Duty in cases of threatened homelessness

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 7th December 2016.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing) 10:15 am, 7th December 2016

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 4, page 6, line 30, leave out “reasonable steps” and insert

“such steps as it considers reasonable”.

This amendment would reduce an ambiguity in the present draft. The local authority should decide what steps it should take, subject to the normal rules of public law and judicial review.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 6, in clause 5, page 8, line 11, leave out “reasonable steps” and insert

“such steps as it considers reasonable”.

See amendment 5.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I shall be very brief. On reflection, I am not quite sure why I tabled the amendments, because they are rather interfering. I was trying to assist the Government with their drafting, which I am not sure is really my job. If I want to get a job as a parliamentary draftsman, I will go away and do so—perhaps I would be better remunerated.

The amendment is on a narrow but important point. The phrase I have suggested,

“such steps as it considers reasonable”,

is more common, clearer and more accurate. Let me be clear: the amendment is not in any way designed to weaken the Bill, but to make the duties on local authorities more specific. There would obviously still be the full power of judicial review of any decisions, but what is being reviewed is the conduct of the local authority—whether it is behaving reasonably.

The applicants may want to say all sorts of things—they may be reasonable or unreasonable, or here or there—but we need to be clear about what we are reviewing. This perhaps relates back to clause 9. If we are going to have new powers and duties and a power to review—of course, that will include not only recourse to the county court, which will be the first point of recourse, but in certain circumstances recourse to the administrative court—we need to be clear about what we are reviewing. That is the purpose of the amendment. It is slightly technical in nature, and I thought the Government might be keen on it, but my hopes are no longer as high as they were a few moments ago, so we will see.

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

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman gave the game away when he stood up and said he could not quite work out why he had tabled the amendments. It is always helpful to have those indications at the outset of a speech. When I looked at the amendments last night, I found I was scratching my head trying to work out what difference they would make. The hon. Gentleman’s explanatory statement asserts:

“The local authority should decide what steps it should take, subject to the normal rules of public law and judicial review.”

With respect, it would have to do that in any event. The amendments would not make a difference one way or the other.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the form of words he has come up with is more common than what is in the Bill. Like him, I have come across housing cases in a court setting. In my view, it makes no odds whether the provision says “reasonable steps” or “such steps as it considers reasonable.” In any event, the local authority would have to follow the normal rules of public law and judicial review. I have enjoyed this close examination of the difference—or lack thereof—between the wordings, but there is precious little between the two.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

I shall briefly express my support for clause 4—

Order. We are discussing the specific amendments. I shall tell the hon. Lady when we get to the stand part debate.

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

I apologise, Mr Chope; I thought we had moved on. I am happy to reserve my remarks until then.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith for highlighting an important issue. It is essential that authorities are able to make objective judgments on what constitutes a reasonable step. I reassure him that the current formulation will have the same effect as his amendment.

Under the measure as currently drafted, the authority must already consider what steps it is reasonable to take, taking account of all relevant factors. The existing reference to reasonableness brings in an objective standard, which is based on what steps a reasonable authority in the actual authority’s position would take in relation to that particular applicant, with all the characteristics, abilities and so on of that applicant. I hear what the hon. Member for Hammersmith said about his hopes and aspirations that may one day be fulfilled by the Government’s accepting one of his amendments. I do not wish to dash his hopes and aspirations but, as he feared, I urge him to withdraw the amendment for the reasons I have mentioned.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, I agree with other hon. Members about these two amendments. When I looked at his proposal, I wondered what the hon. Member for Hammersmith had in mind. I am a convinced localist. It is right and crucial that local authorities make their decisions and ensure they deliver services that they customise to their local residents.

However, one intention behind the Bill is to bring local housing authorities up to the standard of the best. The current wording of “reasonable steps” for the local authority to help people threatened with homelessness is crucial. I do not pretend to be a lawyer but I see a potential risk in the reading of the amendments. An interpretation could be that a local authority could decide what steps it considered reasonable to take, as opposed to the reasonable steps that are well understood in law that would be expected to be taken by a local authority.

The risk is that individual local authorities that may be laggards in assisting homeless people could interpret this by saying, “We consider this to be reasonable.” Different standards would operate in different areas of the country and between different local authorities. That is the risk of these amendments and I trust the hon. Gentleman will, therefore, withdraw them.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I disagree with what the promoter of the Bill just said. On the contrary, focusing on local authorities’ behaviour is more likely to ensure consistency and the ability to challenge where a local authority has not behaved reasonably. Having said that, I do not want to prolong the debate so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

This clause is a major part of the Bill. It would insert a whole new section into the Housing Act 1996, requiring a local authority to take reasonable steps to help prevent homelessness. It is essentially a homelessness prevention duty. Reasonable steps could include the provision of debt counselling, the provision of tenancy support or help with family mediation, so that a person can stay with their family.

