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Bristol MP says cancelling rent for tenants would be ‘un-Labour’

She also said that policy would be ‘regressive’

A Bristol MP has said cancelling rent for tenants would be “un-Labour” and “regressive”.

Thangam Debbonaire, the Bristol West MP, was responding to criticism in an open letter of Labour’s proposed policy of giving renters two years to pay back rent arrears, which the letter says would be “failing renters”.

These comments came on the same day as students living in Shadow Housing Secretary Debbonaire’s own constituency of Bristol West protested a local landlord, demanding rent cuts and no-penalty release clauses.

Last Saturday, Debbonaire unveiled Labour’s five point plan to protect renters, including an extension on the eviction ban, protection from bankruptcy due to rent arrears, and higher housing benefits.

However, the third point, “tenants should then have at least two years to pay back any arrears”, triggered an open letter to Debbonaire and Labour Leader Keir Starmer, signed by over 4000 party members within 48 hours.

The open letter was signed by Bristol Labour activists, such as Ruth Day and Kieran Glasssmith, who were part of yesterday’s socially-distanced protest against a local landlord.

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Debbonaire (centre with tote bag) supporting unionised Bristol staff on strike in November 2019

Responding to the criticism, Debonnaire said: “The policy called ‘cancel the rent’ is surprisingly un-Labour. It’s a really regressive policy.

“Because, for instance, there are people who are still in work, still able to pay their rent. And if you just cancelled rent, they would also benefit and they don’t need to.”

She said that a blanket policy would also cancel rent for MPs with flats in London, such as herself, saying “That would be completely unnecessary, really regressive, and not targeted at the people who need it the most.”

She added that “whether we think it’s either moral or not, there is a legal structure underneath this. Which is a tenant has signed a contract with a landlord.

“Even if it’s a rubbish contract, with a rubbish landlord who is charging far too much, it’s still legally binding. And just cancelling it has consequences. In fact, there isn’t such a thing as cancelling it.”

She said that, if there were a blanket cancellation of rent,“landlords, whether we like it or not, would have a legal case against either the government or their tenants or quite possibly both.”

She commented: “It’s the private rented sector where we’ve got a problem.”

If private landlords were to go bust due to this policy, she said that “lots of people including lots of Labour members [would] go ‘yippee, that’s fine, they’re evil, exploitative people’.

“Which may well be true. But if they go bust, their tenants would be homeless. We have to think about what would happen after that. The housing that they own would probably be bought up by even greedier landlords.”

In conclusion, she commented: “It would be deeply regressive to have a general rent waiver. And to come up with a specific rent waiver, if you’re gonna do that and target, you might as well pay upfront by removing the benefit cap and increased Local Housing Allowance.”

“As a Labour politician, I can’t call for the government to do something unless I genuinely believe that it’s a policy we would take if we were in government. And I’m not sure that we would.”

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