Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020 - Motion for an humble Address

– in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 23rd September 2020.

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Baroness Grender:

Moved by Baroness Grender

That a Motion for an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, laid before the House on 17 July, be annulled because they will permit evictions of individuals who have been served a notice of eviction between 23 March and 28 August before Parliament has had an opportunity to debate the impact of the Rules on (1) homelessness, and (2) the spread of COVID-19 (SI 2020/751).

Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the last general election this Government promised to scrap Section 21 evictions—evictions that are mandatory and require no explanation from the landlord. In March, the Government promised that

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

This Motion, with your Lordships’ support, will achieve those objectives—those two promises from this Government—for thousands of renters who face the pandemic second wave and a bleak winter.

I thank all Peers who have joined me in discussions about this debate in advance. I recognise that this afternoon we may well tour a multitude of issues faced by both tenants and landlords, and many valid points will be made, but I urge Peers to comment on the significant loophole as a result of this statutory instrument, namely the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, laid before Parliament on 17 July. Its welcome baby sister, the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Residential Tenancies: Protection from Eviction) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, was laid on 28 August, introducing six-month notice periods for tenants, unless there are serious issues such as domestic violence and anti-social behaviour or significant rent arrears.

My only question to the Minister today is: why can we not explore methods to apply longer notice periods to ensure parity between those served notice before and after 29 August? This request was shared with the Government yesterday, and I gave the Minister notice of it this morning. I hope that he will answer this specific question. The letter sent to all Peers by the Government yesterday dwelled almost entirely on the second statutory instrument, not the first, which is the subject of today’s debate.

As a result of this identified loophole, an estimated 55,000 households, according to Generation Rent, will not have six months’ notice, so if a landlord served a Section 21 notice to their tenant during the height of lockdown, they could be coming to the end of their tenancy now. Indeed, many notices served at the height of the pandemic have already expired, or the best-case scenario is three months’ notice.

I have asked many parliamentary Questions about how many people will be impacted by this loophole. The MHCLG has answered each request for data with verbal claims of “unprecedented packages”, instead of answering my questions. It has put some data out on Twitter suggesting that the official statistics show that only 3,022 private and social sector landlords applied to the courts for possession of their property between April and June. Perhaps the MHCLG should heed the warning of the Ministry of Justice, which says that

“the data is unlikely to be representative of general trends in possession actions.”

Most Peers involved in this debate will be only too well aware that tenants subject to a Section 21 eviction rarely make it to court, knowing that it is mandatory, requires no explanation from the landlord, has no discretionary role for the judges and leaves the tenant with the bill to pay for both the landlord and themselves.

The 55,000 households teetering on the brink of eviction are the subject of this vote today. That figure is calculated using widely accepted methodology based on population levels and numbers of private tenants. Given that Shelter has already said that by the end of June, 174,000 households had been warned that they would face eviction, we can safely assume that we are talking about tens of thousands having been served with an eviction notice between March and August of this year. All it takes is for a landlord to now reinvoke that eviction notice and during the second wave of an epidemic, in the run up to winter, these families will be searching for a new home. Some will face homelessness and many the misery of temporary accommodation, supported by local authorities that are struggling every day to help. My noble friend Lady Thornhill will elaborate. The winter truce was welcome, but it is too late for these tenants—tenants such as Kevin from Kendal, who told Generation Rent:

“Our landlord has decided to sell their house, no doubt to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday. We have paid our rent on time and in full for almost 4 years, even with the reduced income over Covid-19, but we received a Section 21 Notice. We’re struggling to find a suitable home in our town and are now having to consider moving away and changing our kids’ schools. My eldest son should be starting Year 7 at the local secondary in September. I was a child when I was evicted from my home 24 years ago. I never thought my kids would go through this.”

We must vote down this statutory instrument today to help tenants such as Kevin. The Government were warned and had time to prepare. They could have used the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee back in May to give judges more discretion or to accelerate the abolition of Section 21, but they did not. In this debate, some will want to talk about how difficult it has been for many landlords. I agree, and I wholeheartedly support the package of proposals for tenants and landlords drawn up by the National Residential Landlords Association, Shelter, Crisis, Generation Rent and others, but that is not the subject of the vote today. If we vote against this statutory instrument, will landlords still be able to take action regarding more serious eviction cases? Yes, they will, because of the second statutory instrument. This Motion ensures that there is fairness between those threatened with eviction before August and those threatened with eviction after August. That is all.

I recognise that this House does not like to vote down statutory instruments—it is not a good precedent—but this Government have already abandoned due process. The Commons did not do its job and properly scrutinise this SI. The Government did not comply with the 21-day rule of having 21 sitting days before it was enacted. This week, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, set Parliament the challenge of not surrendering our role because of Covid-19. This is not comfortable parliamentary business, but neither is it comfortable for the tens of thousands threatened with eviction.

As for the Motion to Regret, clearly, I agree with its laudable aims, but if we vote for that, nothing happens. We will come back tomorrow to discuss more Covid-19 regulations, but we will not have changed the law. We must vote down this SI and change the law. The sky will not fall in. Serious evictions will still happen, but thousands of families threatened with eviction, with no cash and no options, will have your Lordships to thank for changing the law and giving them the reprieve that they need in these terrifying times.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 1:39 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, Ministers promised that no one would lose their home because of coronavirus. The rules before this House today will see this promise broken. Tenants across the UK are struggling to make ends meet right now, and just as the furlough scheme ends, redundancies begin, and lockdowns start again. This Government’s response is to bring the evictions moratorium to a halt.

I remind the House of some of the figures that we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grender. Shelter estimates that close to 250,000 renters are now at risk of a Covid-19 eviction as a result of the ban being lifted. Already, 174,000 private tenants have been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent. Even before this crisis, more than half of private renters aged between 25 and 34 had no savings. On top of this, 45% of renters have lost their income since March, according to Generation Rent.

The Government are well aware of this and rightly avoided the cliff edge back in August, when they chose to extend the evictions ban. However, less than a month later, they have driven off that very same cliff edge. I understand that the Minister will tell the House that the evictions ban cannot go on for ever—I accept that—but it is not what we, or anyone else, are asking for. We are asking the Government to stick to their word that no one will lose their home because of coronavirus.

