Part of Domestic Abuse Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 8th February 2021.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I come first to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. He explained that Amendment 146A seeks to amend Clause 71 to allow those who are not experiencing domestic abuse themselves, but are in the same household as someone who is, to be given priority need status. I share his ambition to make sure that all victims of domestic abuse and their household are supported by ensuring that they have access to a suitable offer of safe and secure accommodation. I agree that it is vital that domestic abuse victims who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, are supported to find an accommodation solution that is safe, meets their needs and reflects their individual circumstances. We think that this amendment is unnecessary because, when an applicant has priority need, the Housing Act 1996 already requires local authorities to provide accommodation that is available for occupation and is suitable for the whole household.
We see several risks with this amendment. We know that victims of domestic abuse may be vulnerable and at risk of being exploited, manipulated and controlled by those in their lives, including family members, the perpetrator or a new partner who may also be abusive. Allowing someone else in the victim’s household to be in priority need would mean that that person, not the victim, would be the primary contact with the local authority. They would receive all correspondence and the offer of accommodation would be in their name. For this reason, it is important that the victim of domestic abuse alone has the priority need for accommodation, guaranteeing the victim control of the application and the rights to secure the accommodation as it will be in their name. I recognise and share my noble friend’s intention to ensure that all victims are able to access accommodation, and that the process of making an application for homelessness assistance should not be a barrier to accessing support. However, for the reasons that I have set out, I disagree with him on how best to achieve that intended outcome.
I agree that it is vital that domestic abuse victims can be supported to make a homelessness application. That is why the Government have made clear in the published draft Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities that they should be flexible in their approach to taking homelessness application from victims, by enabling victims to be supported in making that application by a family member, friend or support worker if they wish to be. The guidance also reinforces that local authorities should facilitate interviews by phone or online, where this is most appropriate for the victim, and make sure that translation services are available. Lastly, the guidance highlights that local authorities, where appropriate, should accept referrals from concerned parties, allowing someone else to make the initial approach on behalf of the victim, provided that they have the victim’s consent and the application can be safely verified with the victim. In short, we believe that there is already provision in place to achieve the outcomes sought by my noble friend in his Amendment 146A.
Amendment 147 in the name of my noble friend Lord Randall seeks to amend the Housing Act 1996 to give victims of domestic abuse a local connection to all local authorities in England when seeking homelessness assistance under Part 7 of that Act. The existing legislation and guidance on this matter is clear that a housing authority cannot refer an applicant to another housing authority where they have a local connection if they or anyone who might be reasonably expected to reside them would be at risk of domestic abuse in that area. The Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities makes clear that a housing authority is under a positive duty to inquire where the applicant would be at risk of actual or threatened domestic violence. It stipulates that authorities should not impose a higher standard of proof of actual violence in the past when making their decision. If an applicant is at risk, they can present at another local authority.
As such, protections are already in place for victims of domestic abuse that ensure they are not housed in a local authority area where there is any risk of violence or abuse. The local connection test seeks to keep a degree of fairness to ensure that those who live locally are prioritised and that no one authority gets oversubscribed. The current provisions in place under Section 198 of the 1996 Act strike the right balance to support victims.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, talked about when women often flee to other local authorities, and the situation with social housing need. They are absolutely right that many victims of domestic abuse are forced to flee their homes to seek that safety and support in a refuge or other form of temporary accommodation. It is often in another local authority area because, of course, why would you stay where you were in danger? In November 2018, the Government issued statutory guidance for local authorities to improve access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse who are in refuges or other forms of safe temporary accommodation. The guidance here makes absolutely clear that local authorities are expected not to apply the residency test for victims who have fled to another district. I hope, with the points I have made, that my noble friend would be content to withdraw his amendment.