FMQs: Nicola Sturgeon defends decision not to back rent freeze

Nicola Sturgeon has defended the Scottish Government’s decision not to back a plan to freeze rents for tenants for two years.

Patrick Harvie has called for more to be done to protect tenants from eviction.
Patrick Harvie has called for more to be done to protect tenants from eviction.

She told Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie that his party’s amendments to the new emergency coronavirus legislation would have “threatened the wellbeing of tenants” and rejected claims her government was not determined to protect people who live in rented accommodation.

The changes the Greens wanted to make to the Bill, including a two-year rent freeze, were voted down by both SNP and Conservative MSPs yesterday.

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At First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood today, Mr Harvie said recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic must mean a “fairer, greener, and more equal Scotland” but that would only be “realised if there’s a clear economic plan and the political will to take the bold steps needed.”

He added: “After the Scottish Government blocked Green proposals to protect tenants, the director of Shelter said, ‘it’s hard to see now what’s going to prevent a tidal wave or evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic’.

“What specific actions will the First Minister take now to protect tenants from building up enormous debt burdens, to ensure that arrears due to this crisis can’t be used to evict people, and prevent this predicted new wave of homelessness after the temporary measures end?”

Ms Sturgeon said that not supporting the amendments did not “equate to a lack of determination to protect tenants”.

She said the government had objected because the amendments were “flawed, in some cases unnecessary, and in other cases would have serious negative unintended consequences”.

She added: “That does not mean we’re not determined to take action to protect tenants.

“One called for a tenants’ fund but we already provide financial assistance to people who have difficulties paying rent through Discretionary Housing Payments so we don’t need to establish a new fund, we need to ensure DHP is properly resourced and we will continue to do that.

“Then the blanket rent freeze for two years, discounting rent arrears whether or not they were accrued because of the crisis, it was social landlords who raised concerns about that. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said it would undermine and threaten the wellbeing of tenants not benefit them, and the Glasgow and West of Scotland forum described them as potentially calamitous.

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“We are all determined to protect tenants that’s why the Scottish Government has already put in place protection against eviction for six months and we have to consider the appropriate measures that come after that.”

However Mr Harvie said that while he would never claim the Green proposals were the only way, “we need to hear what the alternative is”.

Raising concerns that landlords accessing the government’s hardship loan fund, would evict tenants in arrears after six months and then hike the rent for the next tenants to pay back the loan, he said: “We don’t have the measures in place to ensure a socially just outcome.

“When the lockdown ends its critical we don’t go back to the status quo – that we build back that better Scotland we want to see, and the decisions we take now will determine whether we achieve that or make matters worse. We’ve a once in a lifetime opportunity to end homelessness. Can the First Minister give a guarantee that no one will be put back on the street or in unsuitable accommodation when restrictions are lifted?”

Ms Sturgeon said that she wanted to “absolutely make sure” that things “do not go back the way” as “out of a crisis we have done things that had proven difficult before”.

She added: “We will have to try and change how we do things. This crisis has impacted on literally every aspect of life, the economy and society and we’re going to have to methodically and systematically work our way through how we fix the impact where it’s done damage and where we change how we do things in future. I don’t have all the answers to that right now.

“But we will have to consider what protections are important for a longer term period and what bigger changes we want to see.”

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