Duty of public authority to refer cases to local housing authority

Homelessness Reduction Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 14th December 2016.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 11:00 am, 14th December 2016

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 10, page 16, line 31, at end insert—

“(3A) Where the specified public authority makes a notification to the local housing authority the public authority must cooperate with the housing authority in meeting its duties under sections 179, 189A, 195, 189B and 199A of the Housing Act 1996.”.

This amendment would ensure that where a public authority made a referral to a housing authority in respect of a person who is or may become homeless the public authority is under a duty to cooperate with the housing authority.

The amendment is very much in the spirit of clause 10, but it goes a bit further. This was an important matter when the Select Committee held its first inquiry into homelessness and produced its first report. Indeed, chapter 7 of our report was on cross-Government working—we might have called it “lack of cross-Government working,” given the evidence from various witnesses. In the chapter’s introduction we quoted the words of Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of St Mungo’s, who said that “Homelessness is everyone’s issue”. From the evidence we heard, the Select Committee decided that all Departments need to contribute to ending homelessness.

Jon Sparkes of Crisis said

“there is very little evidence that the influence of DCLG is spreading to the other Departments.”

The Minister looks a little hurt, but he should not. We are trying to help him in the battle he has to wage with his colleagues in other Departments. We want him to have meetings with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, who have produced proposals such as changing the supported accommodation allowances without any thought to what will actually happen to the accommodation provided for homeless people. That is not DCLG’s fault. As far as I know, DCLG was not even consulted. It is important for there to be genuine understanding of the actions of other Departments, such as the DWP or the Department of Health. We all know that homeless people often have mental health problems—mental health problems can cause homelessness, and homelessness can cause mental health problems—so co-operation with the Department of Health and all the various health organisations is essential.

As it stands, clause 10 is a good proposal. Authorities should be advised to contact the relevant housing authority when they recognise that a person with whom they are in contact is homeless or threatened with homelessness, which is an entirely reasonable starting point. The problem is that it is a bit like, “We have passed it over to you; it’s your problem now.” That is the exact opposite of what the Select Committee was trying to say in its report. It is not about saying, “We have identified that this person may be at risk of homelessness. Get on with it, housing authority. You will sort it out now. There is nothing else to it. It is simply a homelessness issue.” We stated very clearly that, right the way through, there has to be cross-Government working and a clear indication that that is going to happen.

My amendment therefore sets out the responsibility in a simple way. It might not go far enough, and I accept the criticism that it is too weak in its emphasis on what more can be done. All the amendment says is that an authority that passes on to a housing authority concerns about an individual who is homeless or threatened with homelessness has a duty to co-operate with the housing authority on meeting its duties. That seems to me an entirely reasonable proposition, and one that I hope we will all support.

I know the Minister’s colleagues in other Departments have to agree to any new burdens placed on them and that local authorities just have new burdens given to them; other Government Departments seem to have a say on what gets passed on to them. It seems to me entirely reasonable, and not an exceptional request, to say that while it is good that a public authority has to notify a housing authority when it comes across somebody who is homeless or who is threated with homelessness, should we not ask for that little bit more—that that public authority co-operates?

That co-operation might be in tackling mental health problems, debt problems or a whole range of different issues that a homeless person has that must be tackled to ensure that that person can eventually get back into accommodation. Public authorities might also deal with other problems that might exist in homeless people’s lives as well. I hope the Minister sees this as a helpful contribution. If it does not go far enough and is a little timid in its approach, I look forward to the Minister’s suggesting how it might be strengthened.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Housing) 11:15 am, 14th December 2016

I support the amendment standing in the name of the Chair of the Select Committee. I had a similar amendment on the duty to co-operate between public bodies and local authorities, which I have not tabled. Both amendments would effectively have done the same thing.

Co-operation is important, but it runs both ways. As the Chair of the Select Committee has indicated, it is important because local authorities cannot achieve the objectives of the Bill on their own. Let me give an example that I came across last Friday: I spent the morning visiting the in-patient mental health unit in my constituency, where I was told that about a third of the beds there are occupied by people who are ready for discharge but have nowhere to go. In many cases those people will be referred to the local authority. The answer to the question of whether that is new is yes, it is relatively new.

I am not criticising local authorities, but the problem is that whereas they might have previously taken something on trust or accepted that they had a prima facie duty for it, they will now be much more scrupulous or detailed in looking at whether that duty is owed simply because of the demand on their services. They will do that across the board, even when dealing with other public authorities. The net effect will simply be to shift the burden from one part of the public sector to another, with the consequence that people either might not get the best care or might prevent others from getting the care that they need.

