeless but for the problem of Covid-19. Now, not the socially prepared people—the people I come from; you could say that we kind of half expected it—but people who are not prepared, and whose families and children have fallen into depression, are in this group.

The Government’s response, especially in moving the goalposts, so to speak—that is, moving the eviction ban back to the end of May—has been a series of stopgap actions. We all know that we are in the middle of an emergency; we are not out of it yet. When working in an emergency and trying to move on, saying “We’re going to do this for a bit longer, we’re going to do that for a bit longer” actually undermines the well-being of the people who as yet have not manifested as homeless and presented themselves as such.

We will potentially have hundreds of thousands of homeless people. If we take the 400,000 people living in rented accommodation, not to mention the people who are behind with their mortgages and have had a number of mortgage holidays, and the nearly 400,000 people who are at least nine months behind in their rent—if they pay £1,000 a month, they are £9,000 behind —we could have hundreds of thousands people presenting themselves as Big Issue vendors. I certainly could not handle an enormous amount of people like that.

We have to move beyond the emergency. We have to have a road plan from the Government because it is unnerving people who are caught in this position. We also have to take account of the fact that 60% of people who live in rented accommodation are renting from people who have only one or two flats or houses, and letting is their pension or income. All the big landlords cover the other 40% but it is mainly backbone people in the community and all that.

Today, we have launched a campaign. We are making a film for the 30th anniversary of the Big Issue and it will be about this crisis. We hope the crisis does not happen, but we have to find a way of convincing the Treasury that, for all the money it has spent, if it does not spend money now on preventing people falling into homelessness, the cost could be anywhere between £20,000 and £100,000 per person who does. The cost to the National Health Service if we let hundreds of thousands of people slip into homelessness is untold. So, now is the time for the Government.

I and all the other people working in homelessness prevention will do whatever is necessary to help the Government through this sticky situation. I know, and everybody knows, this is not easy. We have to keep people in their homes, we have to pay their rent or mortgage and we have to support them through the emergency. The emergency might be over in three weeks, it might be over in three months, it might be over in three years, but we have no alternative. Otherwise, the cost will double and treble because it is sometimes four times more expensive to keep people in homelessness than to prevent it. That is what I am asking the Government to do.

I realise that a lot of people will say that we cannot dump this cost on the future generation. I was born in 1946, and I, with many of my contemporaries, finished paying for the Second World War in 2007. Let me tell noble Lords: this is very similar to the Second World War.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing the debate and on the uniquely powerful way he has introduced it. The Government will have a lot of help on hand to answer the first question the debate raises: the assessment of the risk of mass evictions. In all the statistics we have from the many agencies in the field, the Government point to the cliff edge, which has been postponed yet another month to the end of May. Much of what I say will build on what the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said.

The National Residential Landlords Association estimates there will be 800,000 people in arrears, the people the noble Lord described, who have never contemplated or imagined homelessness. They now face a real possibility of eviction for failure to pay rent. Fifty-eight percent of them have never had rent debt before, and almost one-fifth have debts of more than £1,000. Most at risk are the 11% of private renters who are now unemployed. As we know, Covid has hit the youngest hardest, taking their jobs and job prospects away. They will feel the full force of homelessness. The lucky ones will be able to retreat to the safety of the family home or squash in with friends, but there will be many who will not be able to do that.

It is significant that the NRLA has made common cause with housing charities. They have urged the Government to prepare a long-term strategy, rather than fight fires month to month. The NRLA estimates that about one-third of landlords will leave the market anyway or reduce their holdings. The Minister for Justice said on Monday in this House that it was nothing to do with him and that it is a housing problem. Of course, it is, but it sits urgently within a long-term structural problem of a failing housing market that can be solved only by making a priority of affordable and social housing. I am sure the Minister will tell us how much money has gone into supporting tenants and mortgages. Very well done, but it is absolutely the right thing for the Government to spend their money on.

The second exam question today is: what next? What is the long-term plan? What will it consist of? How will it address housing needs and costs and welfare benefits? When will it be announced? These are the answers the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee has asked for. It has asked for a strategic, resilient exit plan for the sector to transition out of the pandemic into stability and, specifically, for a modest financial package of discretionary housing payments of between £200 million and £300 million.

