Housing and Homelessness (Local Accommodation Duty)

– in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 8th March 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 5:18 pm, 8th March 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a duty on local authorities to ensure that persons for whom a homeless duty has been accepted are accommodated in the local area, including on discharge into private rented accommodation;
to require local authorities to publish annual reports on steps relating to housing demand and supply taken or intended to be taken to meet that duty;
and for connected purposes.

Listen to anyone who has been through the experience of homelessness and it will become clear that losing your home is one of the most traumatising things that can happen. Yet homelessness is a reality for tens of thousands of people every year, and over the past 30 years, since the repossessions crisis that followed the 1990 recession, successive waves of families and individuals have had to live through it, and they have done so in the context of a shrinking supply of stable, affordable social housing to meet need. That shrinking of supply and the ratcheting down of support for housing costs as rents have risen have both caused homelessness and made it increasingly difficult for many councils to meet their local needs.

Housing legislation requires all local housing authorities to secure accommodation in their own district, as far as reasonably practical. In response to a debate in my name last December, the then Housing Minister said:

“We are clear that local authorities should, as far as possible, avoid placing households out of their boroughs...that should really be a last resort.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2020; Vol. 685, c. 183WH.]

Yet that is clearly and obviously not the case and not adhered to in practice. My own borough of Westminster routinely accommodates homeless families out of borough: 55% of the 2,217 homeless households from Westminster were out of borough last year, up on the year before. The council has now also stated its intention to further cut costs by discharging homelessness duty into the private rented sector for 500 more households.

London as a whole is the worst affected region in the country. There were 16.7 households per 1,000 in London living in temporary accommodation last year, compared with just 1.8 per 1,000 households in the rest of England. In the last full year to 2020, 19,727 of those homeless households were found out-of-area housing in London, which is 56.8%, while a quarter—25%—were not even in their sub-region and 2,559 were placed outside London.

Even across the country as a whole, a quarter of homeless households are accommodated out of area, because councils cannot find suitable properties for them. This is not, of course, to denigrate the places where disproportionate numbers of homeless households end up—quite the reverse. It is to point out the manifest unfairness of requiring some of the poorest and most stressed boroughs to take an ever larger share of homeless households from other places, increasing pressure on their housing stock and other services. As we know, it also leads to the use of substandard properties thrown up under permitted development rules in places such as Harlow, Merton and Croydon.

However, most of all, this is about the impact on homeless people themselves. It is the tearing up of local connections—not infrequently, lifelong—that are cast aside when they are most needed at a time of crisis. Uprooted families and vulnerable adults are removed from friends and family, support networks and communities, schools, work, and caring responsibilities that they themselves undertake. Parents are often desperate to keep their children in the same school to maintain what little continuity they can in lives marked by disruption. Forced mobility and upheaval have terrible outcomes for physical and mental health and educational achievement.

These are the stories of some of the families affected. One constituent said:

“My 6 year old, who has been through so much trauma from repeated changes…has to do a 4 hours a day bus journey back and forth to attend her current school. She often eats breakfast on the bus and does homework on the way back and most of the time she falls asleep”.

Another said:

“I have a child who attends a school in Westminster and who has been through a tough few years as have we all as a family. Her brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour and sadly passed away. My daughter has gone through and endured things I wouldn’t have wished for her to have faced at her age or any other child but we were still sent to a temporary property on the other side of London. My housing officer advised there was ‘no other option and I would advise you to accept as if you don’t you could be taken off the housing register’. I told her I just wanted anything so I didn’t need to commute for 1.5 hours every morning and ever afternoon and that school was one of only consistent things that has kept my daughter happy &
well. I was born in Westminster, I’ve always been a resident and paid my dues and taxes and voted. I feel like I’ve been treated extremely unfairly and I feel sick to my stomach to the point I’ve been so stressed I’m not sleeping. I’ve been getting migraines, it’s just non-stop stress…and I feel like I have no rights.”

Another said:

“I am a 19 year old…who is registered blind and am going through daily stress and anxiety. My case worker had said” she is unable to find anywhere to live in Westminster

“despite showing her all my records and how I have been living there all my life, knowing the area well and how to get around. They put me first up in North West London, but are now offering me” east London,

“even further than where I am now. I am completely unfamiliar with the area. I’m very frightened from places I’m unfamiliar with as I can’t get around... The council told me if I do not accept it they will end my contract for where I am now.”

Another said:

“I have lived, studied and worked in Westminster all my life. I lived with my elderly father and looked after him, but we were too overcrowded. Thankfully, after being classified as statutorily overcrowded, the council accepted my family as being effectively homeless. However, notwithstanding our pleading and objections, we were moved away from my elderly father and placed in temporary accommodation in east London. I cannot begin to describe the negative impact this has had on myself, my wife and my family, but more importantly on my father. He effectively, overnight, lost his family and the people who helped and cared for him on a daily basis. I find it sad and frustrating that the Council are prepared to separate an old man from his family. For more than two years we have continued to travel back and forth every day from what should have been short term accommodation, in order to cook, clean and care for my father. However, this is expensive, time consuming and taking a toll on our health, marriage and on our children.”

Finally, there is a letter from a mental health worker about a family who were moved first to east London for eight months and then to another flat in outer west London for two and a half years. The parents made the choice not to move their children to another school because at the time three of them were taking their exams. One child, I am told, started to lose her hair from anxiety when they became homeless. The youngest are extremely anxious and stressed; one has problems with eating and is having panic attacks. The mother has had cognitive behavioural therapy in the past and tries to give her children the tools to cope, but her own mental health condition is deteriorating.

As I have said, successive Ministers have stressed that out-of-borough placements should be the exception rather than the rule. There have been landmark legal cases, but nothing has changed. Temporary homeless accommodation is expensive and too large a share of the cost is put on councils—£189 million for London councils alone. The truth is that councils are between a rock and a hard place. The shrinking stock of social housing and social security cuts, from reductions in local housing allowance to the benefit cap, make it impossible to do what successive Ministers say should happen, leaving cases to be tested against the law one by one. All too often, the families affected are failed. It is no good offering platitudes in the full knowledge that the system is broken. Local connections must be maintained and councils enabled to meet those needs in line with Government commitments.

The Bill strengthens the protection that is now honoured increasingly in the breach and, in doing so, reduces the harm being done to tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Thank you, Karen. I do not know whether you know that you were on audio link rather than video link, but we heard you loud and clear. I have been given no indication that anybody intends to oppose the 10-minute rule Bill and I see nobody rising, so I intend to put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ms Karen Buck, Robert Halfon, Bob Blackman, Fleur Anderson, Ms Lyn Brown, Siobhain McDonagh, Dawn Butler, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Feryal Clark and Dame Margaret Hodge present the Bill.

Ms Karen Buck accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 266).