Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:02 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 6:02 pm, 29th June 2021

Between April 2019 and March 2020, councils in England spent almost £1.2 billion providing temporary accommodation for homeless families. There has been a staggering 55% increase in the past five years. Temporary accommodation is now big business: 87% of that taxpayer funding went to private landlords, letting agents and companies, and every single penny was badly spent. It went to places such as Connect House in my constituency —a converted warehouse in the middle of one of south London’s busiest industrial estates, which housed 86 homeless families at an astronomical cost of up to £40 per night for squalor.

In 2010, there were 50,400 households in temporary accommodation. Fast forward through 11 years of Conservative government, and that number has almost doubled, and it now includes almost 60,000 children. For families stuck in that so-called temporary limbo, the only thing that appears temporary is the revolving door of Housing Ministers who fail to bring the rocketing number down.

This taxpayer-funded industry is completely unregulated. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to four examples that emphasise the regularity with which temporary accommodation law is broken. First, the law states that families with children must not be housed in B&Bs for longer than the six-week legal limit. Why, then, will 490 families with children spend this evening in a B&B where they have already been for longer than six weeks?

Secondly, on out-of-borough accommodation, the homelessness code of guidance makes it clear that local authorities must secure accommodation within their own borough,

“in so far as is reasonably practicable”.

It seems a fairly obvious requirement to ensure that parents can still go to work and children to their school, and that any local support and healthcare can be retained. Why, then, are 28% of households—a proportion that has doubled in the past decade—moved away from their home borough? Ross Kemp’s ITV investigation found that homeless families travel approximately 400,000 miles each year to get to their temporary accommodation. That is 16 times round the globe—hardly so far as is reasonably practical.

Thirdly, when households are moved out to different boroughs, the receiving local authority must legally be informed of their arrival. That same Ross Kemp investigation discovered that 60 councils—and, I suspect, even more—are failing to notify the receiving council.

Fourthly, any authority must, by law, ensure that any accommodation is fit for human habitation, but when I highlighted the appalling conditions at Connect House to Bromley Council, it confirmed,

“we do not currently visit and screen each individual property that we use as temporary accommodation. I’m afraid the scale of the numbers involved means this has proven not to be possible.”

How on earth can the accommodation be deemed safe and suitable if it has not been checked in the first place?

I say to the Minister that the law on temporary accommodation is broken—constantly. Everywhere. That is why I am calling for a regulator—an Ofsted, if you like, for temporary accommodation. We need an authority that will proactively enforce the law and rules that are already in place, because we know that services respond when they know that somebody is watching. I am under no illusion that this would build a single new social house for all those families who so desperately need one, but I believe that the widespread failings that a regulator would identify would encourage adequate funding and support from the Government and ensure better practice from local authorities, to make sure that the law that currently exists for taxpayer-funded temporary accommodation is finally upheld.