I therefore have a few questions for the Minister. When do the Government plan to respond to the Select Committee report and this proposition? When will the Government make a decision on the future of the £20 weekly uplift to child benefit? When will the Government bring forward their long-anticipated renters reform Bill? If the Government still do not know what to do, will they make a start by following the example of Wales and creating longer term security for tenants?

My Lords, I should remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This is the second time this week that we are debating this matter. On this occasion, it is an opportunity to discuss government policy approaches, or rather the absence of them, because just extending the temporary ban on evictions once again, as was agreed on Monday, is not sufficient, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for enabling us to keep pointing out the need for workable solutions from the Government.

The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has drawn attention to the report of the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and I want to quote a little more from it. On 31 March, the Select Committee said that:

“The Government will eventually have to come up with a policy response, because it cannot keep extending the evictions ban forever more.”

It went on to say:

“We call on the Government to deliver a specific financial package —we prefer discretionary housing payments—to support tenants to repay rent arrears caused by covid-19, in consultation with the Local Government Association and appropriate bodies representing renters and landlords. We received an estimate that this package will likely cost between £200 and £300 million. Given the number of potential evictions this would prevent, it would likely save the Exchequer a substantial amount in homelessness assistance.”

What is the Government’s response?

The Resolution Foundation has estimated that the rates of rent arrears across all tenures were

“at least twice the level of arrears observed going into the crisis.”

It further estimated in January that more than 750,000 families were behind with their rent.

The Secretary of State committed a year ago that no one would be forced out of their home because they had lost income as a result of coronavirus. He also said that no landlord would face unmanageable debts. Landlords’ organisations and renters’ organisations have come up with a plan for a government-led rent relief scheme. The Select Committee has come up with a plan too. Many thousands of tenants and landlords are now extremely worried, so when will the Government decide what action to take?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for initiating this short debate. He mentioned that it was 30 years ago that he launched the Big Issue. I was the Housing Minister at that time, which was the first time that I met the noble Lord, and it is a pleasure to join forces with him again this afternoon in the campaign to prevent homelessness.

This debate follows on closely from Monday’s debate on the prevention of eviction order, answered by my noble friend Lord Wolfson. When he replied to that debate, he very modestly said that he was a humble Justice Minister and that many issues raised were for MHCLG, hence the welcome opportunity to follow up those issues this afternoon.

I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the ban on most evictions in effect until mid-June, which aims to strike a balance between the needs of tenants and those of landlords. I also welcome the generous support that the Government have extended to renters: the LHA increase, the UC uplift, the one-off payment of £500 and the increase in discretionary housing payments. These will enable the majority of tenants to cope, with some forbearance from their landlords.

However, as noble Lords have said, when the temporary arrangements come to an end, there will be a problem. Of course, each time the Government for understandable reasons extend the eviction ban, the greater the amount of arrears that are likely to build up. This is a particular problem for the 56% of families with arrears who are not in receipt of benefits and therefore are precluded from discretionary housing payments.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, had some estimates. Roughly one-quarter of a million social tenants and the same number of private renters were estimated by the Resolution Foundation to be behind with their rent in February. This poses a particular problem for the courts, which are already under pressure due to the pandemic backlog, but much more important is the problem for families facing eviction.

I know that Scotland and Wales are different, but the problems that confront private tenants with Covid-related arrears are basically the same wherever they live. The Welsh scheme was launched last autumn. The tenancy saver loan scheme is repayable over five years with interest at 1% and is operated by credit unions. It is paid direct to the landlord, and is available only if the credit union believes it is affordable. Once tenants have applied for the loan, they can access support and advice services to help them manage their financial situation. It was welcomed by housing charities and landlord representatives alike. In Scotland, they have a very similar scheme, launched last September. Its tenant hardship loan fund offers interest-free loans to those unable to access other forms of support for their housing costs.

