(4 months ago)Commons Chamber
As the Government take steps in the next phase of the response to coronavirus, it is right that we consider how to transition from the emergency measures put in place in March in the face of the then imminent public health emergency. On 13 May, the Government took decisive steps to unlock the housing market, enabling people, whether they own or rent, to move home safely if they need to. The end of the pause on possession proceedings on 23 August is another important step towards more normal life resuming and to ensuring all people—landlords and tenants—have access to justice. Prioritising cases is a matter for the judiciary, but I consider it important that cases such as those of serious antisocial behaviour are heard again.
During this period, we are working to provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when possession proceedings start again. As part of this, we have been engaging with a working group convened by the Master of the Rolls. An early outcome of the group’s work has been changes to the court rules of possession proceedings. These rules will apply within the current legislative framework from 23 August. They will require landlords seeking possession of their property to set out relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including information on the effect of the pandemic. This encourages landlords to have the right conversations with tenants before seeking repossession. Through guidance, we are also encouraging landlords to agree to rent repayment plans or rent flexibilities, where possible. Landlords will need to follow strict procedures if they want to gain possession of their property. This includes, until at least 30 September, giving tenants a minimum of three months’ notice of their intention to seek possession, as set out in the measures introduced in the Coronavirus Act 2020.
The Government have provided unprecedented financial support to renters through the job retention scheme, boosting the welfare safety net by more than £9 billion and increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile. These measures will remain in place when the courts reopen. We are also committed to bringing forward reforms to provide greater security to tenants, alongside strengthening the rights of landlords who need to gain possession of their property when they have a valid reason to do so. Legislation will be brought forward in due course.
I thank the Minister for that response, but it really will not do, because he knows that his proposals are toothless. Eviction law remains intact, so extra information about the tenant will not prevent people from losing their home, and in the middle of a public health crisis. In a Government statement on 18 March, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said:
“The Government is clear—no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.”
Labour wants to hold him to this.
The evictions ban ends on 23 August. The Government have failed to plan for what happens next. That failure looks set to lead to evictions and homelessness this autumn. Data from Citizens Advice and others indicates millions of households are struggling with rent. Current law makes evictions mandatory, with no court discretion, if tenants are in two months’ of arrears under ground 8, section 8 of the Housing Act 1988, and discretionary evictions can still be made under section 21, which the Government have promised to abolish but so far have not done so. They could have prevented people from falling into arrears by adjusting social security or bringing in emergency temporary legal changes, but they have chosen not to.
What assessment have the Government made of likely numbers of people facing homelessness? What consideration have they given to public health, with possibly thousands of households becoming homeless as we go into winter? What resources have they provided to councils for the cost of additional advisers and emergency and other accommodation? Will the Minister admit that yesterday’s practice direction will make no material difference to the outcomes for tenants with arrears, as eviction laws remain unchanged?
The Government made a promise. This is not just affecting antisocial tenants; it is affecting people struggling now. Nobody benefits from renters becoming homeless, nor mortgage payers struggling with the end of the deferral scheme. We have called on the Government repeatedly to act. It is not too late to extend the ban and sort out the legal changes in September. For the sake of everyone whose home is at risk, and everyone who cares, I urge them to act now.
The hon. Lady knows full well—the House knows full well—that this an unprecedented epidemic. In its face, we have brought forward unprecedented measures to help tenants in difficulty. We are protecting 8.6 million people as a result of the stay in court action, the moratorium on evictions and the three-month minimum notice period that landlords need to apply.
We have spent billions of pounds on the furlough scheme, which the shadow Chancellor has described as a lifeline, to make sure that people have an income and can help pay their rents. We have given local authorities £4.3 billion. We have given £500 million in council tax relief. We have spent £433 million on the Everyone In campaign to help with homelessness, which has resulted in 90% of homeless people being taken off the streets. We have committed to 6,000 new long-term homes—3,300 this year—to help anyone who suffers from homelessness. I think the House will agree that that is, by any measure, a real effort to help people who are in need.
But we are moving out of the worst of the epidemic, and we are moving through a transition phase. It is right that we normalise proceedings and procedures. To that effect, I have had conversations with the Master of the Rolls and with Sir Robin Knowles. They have been quite clear that they want to ensure that courts act properly to hear landlords’ and tenants’ concerns. They are also very clear that, should a landlord not provide requisite information to the courts about the effect of covid-19 on a tenant when the landlord brings forward an application, the courts will have power to adjourn the case, which will hit the landlord in the pocket—something that will focus the landlords’ minds.