As we know, the causes of homelessness are vast and each individual case has to be looked at on its merits. The duty would be extended to any eligible household that is threatened with homelessness. It applies regardless of priority need, intentionality and local connection. As clause 1 would make changes to the period a household is threatened with homelessness, it does mean that households are owed this duty from 56 days before they are likely to become homeless. Clearly, that gives a two-month window in which a local authority can help someone who is threatened with homelessness. In deciding what reasonable steps it should take, a local authority must have regard to its assessment of the applicant. We have already agreed the assessment process in clause 3.

The prevention duty can be ended in a number of different ways, and those are set out in the Bill. The Minister has already given some of the detail of ways the duty can be limited, so I will add some observations. If the Bill is successful in creating a more effective and collaborative approach, I expect the most common way the duty will come to an end will be because the situation has been resolved—the household has been either rehoused or maintained in its existing household. That is the idea outcome, but the clause states that a local housing authority can be satisfied that the applicant has

“suitable accommodation available for occupation” when there is a “reasonable prospect” of retaining that accommodation

“for at least 6 months”.

Where the local housing authority has secured that accommodation, it can choose to do so for a longer period if it agrees that that is the right solution.

The Bill also includes a power for the Secretary of State to increase the minimum period of accommodation, should it be available, from the current six months to as much as 12 months. In most areas of the country, six-month tenancies are still the rule and it is therefore difficult for local authorities to obtain a longer tenancy, but I am a proponent of longer-term tenancies. That is absolutely the right course of action, but we have to deal with the here and now. Let us hope that longer tenancies become the norm and people are not in the position of becoming homeless after such a tenancy.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 10:30 am, 7th December 2016

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We had a good discussion in the Communities and Local Government Committee on this as well. He is absolutely right. The clause tries to anticipate an ideal situation in the future that Ministers can act upon, while recognising the reality that, if we increased it to 12 months now, that might exclude a whole range of accommodation and make it very difficult in some areas for local authorities to find the right accommodation to offer.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee. This is one of the aspects that we looked at in the Select Committee and in pre-legislative scrutiny. A longer period of 12 months was in the original draft, but after consideration of the problems we currently face, that was amended to six months. That is the minimum we would expect. We would all like to see that extended to a much longer tenancy so that families and individuals have more permanency about where they are living, but we are just setting the minimum.

Finally, the authority must give notice to the applicant to bring the duty to an end. That notice must

“specify which of the circumstances apply” and inform the applicant that he or she

“has a right to request a review of the authority’s decision”.

It is absolutely appropriate that we get to the point where individuals will have a notice in writing informing them that the local authority is ending its duty, where they can ask for a review of the process because of the relevant circumstances.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I welcome the clause. As the promoter says, it is an important departure from current practice in law, if not necessarily from practice; the best local authorities have taken prevention duties seriously over a period of time. We are looking to codify that and make it consistent across the piece.

We should not underestimate the significance of this change. I do not intend to say a great deal in welcoming and explaining the reasons for the clause, as they are self-evident and have been previously debated. My colleagues may wish to add to that. Suffice it for me to say that this ought to be a virtuous circle. In the examples given by the promoter, or in any other examples, if homelessness can be prevented by negotiation with a landlord, with advice and support, or possibly with finance—we will perhaps come back to that later—somebody can be kept in their home, and provided that that is a reasonable and decent home, that is more likely to be suitable and will retain the links of locality, family, community and so forth. That is clearly desirable and is also likely to be cheaper than having to deal with homelessness, not just because of the distress to the individual and their family, but also because of the additional cost burden that falls on the housing authority. For that reason, I think that this is one of the two most significant provisions in the Bill.

Let me raise a couple of concerns, which the Minister may wish to respond to. My first point is that prevention is nothing new and that local authorities have done that over time. Yesterday, however, I received—I am sure other Members did too—the publication produced by Shelter for its 50th anniversary, and this section caught my eye:

“Homelessness acceptances fell sharply from 2003 to the end of 2009. Analysis shows that a large part of this was due to local authorities placing greater emphasis on homeless prevention, alongside increased funding for support services.

