THE UK’s leading debt advice charities StepChange, Money Advice Trust, Citizens Advice, and Christians Against Poverty, alongside the Law Centres Network, have written to the Secretary of State responsible for Housing, Michael Gove, urging him to prioritise the Renters (Reform) Bill in this parliamentary session. They also call for stronger protections in the Bill for private renters experiencing financial difficulty.

New polling by YouGov for StepChange Debt Charity has revealed private renters are twice as likely to be in problem debt as the average person, while more than half (53 per cent) of private renters say they have found it difficult to keep up with bills and credit commitments in the past few months.

Record average private rents across the country are driving low financial resilience among private tenants, many of whom match the financial profile of social tenants and have additional vulnerabilities, like ill-health, but are unable to access the severely limited supply of socially rented homes.

The Bill gives landlords an automatic right to evict private tenants in two months or more of rent arrears (Ground 8a) without offering any support or seeking to agree a repayment plan.

Rent arrears is the most common reason tenancies are ended by landlords and estate agents, most often through section 21 notices. Yet rather than offer more protection for those struggling to keep up with their rent, the Renters (Reform) Bill introduces an additional ‘repeat arrears’ ground.

The charities are calling for a new Tenancy Support Programme, which would mirror the Pre-Action Protocol that exists for social tenants in rent arrears. This would introduce reasonable steps private landlords must take to support tenants in financial difficulty to sustain tenancies wherever possible, including referring them to benefits advice and seeking to agree an affordable repayment plan for arrears. These steps would be supported by giving judges discretion to suspend eviction proceedings where these steps have not been taken.

There is strong public support for this approach: 72 per cent of UK adults agree that private landlords should be required to offer their tenants an affordable repayment plan before being allowed to pursue eviction. This support extends across party lines.

Richard Lane, Chief Client Officer at StepChange Debt Charity, said: “We’re currently experiencing a crisis of housing affordability which is leaving millions of private renters on the cusp of falling into problem debt simply because they do not have the income to cover exorbitant rents alongside rising essential costs.

“While a mortgage holder or social tenant has the security of knowing that their lender or housing provider will follow a process of engagement and support if they fall into a difficult spot with their finances, private renters are not afforded the same protections.

“At StepChange we see far too many financially vulnerable private renters who should be in socially rented homes, with living costs alone forcing them to resort to borrowing. It’s essential that they’re provided with dignity and security to stay in their homes should they be faced with a life shock that impacts their finances.”

Jane Tully, Acting Deputy Chief Executive at the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: “Reform of the private rental sector is long overdue, and the Government’s intention to deliver greater security for tenants is welcome. Proposals as they currently stand, however, do not get close to providing the protections needed for private renters.

“At National Debtline we hear the lengths people go to protect their tenancy, including going without essentials in order to prioritise their rent. With rents rising and many household budgets at breaking point, it is only right that reasonable steps should be put in place to sustain tenancies.

“Changes to Ground 8A are needed now to reduce the threat of unnecessary evictions and to bring safeguards in this sector in-line with those granted to mortgage holders and social tenants.”

* Read the letter here.

* Source: StepChange Debt Charity