Duty to assess all eligible applicants’ cases and agree a plan

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 30th November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 10:45 am, 30th November 2016

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 3, page 4, line 44, leave out from “particular” to the end of the paragraph and insert—

“(i) what accommodation would be suitable for the applicant and any persons with whom the applicant resides or might reasonably be expected to reside (“other relevant persons”);

(ii) the schooling arrangements for the children of the applicant and of the other relevant persons; and

(iii) caring provided to or by the applicant and the other relevant persons;

(iv) the location and natures of the employment of the applicant and the other relevant persons.”.

This amendment would ensure that the assessment of an applicant’s case takes account not only of suitable accommodation for the applicant and those residing with the applicant but also their schooling, caring and work arrangements.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 3, in clause 3, page 5, line 2, leave out “and”.

See amendment 4.

Amendment 4, in clause 3, page 5, line 5, at end insert—

“(d) what other support the applicant is or may be entitled to from any public authority under any other enactment.”.

These amendments would ensure that, when assessing a case, the local authority must consider any other duties which might be owed, whether by it or by another authority, for example a care-leaver who has applied as homeless may be owed additional obligations under the leaving care provisions of the Children Act 1989.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

We had a very good debate on clause 2. It is a long time since I heard the Minister say, “I’ve got the money and I am going to spend it.” What welcome words! I think that is what the Minister said—he is not correcting me, so we will say that is what the Minister said; we will see in due course how much the money actually is when agreement is reached, as it hopefully will be with the LGA.

There is a similarity between what I am going to say and the debate that we have just had on clause 2. Clause 2 details a whole range of responsibilities for local authorities in terms of the advice and support that they give to people who present themselves as homeless, irrespective of whether they are in priority need or not. In clause 3, we come to the personal plan and to the eventual offer that is likely to be made to individuals who are homeless.

We heard in evidence to the Select Committee that there were also problems in that regard. I probably want to tag the name Daisy-May to the amendment, because we heard from Daisy-May Hutson, a young, very intelligent, very determined lady. Her family had been made homeless and ended up in temporary accommodation for about a year. She not only gave evidence to the Select Committee, but made a video that was shown to Select Committee members about her experiences. The way in which the family were treated was pretty horrific. As they put it, the brusque letters that came saying no to this and that were really heart-wrenching for them.

One particular issue came to mind, which is why I decided to table the amendment. I say straight away that I want to see something in the Bill that deals with this issue, and if the Minister has a better way of doing it, I am open to hearing from him. The similarity with clause 2 is that requirements relating to what is suitable accommodation, particularly in terms of its location, are all contained in guidance. The Minister has armies of civil servants—hundreds of people—to advise and assist him with his responses and to help him to draw up amendments and alternative wording, so if he can look to them and come up with a better of way doing this, I will always be open to suggestion.

As a Back Bencher, I rely on the expert advice from people in the House—and it is expert advice; it is important to recognise that. The Clerk of the Committee helped me to draft the amendment and drafting advisers on the Select Committee helped us right throughout our process. People in the House of Commons Library also helped me to find the right words in the guidance. There is a lot about the suitability of accommodation and its location in the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012, which goes into detail about what authorities should be doing on suitability and location in respect of recognising people’s employment, caring responsibilities and education.

However, when Daisy-May gave evidence—indeed, this is in her film—we heard that the family were made an offer of accommodation, but that it was two hours away from her sister’s school. It was completely unsuitable and was just not a reasonable offer. Despite the fact that the family had provided a lot of evidence—medical and other supporting evidence—it was all pushed to one side. As they said, they got a letter and a form to send back with three lines to fill in to say why the accommodation was not suitable. That authority gave a token response, saying, “Here you are. This is the accommodation. If you don’t like, say in three lines why you don’t.” It was a completely inappropriate way to deal with the matter.

