Examination of Witness

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 14 November 2023.

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Francesca Albanese gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield 2:30, 14 November 2023

We will now hear oral evidence from Francesca Albanese, director of policy and social change for Crisis. We have only until 2.45 pm for this panel, so please can we have short questions and shorter answers? Please can the witness introduce herself for the record?

Francesca Albanese:

I am Francesca Albanese. I am the executive director of policy and social change at Crisis, the national homelessness charity.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Does the abolition of shorthold tenancies with section 21 no-fault evictions give the protection that renters need? Is that sufficient?

Francesca Albanese:

We welcome the abolition of section 21. I think we have heard from others giving evidence today that it is one of the leading causes of homelessness, so that is definitely welcome. However, there are still some areas of the Bill that cause us concern with regard to homelessness. One is not automatically carrying over some of the areas of section 21 into the new ground 8. That would decouple the link around automatically triggering a homelessness prevention duty, which is currently in the Homelessness Reduction Act. We are concerned about that area—if we abolish section 21, we do not want to then disproportionately increase the risk of homelessness in other areas.

There is also an issue about the repetition of some of the rent arrears grounds. Ground 8 covers fault evictions, but ground 8A also looks at rent arrears. We do not see the reason for having both; there are suitable protections just in ground 8. The other area—which we have heard about from previous evidence—is antisocial behaviour, and making sure that the wording is tightened so that it does not cause further issues for more vulnerable tenants, and does not affect them disproportionately.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q It does seem very vague. We in this room are all seemingly, according to that definition, capable of “causing anti-social behaviour”. On section 21, the Government are kicking the can down the road at the moment, and are talking about reforming the justice and court system. What is your assessment of that?

Francesca Albanese:

We at Crisis recognise that changes do need to be made to the courts. Obviously, that is one of the central themes in this Bill and it is about making sure we get that right. But the problem is that if you bring in the court reforms first and then make the changes around abolishing section 21, you are effectively creating a two-tier system. For us, that does not protect tenants in the right way, so we would argue that both need to be brought in at the same time.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q I would be grateful for your views on abolishing fixed-term tenancies.

Francesca Albanese:

To clarify, are you referring to ASTs, and their length?

Francesca Albanese:

We would welcome longer-term tenancies. We know through our services—this is increasingly so at the moment—that people come to us who may have had their tenancies shortened for a reason that is not of their making. Being able to have longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector gives more stability for tenants. Equally, if you look at where rent increases can happen, this also manages that part of the market—making sure that there is proportionality in terms of when rent increases are made, as well as stability for tenants through longer-term tenancies.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q Would you say that the reforms we are making give renters more confidence when looking to take out a new tenancy?

Francesca Albanese:

I think they certainly help. If we are looking at longer-term tenancies, I suppose it is about having more emphasis on longer-term tenancies being used more regularly. Going back quite a lot of years of working in this space, I know that there are ways you can do that now, but it is not the norm. Most tenancies that are given are six or 12 months with a rolling period or a fixed term.

I would also go back to the points made at the beginning: this is helpful, but there are other areas that we are concerned about, such as ensuring that people getting served notice on the kind of grounds that were under section 21 and which will now go over to section 8 are protected sufficiently. Even though longer-term tenancies can give tenants more protection, from the perspective of Crisis, which works with people at the lower end of the private rented sector market, where there is often a higher turnover of tenancies, we would want to make sure that those protections are still in place so that we do not end up pushing more people into homelessness as an unintended consequence.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q The Government said in the King’s Speech that they wanted to bring forward amendments to prevent what is often called “No DSS” discrimination—“no benefits” discrimination. First, what are your thoughts on how that could be done effectively? Secondly, many people scrabble around to find a rent that is within local housing allowance, only to find that it goes above local housing allowance within a year. Should that be taken into account in the rent tribunal process to ensure that rents that were within local housing allowance remain within local housing allowance, so that people are not economically evicted?

Francesca Albanese:

I might make a broader point first and then come back to that. At the moment, as you will all be aware, the local housing allowance does not meet rents. It has not done so for a long time, and it has been frozen since 2019. That decoupling of rents from local housing allowance levels is causing huge problems. We did some research six months ago—I would say the situation has probably got worse since then—that shows that only 4% of the market in England is affordable to people on local housing allowance. In some areas of the country, that drops to 1%, so it is a massive issue. That needs to happen now, and it is something that the Government can do now. They can give broader access to the private rental market. There is obviously a longer-term issue: we need more social housing. Where private rental sits within the broader housing market is really important.

On the point about discrimination, we do not want tenants to be discriminated against because they are in receipt of welfare benefits. Anything that prevents that is welcomed. The problem at the moment is that quite a lot of tenants are not getting anywhere near properties within the private rented sector. We are seeing record levels of people trapped in temporary accommodation and local authorities are very stretched. The point about the private rented sector is that quite a lot of people are not even getting access to it, let alone being discriminated against because of being on welfare benefits.

On the more specific point about tribunals, that is not my area of expertise, so I do not want to comment on something where I would be giving an opinion rather than factual evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

If there are no further questions from Members, I would like to thank our witness for her evidence. We will move on to the next panel.