Time to sit up and take notice

Neil Bateman says that behind the dull rhetoric about capital
expenditure and social rent levels, the government’s housing plans
will have a big impact on local authority housing benefit

Will the government’s recently announced housing plans make any
difference to housing benefit delays and homelessness rights?

Among the boring looking discussion of social rent levels and
capital expenditure, the government’s latest batch of housing plans
looks irrelevant to social care professionals. As so often, looks
are deceptive.

In fact the proposals, which include action on delivery of
housing benefit and giving more people rights under the
homelessness legislation, are very significant with a direct impact
on everyday social work practice.

It is common knowledge that housing benefit services in many
places are failing – even though there are local authorities that
do an excellent job. Given this, it is little wonder that some
people are thinking radically about where administration of this
benefit should go.

Indeed, the paper containing the proposals1 hints
that one option thought of was to get someone else to administer it
(though presumably not the private sector whose track record in
outsourcing this area has usually been to make a bad situation

Instead there is an emphasis on improving the standard of those
authorities that have fallen behind. It is also pointed out that
“local authorities which see housing benefit as one of their
strategic priorities tend to deliver better services”.

There is also recognition that matters are by no means all
within local authorities’ control. For example, silly rules
requiring a new claim to be made when a claimant starts work or the
fact that the majority of change in circumstance revisions that
have to be undertaken (involving massive cost and staff time)
result in a change to benefit of under £2 a week.

Consequently, it is proposed that the claims process is
streamlined, that a certain amount of information collected as part
of other claims is passed over as part of the housing benefit
claim, that social landlords be able to take on part of the task of
processing housing benefit, that the need to reclaim housing
benefit when entering work is ended, and that pensioners should no
longer have to reclaim each year. How far this sorts out the
difficulties will be interesting, but it all helps.

On homelessness, it is clear that speedy steps will be taken to
strengthen homelessness rights. The priority need categories will
be extended to include 16- and 17-year-olds and care leavers aged
18-21 who have already been given some protection by an amendment
to the Code of Guidance on Homelessness (which by law, housing
officers must “have regard to”).

The categories will also be extended to homeless people who are
vulnerable as a result of an institutionalised background or as a
result of fleeing domestic violence or harassment. The changes
highlight some real gaps in current legislation.

Furthermore, the rather absurd situation whereby local
authorities are not statutorily bound to provide housing for more
than two years will be quashed. This was introduced by the last
government following a ministerial homily about single parents at a
party conference and is pretty unworkable in practice.

Finally, local authorities will be given powers to provide
homelessness functions to non-priority need groups subject to
resources and to formulate inter-agency strategies to prevent
homelessness. An extra £8 million a year will be provided to
help this all happen.

While some will be disappointed that the housing benefit
proposals are not more radical, it should give a spur to local
authorities to treat these services with more vigour and the
homelessness reforms fill some gaping holes in the safety net.

1 Department of the Environment, Transport
and Regions, Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All,
DETR, 2001

Neil Bateman manages Suffolk Council and Suffolk Health
Authority’s welfare rights service. He is unable to answer queries
by post or by telephone. If you have a question to be answered in
Welfare Rights please write to him c/o Community Care.

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