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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 2:59 pm, 25th March 2020

May I start by adding to the tributes to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor for the roles that they have played? As shadow Housing Minister, I have benefited greatly from their prioritising housing as an issue much more than perhaps we did before, and that has been right and a good thing to do.

I start by thanking the civil servants and everybody who is working on the Government’s response to coronavirus. It goes without saying that everybody is working incredibly hard and it is right that they should be acknowledged and appreciated.

I want to take just a few minutes to talk about housing, which I have already done this week, but I want to talk about it again because there is a particular problem with people who are renting, which has yet to be resolved by the Government. There is misinformation about what has changed and what has not changed in terms of the emergency legislation and what support renters can expect to get over the coming weeks and months. The Prime Minister said several times today that he wanted us all to put our arms around everybody in the country at this time and make sure that they are supported, but renters are not being supported at this time, and it is really important that the Government intervene. The Prime Minister promised last week that nobody would be evicted during this crisis, but that promise has not been upheld and it needs to be.

There are 20 million renters in England, 6 million have no savings whatever, and in 1.5 million households the renter is someone over the age of 65. Those are potentially vulnerable people. Any one of those people, at any point over the coming weeks and months, could find an eviction notice drop on their doormat. The Government have done nothing to stop landlords sending eviction notices to people who are renting their properties.

What the emergency legislation does, to be clear, is say that someone who is being evicted cannot be taken to court for three months rather than two if they have not left the property. So we are shifting to 12 weeks rather than eight, which means that someone sent an eviction notice might get evicted in June rather than May, if things go to court. The point is that most people leave when they get an eviction notice; they do not wait for things to get to the point where they go to court. When someone is given a notice of eviction, they have to leave the property, but people are misunderstanding the implications of what the Government are introducing. People will still at this point be getting eviction notices dropping on their doormat, so we could have families and vulnerable people, who have been told by the Government that they must stay indoors, receiving eviction notices telling them they must leave. That must be wrong, and something has to be done about that.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned what we think needs to be done. We need a ban on evictions for six months and maybe more. Three months is not enough. We cannot have people going to court in June and being evicted, because we will still be in the middle of the crisis at that point. We need to see a suspension of rents if people cannot pay them and a manageable repayment system set up, and we need a substantial increase in support for rent costs through the social security system. We need the courts to be instructed to suspend all possession orders. In Prime Minister’s questions and in the debate since, Members have raised cases of people being evicted right now, and that cannot be right. Shelter can help with the changes that need to be made. We need clear Government guidance to people that if they are served an eviction notice, they must not leave their home. They must stay where they are there, because we do not want them to leave. If people are getting eviction notices, the Government must make it clear that they should not leave. We do not want that to happen to people.

I want to raise two other housing issues, if I may. One is the post-Grenfell situation. Tens of thousands of people in blocks covered with Grenfell-style cladding are going through the process of getting that cladding removed. They need some urgent guidance from the Government about whether the removal of that cladding will remain an essential construction task. They are in buildings that could go up in flames or be dangerous. Many of them are paying for waking watch, which is costing them hundreds of pounds a month each. They are funding waking watch to make sure that, if there is a fire, people can get out quickly enough.

These people have also seen huge rises in their insurance costs, which they are really struggling to pay. I will give just one example. For Islington Gates, a block with 141 households, the insurance for the block has gone up from £36,000 to £191,000. The residents have been told that they have to pay £10,000 each by 1 April, or there will not be any insurance on the building any more and they will all have to leave. Those are the real situations such people are finding themselves in, and we need some clarity from the Government about whether the cladding works will proceed.

At New Capital Quay in Greenwich—one of the first blocks to be identified as being covered with the same cladding as in the Grenfell Tower fire—the residents were contacted just yesterday and told that all the cladding removal will be halted. They have to carry on paying for waking watch, and they have to carry on with the uncertainty of living in a very dangerous building, so we need some clarity about that, please.

The other group of people I want to mention are those in temporary accommodation. We know that 125,000 children live in temporary accommodation, and we are facing several problems here. The first is that they can be evicted at any point in time, which is a great worry. In the past 24 hours, Travelodge has closed many hotels, evicting the families who were using them as temporary accommodation. This is a live and very real problem for families right now, and the Government need to intervene there.

There is also the problem of people in bed-and-breakfast and hostel accommodation and the risk of spreading coronavirus there. The Mayor of London has found some hotels that he can use to put rough sleepers in so that they have somewhere they can go. As I understand it, the Government have also identified hotels where people can go if they are displaying symptoms or need somewhere to be if they are on the streets. However, we need some clarity about what that programme is and what is being done there.

I will leave my remarks there, because I know other people want to speak. I would just say that, at this time of great crisis, we are all retreating to our homes to be safe. If we find ourselves in a situation where people cannot stay in their homes, which we will do unless the Government act, that will be a great injustice for those people.