Homelessness acceptances started to increase from 2010. Local authorities still favour an approach that starts with preventing and relieving homelessness. However, such activities have become harder.”

That is the reality of the environment in which we now live.

We should not go into this wearing rose-coloured glasses, thinking that if we pass this legislation—as I hope we will—our job will be done. The Bill will create the duty, but the Local Government Association tells us—in an estimation only, although I know that the Minister is working with the LGA on this—that some London boroughs anticipate an average increase of 266% in the number of people coming to them for assistance as a consequence of the clause. That is a huge increase in work, predominantly from non-priority cases.

An important thing about the clause is that it is as much about priority as non-priority cases, but I have a concern—which we might discuss with clause 5—that existing duties on priority homeless already place such stress on local authorities that any massive additional burden will not only prove difficult in itself to deal with, but have that knock-on effect. The sort of priority homeless cases mentioned by both Opposition and Conservative Members, in particular of families with school-age children being sent many miles away, put in unsuitable accommodation or simply not being dealt with and therefore staying in emergency accommodation for a long time, will increase as a consequence of what we are doing in the Bill. We have to go into it with our eyes open.

My further point is about the legislation in Wales being prayed in aid of such an approach. We can all admire and learn from what the Welsh Government have done, but I make the point that, first, the Welsh legislation is different, because it is part of an overall strategy; it goes further than simply imposing a duty. Secondly—this was said by someone else last week, but it bears repetition—fewer people in total present as homeless to Welsh authorities than do to the London Borough of Lambeth alone. The hon. Member for Harrow East, the promoter of the Bill, made that point, so he is well aware of it, but it gives an idea of the magnitude of the task and of the responsibility that we are putting on local authorities, particularly those that are already under high levels of stress.

That does not in any way weaken my support for the Bill or the clause, but again our eyes must be open about the difficulties and the burden of responsibility that we will place on local authorities.

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

Thank you, Mr Chope, for your patience with my lack of attention to the procedure this morning.

I will speak briefly in support of the clause, which is one of the most significant measures in the Bill. It is at the heart of what we are seeking to do through the Bill. It is significant because it will shift the emphasis of local authority practice to prevention, not to the exclusion of their duties to assist people who have actually become homeless, but to make the work to support those facing homelessness more effective.

The measure addresses much of the evidence we heard in the Select Committee. It also speaks to some of the most harrowing cases that I have seen and continue to see in my constituency, which are those involving people facing certain homelessness. They are on a route that in law and legal practice can only lead to them becoming homeless, and yet they are told to wait until the bailiffs turn up and they are actually homeless before seeking help and support from the local authority.

Only last night, I was reviewing a case in my constituency and thought how useful this new prevention duty would be. The case concerns a family who are unlikely to be helped until they face the trauma of homelessness under the current legislation. In the Select Committee we looked at the evidence, and it found that the current statutory framework to support people facing homelessness is not fit for purpose. This new duty is one way in which we can make it fit for purpose.

A shift to prevention is about culture change within local authorities, but in certain circumstances it also has the potential to save local authorities money. Additional duties may increase the costs that local authorities face. However, in some cases the local authority ends up picking up the scandalous costs of nightly rate temporary accommodation if it waits until someone has become homeless before accepting a duty. Where those circumstances can be prevented and someone can be enabled to remain in their own home—perhaps by the local authority paying that rent for a short period, where the rent is lower than the scandalous costs of nightly rate temporary accommodation—there is potential for a focus on prevention to result in more efficient use of resources.

We cannot escape the fact that the current tools at local authorities’ disposal to undertake prevention are extremely limited. That is because we face a lack of supply of affordable housing in this country and because of the unregulated state of the private rented sector. We cannot escape the fact that the single biggest cause of new homelessness cases is the ending of a tenancy in the private rented sector. Until we address that, local authorities’ power to intervene to prevent homelessness for people living in the private rented sector is sorely limited. While the new duty is very important and significant in changing culture and practice within local authorities, I hope the Minister will reflect on the current limitations on the tools at local authorities’ disposal genuinely to prevent homelessness with the maximum possible effect.

We need to see a substantial reform of the private rented sector, longer forms of tenure introduced as standard and limits introduced on rent increases within the terms of a current tenancy. We also need reform of the section 21 process. There is provision in law for landlords who need their property returned to them for genuine reasons to do so without the section 21 provisions. I see in my constituency time and again the irresponsible and unethical use of section 21 notices, which causes instability for families and evicts people who have done no wrong—they have not failed to pay their rent or done anything to breach the terms of their tenancy, but they are simply made homeless so that the landlord can charge more rent to the next tenant. That practice is irresponsible and widespread, and the Government need to intervene outwith the bounds of this legislation to stop it.