In the months that have passed since the announcement of the moratorium, the Ministry could have put in place the right measures to ensure this promise is honoured. It could have brought in the right to support for tenants who are struggling, changes to the universal credit system and an uplift in local housing allowance. It could have also announced a credible plan to deal with rent arrears. Instead, it has leapt from crisis to crisis, wasted the summer months, and now tenants are facing the same predicament they faced at the beginning of the pandemic.

Yesterday, all Peers received a letter from the Minister in which he outlined the support the Government have brought forward to help with people’s living costs, including rent. These measures are mitigation, but they are hedged around with discretionary payments and different eviction rules in different parts of the country, depending on whether there is a local lockdown. The central point for today’s statutory instrument is that the eviction process will restart, and Government will break their promise to some of the most vulnerable people in our country.

The Government should feel compelled to extend the evictions ban because of the misery which will be caused to those who will lose their homes. They should also recognise that if they do not act, there will be wider implications for us all.

Sixteen health bodies, including the British Medical Association, have warned of a potential rise in Covid infections if the Government force people into homelessness or overcrowded accommodation. The consequences of these measures extend far beyond those who will be directly evicted.

The National Residential Landlords Association is also calling for more support for tenants. In other parts of the UK there has been recognition of the looming crisis. I draw attention to what the Welsh Government are doing, for example. They have extended minimum notice periods, launched an early alert scheme, introduced tenancy saver loans and begun a housing advice campaign. Through their local authorities, they have supported people in the private rented sector.

The Liberal Democrats’ Motion is a fatal Motion; ours is a regret Motion. I believe that a fatal Motion would go against the express view of the House of Commons, but above that, it would be a diversion from the seriousness of this issue and quickly degenerate into a constitutional row, which would take the focus off the central importance of this issue.

The Labour Benches have repeatedly warned that the Government should not lift the evictions ban until they have a credible plan which ensures that people who have lost income due to coronavirus do not lose their homes. Regrettably, that has not happened. The ban will be lifted, and the plan to be put in place is insufficient for the Government to say they have kept their promise. I hope that today, the Minister can unveil a better plan.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative 1:44 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lords proposing the two motions before the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, is an experienced Member of this House. I expect she fully understands that her proposition to annul these measures is contrary to the practice and conventions of this House. Such a proposition, if successful, will be greatly to the disadvantage of the House. I hope she reconsiders the matter and withdraws her Motion.

I will address the regret Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I think he is wrong. In the light of the pandemic, I can understand the anxiety of noble Lords about this matter, but if we agree with the view that the justice process is not just about the resolution of difficult matters but also about fairness, we need to get the courts hearing cases again. Justice and fairness, to both landlord and tenant, cannot be put on hold just because of the pandemic, particularly as the Government have introduced measures to assist fairness and justice following the working group convened by the Master of the Rolls. There has been reference to yesterday’s letter from the Minister, Alex Chalk; it makes the measures in the practice direction clear. The prioritisation of cases will focus on anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupation and squatters, and abandonment of a property. I think noble Lords will agree that these cases are not just about parties to the dispute, but often about the rights and distress of neighbours.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench 1:46 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for giving us this chance to consider how a Covid-related rise in homelessness can be avoided. I declare my interests as on the register.

The pandemic has revealed how insecure and vulnerable is the private rented sector. Tenants, who can be paying over 40% of their income on rents, can lose their homes if they lose their jobs. Landlords, and there are over 2 million of them, can lose much of their income if they lose their rent. Therefore, the problems now faced by tenants and landlords call into question whether halving the size of the social housing sector—councils and housing associations—and doubling the size of the private rented sector, has been a sensible switch. We can now see the necessity not only of promised renters’ reforms but of rebalancing the two rental sectors, so that more households once again have the greater affordability and security of council and housing association accommodation.

The immediate necessity, however, is to avoid thousands of households with rent arrears losing their homes, not least because temporary accommodation for homeless families is already costing £1 billion a year. The annulment Motion by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, seeks to do this by addressing one unfair anomaly in the current arrangements. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, points to the lack of discretion for the courts in England—unlike their equivalents in Scotland —to refuse or delay a possession order where this is clearly justified.

I recommend that the Government also top up councils’ Covid hardship funds and reconsider the Spanish tenants’ loan scheme: a government-guaranteed, interest-free bank loan, repayable over six years or more, that pays off the arrears so the tenant is not evicted. The landlord is happy, the cost to government is very modest and to the tenant, bearable; and a rise in homelessness and misery is avoided.

Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop 1:48 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, with his knowledge of this area. I am aware of the importance of this matter for both landlord and tenants. I am grateful for many of the measures that have been in place hitherto and many of the protections and mitigations which will continue under these rules. However, to pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, I am concerned about those who may now find themselves in significant arrears, not least because of the pandemic. I think we will find there are many more in this situation than there were some months ago. This will disproportionately affect those from the most vulnerable groups in our midst, including migrants and those with mental health conditions.

A few months ago, the Everyone In initiative was in very many ways an astounding success and something of which the Government and others can, rightly, be proud. I would not want to see that being reversed by the effects of what is now being proposed, whether intended or not. My anxiety is that, just as infection rates may be rising, so evictions could reverse the good work that was done by putting people back on the streets. I will listen carefully to the debate. I hope for reassurance from the Minister but I have an inclination to vote for the regret Motion to give judges greater discretion in this matter.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat 1:50 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, very briefly and swiftly I shall give the local government perspective of the impact of this SI.

This pandemic has merely highlighted and exacerbated a growing problem—namely, that, with a significant reduction in social housing over many years, many low-waged earners are now privately renting and, as a direct consequence, are spending a higher percentage of their wages simply on putting a roof over their head.

Pre-Covid, the most common reason for people turning up homeless to their local council was eviction from a private tenancy. That figure is still at 74% nationally. In the longer term, we must reverse this decline and provide significantly more social, not affordable, housing. Just 6,000 homes for rent were built last year.

Local authorities, with government help from the Everyone In initiative, have taken 15,000 homeless people off the streets, but there is not the appropriate accommodation to house them permanently. Adding to this number by enabling further evictions will exacerbate an already difficult and unsustainable situation. Councils are using hotels and hostels, which is a temporary solution. In the last financial year, councils’ net expenditure on temporary accommodation was £140 million over budget. It is crucial that we prevent by whatever means possible any further homelessness.

