You can call it what you like.
Keir Starmer has called it an “11th hour U-turn”; Sir Terence Etherton, the most senior judge of the civil courts, said the government’s change of position was of an “extremely unusual nature and timing”. Lord Pickles said it was “pointless”.
Whatever you call the government’s decision to extend by a further four weeks the ban on residential evictions in England, it again highlights its failure to address issues it knows (or really should know) lie ahead.
The Tory appetite for last minute policy U-turns is seemingly increasing by the day.
But there, they were only playing something as trivial as our children’s futures. Now that it’s housing and homelessness, they waited until Friday, just 48 hours before the ban on residential evictions was due to expire, to announce a four week extension and to increase, in most cases, the notice requirements for applying to Court for an eviction.
A huge spike in homelessness could be on the horizon.
A YouGov poll commissioned by the homelessness charity Shelter estimates that some 227,000 private renters in England (about 3 per cent) have fallen into rent arrears during the pandemic. Of those, 174,000 have already been threatened with eviction. Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 requires the Courts to grant a possession order to a landlord: the only condition is that a period of notice has been given. In normal times, that was two months but it has been extended for Covid-19 reasons, first to three months and is now set to be extended to six months.
So what happens in four weeks time when the ban on evictions ends?
Imagine you are a tenant who has been put out of work because of the pandemic: do you think, in the current climate, you will be able to reverse your arrears and find money for the ongoing rent in that space of time?
At least a very significant number of people are at risk of becoming homeless in four weeks’ time because of the pandemic. But there are other risks too: given the government’s tendency to come up with solution in the hours before the axe falls, no one can be sure what the legal position will be in a month.
Those shielding or those in quarantine will have to assess whether it is worth staying away from work in order to comply with public health guidelines when the upshot may be losing your and your family’s home. in coronavirus cases if there is an uptick in homelessness.
The government appears to have no medium or long-term plan to help private tenants in the rented sector.
The new measures are barely even a sticking plaster, giving tenants, to use Starmer’s phrase a “few more weeks to pack their bags” when the inevitable deluge of possession order proceedings begins (or stayed cases are revived). When Lord Pickles, former Tory Community Secretary, said the changes were pointless, he meant that they needed to go hand in hand with legislative changes to protect tenants.
But it’s worse than that: there has not been even the faintest suspicion of a plan to assist local authorities on whose strained shoulders the burden of dealing with a homelessness crisis will fail. There has been no hint of a plan to assist Courts with the existing and potential backlog of housing cases: the civil justice system is, like the criminal justice system, on its knees.
At the very least, the Courts need to be empowered to refuse to grant eviction orders where the cause of a tenant’s inability to pay rent is Covid-19 related. I won’t hold my breath.
How on earth did it get to this?
In a time of national emergency, no one reasonably expects perfection from ministers or that the government can cure all ills. But they do expect a shoulder to the wheel, the application of judgement, and at least an attempt to get things right.
The apparent inability of this government to either see obvious difficulties in the near future, or to listen to those who can see better until it is very, very late, smacks not so much of incompetence as of a reckless disregard for classes of people who are not priorities.
The problems with a short extension to the eviction ban are obvious and the government must see that: but it is hard to escape the conclusion that their only concern is what the headlines might say in four weeks’ time, not what will be happening to private tenants struggling to make ends meet.
On the surface, this is (another) story about the government’s hopeless incompetence.
But it reveals a more sinister truth...
Like the U-turn on charges for overseas NHS workers, like the U-turn on free school meal vouchers, this (temporary) U-turn on evictions tell you how far up the government’s list of priorities certain people feature.
Grahame Anderson is an equalities and employment barrister. He is chair of the Society of Labour lawyers employment group.
Follow him on Twitter at @GrahameAnders.