'Head in the sand': Keir Starmer accuses Boris Johnson of ignoring 'looming crisis' for renters as eviction ban set to expire

Exclusive: Labour leader says thousands are at risk of losing homes unless PM extends eviction moratorium

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 19 August 2020 21:48
Shelter says renters at risk of 'Covid-evictions' after ban ends

Boris Johnson has his “head in the sand” and is ignoring warnings of a looming crisis for renters, Sir Keir Starmer has told The Independent, as thousands face losing their homes when the eviction ban expires in just four days’ time.

The Labour leader’s intervention came as legal experts wrote to Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, claiming that he is on the cusp of breaking his commitment that no tenant will be evicted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government has so far dismissed pleas from charities to extend the moratorium on evictions for England and Wales and is instead pressing ahead to allow possession cases to resume in the courts after 23 August.

According to polling research by leading housing charity Shelter, almost 230,000 adult private renters in England have fallen into arrears since the start of the crisis, while 174,000 have been threatened with evictions by landlords or letting agents.

“After the results fiasco, the government is yet again ignoring warnings of a looming crisis,” Sir Keir claimed.

Referring to the plans by the Scottish government to extend the country’s eviction ban until spring 2021 – pending a vote at Holyrood – he said: “Other parts of the UK have acted to protect renters, yet the prime minister has his head in the sand.”

The Labour leader said: “Unless the government extends the ban on evictions, provides more support for tenants and follows through on its promise to scrap no-fault evictions, tens of thousands of people risk losing their home.

“Last week, the incompetence of Boris Johnson and his ministers jeopardised young people’s future. This week, they are risking people’s homes.”

While no legal evictions of renters have been permitted to take place throughout the pandemic, landlords still have the ability to serve tenants notices to leave a property without giving a reason – under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act.

As it stands, the notice period of no-fault evictions is three months in England, but last month it was extended to six months in Wales, excluding cases involving anti-social behaviour of tenants.

It means there is likely to be a backlog of cases when the courts reopen, including those that were paused when the government introduced a moratorium on evictions at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Conservatives’ manifesto committed to abolishing no-fault evictions, and the prime minister included the promise of a renters’ reform bill in the Queen’s Speech following the general election.

However, no time-frame for scrapping the clause has been provided, and just last month a housing minister told MPs that the legislation will not be brought forward until the “urgencies of responding to the pandemic have passed”.

The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) has previously insisted that the vast majority of landlords and renters are “working together to sustain tenancies, and critically that the overwhelming majority of tenants are paying rent as normal”.

Ben Beadle, chief executive of the NRLA, added: “Eviction is not, and need not be, an inevitable outcome where tenants have struggled to pay their rent due to Covid-19. Those who argue otherwise are stoking needless anxiety for tenants.

“When the courts do start to hear cases again, it is essential that they deal swiftly with the most serious cases, including those where tenants are committing anti-social behaviour or where there are long-standing rent arrears that have nothing to do with the pandemic.”

With courts set to resume hearings next week, the government has said that landlords and tenants should “work together and exhaust all possible options” to ensure eviction cases only end up in court as “an absolute last resort”. Landlords will also be required to set out information to the courts on tenants’ circumstances, including the impact of the coronavirus crisis on a “tenant’s vulnerability”.

However, in a letter seen by The Independent to Mr Jenrick, Shelter, the Law Centres Network, Advice UK and Legal Aid Practitioners Group said: “We are deeply concerned that, without decisive action from MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government], you are at risk of breaking the promise you made on 18 March: that no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home.

“With possession proceedings due to restart on 24 August, many renters will face eviction due to the impact of this pandemic.

“This is because of the lack of discretion permitted in current housing law. For those being evicted under a mandatory rent arrears ground – or, indeed, a mandatory section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction notice – the law leaves no choice but for the renter to lose their home.”

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick warned he could break his pledge to renters

The organisations form part of the Master of the Rolls’ working group on evictions proceedings, which was tasked with preparing the courts for the lifting of the moratorium and how best to support vulnerable tenants. MHCLG has previously said the group has the full support of Mr Jenrick.

The signatories of the letter also said they were concerned that the government had “not played its part” in addressing risks for renters before parliament entered the summer recess.

“We urge you now to give the courts and judges discretion to protect renters at the sharp end of the housing crisis,” the group said. “To disapply these mandatory grounds for possession is a policy decision that is yours to make.

“We continue to bring our expert legal knowledge to bear in the Master of the Rolls’ working group. However, we know that the procedural changes agreed by the group are not enough on their own to protect renters who have suffered as a result of this pandemic. They cannot address the mandatory grounds in current housing law, which means certain eviction for thousands of renters.”

A spokesperson for MHCLG said: “The government has taken unprecedented action to support renters, preventing people getting into financial hardship and helping businesses to pay salaries – meaning no tenants have been forced from their home at the height of the pandemic.

“We will provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when court proceedings start again. We’ve changed the court rules to require landlords to provide more information about their tenants’ situation when seeking an eviction, and judges have the power to adjourn a case if they don’t. We’re grateful to the members of the working group for their help in developing these arrangements.

“Legislation introduced in March requiring landlords to give all tenants three months’ notice will remain for possession cases, including section 21 evictions, until at least 30 September.’’

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