To reduce evictions from the private sector, the Government should urgently bring forward their proposal to end Section 21 no-fault evictions and commit to maintaining the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile in the longer term. They should provide assurances to councils about the continuation of the much-needed discretionary housing payments for at least the next financial year and, finally, address the £2 billion local authority funding gap.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords) 1:52 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I wish the House to understand the view of the Welsh Government on the importance of housing and the private rented sector. It is a humane and supportive way of dealing with the fundamental issue of people having a decent home.

In February, the Welsh Government introduced an amendment to their housing Bill. The aim of the Bill was to improve security of tenure for those who rent their home in Wales. Although its provisions will apply to all landlords, its greatest impact will be felt in the private rented sector. Increased security of tenure would be achieved by amending the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 to extend the minimum notice period for a notice given under Section 173 from two to six months, and to restrict the issuing of such a notice until six months after the occupation date of the contract, currently set at four months. The net effect of these changes would be to double the length of time before a landlord could seek possession at the beginning of a contract from six months to one year.

The Minister for Housing and Local Government in the Senedd said that she was committed to ensuring that the Government continue to protect renters, while at the same time mitigating impacts on landlords and protecting communities from the harmful effects of anti-social behaviour. Where rent arrears have accumulated due to Covid-19, private rented sector tenants will be able to apply for a loan through the tenancy saver loan scheme, which opens at the end of this month and will provide £1.4 million to manage debt problems. Looking beyond the pandemic, the Welsh Government will continue with their Bill to amend the Act to increase the security of tenure, meaning that security of tenure in Wales will be greater than elsewhere in the UK.

This ground-breaking legislation sends out a very clear message—a secure home is essential and forms the basis of a decent society. The regret Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby follows that sense of decency in trying to protect tenants in England from eviction. I urge this Government to look at what we are doing in Wales to support people, particularly in these most difficult of times.

Photo of Baroness Sanderson of Welton Baroness Sanderson of Welton Conservative 1:54 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, although it was right to impose a ban on evictions as we worked to understand the effects of coronavirus, it was not without consequence, particularly for victims of domestic abuse. For months, victims have been trapped in their homes with their perpetrator, living in daily fear of abuse because landlords have not been able to end tenancy agreements. This situation cannot continue. If we do not redeem evictions, we will prolong people’s suffering and let victims down. I know how seriously Members across the House take the issue of domestic abuse, so I am sure that this is something that none of us would want.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 1:55 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, my involvement in the private rented sector is parliamentary, personal and professional. I saw the freeze on evictions as a necessary but blunt instrument due to the prevailing immediacy of circumstances and for good order, given judicial incapacity. Landlords and tenants, lenders and borrowers, the honest and the less so, and many pre-existing or unrelated issues were swept up in this. However, coronavirus cannot go on being cited for all ills.

I might have supported the Motion to Regret and the Motion for an humble Address to annul the rules had it been possible to distinguish a genuine balance of Covid-related hardship from more opportunistic practices, or indeed from unrelated pre-Covid matters. I could have done so had it been clear, on fair assessment, that the balance of hardship was invariably in favour of protecting renters and maintaining the freeze. However, I am not convinced. I note that over 60% of private rented sector landlords are owners of but one rented property. Perhaps the owner wanting to reoccupy their sole rented home, the pensioner, possibly in care and reliant on the rental income from their former home, and the buy-to-let borrower also need fair treatment or we risk serious consequences. The sector needs protection from poor tenants and poor landlords alike.

Covid ultimately affects our entire existence and economy, and we have to get back to normal somehow or other. I accept that the Government might offer financial assistance, which would ease the issue, and I would support that, but I feel that it is probably out of scope and I certainly do not believe that it is a cure-all.

Rocks and hard places apart, matters cannot just drift. The eviction freeze comes with moral hazards and abuses, and must revert to case-by-case assessment of the individual circumstances, so that landlords and tenants are subject to independent adjudication. Therefore, although the Government need to demonstrate an approach to the lacuna referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, I follow the reasoning and conclusions of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour 1:57 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I believe that the right to shelter is just that—a fundamental human right. Incidentally, in the light of recent remarks, I also think that that right comes even before someone’s right to buy to let. That said, I understand the property right, but the crucial thing here is that in a pandemic, of all times, we do not need people to be rendered homeless, whatever the reasons for that homelessness. Therefore, it is my belief that the Government should enact emergency legislation after this debate to ensure that no one is homeless during the pandemic. How will it be possible to enforce further local or national lockdowns, or to deal with this catastrophic crisis of social mixing, before there is a vaccine if we cannot guarantee that everyone has basic shelter and that no one is homeless?

At the moment I am minded to support the regret Motion rather than the fatal one, and not just because of constitutional conventions, significant though they must be in the context of an unelected House. Can the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, explain in a little more detail in her summing up the legal effect of annulling retrospectively Civil Procedure Rules that have granted eviction protection for the past month? It is a concern about throwing that last month’s protection and legal certainty into doubt that gives me real pause for thought about the fatal Motion.

Therefore, as I said, at the moment I am minded to support the regret Motion, but not just as a debating point. Your Lordships’ House is not the Oxford Union or Cambridge Union; it needs to have more teeth than that. I am not a great fan of this Government but the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is a fantastic representative of them and a distinguished Member of this House. However, this is not just about adjudicating fairness between landlord and tenant. If we are to be fair to both, there is no problem with the Government stepping behind landlords and tenants, and providing the finances to make sure that no one need lose out or become homeless in this crisis. That can be done with emergency legislation to ensure a basic income, including the rent payments that people need and, where necessary, emergency social housing.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 2:00 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I have nothing to add on the substantive issues to the excellent speech made by my noble friend Lady Grender. I just want to say one or two things on affirmative Motions. I have been a Member of this House for 20 years. During that time, there have been a handful of occasions when the Conservatives have moved or supported fatal Motions on affirmative instruments. Their view seems to change according to whether they are in government or not.

Whenever there has been an investigation into the powers of the Lords on affirmative instruments—there have been two major investigations in that time—on each occasion, the conclusion was that the Lords have the power and ought to keep it but it ought to be used extremely sparingly. Therefore, it is wrong to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said, that this was contrary to the practices and conventions of this House. Rather, it would be contrary to the practices and conventions for such powers to be proposed and used frequently.

