I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The private Member’s Bill process, and the ballot at the start of every Session of Parliament, gives all of us the opportunity to apply to champion a cause that we believe will make a real difference to society. Whenever I have been asked about my proudest moment as the Member of Parliament for Harrow East, I have always answered that it was my previous private Member’s Bill, which became the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I hope that very soon I will be able to refresh my answer to incorporate the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill. When I was drawn at No. 2 in the 2016 private Member’s Bill ballot, I thought my luck had concluded. Members can imagine my surprise, therefore, when earlier this year my phone blew up again with every charity and good cause trying to get through to champion their proposals. I knew that I had to draft a Bill that would develop the attainments of the Homelessness Reduction Act and simultaneously make a positive difference to vulnerable people’s lives.
The HRA focused on preventing people from becoming homeless and introduced the most comprehensive changes to the rights of homeless people in England for over 39 years. Fundamentally, its purpose is to ensure that everyone who is at risk of homelessness or is currently homeless is legally entitled to meaningful help from their local authority, regardless of their current status. Previously, only those who were deemed in priority need and at crisis point had been entitled to assistance from local authorities; this excluded the majority of people, including almost all of those who were single.
The Act also addressed the significant lack of meaningful advice and assistance. More often than not—in the majority of cases—the advice and assistance provided was not tailored to the individual’s needs and requirements. The Act implemented a duty on public bodies to refer to the housing department any person they believe to be at risk of homelessness within 56 days. That has helped to direct appropriate and efficient support and resources to those in need, and to prevent them before it is too late from having to sleep rough. That 56-day deadline marks a significant extension: previously, only those at risk of homelessness in the following 28 days would potentially receive some guidance. The extension to 56 days has meant that people have a longer opportunity to relieve their situation.
I am pleased to say that in its first year of operation the Homelessness Reduction Act prevented 37,000 people from becoming homeless, and continues to be just as effective today, some six years later. In the first year, an additional 60,000 people who were previously ineligible for homelessness support were assisted in getting off the streets and into appropriate accommodation. That was a rise of almost 50% on the assistance prior to the Act’s implementation. As a side note, the Bill was notable for being the longest private Member’s Bill in history, at 13 clauses in length. In keeping with tradition, I can confirm that the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill with supersede that, at 14 clauses long.
Needless to say, I have put a lot of pressure on making my second private Member’s Bill a highly impactful and instrumental piece of legislation. I have maintained an active and invested interest in the housing and homelessness sector, chairing the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, along with Florence Eshalomi, and having sat on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee—in its various forms—since 2010. It is therefore fitting that, having previously focused on preventing homelessness, I should focus on supporting those coming out of homelessness and going into supported accommodation. This Bill on social housing therefore became a reality as a natural extension of my previous Bill.
I have been made aware via our recent Select Committee investigation and report, which I shall come on to a bit later, that there was almost no research into the area of exempt accommodation and supported housing, and that it was absolutely rife with rogue cowboys taking advantage and exploiting vulnerable people. The Bill presents a felicitous opportunity to ensure that the Government intervene before the situation becomes critical for the majority of local authorities up and down the country.
Once I was satisfied that my private Member’s Bill would reform the provision for exempted accommodation, I began looking into the research previously obtained by both public and private bodies. It quickly became abundantly clear that, with the exception of studies commissioned by Birmingham City Council, there was next to nothing in the way of research or records, certainly not at national level, which highlights the urgent need for central Government to recognise the issues and commission more findings.
I am pleased that the recently published Select Committee report makes a very constructive and prodigious start at addressing that, and I commend the work of the Committee Clerks and advisers involved in compiling the report, together with my colleagues on the Select Committee. The report, as always, was agreed unanimously. That brings me to its findings. I begin by urging Members to consider reading this rather excellent tome, “Exempt Accommodation”, which is available in the Vote Office and all other good bookshops, so that they may learn of the absolute horrors that we unearthed that are currently being imposed on extremely vulnerable people. Having been on the Committee for some 12 years, I can confidently say that this specific piece of work truly shocked and alarmed all members of the Committee. I would like to make it clear at this point that there are a huge number of excellent organisations up and down the country that provide brilliant help for vulnerable people. Although we came across many good providers, the worst instances in the system urgently need addressing.
We came across the situation in Birmingham—I see at least one Member from Birmingham here today, Shabana Mahmood—whereby speculators buy two or three-bedroom houses for about £200,000; under permitted development rights, they expand by building to the sides, to the back and to the top of the house to the absolute maximum without requiring planning permission; they provide one small bathroom and one kitchen area, and create an eight-bedroom property from a two or three-bedroom bedroom; and they then charge an absolute fortune in rent, which is picked up by the public purse.
Worse still, the primary concern that arose was the abysmal level of care being categorised as “appropriate support”. The residents referred to such institutions are critically vulnerable, but have the potential to and are trying to rebuild their lives, including by embarking on the property market, despite at present not being entirely independent. They could be prison leavers, survivors of domestic abuse, those suffering from mental health conditions, previous rough sleepers, people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse—the list goes on. We know that these people might often share one thing in common, which is the need for support in rebuilding their lives, but it is regrettable that in many cases such people are lumped together in the same premises. I find it repugnant that a survivor of domestic abuse might be housed with a drug abuser as well as with a prison leaver who may have been convicted of sexual offences against women. In reality, there is no control over that whatsoever, and local authorities cannot control what happens.