The difficulty is this: eventually the family got a different offer, but only because they threatened to take the case to court—I think they had the help of Shelter, but I may be mistaken in that respect.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

The hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I have probably got that right. I do not think the case actually got to court, but the threat of legal action being started meant that eventually a different offer was made. Not everybody can do that.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning this important point. I share his view that the video that Daisy-May Hudson presented to us in the Select Committee aptly deals with all these issues and should be viewed by every member of this Committee, so that they can see the issues that people face. I want to see provisions on that in the Bill, and I think the Minister might touch on that later.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I draw a parallel with clause 2, which will be on the face of the Bill—hopefully on the face of the Act—because the current guidance is not always observed; it is not as strong and does not give people as strong a right to the services that we think they ought to have. I am making the same point with the amendment. Currently, the suitability of the location is contained in the guidance. An authority should take account of it, but in the end it does not have to. Now, perhaps people can take a judicial review against the authority, but we should not be relying on applicants in very difficult circumstances to get appropriate advice and take a JR against the local authority to ensure that the will of this House is implemented.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South, would the hon. Gentleman release the video that he is talking about, or get permission to have it released, so that those of us who do not have the privilege or pleasure of being members of his Committee can have the benefit of seeing it as well?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I certainly will. The Select Committee saw it, and I believe that it was also sent to its members so that we could view it on our own computers. I think that there are licencing issues with the ownership, but I will certainly go back to the Clerk of the Committee to see whether it can also be released to members of this Committee. That is a very helpful point and I will try to achieve that.

The purpose of the amendment is to put on the face of the Bill the requirement to take account of those issues when drawing up the plan with a view to looking at what accommodation might be suitable. I entirely understand that it might not be possible in some parts of the country—particularly London. It might be that an authority has no suitable accommodation in-area and therefore, in the end, must go out of borough. That might be inevitable in some areas.

In other parts of the country, including mine in Sheffield, although there is a shortage of suitable accommodation and it is not always possible to have regard to all the factors when an allocation is eventually made, when considering a suitable offer authorities should at least have regard to where children are at school and where caring responsibilities are in place, either for or on behalf of the individuals who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. If people are in work, authorities should look at whether they can continue to get to their job and whether they will lose their job as a result of being found a house. Where possible, authorities should have regard to those things, but they do not always do so. I have had letters on behalf of constituents from my local authority saying, “We can’t really take account of those issues. It’s going to be one offer, and that’s it.” That is not acceptable. If it can be done, it should be done.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

Is the point of my hon. Friend’s amendment therefore to overcome the idea that when an offer is made the local authority has discharged its duty and can walk away from the problem?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Exactly. It is not always possible, and some people will become homeless in areas where there simply is not a local authority property of the right size available, and where one will not become available for some time. Of course that is the case, but in other areas a little more thought and effort by the local authority could achieve a much better offer to meet people’s needs according to the code of guidance.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. Does he agree that getting it right in all those cases will increase the sustainability and the likelihood of success in the new accommodation? If people are supported by their family networks, schools and employers and are able to maintain that, they have a greater prospect of having a successful, happy life.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

That is absolutely right. We must not find somebody family accommodation, only for them to lose their job. If a family is homeless or threatened with homelessness, that affects the whole family, and the young people in particular. If a young person who has already been through a traumatic experience is studying at school for their exams, and if their family goes through that trauma and they suddenly find that they have to move school at a crucial time and possibly travel for two hours to get to the new school, they might drop out. All those things add to their problems.

There might be other ways of doing this. It might be—I am sure the Minister has even better advice than we do—that the clause can be amended so that the local authority has to take account of the code of guidance when drawing up a plan to provide suitable accommodation for a family in priority need. I will await the Minister’s response, but we have to toughen up the clause. It is no use simply saying that the code of guidance is there; we have to do something to make sure that it is followed in practice when families are in real need and when they need a suitable offer in the right location, wherever that can be achieved.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester 11:00 am, 30th November 2016

I intend to speak only very briefly. I have great sympathy with the point being made in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East. We have all seen these situations, certainly in constituencies around London. My constituency is 50 or so miles outside London and my constituents regularly come to me for assistance because the council is putting them into temporary accommodation in Ipswich. Although it is only 20 miles away, that is a long way for people who do not drive: they are 20 miles away from their school, their place of work, their support network or their family. We know the considerable burden that places on those who are in very vulnerable situations and are going through a crisis.

