Birmingham City Council (Homeless Policy)

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 25th October 2005.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 1:00 pm, 25th October 2005

Before I start, as a Member for a Birmingham constituency and in the light of events during the past few days, I want to express, on behalf of all right hon. and hon. Members in Birmingham, whatever their party, our sympathy to the friends and families of those who lost their lives and to add our voices to those of community and civic leaders in stating our commitment to Birmingham as a multi-racial, multi-faith city. That view is shared by the overwhelming majority of Birmingham citizens, irrespective of their race, creed or religion.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the Chamber some worrying things that have been going on in Birmingham in respect of the way in which the Conservative and Liberal Democrat administration of the council is approaching its statutory obligations to the homeless. Like other big cities, Birmingham faces big challenges to improve the quality of its housing stock and to make available sufficient affordable homes to those on its waiting list and to those in urgent need of rehousing because of homelessness or other problems.

According to figures from Shelter, in 2004–05, more than 8,000 families in Birmingham were found to be homeless. I welcome the extra investment that is going into housing as a result of the actions of the Labour Government, but more needs to be done and there is a real debate to be had about how best to achieve that.

However much money is going in, it is vital that local authorities exercise their ongoing responsibilities fairly and consistently, particularly in the way in which they allocate properties and treat homeless people. It is in the latter area that the policies adopted by the coalition running the city council are nothing short of scandalous. The fact that it has tried to claim that the Government have imposed those policies on them is something to which I feel sure the Minister will want to respond.

Under housing legislation, Birmingham city council is under an obligation to help eligible families who are either homeless or threatened with homelessness within 28 days. In the case of private tenants losing their homes, the city council used to regard someone as being threatened with homelessness if they had received a section 21 notice to quit from their landlord. In the case of a dispute between landlord and tenant, of course, a court procedure was available to determine whether the notice to quit was reasonable. However, this summer, the council's policy changed. It apparently decided that the court procedure should no longer be a way of resolving disputes between landlords and tenants, but should be a normal part of the notice-to-quit procedure. In other words, even if a tenant accepted that the landlord had issued them with a valid and reasonable notice to quit—for example, because the landlord needed the property to live in—the council would not accept that that tenant was threatened with homelessness unless he or she forced the landlord to get a court order to evict them.

It gets worse. The council does not only insist that tenants force their landlords to go to court. If the court decides that the notice to quit is reasonable, the city council expects tenants not to comply promptly with the decision of the court. Instead the bailiffs have to be called in before the council will accept its responsibilities to try to find alternative accommodation for the tenant. A briefing note from the council was supplied to me and clearly states:

"It is at the 28 days prior to the bailiffs notice . . . that someone is accepted as homeless or threatened with homelessness"

What is the result of all that? The council claims that it tries to give early and helpful advice to those who approach it for help. That is simply not borne out by cases I have been dealing with over the past few months. Let me give some examples. A tenant with a health problem who had been given formal notice to quit by her landlady back in April was told by the city council that it would try to rehouse her on the basis that a section 21 notice had been issued. The policy changed in the summer and, to cut a long story short, she eventually found out that the council would not rehouse her until she forced her landlady to get the bailiffs in. The result is that she has a court order against her, and she has had costs of £190 awarded against her because there was no reason for the case to go to court in the first place. As far as I knew the situation yesterday, the council still had not found her anywhere to live.

There are other examples, such as the tenant who, having followed council advice, is worried about her chances of ever being offered a privately rented property in the future, because she will have on her record that she wilfully refused to leave when she was reasonably asked to do so by her landlord, and that she forced her landlord into unnecessary court proceedings to get her out.

There is the woman who rented out her house while she went off travelling for a few months. Having got back and having issued a perfectly reasonable notice to quit to the temporary tenant, she cannot get into her own home or even get at her winter clothes because her tenant will not leave—presumably in line with council policy. As a result, the woman landlord is £2,000 out of pocket through court fees and temporary accommodation costs for herself.

When I questioned the Conservative cabinet member for housing, Councillor John Lines, about the matter on local radio, he claimed that he did not like the policy any more than anybody else, but that the city was acting on Government instructions. I asked him several weeks ago to provide me with a copy of the alleged instruction. I am still waiting for a reply.

I have received, however, a written answer to a question I tabled in the House last week. It is from my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, who confirmed:

"It is not good practice to simply advise people to remain in their accommodation until their landlord obtains a court order for possession and the bailiffs arrive, and we advise against that."—[Hansard, 17 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 810W.]

