Karen Buck (Westminster North, Labour)
Exactly. I entirely understand his predicament.
We all know from official figures that the pressures of homelessness are rising, and sharply. Homelessness, along with unemployment, is one of the most devastating events that can happen in a person’s life, and I want to talk for a minute or two about its definition. It is important to stress that it is not, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sought to justify on the “Today” programme, a predicament that simply involves having children sharing a bedroom. He told the programme in January:
“The homelessness definition…is in fact very misleading for the public. The public thinks that homelessness is about not having any accommodation; reasonable accommodation to go to. That’s not the definition. The definition inside Government and places like Shelter is that children have to share rooms. Now for most people who are working whose children share rooms they would find that a strange definition.”
That definition is simply wrong. It is simply and profoundly misleading, and it is important that this House corrects that misapprehension. Homelessness has, in fact, a very strict and clear legal meaning, and it is interpreted as such by the courts and local authorities alike every day and can be seen in some of the judgments and statistics on intentional homelessness.
I would very much like the Minister, when he arrives, to respond to this interesting point: the variation in local authorities’ performance regarding accepting homelessness applications is striking. Figures for boroughs such as mine show that about 40% of people who apply as homeless are accepted. Westminster city council is in a tri-borough arrangement with Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, and last year Westminster accepted an average of about 40% of all homelessness applications, whereas the figure from Hammersmith and Fulham that I have just seen is only 6.5%. That is truly extraordinary, and it is for the Department and the Minister to explain how it is that there can be such variation in performance. Although it is absolutely beyond dispute—it has always been the case—that homelessness applications can be found to be incorrect in law, because people are satisfactorily housed or at a wrong stage in the process and it is therefore right that a local authority finds against them, many applications are refused on technical or incorrect grounds. Above all, the nature of
the applications should be roughly consistent between local authorities, and certainly within a region—in London, say. There is no reason for such variation in performance between local authorities.
The public perception, as fuelled by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, would be that people made applications simply because their children were forced to share a bedroom. In fact, on the day of that “Today” programme, the press asked the Prime Minister whether he considered, according to the Secretary of State’s definition, his children to be homeless because they shared a bedroom. However, if that were so, people in cases such as the one I am about to outline would not be found to be intentionally homeless.
I shall read into the record from a letter from the charity Action for Children in support of a case that we have recently dealt with in my office:
“C was referred by his school to have a mentor because his mother is seriously unwell and he has significant behavioural difficulties. She is partially disabled down one side of her body and she lost her speech following a large stroke in May 2011. She suffered another stroke last month because of the stress of being made homeless. Ms A is being supported by her family to meet the needs of her medical condition, which includes someone to be with her for 24 hrs a day. In February the family were evicted from the house they were living in in North Paddington and put in temporary accommodation”—
elsewhere in the borough. Following that, Action for Children started to become involved. The letter continues:
“Since this time I have referred C to an Educational Psychologist and to Children’s Social Care…I informed both social workers who were allocated to the case about the gravity of the situation…In April the family were given notice to move out of the hotel they had been placed in. The social work manager also told me that they were referring the case back to Adult Social Services as they should be supporting the family. In addition the cap on housing benefits will make it”
impossible for them
“to find a suitable property in Westminster.”
Following their eviction from the hotel, the family were found to be intentionally homeless because the mother had moved, briefly, out of the borough that had been her lifelong home into a relationship, which broke down. The family ended up
“sleeping on the floor of the sister’s, wherever they can find space. Their clothes and belongings are spread all over and the situation is not suitable for the family’s wellbeing at all.
This family need a place to live near to their wider family. C has witnessed his mother go from a healthy adult to a disabled parent who he now has to help care for. He has extreme behavioural problems at school, for example he has recently banged a child’s head on a concrete wall and is also becoming really obsessive. His school and I have made a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service…all of these services need to continue. Being moved out of the borough will mean the cancellation of all of these services. He will be thrown into a totally new school and situation, where it will take months to get these services in place again and…to build positive working relationships.
Ms A needs someone to be with her 24 hrs a day and help with child care. It is therefore important for her to remain close enough for her family to care for her. They are doing this at no cost to the state. If Ms A and her family are moved to a borough that is too far for her family to support her, as now seems likely, that borough will have to provide 24 hr care and…support for the children as well.”
The family were found to be intentionally homeless. Despite all those circumstances and all those traumas, they were unable to persuade the local authority that it had a duty to care for them. Also, because of the new
housing benefit cap they are unable to afford a home in the private rented sector large enough to enable them to stay near the grandmother and the rest of the family who provide informal support, so the entire family has now been moved into a one-bedroomed flat, in an attempt to find a property within the housing benefit cap, despite the fact that the school and the agencies involved are concerned that it is a wholly inappropriate form of accommodation.
I have explained that case at some length because it seems that before we even get into homelessness and what is happening with the rise in accepted cases and local authorities’ responses, we need a clear understanding that the majority of people who make applications and do not even get through the narrow gateway are not people whose children are sharing a bedroom, whether in Downing street or elsewhere. They are frequently highly traumatised, highly vulnerable and highly damaged families.