I am fully supportive of the change in culture, practice and emphasis towards prevention. If we prevent some of the harshest consequences of homelessness, it will prevent many families from facing homelessness in the first place. That is the right thing to do. The Government need to take seriously the question of resourcing for local authorities in terms of front-line staff and additional burdens. They also need to look very carefully at the wider situation, because we have a private rented sector that is not fit for purpose for the many people who live in it.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Portsmouth South

Like the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, I think this clause is the crux of the Bill. Preventing homelessness in the first place will save local authorities money in the long run. I particularly welcome the measure that provides an assessment and personalised plan. Extending the duty to 56 days gives both parties more time to sort out issues that quite often are relatively simple, such as housing benefit or debt advice. I know that many hon. Members have had constituents in their surgeries, such as the one just mentioned by the hon. Lady, who are terrified that they will be made homeless. I hope that the clause will help.

I recently dealt with two families at risk of homelessness, including an armed forces family. The mental health impact was visible. I think that 28 days was too short a period, and that the clause will prevent more people from becoming homeless.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 10:45 am, 7th December 2016

I shall be brief, as I endorse everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. The cultural change that the Bill proposes is welcome. Many MPs have experienced dealing with constituents who faced homelessness and were left, in the most extreme cases—though it is not unusual—with their possessions piled up on the pavement outside their home, while the bailiffs were there and they waited for the local authority to assume its duty for them.

It is right that everything possible should be done to prevent that. The earlier we intervene, the better. As has been said, however, there are major structural pressures that militate against the effective delivery of what we hope the Bill will achieve. That does not detract from the aims and objectives, but it means that the Government must pay the matter serious attention.

We already know, from the prevention work done in priority homelessness cases under the prevention and relief of homelessness measures, what some of those structural problems are. The end of a shorthold tenancy is the principal driver of homelessness and, as my hon. Friend has just said, in many cases that is consequent on a section 21 notice being issued because a landlord knows that more money can be earned from a rental property, particularly in high-value areas such as London.

Research done with the Residential Landlords Association shows that only 7% of landlords in inner London are now prepared to let to people on housing benefit. The figure is about one in four across London as a whole, and it has been falling rapidly. A quarter of the cases that the prevention and relief of homelessness measures deal with are related to housing benefit problems—sometimes administrative, but often simply a shortfall. The Government are making such shortfalls worse by the extension of the benefit cap and will certainly make them worse with the additional local housing allowance measures that are being brought in.

The very people at whom the Bill is aimed—the non-priority cases and single homeless people, many of whose situations are terrible but who cannot cross the threshold into priority need—are precisely the ones most at risk from the additional squeeze on local housing allowance. In such circumstances the Government always say that the answer lies in discretionary housing payment measures, inadequate as they are, but the crux is that those payments are temporary.

I have raised that argument many times in this place: when we talk about measures to prevent homelessness and ensure that people are given some form of housing security, it is not good enough to rely on a local authority’s discretionary—the clue is in the name—housing payments, which are by definition time limited. They can mean the difference between homelessness today and in six, eight or 10 weeks’ time. They are not a means of protecting even priority households—households with children, elderly people or people with disabilities—from homelessness. They are certainly not going to be enough to protect non-priority and single people, whom we want and need to assist.

Does the Minister think that the discretionary housing payment scheme also needs to be reviewed? Should the temporary nature of such assistance be reviewed, if we are to make the measure work?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham

I echo colleagues’ comments that clause 4 is the heart and core of the Bill—it is fundamentally about preventing homelessness, which is why we are here. The clause would end the current postcode lottery—it is also a time lottery, because someone can get help one day when they might not the next. It can depend on the area, which person they see, and a number of factors such as how busy the council is.

I am sure we all agree that the introduction of a standard system across the UK is fair, right and proper. It will mean that no one who is vulnerable can be turned away. The fact that we are increasing the window from 28 days to 56 days will prevent homelessness. We see constituents week after week in similar situations when they have left it too late after being given advice. The measure is about helping them and untying our councils’ hands.

There has been a lot of talk about burdening councils, but some parts of the Bill, including extending the time window to 56 days, actually untie councils’ hands. The relief duty means that those who need help will get it, and not just those who are deemed priority need on a particular day. That will help charities by allowing them to have more time to get on with helping homeless people rather than fighting councils over viewing people as priority need.