I know there is an argument for grants rather than loans. They are simpler to administer and avoid adding to debt, but they are more expensive for the taxpayer and unfair to those tenants who made sacrifices to pay their rent while their neighbour next door, who made no such sacrifice, may get a grant to wipe out the debt. Loans avoid that moral hazard. I do not expect the Minister to change government policy when he winds up, but will his department carry out a quick review of the Welsh and Scottish schemes to see whether there are any lessons which we might learn in England?

My Lords, this is an important debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing it. The lockdowns and the shutdown of economic activities caused a loss of income for many workers and were especially difficult for those whose livelihoods depend upon daily wages. At the start of the March 2020 lockdown, the Government put in place a package of emergency housing measures to keep people safe in their homes during the pandemic. The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, pledged

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

Figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government indicate that rent arrears have tripled to affect almost 700,000 over the course of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of renters have fallen into rent arrears. Sadly, many of these people are widows and partners who have lost the breadwinner in the family as a result of Covid-19. They have no income and cannot afford to pay rent for their accommodation. Under the current regulations, evictions are paused but will resume from June onwards. Therefore, will the Government provide financial support to these women, who have lost their spouse or partner as a result of Covid-19 and have no source of income, to save them from being evicted from their homes? Furthermore, will the Government clear their debts built up during the pandemic? I am afraid that these vulnerable women will otherwise become not only homeless but the victims of many heinous crimes.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation, the trade body for housing associations in England. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing a most timely debate.

The Government took speedy and decisive action to bring in the ban on evictions, introduce the universal credit uplift and deliver the “Everyone In” initiative. That was well done. This package undoubtedly saved lives and prevented people losing their homes and being plunged into poverty at this most difficult of times. The Minister knows that the worst impact of the pandemic has not been evenly distributed across our society. People on lower incomes have had higher contraction and mortality rates. Many of them have lost jobs or are stuck in precarious employment. Things for them have got worse in the past 12 months, and the future is not looking bright.

Research from the National Housing Federation shows that since the start of the crisis the number of social rented households in England claiming the housing element of universal credit has increased by 39%. In addition, around 60% of households that claim universal credit are in rent arrears. This picture is just for the housing association sector, which has put in place robust measures to support residents. For people in the private rented sector, the situation must be a lot bleaker.

Housing associations pledged from the start that no one would be evicted because of financial hardship caused by the pandemic. They set up schemes across the country to help residents get access to the vital financial support they needed through the welfare system. For example, Sovereign Housing, which operates in the south-east, has retrained 75 members of staff to help residents who are facing a drop in income. It has partnered with local businesses to help these residents find employment. Unfortunately, such initiatives alone will not be enough. Many families now stand on a cliff edge. What will prevent them falling off?

As the country’s economic and social recovery starts, we must not leave people who are already struggling even further behind. The eviction ban is, of course, not sustainable in perpetuity but I hope the Minister will acknowledge that we face a real and present danger of unravelling the complex support system that is keeping people’s heads above water. We must learn the lessons from this crisis—that a safe, affordable and decent home, with effective government support where needed, is the bedrock of a compassionate society.

With strong government action and leadership, we can prevent hundreds of thousands of people facing long-term financial hardship. Can the Minister commit to preventing those families falling off that cliff edge by keeping the support packages currently in place, including the £20 increase in universal credit? Can he also tell us what assessments his department and the Government have made of the implications of withdrawing this package for the housing situation of individuals and families?

My Lords, I was shocked to read that Citizens Advice had published a report which said that 58% of those who have now fallen behind on their rents were not in arrears before the Covid pandemic. Total arrears in January 2021 were estimated at £360 million. This has a knock-on effect on landlords, with 60% of them saying that they have lost income. Many are reliant on that rent as their only income. I declare my interests as set out in the register.

I have repeatedly welcomed the ban on evictions as introduced by this Government because it is of critical importance during such uncharted times that people retain their homes, as that gives them stability and confidence when they face such uncertainty. In the latest renewal of the protection from eviction regulations, I queried with the Minister whether 31 May 2021 was too early. I appreciate that there needs to be a balance for the landlords who are carrying the burden of non-payment of rent because they are not bankers and, in many cases, are suffering hardship themselves through non-payment of rent. However, I doubt that mass evictions will help either tenants or landlords.

