Government offers councils legal advice on helping homeless families

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.

powers are to be used until existing provisions are amended by the
Children and Adoption Bill, currently going through

In the
past, local authorities used section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to
assist homeless children and their families by providing them with
accommodation, or its costs, where help from other sources such as
housing departments was not available.

last November, a Court of Appeal judgment cast doubt on the power
of Lambeth Council – and therefore all councils – to use section 17
for this purpose.

A high
court judgment last month about Enfield Council reinforced this,
stating that councils with social services responsibilities were
unable to provide either accommodation or cash assistance towards
accommodation under section 17.

judgment 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 judgments
meant the only option left to councils under the 1989 act was to
separate homeless families and take their children into

in the Enfield judgment, 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.

Department of Health has now followed up this judgment 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 to the Children and Adoption Bill becomes

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. This will reverse the effect of the
judgments and preserve 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.

local authorities struggling to find a way to help and be lawful,
this will definitely help,” said Shelter policy manager Sarah


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