The clause will make things cheaper in the long run for councils and at a national level. Statistics show—this is echoed by my local charities including Doorway in Chippenham—that most people in the initial stages of being threatened with homelessness do not have the same complex needs such as mental health issues, drug abuse and alcoholism as people in later stages. The current system exacerbates problems and causes people a great deal of pain, as well as cost. It is our duty to try to alleviate and avoid that pain.

The success of prevention will be seeing people in the round, and implementing the duty in conjunction with the assessment and the personal plan. Preventing homelessness is possible only if we look at people as people and not as statistics. We must look at the other problems they endure and allow for more partnership working with other bodies. I fully support the clause, which is the essence of the entire Bill.

Photo of David Mackintosh David Mackintosh Conservative, Northampton South

Under clause 3, we talked about the difficulties people face when they are made homeless, including the difficulty of relocating them in areas that contain their support network, not least their schools and families. It would be great if we could avoid that altogether by preventing homelessness in the first place. That is the intention behind clause 4, which is why I agree with colleagues that it is at the heart of the Bill. The measure will help local authorities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham said, and help councils to exercise their duty. For whatever reason, there are often difficulties in processing applications or helping people within 28 days. By extending the time period to 56 days, it is much more likely that people will be helped and avoid homelessness altogether.

I am sure we all have examples from our constituencies of people who have come to us to talk about the problems they face with their landlord, or with getting help and support from local authorities. Indeed, as part of the Select Committee evidence, we heard examples of people being deliberately led down the section 21 route to be made homeless because it allowed more time for the process. As a result, people are suffering trauma and other consequences. That is no way for people to be treated when they are at a vulnerable stage in their lives, and when they need help and support. The provisions within the clause will change that fundamentally, bring about the cultural change we have mentioned, help housing officers to do their job and prevent people from becoming homeless.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

I am pleased to take part in this stand part debate on clause 4 because, as hon. Members and hon. Friends have said, it is the essence of the Bill. If it is implemented properly, it will indeed help to prevent any eligible person who is at risk of homelessness from becoming homeless. Local authorities will no longer be able to turn away people who do not meet the priority need criteria or are unintentionally homeless. That broad approach is welcome.

Although there are concerns—we have received briefings about the cost implications of the Bill—the clause provides greater flexibility and a greater practical impact. It means we are not left in the situations that hon. Members have mentioned, with people coming to the constituency surgery who do not meet the statutory criteria and have been turned away. It is therefore not simply about providing accommodation in every place, in every town and locality. The measure provides greater flexibility. I have often had constituents who stay with an extended family member as a family crisis or situation arises. Because they are in that family accommodation and are not unintentionally homeless, they do not come within the criteria of being in priority need. In that situation, they are unable to receive what could be low-level support, such as family mediation, which may well lead to them staying in that family home or, indeed, finding other suitable accommodation.

I mentioned an example in a previous sitting of a victim of domestic violence who had been rebuffed by a housing officer. To take the point from the hon. Member for Hammersmith, there is no monopoly on compassion, whether by Members of Parliament, council officers or councillors. There is a reality of rationing resources, and dealing with limited housing stock and limited provision. However, the reality for that constituent was that they were told, “Do you think you’re the only one who needs help?” Clause 4 will bring an end to that kind of response.

That individual plainly needed help. She was facing a situation in which her shed and her car had just been vandalised by her abuser, and a litany of threats to her life had been recorded by the police. Women’s Aid were making the case that she needed to be considered for rehousing. She was in work but needed some help to get the rent deposit to be able to get away from the risk to her and her daughter’s life.

While we can say that she should not have been dealt with like that under existing legislation and guidance, the measure will make it crystal clear that it is not a case of a housing officer seeing whether an individual comes within the priority need requirements of being unintentionally homeless. She and others will be eligible—the broad understanding of and criteria for eligibility will be extended to those who are intentionally homeless. Many people in our constituencies will fall in that category for one reason or another. They are intentionally homeless, but that does not negate their need for proper support so that they avoid going into the crisis management that inevitably ensues, whether they are intentionally or unintentionally homeless.

I believe the Bill will release not only charities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham mentioned, but housing officers to do the job that they are there for and that they want to do. They want to help. They do not want simply to turn people away because they do not think they meet a particular threshold within a statute. It will open them up to saying, “Yes, I do want to help you. I am not going to simply judge whether you think you should receive more help than someone else.” There will be help.