There are some occasions when fatal Motions are justified. One is when there is a very unusual situation and the Government have got themselves in a mess over what they are doing procedurally. That is the case at the moment, when all the statutory instruments that we are getting are not being dealt with properly, so we are in an exceptional situation. Another occasion when they are justified is when the fatality is technical. If this were to be voted down today, it would be a fatal Motion but not in practice. For example, 20 years ago, the House rejected a statutory instrument on GLA elections, but that did not stop those elections because it was possible for the Government of the day to turn around and sort it out.

Why have affirmative instruments in the first place? If we can never vote them down, there is no point in having them. The fact that we can, and occasionally do, vote them down actually gives all affirmative instruments a great deal more importance and means that the Government have to pay attention to them, so we should vote for this Motion.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 2:03 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, the Government are absolutely right not to continue the blanket ban on repossessions. After six months, when many landlords have struggled without any government help, with tenants who have already not been paying rent since before lockdown or who are damaging the property and behaving violently, is it really right effectively to force landlords to continue to provide free social housing even to problem tenants, costing private individuals thousands of pounds? These are not rich tycoons: just under half rent out only one property. Many are pensioners relying on rent for their retirement security. A balance must be struck between protecting tenants affected by Covid and enabling a property owner to recover their losses—or, indeed, to move into their own property on return from military service or working abroad when they would otherwise be legally barred from doing so.

The Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, to annul this statutory instrument, as my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach explained, would be against the conventions of our House. It would also cause chaos around the country and would damage the availability of private rented accommodation, which will be needed so much in future. There are protections for tenants, and the prioritisation of the courts will focus on anti-social or violent tenants, squatters, fraudsters and those with arrears that already go back more than one year. Homelessness is a dreadful problem; the Government must get to grips with it. I support the calls from around the House for emergency funding to support landlords and tenants where they face such problems in the current emergency. However, this blanket ban on repossessions does not seem like natural justice.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench 2:05 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, earlier this year, research by Age UK found that there were 750,000 private renters over the age of 60 in the UK. Older renters are often forgotten, and many live in constant fear of being evicted. This happened even before the pandemic. Some 28% of those who have been shielding during the pandemic usually work; half of these people are over the age of 50. That is why I, along with a cross-party group of 46 other Members of this House, recently wrote to the Chancellor asking him to give those who need it most job security and a decent income while the risks of Covid remain high. As the coronavirus job retention scheme or furloughs come to an end, there is a risk that many of these people will end up in rent arrears and face eviction.

One in five people aged between 50 and 64 are carers, as research from the Centre for Ageing Better in August last year showed. Many of these carers are forced to reduce their working hours and their income to care for loved ones, as we know. ONS figures from April this year found that 17% of employed carers had to reduce their working hours during the pandemic, while Alzheimer’s Society figures from 2019 showed that 112,000 people have left employment to care for family members who have dementia. Dementia Carers Count found that 36% of family carers provide care in excess of 100 hours a week.

The broken social care system means that carers’ incomes have been reduced during the pandemic; they are at greater risk of falling into rent arrears and now could also face eviction. A 2018 survey conducted by Mind found that one in four people said that having an unstable tenancy had impacted negatively on their mental health. A 2017 study by the Association of Mental Health Providers found that people with mental health problems were more likely to be evicted for either financial reasons or disproportionate anti- social behaviour. The same study found that people who are evicted tend to have worse physical and mental health than the average person. Moreover, the process of eviction itself can have profound psychological consequences and is associated with increased suicide risk. Do the Government have any plans to help these varied—

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness. Could she conclude her remarks?

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench

Yes, I have concluded.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I remind noble Lords that the time limit is two minutes.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Senior Whip (Lords) 2:08 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, many people risk eviction because the pandemic means that they cannot afford to pay their rent. The Resolution Foundation found that 32% of private renters of working age have seen their earnings hit, and one in eight private renters have fallen behind in their rent since the pandemic started, with figures much higher for benefit recipients.

Renters who have claimed benefits during the pandemic are almost three times as likely to be struggling with housing costs. Many are shocked to find that benefits do not cover their rent. After years of freezes, the Chancellor announced that a local housing allowing will cover “at least 30%” of market rents in your area, but for many people, that is not true. The Commons Library brief says that

“the caps still bite at a lower level than the 30th percentile for half of the local housing association rates in central and inner London.”

Meanwhile, the number of households hit by the benefit cap increased by 93% in the quarter to May, driven by a 600% increase in the number of universal credit households being capped due to the pandemic. So much of this is driven by high housing costs. Ministers always say that you can beat the cap by getting a job—but what jobs?

Ministers have given some extra funding, and that is good, but it is clearly not enough. Labour has called for Ministers to act, asking them not to ditch the furlough scheme but to adapt it; to extend the universal credit top-up of £20 a week to legacy benefits; to suspend the benefit cap; to remove the two-child limit; and to end the five-week wait for universal credit, which is a massive driver of housing arrears.

I support the Motion of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Only this week, my church told me that homeless people are now being seen back on the streets of Durham. If Ministers do not address the underlying financial problems facing so many people in this pandemic, I am afraid that we will see a lot more people losing their homes before it is over. I urge the Government to act.

Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative 2:10 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register and fully support the way that, during the Covid crisis, the Government have tried to allay the fears of those tenants in cases where there is a danger of them being oppressed or evicted by bad landlords or unavoidable economic or social hardship.

However, we should reflect that the size of the private rental sector has grown dramatically in recent years. Nearly 25% of the UK population is now housed in the private sector—an increase, over 10 years, of over 60%. In the vast amount of cases, the relationship between landlords and tenants works well and to the satisfaction of both parties. In a small percentage of cases, it does not. This might be because of dissatisfaction felt by one party about the other over some of the arrangements between them or the quality of the agreement between them. However, in only a few cases—proportionally—is the behaviour sufficiently bad to require action by either of them. This may be the anti-social behaviour of a tenant or a long-term failure to pay rent without excuse, or it may be the threatening behaviour of a landlord or a precipitant notice to quit. However, in some cases, the only solution for a landlord may be to commence eviction proceedings.

The Government recognise that, in the present crisis, some tenants will be under especial pressure—both economic and social—and have therefore introduced changes to give breathing space before evictions can be effected. This is sensible but, surely, we must also consider the effects on many landlords, who are also under enormous pressure and who may well be exemplary in their treatment of their tenants. They also have bills to pay and responsibilities to maintain their properties. If they are without rents or cannot regain possession of properties where bad tenants are currently situated, what are they to do?