Logic tells me that there needs to be further help or the courts will be bombarded with eviction hearings, while local authorities will find that they are forced to help rehome people who have lost their homes. In effect, the problem is merely being shifted to local councils, which will often be forced to used unsuitable temporary accommodation. Can the Minister outline what range of measures the Government are looking to introduce that will help meet the arrears, even if only in part, avoid the rush to the courts for evictions and help local authorities not to be swamped with homelessness cases? Without those measures, it is a bleak picture ahead for those in arrears.

There is emotional turmoil for tenants in losing their homes. The stresses and strains from being in rent arrears pale into insignificance when compared to the emotional breakdown of being evicted. To be able to seek local authority help, a tenant has to go through all the heart-wrenching court proceedings of being evicted in order to produce a court order to prove that they have been made homeless.

I know that myriad suggestions have been made—from loans to help meet arrears, to hardship grants by local authorities. While not ideal, perhaps there should be some form of wiping the slate clean arrangement, whereby landlords are provided with some compensation for rent arrears while keeping the tenant in place, thus avoiding mass evictions, with housing benefit to cover. I should add that the local housing allowance needs to be retained at the 30th percentile or increased.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for bringing this debate to the Committee as I know that he has done much to help the long-term homeless and speaks from the heart in seeking to avoid yet more homelessness. His contribution to this House and on the street, particularly with the Big Issue magazine, has been enormous.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this short but important—and, indeed, urgent—debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I am grateful to Generation Rent and Shelter for their excellent briefings, on which I will draw in my remarks.

The package of support put in the place by the Government in March 2020 was of course welcome, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said. It clearly helped to keep people safe. However, over the course of the pandemic, many have fallen through the net. Thousands of renters are now in arrears, private renters have been evicted illegally, and those with no recourse to public funds who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own have no safety net at all.

I believe there are five things that the Government could, and should, do. The first relates to benefits, which have been mentioned. The Government should remove the benefit cap, make the uplift in universal credit payments permanent and unfreeze the local housing allowance.

The second measure would be to put in place a funding package to help to clear rent arrears that have built up over the pandemic—the “wiping the slate clean” idea mentioned by the speaker immediately before me, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. Then, of course, the Government should urgently bring forward a renters’ reform Bill to end Section 21 no-fault evictions.

The third measure would be to suspend the no recourse to public funds condition, which has pushed many into homelessness and destitution. This condition should be suspended for at least the remaining period of the pandemic.

Fourthly, local councils must be funded to resource tenancy relations services. This would help to prevent unlawful evictions, which have continued to occur and remain at a high level.

Lastly, the Government should invest in a new generation of social housing to lift thousands out of homelessness and poverty into affordable, permanent homes.

In conclusion, it should go without saying that any premises offered for private rent should be, at the very least, fit for human habitation. It is a matter of utter shame that any private renter lives in premises that fall below that standard.

My Lords, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the eviction ban was an important measure that the Government were right to take as part of the national response to this public health emergency. We know that, without it, many thousands of people would have been evicted from their rental properties with nowhere to go. The ban was always a temporary measure that would inevitably come to an end, but this should not mean that, when it ends on 31 May, things should return to how they were before the pandemic.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his introduction to this debate. He is a tireless campaigner on these issues. Evictions from rental properties are an issue of intergenerational fairness—a policy area in which he has been very active. I declare my interest in the register as chair of the Intergenerational Fairness Forum.

According to 2020 figures from the ONS, adults aged between 35 and 45 are three times more likely to rent and not own a home than they were 20 years ago. According to Generation Rent, the number of people in rent arrears has tripled since the start of the pandemic, with one in 10 renters now behind on their rental payments. With more than 700,000 eviction notices issued since March this year, we risk a real crisis once the eviction ban is lifted at the end of next month.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government took steps to find accommodation for all homeless people, but homelessness is something that we have grown to accept in recent years. The crisis of the past year has proved that we can house the homeless when there is political will. With the increase in remote working during the pandemic, we know that many office blocks will sit empty for the foreseeable future. Given both these points, it would be unacceptable for the number of homeless people to increase after the ban is lifted.

