The Guardian view on restarting evictions: the law needs changing | Editorial

7 months ago 62

Along with an emergency operation to end rough sleeping, the ban on evictions introduced in March was a crucial plank of the UK government’s coronavirus response. With children off school, and millions of adults furloughed or working from home, boosting housing security was a humane and pragmatic measure, without which it would have been far harder to enforce a lockdown that meant many people in the informal economy lost out on earnings.

That the ban was lifted on the very day that Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty addressed the nation about the risks that are once again rising makes no sense at all. Indeed, colder weather and higher bills make winter evictions a bleak prospect – and a “Christmas truce” preventing them over the holidays does little to dispel that.

Long delays in the courts, caused by reckless cuts as well as stoppages during the pandemic, mean that cases brought by landlords will take time to make their way through the system. But since 55,000 eviction notices are already thought to have been served, with around 220,000 private renters believed to be in arrears, it is reasonable to assume that tens of thousands of households face being forced from their homes. In the so-called “shadow” rented sector, the advocacy service Safer Renting has documented instances of threats and abuse. Since evictions from privately rented properties are associated with rough sleeping, it is to be expected that these numbers will also go up.

It is not too late for the government to think again. The prime minister is holding a Cobra meeting on Tuesday. At the very least, he and his ministers should introduce exemptions to protect the most vulnerable, including families with children whose education has already been interrupted. Funding must be provided to enable councils to help households that are behind on rent through no fault of their own.

Necessary as these short-term fixes are, they are no substitute for the reforms that ministers have dangled in front of tenants before, only to snatch them away. The chronic insecurity of the UK’s private rental sector is unjust and harmful. Momentum activists in the Labour party have promised to make campaigning against evictions their focus. But concern is not limited to the radical left. Last week the Conservative thinktank Onward published research showing that “the growth of the private rented sector has contributed to declining social fabric”.

Repairing this fabric requires sustained investment in social housing. That would be a far better use of taxpayers’ money than the £22bn annual cost of housing benefit paid to landlords. It is a great pity, if not a surprise, that ministers have not made better use of research by the housing charity Shelter and others. The urgent priorities right now include raising the local housing allowance – the growing gap between benefits and rents is contributing to the neglect of children, because parents and carers cannot afford to look after them properly – and legislating to stop landlords evicting people on a no-fault basis. Much longer tenancies should become the norm. Ministers must wake up to the fact that the UK’s private rental sector, which is shoddy and unprofessional compared with those of our European neighbours, requires shaking up.

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