Councils fail to deal with homeless people fairly, say MPs

    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
    hostel?

    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
    with demand.”

    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
    “intentionally” homeless.

    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
    accommodation.

    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
    scheme.

    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
    eroded.

    “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
    needed.

    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
    home.

    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
    homes.

    “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.”

    MPs’ PROPOSALS
    Key recommendations from the select committee include:

    • Government should set clear and ambitious targets to eradicate
      homelessness.
    • Increasing the stock of social housing should be a
      priority.
    • Councils which reject too high a proportion of homelessness
      status applications should be referred to the Audit
      Commission. 
    • Review homelessness legislation and guidance, especially its
      definitions of vulnerability, priority need and the intentionally
      Homeless.
    • 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
      problem.
      Report from
      www.publications.
      parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmodpm.htm

    FIVE-YEAR PLAN   
    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
      by 2010.
    • 10,000 extra units of social housing to be built each year by
      2008.
    • 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
      are collected.
    • Survey of 2,500 households in temporary accommodation
      Report from
      www.odpm.gov.uk/fiveyearstrategy

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