I particularly welcome the help to secure provision in clause 6. That is important, because it means we have that important flexibility. It may be that the individual who comes to the housing officer will not need to be given new accommodation, but they may need a variety support. It may be that they can find their own accommodation in their own way themselves, but the housing office may have particular responsibilities, for example to give help to raise a rent deposit and guarantees of support. It may be that the duty can be discharged in that regard, and it will be up to the individual to move on.

The reference in the clause to suitability is important—we will come to that under clause 12. I recognise that location is not referred to and that there is no location element within the provision. There is no need for it because it applies to all accommodation that the local authority has secured, but it is important to recognise that the duty is to help to secure. That could mean a whole variety of factors and enables the housing officer not to turn around and simply rely on their duties.

That will help in a variety of ways. Presently, there is such a limited stock in my area of Enfield. The ability to find accommodation in Enfield may be limited, but that does not mean that the local authority can simply fall back on the lack of specific available property, or indeed the limited statutory responsibilities. The clause opens the door to a much greater variety of flexible support. In partnership with charities and others, the duty can be discharged to the benefit of all who are eligible and who are threatened with homelessness.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 11:00 am, 7th December 2016

In response to the request from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole about the Daisy-May Hudson film at our last sitting, I understand that Select Committee staff have been in touch with the Clerk to this Committee. The Clerk is looking a little vacant, but perhaps the email is on its way to say that Daisy-May has been contacted and is happy to make the film available to the Committee. It is a licence arrangement and will be available until 21 December for Members to look at.

The prevention duty is extremely important, but I will not repeat the comments by colleagues on both sides of the Committee about the heart of the Bill being to stop people becoming homeless in the first place. No doubt the Minister will say that that is not his responsibility, but he has a responsibility to draw his colleagues’ attention to matters that make it more difficult for local authorities to prevent people becoming homeless. The Select Committee looked at a range of issues, some of them revolving around the welfare system. Reference has been made to the problems tenants face in the private rented sector with section 21 notices being issued because landlords can get more money from another tenant moving in. That will only get worse, as the Select Committee drew attention to in its report, if local housing allowance is frozen and rents continue to rise for the next four years.

The Government will not indicate that discretionary housing payments, if they are intended to deal with the problem, will increase at the same rate as rents to help local authorities to continue to bridge the gap. If they do not increase discretionary payments, the problem of section 21 notices being used to get rid of tenants who cannot afford to pay rising rents because their benefit is not sufficient will get worse, and the Minister must take account of it.

The Committee drew attention to other issues—perhaps the Minister will at least reflect and draw his colleagues’ attention to them—including direct payments and universal credit. One way to prevent a family from becoming homeless might be to arrange for payments to be made direct to the landlord, with the tenant’s agreement. We need assurances that the universal credit rules will be flexible enough to allow that to happen. For a long time, the welfare Minister’s view was that everyone would get the money and must sort it out, but if a family is not sorting it out and would welcome some assistance with direct payment to their landlord, the system should be flexible enough to enable that to prevent them becoming homeless.

Another problem is that young people aged 18 to 21 will not be entitled to the housing element of universal credit. A young person might be in work and doing everything right. They might have their own property because they can afford it out of their earnings but then become unemployed. They might have a realistic prospect of getting another job and try hard to get one. We asked in our report whether there could at least be a period of weeks when that young 18 to 21-year-old who is not eligible for housing element of universal credit is allowed the housing element while they get back into work and are once again able to pay the rent, instead of becoming homeless and having to move out of the property.

The Select Committee drew attention to sensible solutions to those three problems. If the Government do not consider them, people may become homeless and the local authority would be unable to prevent it. A key aim of the Bill is stopping people becoming homeless and ensuring that local authorities have the range of measures they need for prevention.

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

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for making the Daisy-May film available to those of us who do not have the benefit of being a member of his Committee. If he can get round the licensing arrangements in time for the next sitting, I am sure those of us who do not sit on his Committee will be grateful.

As I am on my feet, I will say that I fully support this clause as drafted. I agree with other colleagues of all parties that this is at the very heart of the Bill and that the extension to 56 days, for example, will be greatly welcomed.

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

Since 2010, local authorities have successfully prevented homelessness in over 1 million cases using funding that the Government provide to local housing authorities. However, not every household that needs help and support to avoid a homelessness crisis has always received it. The clause will ensure that that help is extended to all eligible households, and that is why the Government support this Bill and welcome this new duty. It will require authorities to take reasonable steps to help households retain their accommodation or secure alternative accommodation, and so prevent their homelessness. Any eligible household that is threatened with homelessness will be entitled to this help and assistance regardless of priority need, local connection and intentionality.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Will the Minister clarify whether the financial support that he brings forward in respect of the Bill will include specific and funded provision for assistance with deposits?

