The Scottish Government’s decision to opt for a six month notice period for social sector arrears cases will not protect the people it is intended to, argues David Bookbinder.
So we now know that there is to be a continuation, from April till September, of notice periods for social sector arrears cases being six months instead of the normal one month.
These notice provisions apply across the board. This is different from the current prohibition on evictions, which is seen as a health protection measure and so applies only in Level 3 and 4 areas.
With infection rates still higher than the Scottish Government wants to see, the unsurprising indications are that the evictions ban is likely to be extended beyond the end of March. It may be the case that in the six months from April, some areas could go into Level 2 or below (despite the new, stricter criteria on how low infection rates must be for this to happen). Level 2 or below will mean the evictions ban won’t apply.
On notice periods for arrears cases, the minister’s decision not to at least compromise and opt for a three month notice period from April is extremely disappointing. It’s a missed opportunity, and it doesn’t protect the people he thinks it will.
On more than one occasion we’ve presented pages of evidence to the minister, from our members, clearly showing that extending notice periods helps only those tenants who aren’t engaging with their landlord or who could pay the rent but are deliberately taking advantage of what they see as the lack of sanctions.
The problem is that even where this measure (and the evictions ban too) is accompanied by messaging on the importance of paying rent and talking with your landlord if you’re in difficulty, it invariably gives a message to some tenants that they don’t need to pay rent and that no-one can do anything about it. And for those who are perhaps just sticking their head in the sand, the longer notice periods really don’t help.
In recognition of the need for a phased journey back to normality, GWSF proposed a compromise position of three-month notice periods for arrears cases, instead of six. Along with the gradual opening up of the court system over the Spring and Summer, three-month notices would have been part of a sensibly phased return to normality.
Our members will always support those tenants who are facing real difficulty but are talking to their landlord about mitigating the damage, often through making a Universal Credit claim. It isn’t necessary to issue notices in these cases.
The small minority of tenants who continue to use longer notice periods and suspension of eviction actions to avoid paying rent will face huge debts they’re unlikely ever to be able to repay even if they wanted to. It’ll fall to other tenants to cover those debts.
It continues to be problematic for us that the same Covid legislation is applied across both rental sectors, even though the legal framework applying to social landlords, and the regulatory expectations on them, are overwhelmingly more rigorous.
On the one hand, the Scottish Government has used local housing associations as trusted partners at a time of crisis to quickly and effectively distribute public funds directed at vulnerable individuals and communities.
But on the other, it feels like we aren’t trusted to work responsibly, within the law, to manage alarmingly high rent arrears cases that have a disproportionate impact on the organisation and on the overall tenant population who have to pick up the tab.
David Bookbinder is the Director of GWSF