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Michael Gove Urged To Firm Up Protections For Tenants Falling Into Rent Arrears

Campaigners are calling for greater protections for tenants in the Renters Reform bill. (Alamy)

5 min read

A coalition of charities including StepChange and Citizens Advice have written to housing secretary Michael Gove calling for stronger protections in the Renters' Reform Bill for tenants who fall into arrears.

The coalition of charities is also warning that polling by YouGov for the debt charity Stepchange has shown renters are twice as likely to be in problem debt than the average person. 53 per cent of private renters say they’ve found it difficult to keep up with bills and credit commitments in the past few months.

The Renters' Reform Bill, which the government has said will “bring in a better deal for renters”,  was initially set to include a range of commitments to strengthen the rights of private tenants, including abolishing section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions, introducing a Private Rented Sector Ombudsman, allowing tenants the right to request a pet in the property, and to make it illegal for people who receive benefits or have children to be refused accommodation by landlords or agents.

The bill, which received its second reading in September, has proved controversial, with The Financial Times reporting it was being held up in the whips' office because of “vested interest” among Conservative MPs, many of whom are landlords. Last week, The Sun reported the bill was on the brink of collapse with Gove held "ransom" by Tory MPs. 

In February PoliticsHome reported efforts to abolish fixed term tenancies in the Renters' Reform Bill could be weakened by proposed government amendments after pressure from backbench Tory rebels opposed to the reform. PoliticsHome understands there are around 60 Tory MPs, including some who are landlords, who have raised concerns about the legislation in private.

In their letter to Gove, StepChange, Money Advice Trust, Citizens Advice, Christians Against Poverty, and the Law Centres Network call for a Tenancy Support Programme that would introduce steps to help tenants in financial difficulty by landlords to sustain tenancies where possible,  including referrals to benefits advice services or affordable repayment plans for arrears, supported by giving judges the power to suspend eviction proceedings if those measures are not taken. 

"When facing the threat of mandatory eviction for low level rent arrears, over a third of private renters have turned to credit to pay for their rent. At any one time, over one million private renters are struggling with problem debt," the letter reads. 

"Yet rather than supporting private tenants experiencing short-term financial shocks and one-off life events, the new Ground 8A of the Renters' (Reform) Bill would increase the threat of debt-related eviction.

"We urge you to make Ground 8A discretionary and introduce a new Tenancy Support Programme. This should consist of a series of reasonable steps by landlords to support tenants in arrears to sustain tenancies wherever possible. This would also help landlords by averting costly periods in which properties are unoccupied."

PoliticsHome understands there are Labour and Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords who are supportive of the campaigners' requests, and are considering amendments to the Renters' Reform bill when it returns to the Lords for its next reading. 

PoliticsHome also understands the government has previously told campaigners it is reluctant to strengthen support for renters who fall into arrears out of concern it could be taken advantage of by tenants who do not want to pay their rent, rather than tenants who cannot afford to pay their rent. 

“Our landmark Renters' (Reform) Bill will deliver a fairer private rented sector for both tenants and landlords," a spokesperson from the department for levelling up, housing and communities told PoliticsHome

"We continue to meet regularly with a range of groups, representing all those in the private rented sector."

Richard Lane, chief client officer at StepChange told PoliticsHome the UK was currently facing "a crisis of housing affordability which is leaving millions of private renters on the cusp of falling into problem debt" due to "exorbitant rents alongside rising essential costs". 

“While a mortgage holder or social tenant has the security of knowing that their lender or housing provider will follow a process of engagement and support if they fall into a difficult spot with their finances, private renters are not afforded the same protections," said Lane. 

“At StepChange we see far too many financially vulnerable private renters who should be in socially rented homes, with living costs alone forcing them to resort to borrowing.

"It’s essential that they’re provided with dignity and security to stay in their homes should they be faced with a life shock that impacts their finances.”

Jane Tully, acting deputy chief executive at the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, told PoliticsHome that reforming the private rental sector was "long overdue" but added the government's proposals in their current form "do not get close to providing the protections needed for private renters".

“At National Debtline we hear the lengths people go to protect their tenancy, including going without essentials in order to prioritise their rent," Tully said.

"With rents rising and many household budgets at breaking point, it is only right that reasonable steps should be put in place to sustain tenancies.

“Changes to Ground 8A are needed now to reduce the threat of unnecessary evictions and to bring safeguards in this sector in-line with those granted to mortgage holders and social tenants.”

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