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Today in politics: Coronavirus, Labour plans, elderly renters, UC and fire safety

Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

We look at all the latest political news as regards coronavirus, look at Labour’s proposals when it comes to tackling the pandemic as well as questions on support for elderly tenants and Universal Credit fraud.

Coronavirus update

Ahead of an announcement expected today by the Chancellor on support for employment and income during the coronavirus outbreak, the former Business Secretary, Greg Clark MP, yesterday tabled an urgent question asking the Government about support for the wages of employees.

Responding, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen MP, reiterated the Government’s pledge to “do whatever it takes to protect our people and businesses from the coronavirus pandemic.” 

He went on to say: “As the Chancellor announced, we will go much further to support people’s financial security working with trade unions and business groups. 

‘Following his appearance at the Treasury Select Committee yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor spoke to the trade unions, and he will today be meeting the TUC, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Businesses. 

“This will be with a view to urgently developing new forms of employment support to help protect people’s jobs and incomes through this period. 

“I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that these are unprecedented times. The Chancellor has said that he will look at further steps to help protect jobs and incomes, and he will announce further details in due course.”

Responding, Greg Clark MP, offered the following solution to protect incomes: “There is a straightforward and immediate solution. 

“All employers have an account with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to pay tax for employees through pay-as-you-earn. 

“The monthly wage bill is known to HMRC. Instead of firms paying PAYE to the Government, that flow should now be reversed, with the nation paying the wages of people for the next few weeks if, and only if, they continue to employ their staff. 

“Separate arrangements would need to be made for the self-employed, but at a stroke this would save people’s jobs, save businesses and put an immediate end to the risk of contagion and help to save the economy.

“This is a crisis the like of which we have not seen for 100 years. It requires a response that is immediate, effective and equal to the scale of the problem. The Chancellor said that he will do whatever it takes and do so urgently. He now needs to make good on that without delay.”

The Minister responded: “It is very important that when the Government announce the measures that we wish to take to assist with supporting employees, they need to be effective and need to work. 

“So, I say to the House and to my right hon. Friend: be in no doubt that all options are being examined. We are looking at models that exist in other jurisdictions and when, very imminently, the Chancellor comes to the House, we want to be sure that what we announce will be effective.”

Universal Credit

The former Work and Pensions Secretary, Sir Iain Duncan-Smith MP (Conservative, Chingford and Wood Green) argued that changes to Universal Credit would be the best way to support incomes. 

He said: “Universal credit has three basic levers that can all be pulled now enormously to help people who are in work. 

“First, the taper could be lowered dramatically at this stage, which would push the floor right up underneath people in work at the moment, allowing them to fall back on that if employers cannot deal with them. 

“Secondly, Ministers could change benefit rates, allowing a greater expanse of money to flow to claimants: that could be done today. 

“The third area where my hon. Friend could act is to look at the waiting time and reduce that almost immediately. Those three things were always built into the system for flexibility and they can be done today. They can be delivered ​within days by a Department that already has the ability to do that while he gets on with the other facilities.”

His suggestions were met with widespread, cross party support through the exchanges. that”.

The full transcript can be accessed here. 

Similar exchanges took place in the House of Lords and can be read here.

Labour plans for support during outbreak

The Labour Party has published its proposals to support people during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Of note it calls for:

  • All workers at risk of losing their jobs, or temporarily out of work (but still attached to an employer), to have the bulk of their wages underwritten by the Government, with:
  • A lower earner band receiving 90% of their wages from the Government;
    • A middle earner band receiving 85% of their wages from the Government; and
    • A higher earner band receiving 80% of their wages from the Government.
  • A contribution from business and a guarantee of work: the business for which the worker works will pay 10%, 15%, or 20% of their wages, depending on earner band, and while in receipt of government compensation will guarantee not to lay off workers for economic reasons; where the worker is in the public sector (and, say, temporarily out of work) the Government will guarantee the entirety of the worker’s wage package.
  • Payment going straight to workers: compensation will be paid directly to workers using existing departmental transfer mechanisms.
  • Wide eligibility criteria for qualifying workers: those workers ‘at risk’ of losing their jobs will include workers in companies facing 20% of redundancies or the loss of 30 staff, or workers in companies or the self-employed that can show an actual or potential drop in 30% of revenue in a month between January and June compared to the same month in the year before.
  • A cap on incomes to be compensated: a ceiling will exist on high earners able to be compensated.
  • A further guarantee from businesses in receipt of loan guarantees from Government: to doubly reinforce the protection that workers get, all businesses receiving loans as part of the Government’s Tuesday 17th March announcement will also guarantee that they will not lay off workers for economic reasons.
  • Immediately suspend all benefit sanctions.
  • Make clear that the claimant agreement will not be necessary and that claimants will not have to attend Jobcentre interviews.
  • Convert the advance payment for UC into a non-repayable loan (i.e. turning the loan into a grant).
  • Take immediate actions to reduce the five-week delay, including by repurposing civil servants (including those working at home).
  • Increase the level of other benefits, including those still on Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, and Carer’s Allowance, to £100.

