By Bob Doris MSP
19 and 20 May 2020
I had great sympathy for the policy intent of these amendments and made a brief contribution on providing additional support for tenants here (see below). Whilst I did not vote for the specific amendments (explained below), I remain ready to work collaboratively with others to support tenants.
There is much the Scottish Government is currently doing to support tenants but we must always stand ready to consider new suggestions. I want to thank all those who made representations to me on these matters.
This amendment would have placed a duty on Scottish Ministers to establish a hardship fund for tenants struggling to pay their rent as a result of Covid-19. The Scottish Government reasonably pointed out that mechanisms to provide financial support already exist, both through Universal Credit and Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP’s). It is important to note the essentially reserved nature of meeting housing costs through the UK benefits system (UC and Housing Benefit) but we should also recognise (and welcome) that DHP’s are a Scottish Government investment to help those most in need with additional housing costs, including fully mitigating the UK Government bedroom tax here in Scotland. In other words the Scottish Government has already stood up for tenants and continues to do so. Suggestions that it does are simply not true.
Whether the Scottish Government should have supported the specific amendments is however a reasonable debate. The Scottish Government believed introducing a new and separate fund may create duplication as they already have DHP’s. It also has the Scottish Welfare Fund which is currently assisting hard pressed households also.
The Scottish Government has already budgeted £71.2m in this financial year for Discretionary Housing Payments for tenants to ensure they mitigate the bedroom tax in full and around £12m to also help those struggling with their housing costs.
This is an increase of nearly £10m on the previous financial year and the Scottish Government expects costs to significantly increase due to the additional numbers of people moving on to Universal Credit who will be hit by the bedroom tax.
The Scottish Government also announced a further £5m which I warmly welcome.
These budgets need to be paid for out of Scottish Government funds. It would be positive the Scottish Government to identify additional funds to help renters, including in the short term those not qualifying for Universal Credit or Housing Benefit that are struggling.
I do however acknowledge that such funds have to be identified and budgeted for- not simply insisted upon. This is something which was unable to be done by the mover of the amendment. However I made some specific suggestions on how to identify potential budgets to help renters which could be paid through DHP’s or through the Scottish Welfare Fund.
It is also worth pointing out that the Scottish Government has actively encouraged tenants to ensure they apply for the financial support they are eligible for including through a specific campaign letting tenants know about their rights, as well as changes made to support tenants by the Scottish Government through the first Emergency Covid Act.
Two Year Rent Freeze And Rent Arrears
Stage 2 proposed an across the board rent freeze for all tenants- irrespective of their circumstances. This would have taken no account of landlords and tenant’s individual situation given not everyone has been equally financially affected by Covid-19.
I was concerned about the impact on the ability of landlords to maintain and invest in their housing stock and I was therefore not surprised to see strong opposition from the likes of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Association I thought you may find the link of interest as it refers to concerns over both a two year rent freeze and plans to ‘extinguish’ rent liability.
Stage 2 also sought to create secondary legislation to permit that any rent arrears accrued during the emergency period is disregarded for the purposes of eviction. I shared the social housing sector and Scottish Government concerns that the amendment gave no regard to why arrears may have accrued during the emergency period. The amendment took a blanket approach and may have protected tenants who had the means to pay rent but chose not to.
I acknowledge these amendments were revised for Stage 3, limiting scope of them to the private rented sector. I remained concerned over unintended consequences. It was highly unsatisfactory that Stage 3 amendments in this area were published at 12pm on 20/5/20. Just 2.5 hours ahead of the Stage 3 debate (with First Ministers Questions sandwiched in between). I should note this is not the fault of those lodging amendments but highlights the constraints on scrutinising emergency legislation. The changes suggested had no real consultation and just 150 minutes between being published and having to be considered by MSP’s.
I did however pledge my support for considering rent controls in the private rented sector (see below).
