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Today in politics: Coronavirus, from Universal Credit payment to student lets

Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

As expected, coronavirus continues to dominate the headlines – we look at todays news, from benefits payments to the latest on student lets.

Reports say DWP has suspended payback process

Inside Housing is today reporting that the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that the process for paying back rent arrears through Universal Credit deductions has been suspended.

Third-party deductions – which see Universal Credit claimants have money they owe taken directly from their monthly benefit awards – have been halted until 10th May.

Inside Housing report the move is intended to “help streamline the Universal Credit system amid huge demand arising from the impacts of the coronavirus crisis.”

Deductions for rent arrears, service charge arrears and council tax arrears will not be taken during the pause.

Claims in which rent is paid directly to landlords through Alternative Payment Arrangements are not affected by the change.

A spokesperson for the DWP told Inside Housing: “We have received an unprecedented number of new benefit claims and have streamlined our operations to make sure people get the support they need during this time.

Jenrick confirms ‘no plans for rent controls’ 

The Secretary of State at MHCLG, Robert Jenrick MP, has written to the HCLG Select Committee, after it contacted him with a number of questions relating to coronavirus.

Of note he said: 

  • “Landlords cannot increase rent in general without their tenant’s agreement and there are no plans to change the rules regarding rent rises at this time. Likewise, there are no plans to introduce rent controls and prohibit rent increases.”
  • “My Department is working with the Master of Rolls to strengthen the pre-action protocol requirement and also extend this to the private rented sector. This will help landlords and tenants to agree reasonable repayment plans where rent arrears may have arisen.”

Asked by the Committee about what safeguards will remain for those landlords with a legitimate reason for seeking the repossession of their property (e.g. anti-social behaviour), the Secretary of State said: “The Coronavirus Act requires landlords to give three months’ notice of their intention to evict, before they can apply to the court for possession – for any grounds. This is to reflect the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Local authorities, social landlords and the police have other powers to tackle anti-social behaviour and we expect them to continue to use them.”

The letter in full can be accessed in full here.

Renters Reform Bill on the back burner during Covid 19 crisis

Janet Daby MP (Labour, Lewisham East) has received a response to her written question asking what the timescale is for the introduction of the Renters Reform Bill; what the Government’s plans are for section 21 notices; and what plans MHCLG has to increase security for older private renters in that upcoming bill.

The Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher MP, responded: “As announced in the Queen’s Speech, the Government plans to introduce a package of reforms to deliver a better deal for renters and a fairer and more effective rental market. 

“However, at the current time, our collective efforts are focused on protecting people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. That means supporting our communities as well as making sure measures to help renters and landlords over the next few months are effective.

He said the government would respond fully to the consultation on the plans; ‘ A New Deal for Renting: Resetting the balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords ‘in due course’.

Student rent issues ‘a matter between the parties concerned’ 

Barry Sheerman MP (Labour, Huddersfield) has received a response to his written question asking what assessment MHCLG has made of the potential merits of providing support for students in rented accommodation through Government subsidies for 

(a) rent holidays and 

(b) a freeze on rent payable during the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Abena Oppong-Asare MP (Labour, Erith and Thamesmead) has also received a response to her written question asking what plans MHCLG has to work with private student accommodation providers to offer students affected by the Covid-19 lockdown measures an early release from their accommodation contract.

The Housing Minister responded: “We have announced a radical package of measures to protect renters, including students, affected by coronavirus. 

“Students will continue to receive scheduled payments of loans towards their living costs for the remainder of the current, 2019/20, academic year and we understand that most universities maintain hardship funds, which can be accessed where necessary. 

“The government has also announced unprecedented measures to support workers, including students who are workers under PAYE, during this period by paying up to 80 per cent of their wages.

“The Department is actively engaging with stakeholders across the student accommodation sector, including private student accommodation providers, to understand the challenges posed by the current crisis and to establish the most effective means of supporting the whole of the sector.

“The negotiation of early releases from contracts is a matter between the parties concerned. The Government encourages student accommodation providers, landlords, letting agencies and tenants to act flexibly and adopt a common-sense approach to issues that may arise in the current circumstances.”

Call for eviction data

Dr Matthew Offord MP (Conservative, Hendon) has received a response to his written question asking what estimate MHCLG has made of the number of people who have been evicted since the lockdown period began due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Housing Minister responded: “The Department does not hold or collect information relating to evictions. The Ministry of Justice publish quarterly statistics on possession claim actions in county courts by mortgage lenders and social and private landlords.

“We have introduced legislation through the Coronavirus Act 2020 that will protect most tenants in the private and social rented sectors from eviction for a reasonable and specified period of time, in recognition of the unusual circumstances arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. It requires landlords to give three months’ notice of their intention to seek possession to regain properties that are let on a tenancy.

“In addition to the measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020 set out above, the Master of the Rolls has issued a Practice Direction to stop housing possession claims which are already in the court system or which are issued after the Act came into force from progressing. As a result of these measures, no renter in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction during this time.”

Support for renters ‘unprecedented’ say ministers

Tom Hunt MP (Conservative, Ipswich) has received a response to his written question asking what steps MHCLG taking to help renters affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Housing Minister responded: “This Government has put in place an unprecedented package to support renters during this time. Legislation to increase eviction notice periods, coupled with the Court Service’s suspension of proceedings, mean no renter currently faces the threat of eviction.

“We have strengthened the welfare safety-net to help households experiencing financial hardship.”

Sarah Olney MP (Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park) has also received a response to her written questions asking if MHCLG will take steps to encourage landlords to (a) defer rental payments and (b) not approach guarantors for late rental payments during the covid-19 outbreak.

The junior minister at MHCLG, Luke Hall MP, responded: “The government, along with the courts service, has delivered unprecedented support to reduce the risk of rent arrears and has taken legislative and procedural steps to protect tenants.

“We have been clear that there is a need for landlords to offer support and understanding to tenants – and any guarantor – who may see their income fluctuate.”

Coronavirus and the courts

The Institute for Government has published a report which looks at the impact of coronavirus on the criminal justice system. 

In respect of the courts it says: “Our scenarios show that coronavirus could create a major backlog of cases. If the shutdown of courts lasts for six months, our central projection is that waiting times would increase by 60% in the crown court (from an average of 18 weeks to 29 weeks) and stay that long indefinitely without further action.

“The government could try to conduct more hearings via video or over the phone. 

“However, there are concerns that virtual courts, where defendants are not in the same room as the magistrates, judges and juries presiding over their cases, could result in unfair treatment. 

“Justice delayed is preferable to justice denied, and the government should instead focus on reducing the backlog once the coronavirus crisis is over. 

“If the government provided additional funding to enable the criminal courts to increase the number of cases processed back towards levels seen in 2015, waiting times could be cut back to pre-crisis levels within two years of the crisis ending.”

About the author

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley is the Magazine and Digital Editor for the NRLA. With 20 years’ experience writing for regional and national newspapers and magazines she is responsible for editing our members' magazine 'Property', producing our articles for our news site, the weekly and monthly bulletins and editorial content for our media partners.

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