We also know that homelessness is not the only risk once the current eviction ban is lifted. Overcrowded and substandard living situations are a concern, especially as we continue to live through a public health emergency. We know that housing is a public health issue, and any increase in homelessness or in the number of people living in crowded and substandard accommodation will put at risk our actions to stop the spread of Covid-19. The evictions ban must inevitably come to an end, but it should not mean a return to how things were prior to the pandemic. We have an opportunity to rethink our housing policies and, specifically, our policies regarding rental accommodation. Let us do so as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bird, in his unique way of introducing this debate, has drawn to our attention the fact that many of the invisible victims of the pandemic are private sector renters. They have been hit badly. They are twice as likely to have lost their jobs; they are twice as likely to have reduced income, and most of them have never been in serious arrears before. He was right that this could become a new phenomenon if we do not prevent some of these evictions.

The Government of course recognised the plight of these people and introduced a block on evictions, but they did not block the deeply anxiety-inducing process of notice that can eventually lead to eviction. Generation Rent estimates that nearly 700,000 Section 21 processes have been started over this last terrible year. That means that, when the protection ends, a potentially huge number of people will for the first time in their lives face homelessness.

Of course many of the solutions mentioned today are necessary. We will need to extend the ban on evictions beyond the end of next month and to provide legislation which changes the ease with which people can be evicted. We also need to address the problem of their short-term and long-term security through our social security system.

However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, hinted, there is also a longer-term problem here, and that reflects the colossal strategic failure of housing policy in general over the past few decades. We have reverted to a situation which existed at the beginning of the last century, when a large proportion of the lowest-paid, lowest-income families lived in private rented accommodation. With the lack of access to owner-occupation and the loss of so much council housing, this is likely to increase. Unfortunately, though there are very good landlords and very good institutional landlords, there are also serious problems in respect of small landlords who do not really have the resources to provide decent homes and decent accommodation for those several hundred thousand people. The landlords face a problem themselves, in that they are operating at the economic edge brought about by this pandemic.

Unless we see this issue as part of a longer-term problem, the short-term fixes will not help. We need to restore the security of tenure that proper social housing used to provide, yet we have cut the net number of council homes and the net amount of social housing and reduced access to it. We need to address the immediate problems, but also to reverse the direction of much of the development of the wider housing market—and to do so now.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on his moving opening speech, on securing this all-important debate and on his work during this pandemic, in particular the Ride Out Recession Alliance. As he rightly said, the greatest danger of homelessness is among people leaving the rented sector, particularly the private rented sector, but I align myself totally with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, about the all-important safety net of housing for social rent.

On Monday, in this very Room, we debated the latest piecemeal approach to evictions—or “stopgap actions”, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, described them. While there is a stay on bailiffs enforcing evictions at present, it is the mere tip of the iceberg. According to Generation Rent, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, just said, around 700,000 people have received an eviction notice since March 2020. Can the Minister tell us what information he is using to ensure that only the most egregious cases are currently ending in eviction? When Tim Farron MP asked for a process, such as a register of evictions from landlords, he was told that that was not an option. Why not?

Gemma Marshall, who lives in the West Country, has recently been served with her second Section 21 in two years. She has an autistic son aged nine who struggles with change. She and hundreds of thousands like her have been forced to move during this pandemic. What advice does the Minister have for those tenants, and when will we see an end to this arbitrary eviction process?

Finally, arrears are now one of the most significant challenges for both tenants and landlords, as we heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick and Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Citizens Advice tells us that it would take an average of seven years for the people who come to it to pay off their debts. They desperately need a financial package; I support the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, in asking for an investigation into the viability of the kind of packages that we have seen in Wales and Scotland. As the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said in reference to the Commons Select Committee, this modest financial package of between £200 million and £300 million pales into insignificance in comparison with the subsidy for home owners during this period. As the Resolution Foundation has pointed out, the majority of tenants now in arrears do not qualify for the current system of DHP support. By the way, on DHP, the £180 million has not been increased since the pandemic began.

