Who are the homeless? Young adults still living with their
parents in cramped conditions? A mother of three in temporary
accommodation? A single man with mental health problems in a
The answer, according to MPs, can vary depending on which council
you apply to. A report by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s
select committee finds it “extraordinary” that some councils accept
half of all applications for homelessness status while others grant
as few as 9 per cent.
In London 44 per cent of applications are accepted on average. But
in Westminster it is only 21 per cent.
The committee says councils that reject too many homelessness
applications may be bending the rules and should be reported to the
Audit Commission. The report says: “Statutory definitions are being
inconsistently and carelessly applied; authorities seem to look for
reasons to turn people away rather than help.
“There are suspicions that ‘gate-keeping’ is getting tougher to
keep the number of acceptances down because authorities cannot cope
Committee chair Labour MP Andrew Bennett is concerned. He says: “It
seems Westminster Council is being harsh. Its defence is that it
gets more applications than most, but there is a suspicion that it
will send them on to other boroughs.”
Homelessness charity Shelter suspects that the pressure may be
coming from the centre. It recently surveyed 60 local authority
homelessness officers and nearly two-thirds said they felt under
pressure from the deputy prime minister’s office to reduce the
number of people accepted as homeless. As a result, many said they
passed the buck to other departments or councils.
Shelter’s director of communications, Ben Jackson, says: “Shelter
sees many cases of vulnerable people not being offered the option
of making a homelessness application.”
Gatekeeping can take insidious forms. MPs say there is evidence
that some social services departments are failing in their duty to
provide help to families declared “intentionally” homeless, instead
“offering” to take their children into care.
The report calls for clearer guidance on the legislation urgently,
particularly on the test of vulnerability, which groups have
priority and when people should be declared to have made themselves
The report also says the guidance needs to be clear about what
constitutes a fair assessment of mental health problems or a
learning difficulty, and all older people should be a priority, not
just if they are vulnerable.
Last week, deputy prime minister John Prescott announced a review
of the homelessness legislation and the largest survey of homeless
people for 10 years, covering 2,500 families in temporary
Charities and the social housing sector were also pleased that
Prescott announced more ambitious targets to get people out of
temporary accommodation and did not extend the Right to Buy
The government’s success in reducing the number of rough sleepers
and use of bed and breakfast accommodation has been welcomed. But
the number in temporary accommodation has more than doubled to more
than 100,000 since Labour took power.
The MPs’ report says Prescott’s original target last year to move
people out of temporary accommodation is “embarrassingly” lacking
ambition. But this criticism was pre-empted by the deputy prime
minister last week a couple of days before the report was published
when he pledged to halve the numbers in five years.
Jenny Edwards, chief executive of Homeless Link, says: “There is an
urgent need to tackle the silting up of temporary accommodation and
to ensure that homeless people get a fair look-in when social
housing is allocated. Offers of homes for hostel residents have
slowed to a trickle.”
Instead of extending Right to Buy as feared, Prescott announced
plans to expand the Homebuy scheme, which will allow housing
association tenants to buy between half and three-quarter shares in
their homes with interest-free equity loans, and with the future
possibility of buying them outright.
Housing associations will have first refusal if the tenant or
shareholder or owner wants to sell, which goes some way to allay
fears that the depleted stock of social housing will be further
“The government has to make a choice between more homes or more
homeowners and has rightly recognised that Right to Buy is the
wrong choice,” says Jim Coulter, chief executive of the National
Housing Federation. “It would reach a small number of people and
would also divert resources away from building new homes, at the
same time as reducing stock.”
But, although the deputy prime minister’s office says the scheme
will initially be voluntary for housing associations, homelessness
charities fear it could become compulsory.
There is also the question of where the funding will come from for
housing associations to buy back shares if the owner wants to sell,
since the original capital receipts from the sale are to be
reinvested in new social housing.
The obvious solution would be to build more affordable housing for
rent, and it is on this front that many fear the government is not
moving fast enough.
Last March, the Treasury’s Delivering Stability: Securing our
Future Housing Needs recommended an increase in the building rate
of at least 23,000 new social homes a year. But last week the
deputy prime minister’s office announced an increase of only 10,000
homes a year, which Shelter points out is not even half what is
Bennett says Prescott’s new five-year housing plan is a step in the
right direction. “However, I don’t think we should be encouraging
people to be buying existing social housing – we should be giving
them incentives to buy into the private sector,” he says.
It is often the children and grandchildren of social housing
tenants who – recognising a good investment – put up the money for
their ageing parents to buy the former family home, he says, adding
that this results in a single person staying on in a family
Bennett says: “The way in which the system works reduces the stock
of family housing that is available to rent, so it is increasingly
difficult for people with families to find somewhere. This is why
hostels and other temporary accommodation are silting up.”
Jackson agrees: “The five-year plan must reduce actual
homelessness. The only way to do this is to increase the supply of
affordable, decent housing and particularly family-sized
“We hope ministers will take heed of the select committee’s
recommendation that they produce explicit guidance on the
application of the ‘intentionality’ provisions and the way that
social services departments deal with ‘intentionally’ homeless
families with children.”
Key recommendations from the select committee include:
- Government should set clear and ambitious targets to eradicate
- Increasing the stock of social housing should be a
- Councils which reject too high a proportion of homelessness
status applications should be referred to the Audit
- Review homelessness legislation and guidance, especially its
definitions of vulnerability, priority need and the intentionally
- All older people, regardless of vulnerability, should be a
priority if homeless.
- The deputy prime minister’s office should commission a census
of the “hidden homeless” to establish the scale of the
Key points of John Prescott’s five-year plan:
- 300,000 council and housing association tenants to qualify for
interest-free equity loans to buy a stake in their homes, in an
extension to the Homebuy scheme.
- Target to halve the numbers living in temporary accommodation
- 10,000 extra units of social housing to be built each year by
- 200,000 new homes to be built in London and the South East in
four growth areas.
- £134m over the next two years for local authority and
voluntary sector schemes to help homeless people, notably in
mediation and relationship counselling services.
- Review of homelessness legislation and the way that statistics
- Survey of 2,500 households in temporary accommodation