I ask my noble friend to do his best to ensure that there is a level playing field and that, in seeking to help tenants—which I am sure is right—he also looks to ensure that the consequent burden put on landlords is alleviated by more positive and balanced government assistance.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Non-affiliated 2:13 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of Generation Rent. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for tabling these Motions, both of which I support. Because of the pandemic, rent debt is piling up for thousands of renters. Yes, the Government have given welcome support, but the scale of the rent-debt crisis means that much more is needed. Rent arrears have doubled, and that is before the end of the furlough scheme. However, when the Government were asked what estimates they have made of the number of private renters in arrears as a result of the pandemic, they were unable to answer. Therefore, I ask the noble Earl to answer that question today.

In addition, will he agree to review why the Government do not collect data on the number of Section 1 notices served or how often different grounds for eviction are used, especially as Sections 21 and 8—ground 8—are mandatory grounds for eviction, over which judges need to be given discretion? Without this, the information on Covid-19 that the Government have asked to be supplied cannot be used to good effect. The lack of government data on private renters as regards evictions has led to gaps in support, such as the issue raised today by the noble Baroness, Lady Grender.

Yes, the Government have given a six-month notice period, but it applies only to renters giving notice from 29 August. If you were handed a notice before this date, the six-month extension does not apply. If reactivated, your eviction will progress. Therefore, will the noble Earl agree to review and remedy this gap in support?

In conclusion, the situation for many renters is as follows: if they have little or no income, or not enough benefits to cover their rent, what are they to do? The rent just cannot be paid. If you are then asked to leave your property by your landlord but have accumulated rent debt, how do you move on? How do you get a deposit for a new home? How do you find a landlord who will take you on? Unless the Government step in with additional legislative and financial support, which will help renters and landlords alike, homelessness is the only option for many renters with rent debt and eviction notices. I urge the Government to act.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Singh, is not with us, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Are you there? I call the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Please unmute.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 2:16 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Ponsonby’s proposal that the court should have discretion to consider all the circumstances in relation to eviction orders in this terrible time. I also support the creation of an effective landlord-tenant mediation service and the kind of emergency funding that people have referred to in this debate.

The Government were clearly right to impose an evictions moratorium and to extend it. However, we now have the worst of all worlds, with the combination of the lifting of that moratorium and a tightening of general restrictions, the ending of the furlough scheme and an increase in business closures, all of which will mean more lost jobs and precarious incomes.

We are faced with tens of thousands of evictions of renters in the pipeline, a large proportion of whom have never previously been in rent arrears or engaged in anti-social behaviour. Many will inevitably swell the ranks of the unemployed. Therefore, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby’s Motion is the one to support here, but there are also, of course, longer-term and fundamental issues. The structure of social security under universal credit—and the interplay between the various elements—is clearly not fit for purpose in this context.

On the housing market, I note that the absence of more secure alternatives to private renting has meant a massively increased reliance on that sector, enhanced by the tax advantages of buy to let, which has created a range of amateur landlords who cannot afford or do not know how to take account of their tenants’ precarious incomes. Other countries with a high dependence on private renting have stronger legal protection and significant institutional elements in the market. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and others, I am in favour of a big increase in council housing, but the objective should also be to professionalise and institutionalise the private rental market.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Let us try the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, again. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 2:18 pm, 23rd September 2020

I declare my interests as recorded in the register. I wish to oppose the two Motions —in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby—before us today. From 21 September, courts can start to hear possession proceedings again. Since March, no landlord has had access to the courts to regain possession, even in cases where tenants have broken the law.

The effect of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, will be to reverse the ability of the courts to start hearing these cases. Surely, it is right that landlords can take action against tenants whose anti-social behaviour is causing misery to them and others, as well as those carrying out acts of domestic violence. Surely, it is also right that they are able to address situations where tenants have large arrears incurred before lockdown and in no way connected with the Covid-19 pandemic.

I know that all landlords have concern—rightly—for tenants badly affected by Covid-19. The Government’s rules provide a good balance between the rights and needs of the landlord and the needs of the tenants.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Let us try the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, again. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees 2:20 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I declare my interest as outlined in the register. I really appreciate the need to balance the rights of landlords and those of tenants, and realise that the Government have put policies in place with an overarching aim to do so during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the recent increase in the rate of Covid infections has led to further sanctions to prevent transmission, as outlined by the Prime Minister and leaders of the devolved nations yesterday. This is not the time to accelerate the eviction of people in arrears associated with the financial challenges they may have experienced due to job losses or salary reduction over the last six months, or, as so ably put by my noble friend Lady Greengross, because they have mental health problems or caring responsibilities.

Generation Rent estimates that there are 55,000 renters at risk of eviction. I ask the Minister this: do the Government have an estimate of the numbers of these households that contain children of school age? Any such children would be disproportionately affected in their studies through eviction at this time. Can the Government do something further to protect such families from eviction for the next six months?

Some landlords wish to sell properties because of the current high values of homes and the reduction in stamp duty. Could Her Majesty’s Government consider novel approaches to reduce evictions during the ongoing Covid challenge and secure tenancies by, for example, a stamp duty holiday for the purchasers of properties where a landlord delays sale until after March 2021, or by offering interest-free loans to landlords until debts can be resolved?

Crisis is calling for three actions from the Government to protect renters who are facing homelessness: immediately introducing emergency legislation to give judges discretion to prevent evictions where tenants have accrued rent arrears because of Covid-19; providing financial support to help tenants pay back debts in order to remain in their current homes; and amending the benefit cap to add protection for people threatened by homelessness. Can the Minister inform the House whether the Government are actively considering the suggestions from Crisis at this time?

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 2:22 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, first I would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, on her expert and compassionate opening remarks.

Being a sympathetic person, I see that the Government have faced an unprecedented challenge in the last few months. It would be a challenge for any Government, let alone a team newly in place, but it has not helped the Government that that team, and of course the Prime Minister, are arrogant and boastful, persistently making comments, claims and statements that bear absolutely no relation to the truth. It must be hard for a Conservative Government to spend so much public money so fast, albeit that a considerable amount was misspent.

