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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:39 pm on 23rd September 2020.

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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.