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17 May 2020updated 18 May 2020 2:33pm

Why people shouldn’t be forced to depend on the kindness of landlords and employers

The government has given workers and tenants no protection against those with power over them. 

By Jonn Elledge

If you’re a homeowner, and you get into financial difficulties because of coronavirus, then the government has a solution: you can take a mortgage holiday, not pay for a couple of months and just add the debt onto the back end of your mortgage. Brilliant. If you’re a renter, however – which probably makes you younger, poorer, more precarious – the government can’t help you. In March it banned evictions for three months, which is a start; but it’s done little to provide assistance to tenants who’ve lost their incomes and simply can’t afford to pay.

And so those tenants have had to throw themselves on the mercy of their landlords. How many of those public-spirited creatures have shown themselves willing to lend a hand? Well, the campaign group Generation Rent has conducted a survey, and the answer is – sit down, this may come as a shock – “not many”. 

Of the 1,542 renters surveyed, just 7 per cent said their landlord had offered a lower rent due to the crisis. Another 25 per cent offered a deferral, but 56 per cent demanded the full rent, basically now. To put it another way: the landlords who have reduced rent are outnumbered eight to one by those who have explicitly demanded payment in full.

Oh, and while we’re all looking at numbers and feeling depressed:

“Private renters with reduced incomes who had asked their landlord for a lower rent were much more likely to feel very worried about eviction (50 per cent) compared to those who had not approached their landlord (30 per cent).”

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Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has said he expects landlords to mediate with their tenants fairly. It is hard, looking at those numbers, to have confidence in this as a recipe for human happiness.

As things stand, incidentally, eviction cases can begin in court once again on the 25 June. If you believe the crisis will have passed by then, your head is a cheerier place than mine. 

I mention all this, not because it matters in itself – although it does – but because it seems to me to say something about the limits of this government’s worldview. By suggesting mediation, it’s appealing to a sort of noblesse oblige, the idea that we are all in this together and so the powerful must help the powerless where they can. The problem is that for most of the last four decades, the Conservative Party has enthusiastically pushed policies suggesting it believes in no such thing. 

So, remarkably, most landlords aren’t interested in any of that: they just want their money. And whatever you think about the morality of their position, in strictly legal terms they are quite right: they are offering a service, and they expect to be paid the money they were promised by a contract. What tenants should do then is a matter on which the government has remained remarkably silent. It simply can’t conceive of being in a position in which you can’t charm your way to a mutually beneficial arrangement. When one such position arises, it goes unaddressed.

This is not a one-off. Expecting people to be nice to each other, without either carrot or stick to encourage them, seems to be a big part of Tory party strategy right now. At last Monday’s Downing Street press conference (11 May), a member of the public asked Boris Johnson what parents who cannot work from home should do. 

“If people don’t have access to childcare, and they have a child who isn’t back in school,” the Prime Minister replied, “then I think that’s only fair to regard that as an obvious barrier to their ability to go back to work and I am sure employers will agree with that.”

Some probably will – but one might hope that the government would have a plan for the many who inevitably won’t. If it does, it’s keeping it to itself. 

There was a similar moment on BBC Breakfast last Tuesday (12 May), when Health Secretary Matt Hancock was twice asked whether people have a legal right not to go to work if they don’t feel safe. He ducked the question. “The point is,” he said, “that businesses and employees should be working together to make the best of a very difficult situation.” They should. But when they won’t – is that not an outcome to which we might reasonably expect our government to give some thought?

All of these incidents reveal that the Conservative Party is experiencing a touching (and uncharacteristic) faith in the essential kindness of human nature. And it assumes that those with power over others – their landlords; their employers – will use it wisely, in a way that accepts the complexity of our current predicament.

Plenty probably will. But many others won’t: they need to be coerced. That is not something either employees or tenants have any power to do: it’s supposed to be what the government is there for. So where is it?