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

I hear what the hon. Lady says. There are already many local authorities that make provision for deposits.

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

I think that local authorities need to look at that in the context of the fact that preventing somebody from becoming homeless is far cheaper than when somebody actually becomes homeless and they have to pick up the pieces from that. As the hon. Lady said from a sedentary position, not all authorities do this, but the best ones do. I reassure her that—picking up on a point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith who said that this Bill is not accompanied by a strategy—we do very much have a strategy around homelessness prevention and there are many other measures that the Government are embarking on to prevent homelessness. Within that, the advice, guidance and support we give to local authorities to help them to prevent people from becoming homeless will help in the way that she identifies.

The type of help that people receive will be based on the information identified during the assessment process, which I spoke about when we discussed clause 3. The steps to be taken under the personalised plan are also developed during the assessment process. For example—picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Westminster North—if the main issue is that a household cannot secure a rent deposit and that is the only barrier to their finding a home, the local authority can provide that deposit and the household can look for their own accommodation.

Introducing a wider-ranging prevention duty that extends to those who are not in priority need will help far more people. It will help them significantly at an earlier stage as well. This will bring a number of advantages. First, households will receive better, more consistent support. Secondly, they will get that help earlier, which is more effective but also costs less. The combination of those two factors means that fewer households will have to experience the stress and upheaval of a homelessness crisis. That will help reduce the number of homelessness acceptances, reducing the costs for local authorities.

The duty itself lasts for 56 days and comes to an end in a number of different ways. It might be helpful if I say a little more about some of the most important. The way we envisage its being ended most frequently is, of course, through helping to secure accommodation or by helping people to remain in their existing homes. Therefore, if an authority is satisfied that the applicant has suitable accommodation and there is a reasonable prospect of their retaining it for at least six months, the duty successfully comes to an end. That is what has happened in Wales and we expect to see a similar effect, if less pronounced, in England. The duty can also come to an end if the steps taken by the local authority and the applicant themselves have not prevented homelessness. In this case, the relief duty applies, meaning that people get continued help and support. I will talk about the support available when we reach clause 5.

Clause 4, alongside clauses 7 and 3, also places an element of responsibility on households themselves. They will be expected to take certain identified steps to help prevent their own homelessness. However, requiring co-operation in this way means that if an applicant deliberately and unreasonably refuses to co-operate, the duty can come to an end. How this works will be explained when we discuss clause 7, when we will also consider the safeguards built into the process.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith mentioned a potentially increased case load and a 266% increase as a result of the duty. We recognise that increases in different parts of the country will differ. However, to say that the increase will be 10 times higher than that in Wales is unrealistic. Broadly speaking, any rise will come from those not in priority need. We would have to ask why so little support had been offered and why there had been such a rise when authorities already have obligations that they should follow.

The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood mentioned supply, which is an important part of the issue. The Government have committed £8 billion to provide 400,000 affordable housing starts by 2020-21. The Committee will have heard the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and for London. The Government’s White Paper will be published shortly and will elaborate on the Government’s plans in this area.

The hon. Lady also mentioned additional regulation on landlords. It was a pleasure to serve with her on the Committee that considered the Housing and Planning Bill, which has now been enacted. We introduced significant measures to tackle rogue landlords. I do not think anybody on this Committee would argue with the Government’s intent to drive rogue landlords out of business. As for further regulation of landlords, we always need to get the balance right. If regulation goes too far, we might reduce the supply of homes in the private rented sector, as was the case before the Housing Act 1988, which introduced the shorthold tenancy because the supply of private rented property had very much been diminished. The hon. Lady also mentioned prevention and keeping households in their existing homes. At present, half of all the prevention work that takes place results in people staying in their existing homes.

The hon. Members for Westminster North and for Sheffield South East mentioned affordability, discretionary housing payments and the local housing allowance. They will know that the amount set aside for discretionary housing payments has doubled in this Parliament to £870 million. I understand the hon. Lady’s point about discretionary housing payments being a temporary measure, but they allow households and authorities the time and space to look again at the circumstances and take action. In some cases, it gives the time to help people move into work or improve their situation in other ways.