Why are Birmingham city council adopting such a crackpot policy? The answer could be in briefing notes supplied to me by the city council to defend its policy. The notes make it clear that, if the council can meet a target agreed with the Government to reduce the number of people presenting as homeless, they will receive extra Government cash. That target is meant to be about reducing homelessness. Insisting that tenants and landlords go through costly and unnecessary court proceedings does not reduce homelessness at all. What it does is enable the city council to reduce the numbers it defines as threatened with homelessness. It is, it seems, massaging the figures.

Worse still, that may be the tip of a much larger iceberg. The city also has to meet Government targets to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation. Birmingham counts someone as being in temporary accommodation only if they have been placed in such accommodation by the council. If a single parent is living with a child on someone else's sofa, and they approach the council for help, that does not count as temporary accommodation. Presumably, it does not show up on the city council's figures for that target.

That definition of temporary accommodation may not be helpful in identifying housing need. The point is, though, that it also affects who gets prompt help from the council, and who does not. Birmingham's housing allocation policy has always specified that priority should be given to rehousing homeless families. Now, though, there is a new allocations policy.

The new policy creates two categories for homeless people accepted as in priority need. There is band A, or priority priority, and band B, which is not so priority priority. The difference is not need.

If that single parent I was talking about had been put in bed and breakfast by the council, where she and her chid at least had a bed to sleep in, she would be priority priority. As she is sleeping on someone's sofa, she slips well down the queue into band B. That has nothing to do with the family's needs, but I wonder if it has everything to do with how Birmingham presents its figures about the extent of homelessness in the city.

For example, according to Shelter's figures, of the 8,289 households found to be homeless in 2004–05, 3,626, or 43 per cent., were classified by the council either as intentionally homeless or not in priority need. In contrast, Shelter says that in 2002–03 and 2003–04, 6,000 households in Birmingham were accepted as being both unintentionally homeless and in priority need. Perhaps there has been a dramatic change in the behaviour of homeless families in Birmingham in just one year. I doubt it.

Commenting on the council's new home options scheme, for example, Shelter says it is

"concerned that the new scheme is resulting in increased 'gatekeeping'—preventing people making a formal homelessness application under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996."

As someone from the South Birmingham young homeless project in my constituency put it recently:

"The government has set targets to reduce the number of homeless applications made to Local Authorities. I am sure there are other ways to meet these than blocking applications."

My conclusion is that Birmingham has a problem of hidden homelessness that the council is hiding even more. Presiding over all of this is Councillor John Lines, the man who publicly claimed that he had been told by the Government to force people into unnecessary court action. He has produced no evidence to back that up other than claims that somebody may have heard something on a training course. If he is prepared to change something as fundamental as the way he defines homelessness on the basis of being told that someone said something informally on a training course, I seriously doubt his fitness to hold such a responsible office as cabinet member for housing in England's largest local authority. If he is trying to make Birmingham's record on homelessness look different from what it really is while knowingly trying to shift the blame to the Government for a policy that his administration introduced, such deception is more serious still.

Only Councillor Lines knows whether he simply was not paying attention or whether he has been deliberately trying to mislead people. Either failing is unacceptable for someone in his position. There has been enough delay. If Councillor Lines is not able to produce the instructions that he publicly alleged Birmingham had received from the Government on court proceedings and how Birmingham should regard them, it is time for him to consider his position and resign. If he is not prepared to do so, the Conservative leader of the council, Councillor Whitby, must address the issue, and the Liberal Democrats, who are the Conservatives' coalition partners on Birmingham council, must decide whether they will stand by their new Tory friends in the administration, or the homeless families and responsible landlords in Birmingham. It is clear that they cannot do both. Real people—those threatened with homelessness and responsible landlords—are being let down by the council. Councillor Lines's career is in his hands, but, whatever happens, Birmingham city council's policy must change.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (London) 1:12 pm, 25th October 2005

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr. Hancock. I am sure that we all wish to be associated with the comments of my hon. Friend Richard Burden about the events in Birmingham in recent days.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about homelessness in Birmingham. He has made some direct personal criticisms, to which I shall not be able to respond, but he also raised some genuine and general concerns, which I will deal with in a moment.

First, I would like to remind hon. Members of the Government's good track record in tackling homelessness. The number of new cases of homelessness has decreased since 2003 as a direct result of our policies and our investment in homelessness prevention. On top of that, the numbers of those sleeping rough are at an all-time low, and we have ended the scandal of families with children having to spend long periods in bed and breakfast accommodation. We have achieved that by investing £200 million during the past three years in services to prevent homelessness, such as rent deposit schemes to enable households to find good accommodation in the private sector, and mediation services to resolve family relationship breakdowns and to enable young people to remain in the family home.

However, there is more to do. That is why in March the Government published a strategy setting out plans for halving the use of temporary accommodation by 2010. It will involve continued partnership working at national, regional and local levels, and working across Whitehall to ensure that we tackle the widest causes of homelessness and provide solutions.