I have been told by many stakeholders and representatives, including the National Residential Landlords Association, that this will definitely be a wake-up call to landlords. It will also be of definite support to tenants, so I am convinced that we have struck the right balance between tenants’ needs and the landlords’ rights. I am convinced that we are supporting people to the best of our ability. I am pleased that we are now moving out of the epidemic and we are supporting people appropriately.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. As I said, we will bring forward the renters’ reform Act, which will abolish section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, in due course, when we have stable terrain on which to do so. That will improve tenants’ rights. We will also ensure that there is provision for a lifetime deposit scheme in that Bill. As I have described from my discussions with the Master of the Rolls, the courts have set out strict procedures that landlords will have to follow if they want to claim repossession of their properties. That is the right and balanced course, and I commend it.
In the end, as I am sure the Minister will agree, we all want to get to a position where no tenant is evicted because of covid-related matters. I recognise that the Government have made efforts, through the statutory instrument and the guidance, to toughen up the pre-action protocol, but what happens if a landlord comes to the court with all the information about a tenant’s circumstances but still wants to go for a section 21 eviction—they do not have to give any reasons—or for a ground 8 eviction, where simply rent arrears will do? If all the information is given to the court, does the court have any discretion to refuse the eviction request?
I am obliged to the Chairman of the Select Committee for that. First, the landlord will have to bring all the information that is required before the court. The courts want to sit in order that a duty solicitor will be present, but other interlocutors may be present to mediate, even at that late stage, between the landlord and the tenant to ensure that the right outcome can be achieved. Under the section 21 rules of the 1988 Act, the courts do not have discretion in that particular circumstance, but I am sure that in those cases where egregious rent arrears predate the covid emergency, where there is domestic abuse or where there is antisocial behaviour, we want to see the landlord have their right to bring forward their repossession case. That is what they are allowed to do under the law.
My right hon. Friend will know that effective communication is often the solution to many a problem. Will he assure the House that he will do everything he can to encourage landlords and tenants, who may be experiencing financial difficulties, to come together to work out flexible solutions?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have had several conversations with the NRLA, I have had conversations with the judiciary and I have also spoken to Baroness Kennedy of Generation Rent. I have made those points to them and I make them to the House.
I dread the autumn. Even before covid, my borough of Brent had the second highest level of evictions in London; a third of households live in poverty and more than 30% of employees earn below the living wage, and many face redundancy. This will mean that after paying their rent, the average family with three children in my constituency will be left with just £38.46 a week to feed and clothe all five people, and pay all their utility bills. The Minister may say that local authorities have been given £50 million to help families in hardship, but that works out at less than £1 million per constituency, and this is not about one-off hardship; it is about structural inequality and poverty. So will he increase housing benefit to cover the real cost of average rents and will he introduce fair rent controls so that the taxpayer is not paying out to chase ever-escalating rents and ever-rising property prices, which are distorting our economy?
The best way to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents—and all our constituents—out of this crisis is to get the economy back on track and people into work so that they can pay their bills and enjoy their lives again. As for the specifics of his constituents’ cases, in fact, we have not given £50 million—we have given £500 million in council tax relief for the most egregious cases and £63 million for the non-shielded food vulnerable to help them. We have protected, as I have said, 8.6 million people as a result of the other changes that we have made. I am confident that we have done the right thing, and we continue to do the right thing—for example, by adding a further £40 million to discretionary housing payments, bringing the total to £180 million, to help the sort of people he talked about in his question.
In my constituency, I have military families, returning from serving this country abroad, who are unable to regain access to their family homes because of the moratorium on evictions. I have neighbourhoods that are blighted because, despite the best action of local authorities to evict households that are a persistent source of antisocial behaviour, the moratorium means that those individuals are there, thumbing their noses at their neighbours and causing misery for many. May I encourage and invite the Minister to stick to his guns and ensure that we can still take robust action against those who abuse their position?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. Those who abuse their position make everyone’s lives intolerable. Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, has said that antisocial behaviour is an issue for local authorities, the responsible agencies, Government—possibly even Opposition. People are being let down by antisocial behaviour, and antisocially behaving tenants need to be dealt with by the courts. I will stick to my guns—the Government will stick to their guns—and we will do the right thing by landlords and tenants.
In my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead, 1,500 people have had to sign up for universal credit, and 12,000 have been furloughed, with the risk of job losses. I am extremely concerned about my constituents. One of them has written to me to say that they have no idea what to do when the ban on evictions is lifted, as their landlord has raised their rent to more than their universal credit payment during the crisis. What can the Minister say to the thousands of people facing job losses in my constituency in response to their concerns about being evicted?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. New and existing universal credit claimants who have been in work can claim a nine-month grace period from the cap on universal credit that they received. They can apply for discretionary housing payments, and we have made more money available for that particular situation. I would say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), that the best way to help her constituents is to get our economy back on track and her constituents back to work. We have created more jobs in the past 10 years than ever before. We have closed the gap between rich and poor. The actions that we have taken will support her constituents, and we will continue to do so as we leave the crisis.