Existing Rent Controls/ Going Further
It is worth noting that legislation is already in place which provides stability to tenants in the private rented sector (see infoation at https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland/housing/renting-a-home-s) with rents only being able to increase once a year and with three months’ notice. If a tenant is waiting for financial support such as a benefits claim then action cannot be taken. In addition tenants have the right to challenge unfair rent increases. I do not pretend this is perfect and I have great sympathy with proposals in Pauline McNeil MSP’s Members Bill which seeks to go further. I made that clear during the Stage 3 debate.
Eviction Protections Already Exist And Scottish Government Pledged To Keep Them Under Review.
Tenants are already protected from eviction action for 6 months through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020. Additionally, under measures introduced under the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland (Housing and Property Chamber) has discretion when considering whether it is reasonable to grant an eviction order and can take the full circumstances of the case into account, including whether the landlord has been a recipient of a loan.
I was reassured that Kevin Stewart MSP, our Housing Minister, did not just note that the first emergency Covid Bill brought in additional protections from eviction, but that he was prepared to go further should this be required.
For my part I remain committed to working constructively with all groups on these matters going forward.
Best wishes, Bob.
Debate in Parliament
- Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP):
I start by speaking to Pauline McNeill’s amendment 10. I thank her for lodging an amendment on the issue again. This is the first opportunity that I have had to comment on the issue in the chamber and to respond to those who have contacted me on the various amendments.
Last night was my first opportunity to look carefully at the Scottish Government’s position, which seems to be that housing costs could already be met through the discretionary housing payment system and that creating a new system would be seen as duplication. That is a reasonable argument, and I accept it.
I welcome the fact that discretionary housing payments had been set to increase this year to £71.2 million, which would have been an increase of £10 million. Some £12 million of that was specifically for unmet housing costs for struggling tenants. There is also, of course, the additional £5 million that has been mentioned this afternoon, which I also welcome.
However, it is fair to say that a struggling renter who is not entitled to benefits is unlikely to receive a discretionary housing payment. Perhaps the person is a furloughed worker or one of the people whom Pauline McNeill mentioned. They might be struggling not just with the rent but with a variety of costs in the household budget. Of course we have to look again at how we can help those individuals.
I am looking to find out from the Government whether we will continue to explore how the needs of those struggling renters can be met as we go forward. I do not think that the mechanism that Pauline McNeill has proposed will achieve that because of the duplication aspect, but we have to look at the issue again. If time permits, I will make some suggestions.
- Kevin Stewart:
I can give Mr Doris the same assurance that I gave Ms McNeill. We will continue to look at all that is happening out there. We have to look at the data and what is happening to people out there in order to get this right. Earlier, the First Minister made it very clear that, as a Government, we will continue to do all that we can to support folks in greatest need as we move forward.
- Bob Doris:
I welcome those reassurances from the minister.
There could be a pan-UK solution. Housing benefit is, of course, a reserved matter, but the Parliament has quite rightly set a precedent with discretionary housing payments and having top-up benefits to get folk who are struggling with housing costs out of poverty. Will there be criteria that relate to the £5 million that has been added to discretionary housing payments, extending such payments beyond people on benefits, for example?
There is also the Scottish welfare fund. Some £22 million has already been allocated to local authorities. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People wrote to me on Monday, telling me that £23 million remains unallocated. I have to admit that I have no idea whether that should go to struggling tenants in the private rented sector, because we cannot spend the same pound twice. However, we have to look at the best way to direct that £23 million. Perhaps the solution could be to help renters who are struggling.
I put those ideas out there, and members will have other ideas, but we must come together as a Parliament to find solutions rather than have a petulant argument in the chamber. We have to think constructively and positively about how we can take the issue forward.
I do not want to say much about amendments 11 to 14; I have not had time to look at them in detail, given that they were published at 12 o’clock today. I looked in detail at the equivalent amendments that were lodged at stage 2, about which I had significant concerns.
Given that we are looking at the private rented sector, I re-read Pauline McNeill’s proposed fair rents (Scotland) bill, and its provisions looked pretty positive and robust to me. I think that her bill would make a real contribution.
Unfortunately, I cannot support amendments 11 to 14, but once the dust settles on the bill, we have to come together as a Parliament to drive forward a real solution.