However, I have some concerns about the enforceability of what the hon. Gentleman proposes, partly because the requirement already exists in article 2 of the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012. In my view, the solution is not duplication of existing secondary legislation, but the Government ensuring that that legislation is given more teeth and enforceability. As well-meaning as the amendment is, my fear is that it will not achieve anything, because the existing legislation already ensures that local authorities have to take into consideration the suitability of accommodation for the applicant and issues such as schools, caring requirements and work arrangements. Subject to the Minister’s approval, the obvious answer is for the Government to take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns away and look at how to ensure that the existing legislation, which already requires local authorities to do what he asks, is given teeth and enforceability.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

Before I speak to the amendments in my name, may I briefly express my support for the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East? I am surprised that Government Members are not prepared to support it; I ask the Bill’s promoter to encourage his colleagues to do so. Although the hon. Member for Colchester is absolutely right that there is case law and guidance on locality, it is fair to say that it is often more honoured in the breach than in the observance. The consequence is a lot of unnecessary litigation, where advice and lawyers are available to assist with it, and a lot of work. My office spends a huge amount of time on this issue, trying to persuade local authorities not to move people out of the area or to bring them back after they have been moved, when it has proved impossible for the family to continue to live as they did before.

I had a case in my surgery this week in which a family with three children were living in temporary accommodation that was so poor, with damp and disrepair, that the local authority needed to move them somewhere else. There is nowhere available in the borough at the moment, so it is seeking to move them outside London. All the kids are in local schools. My view was that the family had been in temporary accommodation for 10 years in a variety of places, so surely the solution was to find them permanent accommodation. That just showed that I am not completely in touch with everything that goes on, because my senior caseworker said that it is not exceptional now for people to spend 10 years in temporary accommodation. That gives a little insight into the real problems that occur, particularly in London boroughs but elsewhere too. That point needs to be emphasised, so I strongly support what my hon. Friend said.

Let me deal briefly with the amendments standing in my name. I entirely accept that I am placing those additional burdens on local authorities that I warned against about an hour ago. That is why I am particularly keen to hear the Minister come forward with his bag of cash at the earliest opportunity. Nevertheless, if we are to legislate for the long term, we need to make clear what we expect housing authorities to do.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am delighted by the smile on his face as he presents his amendments. Does he not see that, as drafted, the obligation on local authorities is so wide that they would have to look across multiple different authorities in order to fulfil it? I think he notes that by his smile. Is this not just placing unreasonable burdens on our local authorities?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I will turn the point around and say that the objective of the Bill is either to pay lip service to a problem or it is designed to tackle a problem. When individuals in housing need, owed duties by the state, present themselves, they will receive advice and assistance. That point was made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee in relation to the list in clause 2. That is not an exhaustive list, though it could be quite onerous. We will later consider, under clause 10, the way that other public authorities should assist local authorities in discharging their duty, and that is the other side of the equation. I will not say anything more on that because I am conscious of the time. I will simply say that if we are going to look at the different approach that local authorities need to take, we should be as comprehensive as possible.

If I may be allowed two sentences, I think they will evolve neatly into talking on clause stand part. I am conscious that, as we will probably find in every clause, there are caveats from homelessness charities that the proposed legislation does not go far enough and caveats from local authorities that it places undue burdens. The AHAS does not see the need for a plan that it believes would be extremely onerous in the bureaucracy, the drawing up, the modifying and the review of that. Shelter would say that there is no statutory right to a review on the plan and that that itself should be reviewed. I think we have probably got it about right. There is a need for a plan. I do not accept what local authorities say on that point. I am conscious of the example that the LGA gave in relation to this. It used the example of Stoke-on-Trent Council, which believes that the administrative costs around prevention work will require four more homelessness officers at about £35,000 a year each, just in relation to dealing with those issues.

I will stop there, Mr Chope, by urging support for the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East. We are, a little bit, creating a wish list and talking in a vacuum until the Minister makes clear what resources he intends to provide.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

I wish to speak briefly in support of amendment 1, which arises directly from evidence we heard in the Communities and Local Government Committee, as the Chairman of that Committee has already said. It also speaks directly to the experiences of my constituents and some of the most devastating cases in my time as a Member of this House and, before that, as a local councillor.