I welcome the measures that the Government have introduced to protect renters in Harlow during the pandemic. However, tenants living in permitted-development-rights office-block conversions in my constituency have had a rent rise from £612 a month—a little below the old housing allowance rate—to £718 this financial year, which is a little below the new local housing allowance rate and, after universal credit, that rent increase means that they are £13 a month over the benefit cap, which is recouped. While taxpayers pay more and private landlords earn more, tenants in those blocks end up £13 worse off. What steps will the Government take to ensure that landlords do not move the goalposts and that tenants get the benefit of local housing allowance rate increases?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. He has brought the issue of office conversions to my attention before, and is a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents. As I said to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), new and existing universal credit claimants who had been in work can apply for the nine-month grace period on their welfare benefits being capped. There are exemptions for the most vulnerable, including the disabled, and they can apply to their local authority for discretionary housing payments, so there are tools available to help my right hon. Friend’s constituents. The biggest tool of all, of course, is the tool of work, and that is what we will work exceptionally hard to provide to everybody who either has no job or fears losing theirs.
We might or might not be out of the worst of this health crisis, but when it comes to unemployment and lost incomes, sadly there is very likely worse to come. Will the Minister at least admit that without changes in the law—for example, disapplying ground 8 of section 8 of the Housing Act 1988—landlords only need to follow procedures and renters who have lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their homes, quite possibly in their thousands? Why will he not give judges discretion to look at the facts of individual cases?
I have had discussions with many stakeholders, including representatives of landlords, including the National Residential Landlords Association, which tells me that, according to its research, 90% of renters say that they have been able to meet their rent liabilities. Of the 10% remaining, who either have difficulty or fear difficulty, 75% have said that they have had a good response from their landlord in negotiating flexible repayments or other payment holidays. I think that the landlord community understands the challenge that the economy faces and that tenants face, and is working proactively to support them. We will continue to work proactively to support tenants through the measures that I have described.
As the shadow Minister pointed out earlier, back in March, the Secretary of State said that no one would lose their home as a result of losing income due to covid. It is quite clear from what the Minister has said today that he cannot guarantee that, can he?
We have protected those tenants from eviction through the actions that we have already taken—actions that I believe have been supported across the House. We are now moving into a new stage of this crisis, where we are trying to normalise our economy and society. Of course I cannot guarantee that every tenancy will be retained, but we have taken steps to ensure that tenants are supported. We will continue to take those steps.
Ah, you can.
I thank the Minister for his answers thus far, but he will be aware of the dramatic increase in the number of people who have fallen into rent arrears during lockdown. The reality is that judges have no discretion whatever if a case is brought and a tenant is more than eight weeks in rent arrears; they have to order an eviction. Will my right hon. Friend, who is going to bring forward legislation in a major way in the autumn anyway, look at emergency legislation now to prevent unnecessary evictions and suffering on the part of people who are currently in desperate need because of their temporary rent arrears? The estimate is that this problem could affect up to half a million people by the time we come to the end of the moratorium on evictions.
My hon. Friend is rarely silenced for long. I hear what he says and he has heard what I have said. We will bring forward the renters’ reform Bill, which will be the biggest rent change and tenancy change in a generation, when it is appropriate. In the meantime, we will continue to support tenants and landlords through the measures that I have already outlined.
We know that 9% of private renters have made a claim for universal credit during the crisis and, of course, we are expecting a massive spike in future universal credit claims in the months to come. Given that the local housing allowance barely covers local rents, particularly in Warwick and Leamington, where house prices and rents are so expensive, surely the Government should adhere to and honour their promise to renters back in March to protect them for the months to come.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have already said, his constituents will be able to take advantage of a discretionary housing payment application to their local authority if they have need. We have given half a billion pounds to local authorities to apply council tax relief to their residents where it is appropriate. Of course, we will also continue to work hard. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his Budget statement and a statement just a few weeks ago, and I am sure that he will make further financial announcements in due course that will be designed to stimulate the economy as we exit this crisis and to support all our people, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, to get back to work.
The biggest cause of homelessness is the breakdown of a private sector tenancy. I am not talking about rough sleeping but the tens of thousands of households that are invisibly homeless, including the 120,000 children every year who live in temporary accommodation, and that was long before the covid crisis.