I understand that the Government are trying to get back to normal, but I would argue that restarting evictions and allowing more people—families—to be pushed out on to the streets is not the answer. Everyone has the right to a home. It is plain cruel that, during a pandemic and a massive economic downturn, people are being forced out of their homes. The short extensions to the ban have done nothing to alleviate fears of renters up and down the country. We are now once again on the precipice of a homelessness crisis, which will not only bring misery to many but will hinder any effort to tackle Covid-19. We have to do whatever it takes to protect people during this pandemic, and that means a permanent ban on evictions for the duration of the crisis.

Of course, as with most crises, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most. It is within the Government’s power to ensure that nobody is left without the basic human right of a roof over their head. The Green Party and I have urged the Government to extend the ban on evictions.

I would like to answer the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for whom I have a huge amount of respect normally. He suggested that we were going to break with convention, but when we have a Government who break the law, what price convention?

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 2:24 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I have in the past been a residential landlord and I am currently a residential tenant, so I am aware of the difficulties that can be faced by both entities. I am fully aware of the very serious hardships experienced by both tenants and landlords alike from the current pandemic. However, in the property rental world there has always been a minority of bad tenants—those who cause misery for other tenants and neighbours through anti-social behaviour or for other reasons—and landlords need to address situations where a small minority of tenants are regularly in arrears. There are bound to be instances of arrears which go back way before Covid. While I have every sympathy with those who have suffered financial difficulties as a consequence of Covid, I have little sympathy with the other group.

It is plainly wrong to regard landlords as being wealthy individuals and businesses that can afford to take a hit from rent arrears. The majority of landlords have only one property, and a considerable number purchased a property with their pension fund and have the rent as their sole form of income. To evict a tenant for whatever reason is a slow, arduous and expensive exercise in itself, notwithstanding the considerable loss of rent.

I have no time to comment further, but suffice to say I strongly support the Government in their views on the rules before us today.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated 2:26 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, it is incumbent upon a civilised society not to ignore the dreadful impact of the inevitable consequences of these proposed evictions. I add my support to the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, with whom I am in total agreement in what they have said before the House.

While I accept that landlords must be protected from any intentional or criminal negligence caused by a small number of tenants, that problem is nowhere near the punitive impact of these measures on the majority of vulnerable families, with inevitable consequences that will place the burden on a local authority that is already well stretched. Measures to protect tenants must be in the forefront of our strategies and actions. The Government must consider writing off the debts of those who cannot afford to meet their financial obligations as a result of Covid-related job losses and not having access to other government support.

We have so many experts on housing solutions in this very House—the noble Lords, Lord Bird, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Lord Young and Lord Kerslake—as well as the advice of Shelter and other notable NGOs. In addition to stopping the section 21 eviction notice, will the Government consider bringing together an expert group of Members and external advisers, alongside Ministers and civil servants, to consider how to create urgent housing solutions to meet the needs of homeless families, and particularly to avoid overcrowding and prevent the dangerous explosion of Covid-19?

Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 2:28 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, this is not an area that I normally get involved in in this House. However, having read the papers which were available to me, I realised that there is a deep problem here. Sometimes it does not help to rush in with a solution that just involves depriving one set of people of all rights, as has been indicated by previous speakers. For that reason, and having looked at the statutory provisions, I would support the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, but only go that far.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is with us.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 2:29 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I apologise for my wi-fi glitch and thank the House for allowing me back in.

It would have been my pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and I share her concerns, particularly about discretion for judges. Today’s debate is about emergency evictions, and my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb has addressed the details of that. I am going to look at the broader picture.

We have a profoundly insecure housing model. As in so many other areas, Covid-19 has only exposed pre-existing weaknesses in our society. Houses have been treated primarily as financial assets rather than secure, genuinely affordable places for people to live. Just as in the UK in the depths of the Second World War, there was deep, effective planning for the NHS and the welfare state, we need to be thinking now about a different housing policy future.

In 1979, heading on for half the British population lived in council housing; they were secure. Then right to buy arrived. Now, nearly half the homes purchased under that and not replaced are owned by private landlords, massively subsidised by housing benefit and tax breaks. Money that might have gone into productive economic investments has gone instead into lifting prices. In private rental accommodation of 4.6 million households, one in 10 of which are insecure in the age of Covid, a significant number of tenants are over 50, as the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, noted.

Insecurity is not the only problem; we know there is a huge problem with quality—draughty, cold, badly maintained housing stock. That poor quality sadly extends to homes being sold now to people who are stretching every financial sinew, with prices supported by Help to Buy, also known as “help to profit” for a few large corporations. In 2019, the National Audit Office noted that many buyers would immediately lurch into negative equity—something now of even greater concern.

It is tempting to think now that we should just patch the worst problems, but we also need to see the Government putting serious work into a different housing model.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 2:31 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Grender for bringing this Motion to Annul, and I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his Motion to Regret. However, my noble friend is right that the Motion to Regret will achieve no practical result, so the only way to protect the 50,000-odd households faced with eviction notices served between March and August is to annul this SI. It is important to note that the Motion would not protect tenants guilty of anti-social behaviour or domestic violence, as the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, suggested.

I know my noble friend has thought carefully about this fatal Motion, but, although this step is serious, it does no more than annul this change in the Civil Procedure Rules, which can be changed again to produce a just and humane result. My noble friend put it into context. The Government promised in April 2019 to legislate to end Section 21 no-fault evictions—a promise they have not yet kept. But these are not just no-fault evictions, they are also no-discretion evictions. After an assured shorthold tenancy ends, a court “shall” make an order for possession when the notice period expires.

On 28 August, the compulsory notice period was extended by SI to six months for notices served from 29 August. That was a humane measure to protect renters from eviction during the pandemic. However, by this SI, tenants served with eviction notices between March and August have no protection. From this last Monday, they can be evicted without six months’ notice. They get no genuine protection from the new practice direction 55C. That requires only that the landlord provides information about the effect of the pandemic on tenants and dependants—in a reactivation notice in stayed claims, or under a protocol in new claims. Crucially, however, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, and many others have pointed out, the rules give no discretion, whatever the hardship and unfairness, for a judge to withhold a possession order provided only that the landlord has provided the required information.

