Parliament Parliament

Bishop Guli’s speech to the House of Lords during the Renters (Reform) Bill Second Reading

15 May 2024

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani has spoken in the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the Renters Reform Bill. 

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow Lord Best from whose wisdom and experience I’ve gained a great deal personally. And I thank him for his contribution today.

I begin by declaring my interest as the Church of England’s lead Bishop for Housing. Also, being in clergy tied housing, my own retirement house is currently let to long term tenants.

My starting place is that good homes are the building blocks of strong communities. Bad homes can threaten mental and physical wellbeing, hinder personal and economic development, and compromise safety. Everyone needs a good home so that we have a good society where people can flourish. 

There is much to welcome in this Bill. Private renting is the most insecure and expensive tenure and that requires significant reform. I’m pleased that the Decent Homes Standard will be applied to the private rented sector for the first time. I’m also pleased that the Government has tabled amendments to prohibit landlords and letting agencies from discriminating against families with children and people in receipt of benefits, and I’ll be seeking more details on how this will work in practice. 

I have three children, all of whom are young adults. Without a significant shake-up of the entire housing market, it is likely they will all struggle to ever buy their own properties. With more than 11 million people renting privately, they are not alone, and young people face particular difficulties switching to homeownership or social rent. With some notable exceptions, young people are not particularly well represented in either House, which might be one reason that this Bill has taken so long to reach us, and I am determined to speak up for them as this Bill progresses. Those 11 million – including my three children – know how important it is to improve the private rented sector. The old phrase that we are a ‘nation of homeowners’ is an outdated one. We are now a nation in which many people are in the private rented sector for long periods, if not permenantly. 

So there is much to commend in the bill. However, I am concerned that the Bill has lost some of its most important measures during passage through Parliament so far.  
As currently drafted, the Bill will not provide a significantly better private rented sector. The most well-publicised reversal is the delay in abolishing Section 21 evictions. I add my voice to the calls of other peers that the Government set out a series of tests for the courts, or a timeline for abolition. Without this, I fear that this reform will be delayed indefinitely. 

This Bill provides us with an opportunity to make significant reforms to one tenure, but the private rented sector only houses around 20% of the population. We need to think bigger to fix our housing crisis. Nothing short of a long-term strategy, which considers all tenures as interconnected parts of a whole system, will do. A few weeks ago, I was pleased to launch a report, Homes for All, which set out a vision for England’s housing system and the need for a long term strategy. I’m grateful to the Minster for being there. I commend the report’s ambitious proposals to all noble Lords with an interest in fixing the UK’s housing crisis. And I’m grateful to other noble Lords for their support, including that of the late and much mourned Lord Stunnell.

A vision for better housing which delivers for everyone requires a set of values which we can all support.The Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community set out five values which should underpin good housing: housing should always be safe, secure, sociable, sustainable and satisfying. As it stands, the private rented sector is often unsafe, unsecure, unsociable, unsustainable and unsatisfying, and it is frequently the most expensive tenure for tenants. I will be assessing the quality of this Bill against the five values outlined by the Commission.   

Achieving these five goals may require a certain amount of sacrifice. To reverse pervasive issues of low quality and high costs, a new balance must be struck between the needs of landlords and renters. This might involve some sacrifices if we are to reform the tenure meaningfully. The needs of landlords and renters are often presented as being in opposition, but, in reality, the vast majority of landlords demonstrate a duty of care in line with legal obligations, and the vast majority of tenants treat their homes with respect. We need both groups to come together to make this tenure work. 

To turn to specifics, a sense of security is vital for renters. I would like to see the notice period for tenants extended from two months to four months, which would provide more time for tenants to find a new home, or for local authorities to offer homelessness prevention support. At the other end of the tenancy, there are questions to ask about the newly introduced six-month tenancy commitment for renters. If the Government won’t commit to removing it altogether, will they set out the extenuating circumstances which would allow tenants to serve notice earlier – for example, the death of a resident, or a serious hazard in the property? 

Judges should have more discretion to consider extenuating circumstances when assessing Section 8 evictions. Repeated non-payment of rent can be for a huge number of different reasons, some of which will not persist beyond a few months. Judges should be able to use their discretion about whether they issue an eviction notice on these grounds or not. We also know that domestic abuse is often misreported as antisocial behaviour. Given these sensitivities, why has the threshold for a Section 8 eviction been lowered to ‘capable of causing a nuisance’? This framing is extremely broad and will inevitably capture behaviours which should not count as ‘antisocial behaviour.’ 

There is one other issue that I’d like to raise, which affects providers of retirement housing for clergy, including the Church of England’s Pensions Board. I should declare that I’m part of the Church of England’s Pension Scheme but unlikely to turn to them for housing in retirement.

Many members of the clergy, however, enter retirement without owning a home. It is then that Pensions Boards or similar schemes are able to step in to provide affordable and assured housing for them in later life. Some changes will be needed to this Bill to ensure that the Church’s model of provision is still financially viable, and I’ve set out the details of this in a letter to the Minister. I look forward to corresponding further on the matter. 

Finally, my Lords, this Bill presents us with the first opportunity in a generation to make our most expensive and insecure housing tenure fit for purpose. Are we going to take the opportunity or will we squander it? I hope that both this House and the other place will work constructively to pass legislation which protects renters, reassures landlords, and ensures that everyone has access to good housing, which is safe, secure, sociable, sustainable and satisfying.