I say to the hon. Members for Westminster North and for Sheffield South East that we have been clear that 30% of the savings that come from the local housing allowance rate will be re-purposed to support those people in areas where homes have the highest cost. It is not just about introducing the local housing allowance rate; it is also about supporting people in the areas of highest cost.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 11:15 am, 7th December 2016

Proposed new section 195(7)(a)(ii) covers the time limit requirement. I appreciate that it is now “at least 6 months”, rather than 12 months, but can the Minister confirm that “at least 6 months” covers situations such as those in hostels? This issue was brought to the attention of the Communities and Local Government Committee by the council of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, Harrow Council. It said:

“We know that many hostel places give 6 month agreements, which generally are extended over again for up to 2 years”.

Are those agreements included in the duty?

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

We are talking about a minimum of six months. The provision does not prevent a longer period from being agreed. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

The final matter that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East mentioned was housing benefit and 18 to 21-year-olds. I reiterate that the reform will affect only new claimants on universal credit from April 2017. It will not affect people in work. The measure is intended to ensure that young people do not slip into a life on benefits. Youth unemployment has a long-term scarring effect on people, so it is important to improve the incentive for young people to move into work. We are introducing a new youth obligation, which will offer a new and intensive package of labour market support for 18 to 21-year-olds to get back into work.

The measure is also about bringing parity to a system in which an unemployed young person can leave the family home whereas an employed young person may not be able to. Exemptions will be put in place to ensure that those unable to return to the family home have the right access to support, and there will be a grace period for those who have been in work for the previous six months.

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

Will the Minister elaborate on his point about the grace period, which is important? Is he therefore saying that if a young person who has been in work for six months then loses their job, they will, for at least a time, get a housing element of universal credit to enable them to stay in their home while they get further work?

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

Indeed, there will be a grace period for people who have been in work for the previous six months. On that basis, I conclude my comments.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I will pick up just a few points that colleagues have raised during this debate on what I think essentially is the heart of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith rightly alluded to the potential increase in applications to local authorities. I remind colleagues that, according to the House of Commons Library’s helpful briefing on the Bill, statutory homelessness applications—not acceptances—peaked in 2003-04 at nearly 300,000 cases and by 2010 had dropped to about 100,000. The point there is that individuals in a position whereby they know they will not get any help from a local authority will not go to it, but under the Bill everyone who is owed a duty will try to gain the assistance of a local authority. It is therefore natural that the case load will increase and, under the new burdens doctrine, I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that resources follow as appropriate.

The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and several other colleagues mentioned supply issues. I agree that we must increase supply, but that is beyond the scope of the Bill. She also alluded to reform of section 21 notices. Someone reminded me last night that this is already, I believe, the private Member’s Bill with the most clauses ever, so if we were to continue the process we would end up with a veritable dictionary. I agree that we must reform those notices, but that is also beyond the scope of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Westminster North rightly mentioned the shortage of housing and issues about the benefit cap and local housing allowance. Clearly that is for the Government to consider. It is appropriate for those issues to be raised in Committee but they are beyond the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing)

I note in passing that the title of the Bill includes the words,

“to make provision about measures for reducing homelessness”.

The hon. Gentlemen is courteous enough to say that it is reasonable to raise such matters. I would have thought that, given the matters covered by the Bill, the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and I have raised on supply, financial measures that are effectively increasing homelessness—whether LHA or other measures—and the nature of the private sector market are on point.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly the Bill is part of an overall strategy. We must understand that, as we have said, the causes of homelessness are many and varied and the solutions are many and varied. Without doubt, supply is one of the key elements. The White Paper will be published soon—soon in Government terms seems to stretch quite a lot—and I look forward to its coming forward as quickly as possible so that we can debate increasing supply, which is important.

Several issues were raised in terms of the postcode lottery, with clear examples of potential rationing of services from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate in particular. We should remember that the Bill’s aim is a cultural change and dramatic shift in helping and advising people who are in desperate need of housing rather than having housing officers trying to trap them to stop having to provide them with help and assistance.

I note what my friend the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee said about its review and some of the issues raised. Pertinent points on the welfare system were made, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that they are raised with the appropriate Ministers so that they are looked at in the round as part of the overall strategy.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I am mindful of the time, so I will not give way. I request that the Committee agree that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Before putting the Question, may I say that, on issues of scope, I will be the ultimate judge? I have allowed a wide-ranging debate because the clause is about causes of threatened homelessness and I thought it reasonable to discuss those issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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

Adjourned till Wednesday 14 December at Ten o’clock.