As Members well know, homelessness is one of the most devastating circumstances that can befall someone in the UK today. In such challenging circumstances, people will often hang on to every little bit of stability that they can, in particular for their children. Which of us would not do that? My local authorities do everything possible to place people in borough when they have to provide families with temporary accommodation. When they place people outside the borough, they do everything they can to find accommodation in neighbouring boroughs, so people do not have to travel long distances.

The first of two cases that I particularly recall involved a family placed in temporary accommodation in Edmonton who were travelling with their children to primary school in Dulwich every day. That is a very long distance, by any stretch of the imagination. The train would have been the quickest way to make the journey, but they could not afford that, because they were a family facing homelessness. They had to leave their temporary accommodation in Edmonton at 5.30 every morning to travel with their children to my constituency for school, because they were part of a stable school community and knew that their children were receiving good support there.

More recently, a family living in temporary accommodation —a hostel in Dulwich—were travelling every day to Leytonstone with their daughter to attend primary school. Similarly, because they were a family in destitution and without any money, mum was sitting on a park bench in Leytonstone for the duration of the school day before collecting her daughter and travelling back to Dulwich. Such circumstances are devastating.

The other sets of circumstances covered by the amendment are, straightforwardly, invest-to-save provisions. I can recall countless constituents who have come to my surgeries to tell me that the local authority is suggesting that they move to accommodation further away, but they are fearful of what that would mean in terms of loss of support from their family and community networks. Furthermore, most often, they are constituents with mental health difficulties. As we know, and it seemed self-evident when I was talking to them, if they were forced to move from their support networks, their families and the people they rely on to maintain some stability in their lives, there would be additional costs. Not only would those individuals be much more likely to be forced into a crisis, but there would be additional costs to the NHS and to social services arising from people being moved away from their informal networks of support.

The final set of circumstances covered by the amendment involves people who are in employment. We all applaud anyone facing homelessness who manages to sustain their employment. That is a difficult enough thing to achieve in the best of circumstances, but if as a consequence of homelessness people are forced to move a long distance from their employment, so that they could not afford the travel costs or time, the burden would become unsustainable. That, too, would be a false economy. The state should be doing everything to ensure that, where possible, employment can be sustained.

For those reasons, I hope that the promoter and the Government will accept the amendment, because the matters that it covers are so important that they should be on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

On amendment 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East, local housing authorities must already have regard to the significance of any disruption that would be caused by the location of the accommodation to the employment, caring responsibilities or education of the person or members of the person’s household under article 2 of the Suitability of Accommodation (England) Order 2012. I therefore do not agree that an amendment to repeat that point is necessary.

To expand on that and to reassure the hon. Gentleman, local authorities must by law take account of the factors included in a suitability order. If an authority acts illegally, as he pointed out, households would have redress by review and on appeal. My Department intervened in a Supreme Court case on just this point to ensure that the order and the guidance are followed.

The order states:

“In determining whether accommodation is suitable for a person, the local…authority must take into account the location of the accommodation, including…where the accommodation is situated outside” that district,

“the distance of the accommodation from the district” of the housing authority, and

“the significance of any disruption which would be caused by the location of the accommodation to the employment, caring responsibilities or education of the person” or, as I said,

“the members of the person’s household”.

Local authorities must also take into account

“the proximity and accessibility of the accommodation to medical facilities and other support which…are currently used by or provided to” the household and are essential to their wellbeing or that of other members of their household.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 11:15 am, 30th November 2016

I hear the Minister, but the fact is that local authorities often do not do that. It is okay saying, “Well, there are reviews and we may eventually get to legal action,” but when a family is homeless and desperate for accommodation—they will probably be in temporary accommodation—that is not a great help.