Accepting the amendment is absolutely crucial to the proper functioning of the Bill. One would hope that the public sector works in a joined-up way, and that Departments work in a joined-up way, but that is not always the case, so we would do well to give any encouragement to that.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I welcome the intention and principle behind it, particularly because it flows into clause 10; it is just seeing how far it will bite. I particularly welcome the principle of joined-up services—we sometimes get sick of talking about joined-up Government, and it often does not mean that—when dealing with the concerns at the heart of clause 10, which is about trying to ensure that there is better co-ordination and co-operation.

As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on complex needs and dual diagnosis, I draw particular reference to complex needs and to those people facing multiple disadvantage, and to the need to ensure that there is real co-operation. The litmus test of clause 10 is the implications of referrals for those with the most need and facing the most disadvantage. There is a particular impact on health: almost twice as many who use homeless services have long-term physical health problems and mental health diagnoses compared with the general public, and the average age of people who die while homeless is 47, which is scandalous.

That particularly comes into play when dealing with those who come into contact with health services in one form or another. Not least, homeless people might struggle to register with a GP because of not having a permanent address. A vicious cycle goes on where they end up in crisis management and in A&E. It is then a further scandal when the intervention that needs to take place at that stage does not. At the heart of the Bill is the fact that early intervention and preventive duties should not just stem from when people come into contact with the housing department. When they are in contact with the health services, and not least when they end up at A&E, that should lead to an intervention and referral, which leads to the co-operation that we want.

St Mungo’s has been on this case for a long time and has drawn attention to it with the “Homeless Health Matters” campaign. Before the Bill, it sought to have a charter that local authorities signed up to so that co-operation happened on an informal level. I believe that clause 10 takes things a huge step further as regards the statutory duty on referrals. The issue is how much further it explicitly needs to go with a mandatory requirement to co-operate across departments.

I also support the principle behind the amendment because, in many ways, it is already happening across Government—regardless of the cynicism that is around. One only has to look at the issue of violence against women and girls, which is a concern that we all share. If one looks at the national statement of expectations published on 7 December, one sees that it is all about co-operation. That comes from the Home Office and has a welcome two-year fund for refuges and other forms of accommodation. There is also all the extra investment in social impact bonds, in which co-operation is very much inbuilt. There are those with complex needs and the multi-agency approach that is used, although often not well enough. Sometimes these things are based around funding streams, and we need to see that happening across the country. The question is whether the duty to refer will help to ensure that good practice does happen across the country.

To hone in on women—who are, sadly, some of the most vulnerable and face complex needs—the national statement of expectations from 7 December says:

“To deliver this, commissioners should…consider whether an individual may have complex needs or suffer from multiple disadvantage and, if so, the services in place to manage these…Commissioners should consider how these detect and respond to women’s experiences” of violence, and ensure that there are services for them. That has come from the Home Office but plainly interacts across all Departments, and there is that expectation that it be delivered. At the end, the statement talks about how local authority, housing and homelessness policies must take account of sexual violence. That is included in the Bill in relation to the duties on advisory services; it is welcome that domestic violence is included, not least because of the work of the Select Committee.

The question is whether the Bill needs to go further in terms of a mandatory requirement for co-operation, or whether this referral will supplement and complement what is now happening to a much greater extent across Government. There is greater recognition and understanding of complex needs. Many of us have talked over the years about multi-agency approaches and joined-up government until we were blue in the face, but sadly these most vulnerable people are not getting what they need and deserve.

My view, which has been a common thread in discussions on the Bill, is that we need to balance doing what we can to ensure that this is a groundbreaking Bill—as I believe it is—that will help to provide greater support, preventive work and co-operation with whether this amendment will provide additional burdens across Government and have unintended consequences. Although it may provide a mandatory requirement—that, in many ways, is already the intention across Government—it might lead to additional financial burdens, which might lead to additional bureaucracy that might get in the way of the local co-operation between services that what we want delivered on the ground. I am not convinced. If there is a proper fulfilment of the duty to refer, which may be wrapped up in guidance, having a mandatory co-operation requirement may provide additional undue financial burdens across Government and create bureaucracy that might, sadly, get in the way of what we want to do, which is to co-operate across services.

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

Adjourned till 11 January 2017 at half-past Nine o’clock.