Part of Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 8th February 2021.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Naseby for their support for Amendment 146A in my name.
I welcome Clause 71, which builds on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, piloted through the other place by Bob Blackman and through this House by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in providing a better deal for those confronted with being homeless. As the Explanatory Notes say, the clause gives those who are eligible and are homeless as a result of fleeing domestic abuse priority-need status for accommodation provided by the local authority. Crucially, it removes the need for the person who is homeless as a result of domestic abuse from having to fulfil the vulnerability test of the 1996 Housing Act.
This change is needed because of examples such as that of Danielle, who was made homeless when her relationship ended, after a neighbour called the police following a two-day beating. Despite visible bruising and a letter from her partner admitting abuse, she was told by the council that she needed to provide further evidence of her vulnerability and that she was not a priority. She ended up homeless, sofa surfing for two years. Hopefully, the clause will mean that there are no more cases like Danielle’s.
Access to suitable housing is often the critical barrier to survivors fleeing domestic abuse. Inexcusably, some victims are forced to choose between returning to live with a perpetrator—a dangerous or potentially life-endangering situation—or facing homelessness because they cannot access housing. That is why I, along with many of my parliamentary colleagues and organisations across the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors, including Crisis, Women’s Aid, Refuge, St Mungo’s and many others, supported the “A Safe Home” campaign of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, which urged the Government to extend automatic priority-need status for housing to survivors of domestic abuse through an amendment to this Bill. In May 2020, the Government listened to the expertise derived from the work of the group and amended the Bill, which I welcome.
However, the detail of that amendment as currently drafted concerns those same organisations, as the Government’s amendment on priority need fails to entirely protect survivors of domestic abuse. Critically, as it stands, the Bill does not give a legal assurance to allow anyone else in the household to apply for homelessness assistance on a victim’s behalf. This is only stated in guidance, which falls short of a legal guarantee and means that some victims are likely to fall through the gaps between the different practices of different local authorities. Although the circumstances may be rare in which this additional provision is necessary, they can occur. For example, an adult child living with the abused and the abuser may be able to help the victim by filling out the forms and formally making the application, particularly where the victim does not speak English or has difficulty with form filling. This situation could occur in a multigenerational household, perhaps in a BAME community.
It is clear from front-line services supporting survivors that it is not always safe for survivors of abuse to make the application for homelessness assistance themselves. This could be, for example, because it too dangerous for them to leave their home until they know that they have somewhere safe to flee to. It might also be the case that they are unable to attend in person because they are receiving hospital treatment as a result of the abuse that they have experienced.
Furthermore, this is not the case in other areas of homelessness legislation. For example, Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 allows for another member of a household to make the application for housing assistance, such as when a woman is pregnant or when an individual is vulnerable through old age or physical disability. The Government have argued that the requirement for survivors to personally make an application is to stop further abuse from a perpetrator. However, experts in the domestic abuse and homelessness sectors firmly disagree. In response to a possible objection, I understand that there is no known case where the individual for whom the application has been made has come forward to say that they did not support it.
I support the call of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, which is also supported by Women’s Aid, for survivors in England to have the same support and legal protections as survivors throughout the rest of the UK and for the Government to address this anomaly or gap in the Bill. This change would not result in additional significant burdens on local authorities but would have a significant impact on survivors of domestic abuse, giving them an absolute, clear and guaranteed right to housing when they need it most. Given that we know that survivors are most at risk of homicide when they flee a perpetrator, it is vital that the Government look again at priority need and provide vulnerable survivors with a legal assurance of a clear, safe route out of abusive and life-threatening situations. This change will provide a vital safeguarding mechanism and a powerful lifeline for those in need. I beg to move.