Private tenants are among the most vulnerable to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, so why are they getting such minimal protection when compared to mortgage-holders?
One reason is that we have a system in Britain which amounts to government by landlord, with around a quarter of all ministers – including Boris Johnson – collecting rent. These ministers themselves answer to a parliament where around a fifth of MPs are landlords.
It’s not possible to be completely precise about how many landlords there are in the UK: you need a licence to own a TV or drive a car, but there is no UK-wide scheme to licence landlords, which means no official tally.
However, the latest figures from the Inland Revenue show around 2.7 million people get income from property, suggesting roughly 5%, or one in 20 adults are landlords. That’s a large and growing figure, but even so landlords are enormously over-represented in Westminster. Five times as many ministers and four times as many MPs are landlords as the general population.
MPs must reveal if they collect more than £10,000 per year in rent. I checked the records of all 650 MPs in the current parliament and found 110 MPs (17%) are landlords. In most cases this means renting out houses and flats. Some MPs also collecting rent from farms, shops and other commercial premises.
The over-representation of landlords is more intense among Conservative MPs: 87 out of 365 Tory MPs (24%) are landlords. 45 of those Tory MPs (15%), including Boris Johnson, rent out more than one property. This puts the Tories in a league of their own.
For the other parties, 2 of 11 Lib Dem MPs (18%), 4 of 47 SNP MPs (9%) and 17 of 202 Labour MPs (8%) are landlords. But let’s be clear: MPs of all parties are still more likely to be landlords than the electorate.
Worryingly, perhaps, given the party’s recent position on rent write-offs, 9 of the 17 Labour MPs who are landlords now have seats in the Shadow Cabinet.
As is the case in general, the Tory government itself is even more landlord-heavy. Boris Johnson gets a 50% share of the rent from one London “residential property.” The Prime Minister also collects rent from his 20% share of a house in Somerset.
He listed this interest on the MPs’ register a year late, causing the Commons Standards Committee to criticise him for “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the house” last April.
The Landlord Cabinet
Johnson is far from alone as a landlord-minister.
Health Minister Jo Churchill and her husband rent out a house in Newark and one house and three flats in Grantham. Foreign Office Minister Nigel Adams and his wife rent out two residential properties in York, one in Leeds, and a mixed “commercial and residential property” in Selby.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow collects rent from two houses in Somerset (one jointly owned by her sister) along with shares of rent from a commercial building, and one common but ambiguous description in filings: “agricultural land.”
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack is a landlord with two cottages who also owns agricultural land and a salmon fishery in Dumfries and Galloway. Justice Minister Alex Chalk gets rent money from a flat in Shepherd’s Bush and a third share of rent from a Gloucester cottage and a French flat.
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi collects rent from a “residential property” as well as land in Warwickshire and a house in London. Until January 2020 he also got rent from three London buy-to-let flats.
Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin has procured for himself a London flat, and two “residential properties” in Buckinghamshire and Pembrokeshire, all of which are rented out. Education Minister Gillian Keegan and her husband are landlords of a flat in London and a vivienda in Madrid.
Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg rents out a London residential property and a farmhouse, farm buildings and land in Somerset. Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins and Justice Minister Lucy Fraser both rent out London houses as well.
Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace , Attorney General Suella Braverman, Media Minister John Whittingdale each rent out a London Flat.
Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly and his wife are landlords of a Lewisham house. Children’s Minister Vicky Ford and her husband are landlords of a house in Cambridgeshire.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and his wife rent out a house in Essex. Environment Secretary George Eustice and Treasury Minister John Glen both rented out flats in London until they stopped being landlords in 2019.
The title of this article, government by landlord, is no exaggeration.
Cat and Mouse Game
It is, of course, conceivable that a government comprised of landlords would act against its own interests and set favourable policies for tenants. But it would be acting against its interests – and in the coronavirus crisis, as in the housing crisis that preceded it, this one shows no signs of doing so.
Even before the pandemic, half of all renters were only one paycheck away from losing their homes – with no savings to fall back on. While landlords spent just 19% of their income on mortgages, private renters gave on average 46% of theirs to their landlord when Housing Benefit was excluded.
The situation has likely gotten worse since March – renters are 40% more likely to be in workplaces shut down by the crisis. And the end of the moratorium on evictions is now only weeks away, yet the government has announced no extension.
In his famous 1944 speech known as ‘Mouseland,’ Canadian politician Tommy Douglas talked about a world where mice would go to the polls every four years to elect a government of big black cats. When they introduced policies that suited cats and not mice, the mice elected white cats instead. But that did little good.
“You see, my friends,” he told his audience, “the trouble wasn’t with the colour of the cats, the trouble was that they were cats. And because they were cats they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.
“Presently, there came along one little mouse who had an idea. He said to the other mice, ‘look fellas, why do we keep on electing a government made up of cats? Why don’t we elect a government made up of mice?’
“Oh, they said, he’s a Bolshevik! Lock him up!”
Parliament’s Top Landlords
MPs must register any rent above £10,000 per year, but don’t have to say how much they collect. They do have to say how many properties they rent out. By that measure parliament’s top landlords are:
- Paul Howell (Sedgefield, Conservative) with 16 properties, comprising nine houses in Darlington, five houses and two flats in Durham.
- Fiona Bruce (Congleton, Conservative) with 10 properties, comprising four residential and five commercial properties in Warrington and one commercial property in Knutsford.
- Nick Fletcher (Don Valley, Conservative) with 11 properties, comprising six houses, four flats and one commercial property in South Yorkshire.
- Robert Goodwill (Scarborough, Conservative) with 9 properties, comprising four houses in Teesside, a residential property in North Yorkshire, a flat in London, a farm and two industrial units in Yorkshire.
- Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey, Conservative) with 9 properties, comprising seven Southampton apartments and shares in both a holiday house in Italy and a London office building.
- Marco Longhi (Dudley North, Conservative) who rents out 9 houses in Walsall.