The Observer view on Dan Poulter and the failing Conservative government | Observer editorial


This week, voters across England and Wales will go to the polls in the last set of local elections before the next general election. But one Conservative MP has decided he cannot endorse Rishi Sunak as prime minister: former public health minister Dan Poulter announced this weekend that he is resigning his membership of the party. Poulter, who is also a practising NHS consultant, has delivered a stinging rebuke to Sunak; writing exclusively for the Observer, he says that his firsthand experience of crisis in NHS mental health services has persuaded him that “the only cure is a Labour government”. He will be taking the Labour whip until the next election – which he has said Sunak should call as soon as possible – and he will then stand down as an MP.

Poulter is entirely correct that on the NHS – but also across every area of policy – this is a government that has neglected the huge social and economic challenges facing Britain. Public services are creaking under the strain. From the infected blood scandal to the victims of Windrush to the Post Office scandal, ministers have dragged their feet on righting terrible harms inflicted on people by the state. Increasing numbers of Conservative MPs are losing the whip and facing police investigations as a result of allegations of sleaze and corruption.

Meanwhile, any opportunities for positive reform are completely lost in this end-of-days doom spiral. There is no better example than the renters (reform) bill, gutted by ministers of its most important safeguards last week. The government has been promising to strengthen rights for renters since April 2019, when Theresa May announced that she would scrap the powers that allow landlords to evict their tenants with no reason.

This is reform that is urgently needed. The proportion of people living in the private rented sector has doubled in just two decades: in the late 1990s, around one in 10 people lived in privately rented housing; today it is more than one in five. As recently as 30 years ago, the private rented sector existed mainly as a transient tenure to provide accommodation for a few years before people got on the housing ladder. The vast majority of people either bought their own homes, or had long-term social housing tenancies. Today, there is a growing cohort of people who will never own their own homes for whom private renting is now a lifetime tenure.

The private rented sector is not regulated in a way that recognises this. The UK has some of the highest rents in Europe; but it is not just the expense. It is the fact that so much of the private rented sector is of terrible quality: a quarter of these homes do not meet basic standards, compared with 12% of social housing. There is a profound lack of security which means that landlords can turf out tenants with little notice through no-fault evictions, or significantly jack up the rent.

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The expense and lack of security create a new class of social problems: young families with children who have no housing security and may find themselves forced to move in the middle of the school year, but with no affordable options close to their family and their child’s school. There is now a cohort of private renters who will reach retirement and will simply be unable to cover their rent. Four in 10 renters in the past year said they were forced into an unwanted move, at an average cost of £669 per household.

This is a class issue: wealthier families can cushion their children from these effects by helping them to buy their own homes, while opportunities for those in less affluent families are severely curtailed by the state of the housing market. And it is those lucky enough to act as private landlords themselves who gain the most from this state of affairs; absurdly light-touch regulation paves the way for escalating rents.

May’s proposals – spearheaded in recent years by Michael Gove as housing and communities secretary – are by no means perfect; they could go further. But they would have included important new protections for renters that would have acted as a brake on increasing rents and provided greater security; most notably, by scrapping no-fault evictions. Last week, the government significantly watered this down in the renters (reform) bill as it received its third reading in the Commons; it amended the bill to require the lord chancellor to undertake a review of how this would affect the courts before setting a date for scrapping no-fault evictions. This is a delaying tactic that has been lobbied for by landlords. The protection period for new tenants during which a landlord cannot evict them on the grounds they want to sell up or move into the property has also been reduced from two years in the original government consultation to just six months.

It is fundamentally wrong that the government has decided to side with landlords over tenants; and a sign of how weak Sunak is that he has given in to the lobbying from his own backbenches. There are countless other examples of the government pursuing policies that are doomed to fail in the name of electioneering: the National Audit Office last week published a damning report that concluded there are significant uncertainties about whether its plans to expand the free childcare offer will be possible due to a lack of capacity in the sector. Every day Sunak delays going to the polls is another day that the challenges facing Britain go unaddressed. He should pay heed to his former colleague, and call a general election immediately.

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