We have heard of the likely practical effects of these short-notice evictions: untold hardship for tenants and their families hit by the pandemic, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester said; pressure on local authorities unable to rehouse evicted tenants, described by my noble friend Lady Thornhill; increased homelessness and poverty; exposure of those newly homeless and their families to greater risk of coronavirus. Turning to the numbers, I am convinced by the evidence that the figure at risk is about 55,000 households, but the point is also one of principle. Each affected household is unfairly the victim of an anomaly that causes hardship and injustice.

Nothing in the all-Peers letter from Alex Chalk MP meets any of these points. The Government have been misguided in leaving these tenants without the protection of six months’ notice. If they will not back down, this House should exercise its undoubted power, of which my noble friend Lord Greaves spoke, to annul this unjust SI.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 2:35 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. It is worth making clear right at the start: there is no blanket ban. There is nothing here suggesting that people who commit anti-social behaviour, domestic violence or other illegal activity cannot be evicted today—absolutely nothing. It is important to recognise that this SI is about no-fault evictions: you have decent, hard-working people whose only crime is the fact that they have not been able to work since March in the entertainment industry or the hospitality industry and they do not have the money to pay their rent. I want judges to have discretion to consider the impact of Covid-19 on renters and/or their dependants.

I have several questions for the noble Earl. Some points have been raised across the House, but I am sure that, in the time he has, the noble Earl cannot answer all the points put to him, so I should like a commitment from him to write to me and other noble Lords on the points raised.

The first is on lockdowns. If lockdown conditions are resumed for England and Wales, will the evictions ban be put back in place? As regards local lockdowns, will the noble Earl confirm that bailiffs will not be able to perform evictions where there are restrictions on members of other households entering your home?

The second is on benefits. It is a fact that rent payments cannot be covered by benefits, and the caps on housing benefit and local housing allowance limit the amount you can have to pay your rent. Can we temporarily lift the caps and increase benefits to cover average rents? This will immediately ensure that thousands are not up for eviction and will help landlords and tenants alike.

Thirdly, it is clear that we need to get money into the hands of renters and landlords to help rent debt and avoid homelessness. I welcome what the Government have done, but the scale of the economic shock and the effect on jobs and incomes is now huge—so, sadly, it is not enough. Renters cannot pay to landlords what they have not got. Many landlords have been accommodating, but of course, as money gets tighter, more landlords will get more anxious about their own situation and more eviction notices will be issued, leaving homelessness as the only option for renters. So does the noble Earl agree that the Government must step in to stop this increase in homelessness and introduce a system of grants and benefit increases to stop thousands of renters being made homeless?

The fourth point is on data. Will the Government commit to collecting and publishing data on Section 21 notices served, and how often different grounds of eviction are used? The fifth is on discretion for judges. Landlords and tenants have been asked to provide information on Covid-19, but the judge cannot use that information to pause or change the terms of an eviction under Section 21 or Section 8, ground 8. Can this be changed? Will the Government bring forward emergency legislation to give judges discretionary powers to take Covid-19 into account?

The final point is on discrimination. The Government’s guidance published last Thursday states:

“In some circumstances, it may be possible to prevent the eviction if you feel the landlord has discriminated against you based on who you are”.

Can the Minister confirm that it is possible to stop an eviction under Section 21 if the landlord is seeking it based on the tenant’s gender, disability or other protected characteristics?

In conclusion, as I said earlier, the noble Earl cannot give a commitment on all the issues raised here, but I hope that he can respond to us all in writing. For me, this is about decent, law-abiding people whose only crime is that they cannot pay their rent because of the pandemic.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:39 pm, 23rd September 2020

My Lords, I first declare my interests as set down in the register. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, whose Motions have given rise to it. Each of those Motions highlights concerns about the effect of removing tenants’ protection from eviction, which was provided by the stay on possession proceedings between 27 March and 20 September this year. Each Motion expressly criticises this instrument for not going far enough to protect tenants. I hope to demonstrate to the House that this criticism is unjust.

I start by addressing the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, which seeks to annul this instrument. Lest any noble Lord has overlooked this, I need to make it crystal clear that, even though the stay on possession proceedings has now ended, the rules set out in this instrument and the practice direction they introduce contain some vital continuing protections for tenants, which I shall explain. The effect of an annulment would be to remove those protections.

Secondly, I remind the House of the policy the Government have consistently followed in this area since the start of this pandemic, which has been to strike a balance between protecting the vulnerable and supporting the legitimate rights and interests of landlords. I will say more on that theme shortly.

Thirdly, noble Lords should appreciate that this instrument and the accompanying practice direction form part of a wider package of measures that the Government have put in place to ensure fair treatment for both tenants and landlords going forward. I will summarise those measures in a moment, but the point here is that this instrument should not be considered in isolation.

The Government took unprecedented action to ensure that renters were protected from eviction at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, including agreeing with the courts to use powers in relation to court procedure to stay possession proceedings for a total of six months until 20 September—but that stay could only ever be temporary. The civil justice system and the rules that underpin it must be accessible, fair and efficient for tenants and landlords alike.

In what way does this instrument provide protection for tenants? Through these new rules, we have sought to make sure that where possession cases come to court, the resumption of such cases is carefully managed —first, to ensure that the courts are not overwhelmed; and secondly, to enable them to make decisions so that the most vulnerable can get the help and support they need, and in particular that tenants have access to legal advice and support.

For any possession proceedings up to 28 March 2021, the new court rules will also require landlords to set out any relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including—as the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, will wish to note—information on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on both the tenant and their dependants when making a possession claim. This information will enable the court considering the claim to have regard to vulnerability, disability and the social security position, and to those who are shielding. This is a requirement under the relevant practice direction, which parties are under a duty to comply with. The tenant will be provided with a copy of this information and may add to or correct it.

Landlords will also be required to notify the court and their tenant where they wish to continue pursuing a possession claim that was already in the court system prior to 3 August, so giving notice that the claim is being reactivated. If such notice is not filed by 29 January 2021, the claim will be subject to an automatic stay. Where claims are based on arrears of rent, landlords must produce a full arrears history for the previous two years, and they must do this in advance of, rather than at, the hearing of the claim. In other words, landlords cannot just pick up where they left off, so to speak.

The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, asked how many of the 50,000 people at risk of eviction include families with schoolchildren and whether the Government are considering Crisis’s recommendations. My advice is that the Generation Rent figures she quoted are not to be relied on. Analysis published by the Government shows that 3,022 private and social landlords applied to the courts for possession between April and June, 89% lower than in the same time last year.