Will the Government commit to an infrastructure project, like road building, to build at least 100,000 new social homes for rent—that is social homes, not affordable homes—to address the homelessness crisis once and for all? We will not get rid of homelessness unless we have a public sector infrastructure project to build social homes for rent.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Budget statement and subsequently, has announced a raft of infrastructure measures that will stimulate our economy. He also, of course, announced the biggest injection of cash into affordable homes in 15 years, since the 2006 to 2011 period, through the affordable homes programme. We have also taken measures to allow local authorities to act more quickly and effectively to build social homes if they wish. From memory, I think that we have built something like 150,000 homes for social rent in the last few years, and of course more will be built. We have a plan to invest in our infrastructure that will support the hon. Lady’s constituents and mine.
The support that the Government have given to small councils, such as mine in north Devon, and fabulous homeless charities, such as the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple, to help people off the streets has been welcome. With the moratorium on evictions ending, however, can the Minister assure me that all that good work and support will be backed up by long-term plans to secure affordable and sustainable housing for my most vulnerable constituents?
I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents, and the Freedom Centre in particular, for all the work they have been doing for her constituents, their neighbours, during the emergency. I absolutely commit to her that, as I just said to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), we will bring forward the biggest investment in affordable housing in the last 10 to 15 years between 2021 and 2026. That builds on the £9 billion that we have invested in the existing affordable homes programme, which has helped to build 241,000 homes in the last year. That is a signal achievement; we intend to go further.
Lifting the evictions ban from 24 August is expected to put more than 200,000 people at risk of eviction, and changes introduced by the Lord Chancellor on Friday will have no teeth unless the court is given discretion in ground 8, section 8 cases. Does the Minister recognise that making a small change to introduce discretion could save many people, who have lost income due to covid, from losing their homes? Or, as my hon. Friend the shadow Minister has suggested, will he extend the ban and sort out the legal changes in September?
I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. The evidence I have suggests that 90% of tenants—90% of renters—have managed to beat their rental liabilities, and the overwhelming majority of those who have not feel that their landlords have responded positively to ensure that they have more flexible repayment options. I do not see this tsunami that the hon. Lady seems to suggest. I am sure she will not mind me saying so, but when I spoke to Baroness Kennedy yesterday, she also said that she did not believe that a tsunami of evictions was at all likely. We need to be very careful with the language we use, and to not spread fear among potentially vulnerable people—tenants as well as landlords—where fear should not exist.
I thank the Minister for all his Department has done to help the 8.6 million private renters during covid-19, including those in my constituency. What is the Department going to do in the future to help young professionals and working families get on the housing ladder, because owning your own home is a policy that our party believes in?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce our new First Homes policy very soon, which will provide discounts of at least 30% on the cost of buying a new home. That will help a new generation of first-time buyers to buy their own home. I am in constant contact with the lending community, to make sure that it is offering decent lending products—decent mortgages—that are affordable to the broad mass of people. I shall continue those efforts, to ensure that people who want to buy and own their own home can do so.
Where landlords and tenants can reach an agreement between them, that is clearly to be welcomed, but the point is that many cannot. Can the Minister confirm whether there is a duty on landlords to inquire as to whether tenants have a problem with their rent because of covid? If there is no duty, does that not mean, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions, that the landlord can, under section 21 or ground 8, seek possession of a property and that the courts have to go along with that and have no discretion whatsoever?
I can confirm that landlords do have, or will have, a duty to assess the effect of covid-19 on their constituents, including the financial impact and their vulnerability, should they wish to bring an application before the court to seek possession of their property. If they do not do that, or if the information they provide is not appropriate, the courts will be well within their rights to adjourn the case, which will cost the landlord time and money, and certainly focus the landlord’s mind. I am content with the thought that courts have always done what they can, and that they will continue to do so, to mediate in the execution of justice. They will also do what they can to help both parties in the case, including tenants. Landlords will have a duty as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s statutory instrument, which he laid last Friday.
I commend the Government for the support they have given to renters during a difficult pandemic, particularly protecting them from the minority of landlords who can be unreasonable at times. Of course, the future wellbeing of renters will depend on a vibrant rental market, so what plans does the Minister have to ensure that the rental market is vibrant?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: a vibrant rental market is important to our economy and to renters. We must not act in any way, either individually or cumulatively, to drive landlords out of the marketplace. That can only mean that there will be fewer properties available to rent, which is no good for tenants, and it may also mean, of course, that the properties vacated by good landlords are taken up by less scrupulous landlords, who will not give the same good experience to their tenants. We will bring forward the renters’ reform Bill in due course, which will ensure that there is a proper balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants. The best thing we can do for landlords at the moment, however, is to make sure that renters pay their rent, because that will keep landlords in business.
Thank you. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business—that is a cue for people to leave—and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.