Government engagement with landlords 

Preet Kaur Gill MP (Labour, Birmingham Edgbaston) has received a response to her written question asking what discussions MHCLG has had with private landlords on a rent holiday in response to the covid-19 outbreak.

Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher MP, responded: “The Department is in close communication with representatives of private landlords and letting agents. 

“On 18 March, we announced a radical package of measures to protect renters and landlords affected by coronavirus. 

“Emergency legislation will be taken forward as an urgent priority so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period. 

“As a result of these measures, no renters in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction. As such, the Government does not believe a ‘rent holiday’ is necessary at this stage. 

Further details of this announcement are available here. 

MP calls for support for elderly renters 

Louise Haigh MP (Labour, Sheffield Heeley) has received a response to her written question asking with reference to Age UK’s publication entitled Home Truths, published January 2020, what plans MHCLG has to support older people in the private rented sector in the upcoming renters’ reform Bill.

The Housing Minister 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. 

“The Renters’ Reform Bill will enhance renters’ security and improve protections for short-term tenants by abolishing ‘no-fault’ evictions. This will include repealing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 and represents a generational change in the law that governs private renting.

“Our recent consultation, ‘A New Deal for Renting: Resetting the balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants’ sought views from across the private and social rented sectors on how the new system should operate, in order to ensure that we get the details right and create a new framework which works for everyone. 

“We welcome the consultation response submitted by Age UK, which highlights the experience of a range of tenants who rent their homes in the private rented sector, including older people. Almost 20,000 responses to the consultation were received and these are being carefully considered to help inform the Renters’ Reform Bill.”

No DSS bans ‘should be discouraged’, says MP

Afzal Khan MP (Labour, Manchester Gorton) has received a response to his written question asking what steps the DWP has taken to tackle housing advertisements which specify No DSS tenants.

The Minister for welfare delivery, Will Quince MP, responded: “Everyone should have the same opportunity when looking for a home, regardless of whether they are in receipt of benefits. Blanket bans that do not take account of the individual and their circumstances are unhelpful and should be discouraged.

“Last year, I met industry representatives including property advertising platforms, to determine what action can be taken to end this practice. We have since seen positive changes with platforms committing to removing adverts with ‘No DSS’ wording.

“Officials also met the Competition and Marketing Authority to discuss their guidance for lettings professionals which, in October 2019 was updated to state that landlords should not exclude people on the grounds that they are receiving benefits.

“We will monitor this situation and continue to engage with stakeholders where necessary.”

Energy efficiency letter

The Chair of the BEIS Select Committee, Rachel Reeves MP (Labour, Leeds West) has written to the Energy Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng MP on the Government’s plans to meet its energy efficiency policies. The letter can be read in full here

Universal Credit fraud

The National Audit Office has published a report on Universal Credit advances fraud.

Of note it reports that:

  • The DWP knew that advances would be vulnerable to fraud but wanted to alleviate claimant hardship.
  • The DWP did not document its consideration of the risk of fraud in its decision-making around making advances more available.
  • The DWP detected increased levels of suspected fraud soon after it made advances accessible online in July 2018.
  • The Department’s initial frontline response was on detecting and disrupting advances fraud, as it developed a longer-term response based around deterring and preventing fraudulent claims.
  • The Department has detected around 100,000 claims where it suspects an advance has been applied for fraudulently, worth an estimated £98 million to £147 million.

Fire safety bill published

The Government has published the Fire Safety Bill.

The bill will amend the Fire Safety Order 2005 to clarify that the responsible person or duty-holder for multi-occupied, residential buildings must manage and reduce the risk of fire for:

  • the structure and external walls of the building, including cladding, balconies and windows
  • entrance doors to individual flats that open into common parts

The bill will provide a foundation for secondary legislation to take forward recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase one report, which stated that building owners and managers of high-rise and multi-occupied residential buildings should be responsible for a number of areas including:

  • regular inspections of lifts and the reporting of results to the local fire and rescue services
  • ensuring evacuation plans are reviewed and regularly updated and personal evacuation plans are in place for residents whose ability to evacuate may be compromised
  • ensuring fire safety instructions are provided to residents in a form that they can reasonably be expected to understand
  • ensuring individual flat entrance doors, where the external walls of the building have unsafe cladding, comply with current standards

The bill will also give the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government the powers to amend the list of qualifying premises that fall within the scope of the Fire Safety Order by way of secondary legislation, enabling the government to respond quickly to developments in the design and construction of buildings.

The bill in full can be accessed here.

Having had its first reading, it is now awaiting a second reading debate on the principles of the legislation on a date to be confirmed.

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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