I mentioned support. It is important that all parties receive appropriate support, and we have worked with the judiciary to put in place new court arrangements to that end. I am grateful to the working group convened by the Master of the Rolls and chaired by Mr Justice Knowles, who have played a key role in this.

The working group contained a broad range of stakeholders and, resulting from its recommendations, the judiciary will look to prioritise cases that can be classified as the most egregious—that is to say, those involving anti-social behaviour, extreme rent arrears, domestic abuse, fraud and deception, illegal occupiers and squatters or abandonment of a property—as well as claims started before the stay commenced in March 2020. That prioritisation will provide assurance to landlords, their tenants and neighbours, especially those who are having to confront really difficult and pressing situations.

I mentioned the availability of legal advice for those facing possession proceedings. We have made adjustments to the legal aid Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme to ensure that it can be delivered remotely where necessary. We have also tendered for new contracts to fill gaps in provision, to ensure that this vital support can be accessed by those who need it, wherever they are in England and Wales.

A number of speakers referred to notice periods for tenants, and I stressed a few minutes ago that this instrument should not be looked at in isolation. We have taken decisive legislative action, through a statutory instrument laid on 28 August to require landlords to provide tenants with six months’ notice in all but the most serious cases. That SI amends Schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 and came into force on 29 August, providing reassurance to responsible tenants that they will not face new court proceedings during this time.

We recognise that in some circumstances, landlords have been dealing with a difficult situation in which there is no reasonable alternative to possession proceedings. We have therefore lowered notice periods for cases involving anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse, fraud and egregious rent arrears of more than six months to enable landlords to progress those cases more quickly. This approach ensures that tenants will remain safe and have additional time to find new accommodation, while empowering landlords to take action where necessary—for example, if a tenant’s anti-social behaviour is severely impacting their neighbours’ quality of life.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grender, asked whether we might explore ways to apply longer notice periods for those who were served notice before 29 August. As she will recognise, the difficulty here is that of applying retrospection to existing law and thereby undermining the certainty that the law should provide to all parties. In practice, those who received notice before 29 August were protected from eviction by the suspension of possession hearings until 20 September, as well as by the prioritisation of cases in the courts and the new requirements placed on landlords to which I have referred.

The noble Baroness referred to Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which permits no-fault evictions. I therefore add that the Government remain committed to bringing forward legislation to abolish Section 21 in due course. That does not mean ignoring landlords’ legitimate interests. Any such legislation must balance greater security of tenure with an assurance that landlords are able to recover their properties where they have valid reasons to do so.

A number of noble Lords expressed concerns about forced evictions. We are taking steps to ensure that no enforcement of evictions will take place in areas where local lockdown measures are in force that restrict access to premises. Guidance has been issued to bailiffs to ensure that no enforcement of possession orders will proceed where local lockdown regulations restrict gatherings in residential properties to protect public health. I will write to noble Lords with further details about that.

One or two speakers, including my noble friend Lady Altmann, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to the need to provide tenants with enhanced financial support. In addition to the measures I have mentioned, I remind noble Lords that the Government have already put in place a major package of financial support to help communities through the pandemic. There is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has provided support for businesses to pay staff salaries. We have also strengthened the welfare safety net with a nearly £9.3 billion boost to the welfare system. That includes an extra £1 billion to increase local housing allowance rates so that they cover the lowest 30% of market rents, meaning we now have a £25 billion budget to help people with rent payments in the private and social rented sectors. For renters who require additional support, there is an existing £180 million of government funding for discretionary housing payments made available this year. That is an increase of £40 million from last year for local councils to distribute to support renters with housing costs.

We need to look at all these measures in the round. Taken together, they strongly encourage landlords and tenants to sustain tenancies as far as possible and to discuss their situation before seeking possession and bringing a claim to court. Where cases end up in court, these measures ensure that court time can be used effectively, that the most egregious cases can be dealt with as a priority and that court users, both tenants and landlords, have the additional support they need. Comprehensive new guidance for landlords and tenants to explain all these new arrangements and how they impact on the court possessions process has also been published.

I will write to those noble Lords whose questions I have not covered in the time available, but please understand that things never stand still. The Government are clear that all measures to protect renters over this period will be kept under constant review in the light of the evidence on public health. I therefore say to the House that this instrument should be supported as a vital element in the safeguards that we are providing to parties and to manage cases sensibly in the courts. For those reasons, it most certainly should not be annulled; nor, I submit, should it be viewed as a matter for regret. I therefore do very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will feel able to withdraw their respective Motions.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I feel compelled to repeat one paragraph from my opening speech because it seems that it was not heard originally. I apologise if it lacked clarity. If we vote against this statutory instrument, will landlords still be able to take action regarding more serious eviction cases? Yes, because of the statutory instrument that was tabled in August, which is not the one the House is voting on today. I want to make sure that noble Lords are absolutely clear that egregious cases, domestic violence, long-term arrears, et cetera are included in the statutory instrument that was tabled in August.

It is therefore possible to vote to annul this instrument. It will not freeze or stop the egregious cases. If, as the Minister said, I am talking about so few cases—I do not agree with him; I think that the loophole is larger—then why not do it? What is the harm in ensuring that there is a longer notice period for people who were served notice between March and August? This is not for the egregious cases, just for the no-fault evictions under Section 21 with no explanation, because judges still have no discretion whatever.

I completely understand that it is difficult and messy to do this retrospectively. However, if this instrument falls, it would be up to the Government to come back. This House has done the job that the Commons failed to do: ask the Government to think again. This is about a very small but incredibly important factor; I believe that it is 55,000. The Minister has alternative figures, which I disputed in my opening speech.

Fourteen years ago, the Joint Commission on Conventions met. When summing up, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling—Jack Cunningham—from the Labour Benches said:

“It is not incompatible with a revising Chamber to reject” a statutory instrument. I agree, and have thought long and hard about this since I put down this humble Address at the beginning of the summer. The Government tabled this statutory instrument with no 21-sitting-day period for it to be considered. That consideration did not happen. The Commons did not do its job, so it is up to this House to do the job for it. For that reason, the fatal Motion should go ahead. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 126, Noes 266.

Division number 1 Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020 - Motion for an humble Address

Aye: 126 Members of the House of Lords

No: 266 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Baroness Grender’s Motion

Motion disagreed.