People who have fallen behind on rent payments during the pandemic are losing their homes in a matter of minutes, a new investigation can reveal.

Despite assertions last year that nobody should lose their home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, courts have resumed possession hearings for private and social tenants, pushing people towards what campaigners have called a "cliff edge" of evictions.

Led by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, journalists from The National participated in a far-reaching investigation over the summer, which collected data on more than 550 possession hearings in 29 courts across Wales and England.

Virtually no data is published from possession hearings and so little has been known of how the pandemic has affected people’s housing situation, until now.

We found that the pandemic had impacted significantly on people's ability to keep up with rent payments, with coronavirus cited as a relevant factor in one-third of all cases.

This included hearings in Newport, where defendants told judges they had fallen behind on payments after becoming unemployed during the pandemic, or that they had to take time off work because the public health crisis had exacerbated their mental health conditions.

Possession hearings in Wales and England were paused last year, with the consensus at the time being that with the turmoil of the pandemic, it wasn’t right that people should be evicted from their homes.

But those courts are back open, and our investigation with the Bureau found that across the 29 courts, it took on average just 10 minutes for a judge to order an eviction. In around a third of cases it took five minutes or less for a possession order to be made.

The devolution settlement here means some care must be exercised when interpreting the investigation's findings: most of the courts attended were in England, and while justice is not devolved to Wales, responsibility for housing is - and the government here brought in its own measures and policies during the height of the pandemic, such as the Tenancy Hardship Grant for people who are falling behind on payments.

Commenting on the findings of the investigation, a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Here in Wales, we have made significant additional help available for tenants, including additional funding for Discretionary Housing Payments and grants to clear Covid-related rent arrears. This support goes far beyond any support [the] UK government has provided."

Evictions were banned in Wales – and in England – for much of the pandemic, unless they were on grounds of antisocial behaviour or domestic violence. The move was hailed by charities as having "saved lives" by preventing homelessness, but when those bans came to an end before the summer, fears grew over a wave of evictions, with landlords expected to move against tenants who had fallen behind on their rent.

The Welsh Government said in May it would consider further measures to "strengthen support for tenants", and on Wednesday this week, Climate Change Minister Julie James (who is responsible for housing) announced an extension of the increased period of notice that landlords must give before a possession claim is made to the courts.

Until the end of 2021, tenants in Wales must continue to be given six months' notice by their landlords (again, except on grounds of antisocial behaviour or domestic violence).

James said the extension would "ensure that during a time when case numbers and hospitalisations are increasing and the virus remains a serious threat to public health, landlords will continue to give increased notice to tenants before they can issue proceedings for possession".

She added: "The effect will to be to delay evictions meaning that fewer people will face eviction into homelessness at a time when this might exacerbate the spread of the virus and when local authorities are less able to respond to these situations."

But for those people whose cases make it to the courts, the ongoing pandemic means uncertainty when it comes to finding another place to live: employment concerns, issues with benefits payments, and a lack of available housing were all mentioned in cases attended by The National.

Nick Ballard, from community campaign group ACORN, said the pressures facing many renters, including "unaffordable housing and poverty", existed long before the pandemic.

He told the Bureau that eviction bans were "kicking the can down the road" and politicians should have instead taken "action to reduce the scale of this crisis".

Ballard described the investigation's findings on the average time taken for possession orders to be made as "harrowing", adding: "It is unconscionable that people are losing their homes due to arrears accrued solely during a global pandemic."

The Welsh Government spokesperson said ministers were "committed to ensuring that everyone has a safe, secure place to call home", and that was why the government had "continued our protection for tenants by extending the eviction period".

But for further hardships to be avoided, they called on Westminster for support, adding: “We are again calling on the UK government to stop the cut to Universal Credit and make this £20-a-week raise permanent, we also continue to press the UK government to increase the Local Housing Allowance rates which limit the amount of housing related benefit households can receive.”

People in Wales who have fallen behind on rent due to coronavirus-related financial hardship can apply for the Tenency Hardship Grant scheme.

Applications are made through your local authority, but more information is available on the Welsh Government website.

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