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Politicians and social landlords fall out over bedroom tax eviction policy

Politicians and social landlords are at loggerheads over proposals to legally ban evictions for rent arrears incurred by the "bedroom tax".

MSPs have considered a petition by Govan Law Centre for a national ban on evicting tenants whose benefits have been cut because they have been deemed to have extra bedrooms.

Labour has made similar proposals but the SNP administration has resisted calls for a statutory ban, despite both parties promoting "no evictions policies" at local authority level.

Holyrood-commissioned experts have urged caution with proposing a national no evictions policy or debt amnesty as it could send tenants a message that some debts are less important than others.

But representatives from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) say they see little distinction between a national ban and a local ban, suggesting both risk fostering a culture of non-payment amongst social tenants.

At Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee today, both organisations said they are sceptical about a no eviction policy at any level of government.

CIH head of policy and public affairs David Bookbinder said that while councils' "so-called no evictions policies" could still lead to evictions if tenants refuse to engage with officials on their debts, the national scheme proposed by Labour and Govan Law Centre would remove the threat of evictions altogether and therefore lessen the compulsion to pay the debt.

Around one in 400 legal actions for non-payment of rent end in eviction from housing association properties, the committee heard.

But Labour North Lanarkshire councillor Harry McGuigan, community wellbeing spokesman for council umbrella group Cosla, said bedroom tax evictions should be ruled out altogether because the threat of eviction amounts to the "intimidation" of tenants.

All of the politicians and social landlords who spoke at the committee session agreed that the bedroom tax should be scrapped by the UK Government.

But Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone - the only politician from a UK coalition party - remained silent throughout the proceedings.

Labour is also leading a debate in the House of Commons calling for an immediate repeal of the bedroom tax policy throughout the UK.

Speaking on behalf of the petitioners, Govan Law Centre's principal solicitor Mike Dailly said there is a "powerful economic case" for a national no evictions policy.

"If a landlord evicts a tenant with £600 arrears it will cost the landlord £6,000. If the tenants lose their house, the cost to the council and the NHS is, on average, £24,000.

"And here is the absolute lunacy: they would be entitled to get another secured tenancy by applying as homeless to the council."

The Scottish Government cannot unilaterally scrap the under-occupation charge but it has the power and resources to ban evictions and fund the arrears, he acknowledged.

"If the Scottish referendum Yes vote is not successful, or the general election in 2015 gives us another Conservative/Lib Dem coalition Government - and let's say there is no change on their policy of the bedroom tax - what do we do in Scotland?" Mr Dailly asked.

"Well, in that fairly grim circumstance, in relation to the bedroom tax and it all goes pear shaped, there is a Scottish Government underspend which in the last year was £170 million."

Mr Bookbinder said the petition, and the corresponding Members Bill by Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie, are "well intended but will do more harm than good".

He said: "The so-called no evictions policies of a large number of local authorities say if you are engaging with the landlord then there is no question that you will be evicted.

"The Bill says it doesn't matter whether you are engaging or not, you will not be evicted. So the Bill will directly reward those tenants who simply choose to ignore the landlord."

SFHA policy manager David Ogilvie said: "We are deeply concerned about the terms of this petition and the proposed legislation. We think it starts from a false premise that housing associations are too keen, ready and quick to go down the line of evictions and that is a very dangerous place to put the housing association sector, bordering on irresponsible.

"Tenants are already adequately protected. Just 0.25% of housing association tenancies ended in eviction in 2011-12. That doesn't scream that the sector that I represent is trigger happy when it comes to evictions."

Committee convener Michael McMahon, a Labour MSP, suggested the SNP's promotion of no evictions at council level but rejection of it at national level is "inconsistent".

Mr Bookbinder replied: "I agree there is very little difference. CIH was not supportive of the Housing Minister imploring local authorities to adopt a so-called no evictions approach because we think that message, which was very well publicised by a number of local authorities, however well intended, sends the wrong message that it doesn't really matter if you pay rent or not."

Jim Hayton, policy manager at the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers, said the power to manage rent arrears should remain with councils.

"Councils make the policy on rent arrears, and we think that councils are best placed to do that," he said.

"We understand why elected members might wish to provide some comfort to tenants who are affected by this, but we feel it is incumbent on us to point out that there would be challenges."

A national ban would be complex, unwieldy, costly, unfair on those in the private rented sector who are also struggling with debt and encourage a culture of non-payment of all rent arrears, not just bedroom tax arrears, he said.

But Mr McGuigan said a national ban is necessary to prevent councils "being portrayed as the partners and the perpetrators of this foul legislation".

He said: "We seem to be talking about, as far the collection of rent arrears is concerned, that we need to have flexibility. What do you mean by flexibility? Do you mean that we have got to keep that intimidatory aspect of eviction in there?"

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Local government

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