We will hear some arguments about balance between landlords and tenants where the Government are somehow acting as the honest broker. I dispute that because, as the National Residential Landlords Association says, this Government are clearly breaking their promise that

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

It is time to fulfil that promise and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said, deliver a long-term plan.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register. I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this important debate. I also thank Generation Rent and the LGA for their excellent briefings.

Evictions are paused but will resume from June onwards. To prevent a spike in evictions from June, the Government must provide financial support for tenants who have lost income due to coronavirus and permanently end Section 21 no-fault evictions; the protections end on 31 May. Tenants with more than six months of rent arrears are not covered by the ban. This is despite Robert Jenrick’s pledge in March 2020 that

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

Since the pandemic hit, rent arrears have tripled, which risks driving evictions. There is no doubt that the effect on household finances will exacerbate this further unless we see urgent action.

We came into this crisis with a staggering 253,000 people in England homeless and living in temporary accommodation. This includes almost 130,000 homeless children—almost double what it was in 2010. The truth is that, after a decade of this Government weakening the very foundations of our economy and eroding home security, at the start of the pandemic, way too many families were already on that precipice. The Government have not been nearly quick enough to confront the issue or respond to how the pandemic has exacerbated the threat of homelessness. The current ban on evictions is not working; loopholes mean that hundreds of people have already been evicted during lockdown.

I reiterate what some of my noble friends have already said in this debate. We need a Government who will end Section 21 no-fault evictions and update reporting mechanisms to provide a better picture of homelessness and rough sleeping across the country. They must end the debt crisis and bring forward the renters’ reform Bill to prevent a rise in evictions, together with raising the local housing allowance to cover median local rents; this would prevent shortfalls occurring and prevent debts building up. They should scrap the household benefit cap, ensure that families are able to access the higher LHA rates and create a Covid rent debt fund to clear tenants’ debts built up in the first wave of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, renters spent around a third of their income on rent; these arrears will take seven years to pay off.

The Government must introduce the renters’ reform Bill and permanently end no- fault evictions, as pledged in April 2019, to ensure that all renters have access to a stable and secure home. Without these measures, the Government’s promise that nobody will lose their home because of coronavirus is utterly meaningless. If we can do it in Wales, why can you not do it in England?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this important debate. I express my gratitude for his continued dedication in seeking to prevent homelessness, as well as for highlighting the risk of Covid-19-related poverty faced by our communities. The noble Lord was poignant in outlining the drivers of what causes people to sleep rough on our streets. I also thank noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions. I am glad to have the opportunity to update your Lordships on the Government’s assessment of the risk of mass evictions and our action to support renters.

The Government have taken unprecedented action to protect renters from eviction and homelessness during Covid-19. In March 2020, we introduced longer notice periods and worked with the judiciary to implement a six-month stay on possession proceedings. Legislation remains in place until 31 May to ensure that bailiffs do not serve eviction notices or enforce evictions, except in the most serious circumstances. Landlords are still required to provide six months’ notice, except in the most serious cases. This means that tenants served notice now will not have to leave their homes until October 2021.

To ensure that our measures are working, the Government have commissioned robust assessments on the risk of evictions resulting from the pandemic. For example, the English Housing Survey’s household resilience study was set up specifically to investigate household resilience in the light of Covid-19, with the wave 2 data published only yesterday. We do not consider that there will be mass evictions. The data continues to support this: the vast majority of private renters—91%–were up to date on their rent when surveyed in November and December last year. These figures are similar to the NRLA’s. The key is that these data also show that, of those in arrears, the vast majority have arrears of less than two months’ rent. In fact, the NRLA data also showed that, on average, the arrears were in the order of magnitude of £251 to £500, and that only 18% had rent arrears of more than £1,000.

We continue to encourage landlords and tenants to manage rent payment obligations sensibly so that they do not become an avoidable burden or cause avoidable disputes. We are grateful to landlords for their forbearance in supporting tenants during this time, and our interventions are preventing evictions. I know that some data has been presented by Generation Rent; we do not have official data, however. Ministry of Justice statistics show that reported applications to the courts for possession by private and social landlords between October and December 2020 were down 67% compared with the same quarter in 2019; and that only 548 repossessions were recorded between April and the end of December 2020, compared with 22,444 over the same period in 2019.

