Boris Johnson has promised legislation to protect private tenants from eviction during the coronavirus crisis, after coming under intense pressure from Labour to extend support for businesses and homeowners to cover renters.
The prime minister also told the House of Commons the government would do “whatever it takes” to protect workers whose jobs and livelihoods are under threat.
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Speaking at an eerily-quiet session of prime minister’s questions after most MPs were asked to stay away, Mr Corbyn said that chancellor Rishi Sunak had offered “nothing” to 20 million tenants in his £350bn package of coronavirus support on Tuesday.
Labour released research suggesting that 6 million households living in homes rented from a private or social landlord have no savings to fall back on.
Shadow housing secretary John Healey has published draft legislation which would ban evictions due to rent arrears built up as a result of coronavirus.
Housing associations in England today issued an assurance that their 6 million-plus tenants will not face eviction. National Housing Federation chief executive Kate Henderson said: “No-one should be evicted because of the coronavirus. We are confident that no housing association will do this, and want anyone affected by the outbreak to be reassured they will not be evicted.”
But Mr Corbyn told MPs that many renters – including 3 million households with children – were “worried sick that they can’t pay their rent if they get ill, lose pay or feel they need to self-isolate”.
He called on Mr Johnson to confirm that the government’s emergency legislation will protect renters from eviction, telling MPs: “It is in the interest of the public health – of the health of all of us – that people don’t feel forced to go to work in order to avoid eviction when they know themselves they may be spreading this terrible disease.”
After some hesitation, Mr Johnson replied: “I can indeed confirm that we will be bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction.
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“But it’s also important, as we legislate, that we do not simply pass on the problem so we’ll also be taking steps to protect other actors in the economy.”
Mr Corbyn called on the PM to increase statutory sick pay (SSP) to “European levels”.
“UK sick pay levels lag far behind those of European counterparts, said the Labour leader. “The Scandinavian countries are giving, many of them, 100 per cent of wages during this crisis.
“I hope that when the Prime Minister brings forward proposals on this, they do reflect the reality of people’s lives.
“You cannot feed a family on 90-odd quid a week, and those people therefore are putting everybody at risk because they have to go out to work in order to put food on the table.”
Mr Corbyn called on the PM to “commit to extending a very much enhanced statutory sick pay to all workers”, including those earning less than £118 a week and workers on zero-hours contracts, who are currently entitled to nothing.
“A quarter of the people that are most crucial to support us in this crisis – social care staff – and almost half of home care workers are on zero hours contract so therefore automatically not entitled to sick pay,” said the Labour leader. “By not extending statutory sick pay to all workers, the government is forcing social care staff – and they’re the people that could unwittingly be transmitting the disease amongst the most vulnerable in our community – to choose between health and their own hardship.”
Mr Johnson resisted pressure to announce immediate changes to SSP, telling MPs that sick pay is “typically supplemented by other benefits”.
But he promised that ministers “will be working with the unions, working with colleagues across the House, bringing forward further measures to support workers of all kinds throughout this crisis”.
Mr Johnson added: “Of course we will ensure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing and protecting not just themselves, but also other members of society,
“Since the state is, after all, making these demands of the public and business, it is only right that throughout this period, we should be doing whatever it takes to support the workers of this country.”
The PM agreed to a demand from SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford to meet MPs who are pushing for the introduction of an emergency universal basic income during the crisis.
Mr Blackford said: “Yesterday the UK government announced a £330bn financial package for business. Now the UK government needs to announce a wide-ranging financial package for people.
“This must include an emergency universal basic income, using the current tax system to put thousands of pounds in people’s pockets and ensure people can support their families, pay their bills and keep a roof over their heads.
“In the last financial crisis, the banks were bailed out but ordinary people were not. The UK government must not repeat history and leave families struggling to get by.”
Pressure group Generation Rent called on the government to halt no-fault evictions and evictions for rent arrears, freeze rent increases for a year and remove the five-week wait for housing benefit.
The group warned that two-thirds (63%) of renters have no savings and renters typically spend 40% of their income on housing costs.
Generation Rent’s Caitlin Wilkinson said: “One in five of us rents privately and the silence so far from government about the months ahead is unacceptable.
“Without further protection, millions of renters will be unable to pay their rent and will be reliant on the goodwill of their landlord. We know that many landlords will take action to evict tenants, leaving them homeless in the midst of a pandemic.”