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The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has had significant implications for households’ ability to retain their homes, particularly those who are renting. In response, the Government introduced a series of housing support measures, some of which have been amended and extended since March 2020:

  • Provisions were included in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the notice periods that certain tenants in England and Wales are entitled to receive when a landlord is seeking to recover possession of their homes. These notice periods have subsequently been amended. On 21 August the UK Government said that landlords in England would be required to provide tenants with 6 months’ notice, except in cases involving issues such as anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse. In summary: 
    1. Notices served in England between 26 March and 28 August for tenancies in scope had to give the tenant a minimum of three months’ notice to leave. Initially, the three month period applied to notices served in England from 26 March up to 30 September 2020 but Regulations laid on 28 August changed the notice requirements (see below).
    2. Regulations laid in England on 28 August 2020 amended Schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 to introduce notice periods in England which vary depending on the nature of the tenancy and the Ground on which the landlord is seeking possession. In summary, if a landlord is not seeking to evict a tenant for anti-social behaviour, serious rent arrears, or where the tenant has no right to rent, a minimum notice period of six months’ applies. For example, a section 21 notice served on an assured shorthold tenant on or after 29 August must give the tenant six months’ notice. These notice periods will remain in force until 31 March 2021.
    3. Notices served in Wales between 26 March and 23 July 2020 had to give tenants three months’ notice. On 23 July 2020 the Welsh Government laid Regulations to temporarily increase notice periods from three to six months in respect of assured or assured shorthold tenancies (with some exceptions). The six month notice period in Wales initially applied to notices served on or after 24 July up to 30 September 2020, but further Regulations came into force on 29 September to provide for a default notice period of six months for notices served after that date up to 31 March 2021. Lesser notice periods apply to cases involving anti-social behaviour or domestic violence in respect of assured, assured shorthold, secure and regulated tenants.
  • The Master of the Rolls issued a Practice Direction to suspend all ongoing housing possession action in England and Wales from 27 March 2020 for a period of 90 days. On 5 June 2020, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, announced an extension of the moratorium on possession actions for a further two months. The Government confirmed that the courts would start to process repossession cases again from 24 August 2020 but on 21 August a further 4-week suspension to 20 September was confirmed. The Civil Procedure Rules were amended at short notice to achieve this. Repossession actions in the courts began again from 21 September 2020.
  • A new Practice Direction (PD 55C) was due to come into effect on 23 August 2020 in preparation for the lifting of the stay on possessions. The PD subsequently came into effect on 20 September 2020. It placed new requirements on claimants seeking a repossession order and was initially in place until 28 March 2021, this period was extended to 31 July 2021 on 29 January 2021 (subject to reviews).
  • The Government said that work was underway to provide that when the moratorium on evictions was lifted, private landlords in England and Wales would be required to adhere to a revised version of The Pre-Action Protocol for Possession Claims by Social Landlords. The most recent version of Guidance for Landlords and Tenants (January 2021) makes no reference to publication of a new protocol but on 17 September 2020 the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) published Pre-Action Plan: Managing arrears and avoiding possession claims.
  • On 10 September 2020 the Secretary of State announced that bailiffs would not enforce evictions where local lockdown measures were in force which restrict access to premises to “prevent tenants being forced out of their home at an unsettling time in areas when the public health risks could be greater.” Following the introduction of new national restrictions in England on 5 November 2020, The Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction and Taking Control of Goods) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force on 17 November 2020. These Regulations prevented the enforcement of repossession orders by bailiffs against tenants other than in the most serious circumstances up to 11 January 2021. On 8 January the Government laid The Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021 to extend the ban on enforcing evictions to 21 February 2021. The 2021 Regulations introduced a new exception (see section 2.4). On 14 February 2021 the Government announced a 6-week extension to the ban to 31 March 2021. Similar bans on enforcement action over Christmas 2020 were introduced in Scotland and Wales and were subsequently extended to 31 March 2021.
  • The Chancellor announced an increase in Housing Benefit and Universal Credit “so that the local housing allowance will cover at least 30% of market rents” within a Broad Rental Market Area.

Having welcomed the Government’s commitment to introduce a “complete ban on evictions”, following publication of amendments to the Coronavirus Bill several commentators said the changes fell short of the initial commitment. However, the suspension of ongoing housing possession action from 27 March was acknowledged as a significant step in providing security of tenure for most tenants in England and Wales during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities (updated January 2021) and the Welsh Government has a series of guidance notes under the heading Renting a home: coronavirus.

The Scottish Government legislated to strengthen tenants’ security of tenure and a legislation passed by the NI Assembly applied a 12-week notice to quit period to all tenancies. The measures in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have been extended, with some changes, and are now due to expire on 31 March 2021. The Scottish Government has published Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for private landlords and letting agents (updated January 2021) and in Northern Ireland there is COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants (September 2020).

Calls for more support

The end of the suspension on eviction action in England and Wales on 20 September 2020 led commentators to ask questions about the implications for landlords and tenants. Homelessness charities and tenant bodies warn of a potential surge in evictions and homelessness when longer notice periods end in March 2021.

There were calls to use the extension on the eviction ban for 4 weeks to 20 September to introduce more protections for those facing financial difficulties. As time has passed, evidence to suggest that tenants are amassing substantial arrears has mounted. Several bodies representing the interests of landlords, tenants and homeless households joined forces in January 2021 to call for “an urgent package to help renters in paying off arrears built since March last year” on the basis that:

Without further action, debts will continue to mount, making it far more difficult to sustain tenancies and keep renters in their homes after the pandemic.

Research by the Resolution Foundation (February 2021) estimates that rates of arrears across all tenures were “at least twice the level of arrears observed going into the crisis” by January 2021. The Foundation estimates that over 750,000 families were behind with their housing payments in January 2021, 300,000 of which contained dependent children. This would have implications for local housing authorities should arrears translate into evictions and homelessness over 2021.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee published the interim report of its inquiry to assess the impact of the coronavirus crisis on homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector on 22 May 2020. The report urged the Government to take steps to protect renters, including:

  • Amend existing housing legislation to give judges more discretion in eviction cases concerning rent arrears accrued as a result of the pandemic.
  • Accelerate plans to introduce a Renters’ Reform Bill to abolish section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions.
  • Maintain the Local Housing Allowance Rate (LHA) rate at the 30th percentile long-term and consider what the impact on renters and the wider rental market would be of raising LHA rates further.

The Government’s response to the Committee was published on 25 June 2020. The Committee issued a further call for evidence on 16 October 2020 covering the following issues:

  • How effective has the support provided by the Government been in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on tenants, landlords, rough sleepers and the homeless?
  • What might the impact be of a second wave of coronavirus on homelessness and the private rented sector?
  • What estimates or data are available on the number of eviction notices served during the ban on evictions?
  • What are the best policy options for helping tenants with rent arrears caused by coronavirus?

Submissions were invited up to 27 November 2020; the inquiry is ongoing.

Other relevant Library papers

Assistance available for homeowners, including mortgage holidays and a moratorium on possession actions, is covered in the Library briefing paper: Mortgage Arrears and Repossessions (England). There is also a paper on assistance for rough sleepers: Coronavirus: Support for rough sleepers (England).

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