The department of health has advised social services departments
to use powers under the Local Government Act 2000 to help homeless
families with children in need until current provisions are amended
by the Children and Adoption Bill currently passing through
parliament, writes Lauren Revans.
In the past local authorities with social services
responsibilities used section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to assist
homeless children and their families by providing them with
accommodation, or the costs of accommodation, where help from other
sources – including housing departments – was not
But last November, a court of appeal judgement (
click here to read a legal analysis of the case) cast doubt on
the power of Lambeth council – and therefore all councils
– to use section 17 for this purpose. A high court judgement
last month about Enfield council (
click here to read a legal analysis of the case) reinforced
this, stating that councils with social services responsibilities
were unable to provide either accommodation or cash assistance
towards accommodation under section 17.
The judgement of a third case last April also stated that the
power to secure accommodation under section 20 of the 1989 act was
a duty to house children only, not their parents.
Combined, these judgements meant the only option left to
councils under the 1989 act was to separate homeless families and
take their children into care.
But, in the Enfield judgement, Mr Justice Elias advised councils
to look beyond the 1989 act to other legislation. He said councils
could use their power to improve or promote social or economic
well-being under section two of the Local Government Act 2000 as an
alternative way to provide financial or other assistance towards
the obtaining of accommodation.
The department of health, which attached itself to the Enfield
case, has now followed up Mr Elias’ judgement with guidance
to all directors of social services asking them to “note” how their
section two powers might be used until the amendment to the 1989
act tabled as part of the Children and Adoption Bill becomes
That amendment, tabled last month by health minister Jacqui
Smith, would extend the provision of services for children in need,
their families, and others under section 17 to specifically include
providing accommodation, reversing the effect of the judgements and
preserving the principles of the 1989 act, including keeping
families together wherever possible.
Homeless charity Shelter, which has long campaigned for the
amendment, welcomed the department of health’s efforts to
raise awareness of the potential use of the Local Government Act as
an interim measure.
“For local authorities struggling to find a way to help and be
lawful, this will definitely help,” said Shelter policy manager