The strategy for tackling homelessness is set in the wider context of the Government's work since 1997 to address the shortage of affordable housing. In 1997, we inherited decades of decline in house building, which led to a serious problem. The building of enough affordable homes is at the top of the agenda of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Since 1997, we have made it a priority to address the £19-billion backlog of dealing with the 2 million homes below the decency threshold. We have doubled the investment in affordable housing for rent or purchase. Over the three years leading up to 2006, £5 billion will be spent. That investment will support the delivery of our new range of simpler, more affordable, more accessible home ownership schemes.

In the short term, through our new homebuy schemes, we will help more than 100,000 households to own their own home by 2010. Homebuy schemes will provide a flexible shared equity-based product that will increase access to home ownership for those currently priced out of the market. It will also provide opportunities for social tenants to buy a share in their homes. Homebuy will reinforce the long-term strategy by increasing home ownership opportunities for key workers. To address the need for affordable housing in the west midlands over the next two years, £198 million has been allocated to the housing corporation—an 11 per cent. increase on the figure for the past two years.

In the case of Birmingham, my hon. Friend has cited examples from his constituents who advise him that they have been told by the city council to stay put in their homes until the bailiffs arrive—examples which add up to bad practice. I share his objectives of wanting to tackle bad practice; that is why officials are working closely with local authorities to improve their understanding of the causes of homelessness and the successful solutions they can put in place to address them.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the individual cases he mentioned, but our policies and guidance for local authorities on how they should be tackling and preventing homelessness are clear. Local authorities should provide people with support to prevent homelessness at the earliest possible opportunity. This may involve helping tenants to continue to live in their current accommodation where possible or helping them to find alternative accommodation. It is not good practice simply to advise homeless applicants to remain in a property until eviction and we advise against that. For example, authorities could consult landlords to come to a mutual agreement which could allow a tenant to continue to occupy the accommodation for a reasonable period—and continue to pay rent—until the authority is able to help to find alternative accommodation. Hopefully, in this way the need for a possession order can be avoided and there will be a solution that meets the needs of all parties.

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that we have been assured by Birmingham city council that it is adopting the good practice we advocate in these circumstances. As part of the ODPM's support for local authorities, specialist advisers ran a homelessness workshop for officers in Birmingham city council in June. Our officials are due to meet senior officials from the council next week to discuss the policies being pursued by the authority and to provide guidance if needed.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I am glad that the Government frown on this deplorable practice of Birmingham city council, which also affects my constituents. The presence of other hon. Members from Birmingham shows that the problem is widespread. Councillor Lines wrote to me, saying:

"I am sure you will appreciate the need for Birmingham city council to reduce the number of homeless applications to the authority to ensure the demand can in some way match the available supply of social housing."

Is that not the crux of the matter? The supply of social housing is simply not sufficient to meet the demand in Birmingham due to large-scale demolition, right-to-buy sales and insufficient new capacity and new house building.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (London)

My hon. Friend made similar points in the Chamber yesterday evening when we were discussing socially affordable homes in the west midlands during a separate Adjournment debate. I accept that much of what she is saying is absolutely true. We have had decades of under-investment in house building and a lack of socially affordable homes for people to rent at prices they can afford. The Government are doing as much as they believe they can at the moment. House building is at the top of the ODPM's agenda.

We began the process in 1997 by making it a priority to bring 2 million homes up to the decency threshold—we are well on the way to meeting that target. I know that for those constituents of my hon. Friends who are in this predicament, it is all too little and too late, but we are spending billions of pounds trying to address the problem and find solutions to one of the most serious issues of concern for the Government.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

One of the problems is that Birmingham city council's only means of meeting the decent homes target is to demolish thousands of homes that do not meet that target. That is the crux of the matter. Birmingham needs 3,000 new homes a year; it is getting fewer than a third of them. There must be more investment in new homes and in ensuring that we do not have to demolish existing ones.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (London)

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend's main point, which is that we need more investment in house building and socially affordable homes. That is exactly what the Government are doing in their programme.

Although there are more people in temporary accommodation now, it is important to remember that these are people who have been helped and rehoused as a result of our stronger homelessness legislation. The vast majority—about 84 per cent.—are housed in self-contained homes in the private or social sector, but we accept that the figure reflects a shortage of suitable homes and we are determined to tackle that too. That is why our priority for action over the next three years is to increase the number of social rented homes. Together, investment in prevention and in new supply will turn around homelessness.

I hear exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield has said in relation to the problems faced by his constituents. As I said, officials from the ODPM are going to Birmingham next week. I am sure that my hon. Friend will keep a close eye on developments.

Sitting suspended.