The Government are collecting, publishing and assessing robust statistics on homelessness, which include prevention and relief duties carried out under the Housing Act 1996. Statistics published today show that there has been a 40% decrease in households owed a homelessness duty due to the end of a privately rented tenancy, compared with the same quarter last year. The number of families in temporary accommodation is now at the lowest level it has been since 2016.

Overall, there has been a reduction in the number of people needing support from statutory homelessness services. This is driven by a reduction in the number of families threatened with homelessness as a result of the action that we have taken to protect renters. Our protections are working, and they strike the right balance between supporting tenants and landlords. They provide assurance to tenants but also support landlords to progress the most egregious cases, such as anti-social behaviour, more quickly.

The noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord Shipley, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and my noble friend Lord Young all want to know: what next? As we move along our road map to recovery, we are considering the best way to transition out of these emergency measures, taking into account public health advice, and we will provide more detail shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, has rightly raised the financial pressures faced by tenants during the pandemic, highlighted by the Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance campaign. I am heartened by the shared commitment that we all have to preventing such hardships wherever possible.

To this end, the Government have supported workers so that they remain in employment, with the job retention scheme extended until the end of September. The Government have also provided billions of pounds in welfare support to help people pay their housing costs. This included £1 billion to increase local housing allowance rates last year, so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Young. These rates are being maintained in cash terms throughout the current financial year until 2022, meaning that claimants renting in the private rented sector will continue to benefit from the increase.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, I say that the Government have also extended the £20 a week uplift in universal credit until the end of September and provided a one-off payment of £500 to eligible working tax credit claimants. For those who require additional support, the discretionary housing payments are available. We have made £140 million of funding for discretionary housing payments available to local authorities this financial year to support renters with housing costs in the private and social rented sectors. This builds on the £180 million available in the last financial year.

For those who become homeless or find themselves at risk of homelessness, we are providing local authorities with £310 million through the homelessness prevention grant. This funding represents a £47 million increase on the previous year’s funding and can be used to offer financial support for people to find a new home, to work with landlords to prevent evictions, or to provide temporary accommodation to ensure families have a roof over their head.

Looking to the future, and when the urgencies of the pandemic have passed, the Government are committed to introducing reforms to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market. This will be achieved by legislating to remove Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988—as we have pledged as a Government and as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, mentioned—to provide tenants with more security, but also to strengthen the grounds for eviction to ensure that landlords have confidence that they can gain possession when it is fair to do so. This will represent a generational change to tenancy law in England, so it is only right that such legislation is balanced and properly considered to achieve the right outcomes for the rented sector.

May I refer to some of the specific points that have been raised this evening by noble Lords? The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, mentioned the HCLG Select Committee report. All I can say is that we will respond in due course to the committee’s report on Protecting the Homeless and the Private Rented Sector: MHCLG’s Response to Covid-19; I am afraid I have no news on that.

I thank my noble friend Lord Young for raising what we can learn from Wales and Scotland, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. I will encourage my officials to look at what we can learn from the devolved Administrations, though I would say that there is a choice around whether it is right to offer loans, which in effect provide additional debt for an individual, as opposed to what we have tended to prefer, which is to widen our financial support. There is a choice and you cannot necessarily do both, but we will look at that in some detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, all raised various forms of direct financial support measures to pay rent arrears, which is not currently government policy. I do not propose to introduce government policy in this debate, but I have to say that everybody who they mentioned is eligible for the support that I have outlined—it is open to them.

With regard to no recourse to public funds, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, the rules have not changed. Eligibility is determined by local authorities, which have to use their judgment in assessing what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis. We do not propose to change that at this point.

I assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to support renters affected by the pandemic. The measures that I have highlighted are in addition to existing commitments to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market for all. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for raising this important matter on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Big Issue, which he can rightly be proud of, and I extend my thanks to the considerable number of noble Lords who have participated in this debate.

My Lords, the Grand Committee now stands adjourned until 5.30 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.

Sitting suspended.