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Cancelling rent would be ‘un-Labour’, frontbencher tells party’s left amid row over Covid-19 help

Thangam Debbonaire hit back at members and MPs pushing the party go further in its Covid-19 housing policy.

4 min read

Cancelling rent entirely during the coronavirus crisis would be an “un-Labour” policy that would hand money to the well-off, the party’s new Shadow Housing Secretary has said.

Thangam Debbonaire warned that a blanket policy of rent forgiveness being pushed for by MPs and campaigners on the left of the party would be “completely unnecessary” and “really regressive”.

But former frontbencher Clive Lewis said the new Shadow Housing Secretary should not be “calling into question the values of those who internally disagree with you”.

Labour announced last week that it would give renters “at least” two years to pay back arrears racked up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, alongside an extension to the current ban on evictions and changes to Universal Credit and Local Housing Allowance.

But a petition, signed by thousands of party members and supported by left-wing campaign group Momentum urged the leadership to fo further and push for a halt to all evictions for failing to pay rent until "employment stabilises".

Accusing Labour of “failing renters” by potentially saddling them with hefty debts, the open letter to leader Sir Keir Starmer also called for tenants to be allowed to request a cancellation of payments if their income is hit by the virus.

But Ms Debbonaire, who took on the housing brief in Sir Keir’s first reshuffle as leader, said: “The policy called ‘cancel the rent’ is surprisingly un-Labour. It’s a really regressive policy.

“Because, for instance, there are people who are still in work, still able to pay their rent. And if you just cancelled rent, they would also benefit and they don’t need to.“

We’re talking about an enormous amount of money - Thangam Debbonaire

Ms Debbonaire told a Young Fabians online event on Thursday: “I have a flat in London, which all MPs who don’t live in London [have] – it would cancel my rent. That would be completely unnecessary, really regressive, and not targeted at the people who need it the most.”

Directly addressing critics on the left, Ms Debonnaire said: “Whether we like it or not, whether we think it’s either moral or not, there is a legal structure underneath this. Which is a tenant has signed a contract with a landlord.

“Even if it’s a rubbish contract, with a rubbish landlord who is charging far too much, it’s still legally binding. And just cancelling it has consequences. In fact, there isn’t such a thing as cancelling it.”

And she added: “Let’s say you did decide that there would be a general waiver. Nobody needed to pay rent. Everyone was exempt until the end of the crisis.

“The landlords, whether we like it or not, would have a legal case against either the Government or their tenants or quite possibly both… So you have to think about who are you going to target it on and how would you compensate landlords for that.

“And if you take the entire private rented sector and you cancelled its rent, we’re talking about £7.2bn a month… So we’re talking about an enormous amount of money.

“As a Labour politician, I can’t call for the government to do something unless I genuinely believe that it’s a policy we would take if we were in government. And I’m not sure that we would.”

But the comments, first reported by LabourList, have already drawn criticism from Labour MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis.

The former frontbencher said: “I disagree. Standing up unequivocally for renters made vulnerable & potentially destitute by [Covid-19] is very Labour and every bit progressive.”

He added: “We can argue, in a comradely way, the detail as how best to do that. But the underlying morality shouldn’t be in question.”

And while he said Labour should be “debating the best way” to protect renters, he warned: “What I think is a mistake is calling into question the values of those who internally disagree with you. 

“This is cultural. We have to find a better way [to] react to having our ideas fairly challenged.”

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