Another problem is that the words “must” and “should” seem to be used interchangeably. The Minister said that local authorities must have regard to the guidance, and he used the word “must” with regard to medical facilities, but the word used in paragraph 53 of the supplementary guidance on the 2012 order is “should” not “must”. Is that not a problem? Could we at least look at toughening up that guidance by putting in a few more “must”s instead of the “should”s that are currently in it?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s points, certainly where local authorities are not complying with the 2012 order in the way that is intended. The existing power in section 210 of the Housing Act 1996 allows the Secretary of State to make an order—secondary legislation—to strengthen the definition of “suitability”. Such an order may specify the

“circumstances in which accommodation is or is not” suitable or

“matters to be taken into account or disregarded in determining whether” the accommodation is suitable.

We expect councils to adhere to both the 1996 Act and the 2012 order. As I say, that Act gives us significant powers where the order is not followed. I reiterate that that is not guidance but an order, and councils must adhere to it. The Bill must serve as a reminder to local authorities that the order must be adhered to, and I put local authorities on notice that if it is not, we can review and change the regulations through the 1996 Act. Should councils not respond to the Bill or the order that is already in place, I am certain that we will seek to do that.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

Does the Minister think that that would be a good thing for the Communities and Local Government Committee to look at?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I always welcome the Select Committee’s work, and if councils do not respond in the way that we ask them to respond—that is, by adhering to the 2012 order, the importance of which is reiterated in the Bill —it perhaps would be sensible for the Select Committee to look at the issue again.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Sheffield South East said on Second Reading about recognising the importance of speaking to people from the very beginning about addressing their housing needs. We are talking about the important first step in creating the culture that we all want. We need a more co-operative and effective relationship between local housing authorities and those they try to help. That is why clause 3 is really important. However, I do not think it is necessary to amend the Bill, as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East would like.

Amendments 3 and 4 tabled by the hon. Member for Hammersmith would require local housing authorities to consider a further requirement when assessing the applicant’s case. There would be a requirement to consider,

“what other support the applicant is or may be entitled to from any public authority under any other enactment”.

The amendments would create a very broad duty. Local housing authorities would need to investigate the legal duties of multiple authorities to identify whether such a duty were owed. There could be a scenario, for example, where a local housing authority would have to undertake a mental health assessment to establish whether a person is owed duties in respect of any mental health issues that they may have.

Owing to their wide-ranging nature and the general requirements that the amendments would bring to local housing authorities, the proposed changes would place an unacceptable burden on those authorities. As I mentioned previously, local housing authorities already have to take into consideration a wide range of factors, including the significance of any disruption that would be caused by the location of the accommodation to the employment, caring responsibilities or education of the person or members of the person’s household; and the proximity and accessibility of the accommodation to medical facilities and other support.

Successful prevention, as the best local authorities already know, takes a broad view in assessing needs. Many of the things we are looking at here will be dealt with in the personal housing plan, which is covered in the substantive clause.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

To look at this the other way, does the Minister not think that it could be helpful to local authorities in identifying other organisations or other resources that should be brought into play? What was good on clause 2 in relation to specifying people with particular needs may also be good on clause 3.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

There are many ways in which the Bill broadens the support that people will get. As the hon. Gentleman knows, later in the Bill there is a duty to refer. Organisations will therefore have to notify local authority housing teams of people in certain circumstances as they pass through the NHS system in hospital A&Es and so on. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East is proposing a broad provision. As I said, it is difficult in terms of its workability. The challenge would be massive for local authorities, which would almost have to become experts in massive areas of work that they are simply not in a position to be experts on.

However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local authorities can work in a better and more collegiate fashion across public services and other organisations that can help people who are homeless or becoming homeless. In many ways, the Bill will seek to achieve that. I therefore do not think it is necessary at this point to support the amendments that the hon. Gentleman has tabled.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I have a difficulty because I do not think the provision is satisfactory. Equally, I understand that the Minister wants to see what is in the code of practice or code of guidance implemented. From a Select Committee point of view, we had a clear view: we were concerned that these matters were not being properly addressed in terms of location when offers were made to people who qualify as homeless persons. We are trying to find a way forward that keeps some unanimity, but gives us more reassurance that something will be done. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Northampton South that there could be a role for a Select Committee, but there is also a role for Government.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till Wednesday 7 December at half-past Nine o’clock.