Robert Jenrick has been criticised for “completely inadequate” action to protect renters during England’s second national lockdown, as he announced that bailiffs will be requested not to enforce evictions until January 2021.
Following calls from campaigners and opposition MPs for the reintroduction of a complete ban on evictions amid a resurgence of coronavirus, the cabinet minister said there would be a “pause” on bailiff activity over the winter.
The government said exemptions, however, will apply for the “most egregious” cases, including anti-social behaviour, fraud and also intends to allow evictions for “extreme pre-Covid rent arrears”.
The move does not completely stop the evictions process, as notices can still be served to tenants and courts will remain open throughout the national restrictions. During the initial evictions ban, which was introduced at the onset of the pandemic and expired in September, courts could not hear possession cases.
Alicia Kennedy, the director of Generation Rent, said the government had “an opportunity to protect renters from losing their homes, and have instead chosen not to act.”
She added: “A non-binding pause on bailiff activity is completely inadequate. Eviction notices will be dropping through renters’ doors throughout lockdown, and the courts will be open the entire time, putting pressure on renters to move out while the pandemic rages on.
“Although the government has asked bailiffs not to enforce possession orders, it’s not clear if tenants are legally protected. In the event that a bailiff goes against the guidance, renters will have few options.”
In a statement, Mr Jenrick said: “We have already taken unprecedented action to support renters during the pandemic including introducing a six-month notice period and financial support to those struggling to pay their rent.”
“We are now going further by protecting renters from eviction during the new national restrictions and throughout the Christmas period – with a pause on bailiff activity other than in the most serious circumstances, such as anti-social behaviour or fraud.
“Striking the right balance between helping tenants in need while ensuring landlords have access to justice in the most serious cases.”
In a letter to the High Court Enforcement Officers Association, the justice secretary Robert Buckland also reiterated the government’s intention to “introduce an exemption for cases with extreme pre-Covid rent arrears” and would provide further detail in due course.
“The government is clear that this pause on evictions from residential premises is necessary for the protection of public health,” he wrote.
“It is a high priority to ensure that struggling households in both private and social rented sector are not forced from their homes when finding alternative accommodation could present practical difficulties, in order to control the spread of infection, prevent any additional burden falling on the NHS and avoid hindering local authorities in their efforts to protect public health.
“I am grateful for you confirming your members’ agreement to my previous request regarding a winter pause on eviction activity and I will write again with any further updates.”
Polly Neate, the chief executive of homelessness charity Shelter, said: “The government has made clear that bailiffs should not physically evict people from their homes during this lockdown, which is absolutely the right thing to do when Covid cases are on the rise. Now is not the time to deny people the safety their home offers against this deadly virus.”
But, she added: “It’s important for the public to know that suspending evictions by bailiffs does not mean the eviction process will stop altogether. Other parts of the process - such as the issuing of eviction notices and scheduling of court hearings – may continue during this time.”
Labour’s shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire said: “This will delay rather than prevent the looming evictions crisis. We need a long-term plan to ensure nobody loses their home because of coronavirus.”
The announcement came after the prime minister also announced an extra £15m of funding that will be allocated to provide support for rough sleepers and those at risk of becoming homeless over the winter months, under the banner of the Protect Programme.
Boris Johnson told a press conference on Thursday that two thirds of those helped under a previous scheme launched in March had now been moved into settled accommodation.
"As we face these challenges together we must look after those most in need," he said. "This programme will help those areas that need additional support most during the restrictions and throughout the winter."
But Ms Thangam said: “The government had a golden opportunity to end rough sleeping earlier this year, but they dropped the ball, and we’ve seen the numbers rise again.
“As we head into a second national lockdown we needed leadership from the government but this announcement fails to give councils the support and guidance they need to protect rough sleepers.”
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