37.Local authorities do not have a duty to provide accommodation for all homeless people, only for those who are judged to fall within certain categories of ‘priority need’. The categories of priority need are specified in section 189 of the Housing Act 1996 and were expanded in 2002. They are:
a)People with dependent children who are residing or might reasonably be expected to reside with them, for example, because the family is separated solely because of the need for accommodation; or
b)People who are homeless or threatened with homelessness as a result of any emergency such as flood, fire or any other disaster; or
c)Where any person who resides or who might reasonably be expected to reside with them, is vulnerable because of old age, mental illness, handicap or physical disability or other special reason; or
d)Pregnant women, or a person who resides or might reasonably be expected to reside with a pregnant woman;
e)All 16 and 17 year olds;
f)18–20 year old care leavers;
g)Vulnerable care leavers;
h)Vulnerable former members of the armed forces;
i)Vulnerable former prisoners; and
j)People who are vulnerable because they are fleeing violence.
38.When assessing an application for homelessness support, local authorities in England must determine whether the applicant is in priority need based on their vulnerability. A 1998 case, Pereira v Camden Council, set the test for vulnerability as being that a person should be considered vulnerable if being homeless would make them suffer more than ‘the ordinary homeless person’. In 2004 subsequent case law refined this definition so that the comparator is ‘an ordinary street homeless person’. Applicants for homelessness support must therefore demonstrate that they are more vulnerable than an extremely vulnerable person. Someone seeking support from their council who falls into one of the above categories and is judged as not being intentionally homeless is entitled to secure permanent accommodation. If an applicant does not qualify under one of the priority need categories, the council has a lesser duty of providing advice and assistance to help them find accommodation. Single people and couples without children who are not vulnerable according to the statutory criteria are therefore unlikely to be in priority need and qualify for the main housing duty.
39.Local authorities have a duty to make the necessary inquiries to ascertain what level of duty they owe an applicant. We have received much evidence however that suggests that this does not always happen. In the face of increasing demand on services and decreasing funding, some councils have been ‘gatekeeping’ access to services by not making the necessary inquiries. Kate Webb from Shelter told us:
People underestimate how tenacious you have to be to get a homeless application taken … There is a lack of accountability around it. We cannot avoid the fact that there is a sharper form of gatekeeping as well, where people are just being incredibly poorly served by a public service. We have had pregnant clients, who should be automatically regarded as in priority need, told that they are not pregnant enough. There is no such question in the legislation. We have heard of some local authorities who will come out and announce to the waiting room that if you continue with an application, you will be re-housed in Birmingham. Of course, that is never confirmed in writing, but as a verbal declaration it sends a clear statement about whether you should continue to make an application. It is undoubtedly a hostile environment if you are trying to make an application.
40.Giles Peaker told us that some local authorities use ‘housing options’ support schemes as a gatekeeping mechanism:
The problem is typically [local authorities] not just making an application difficult, but an attempt to filter people away from getting a homeless application made, let alone accepted. That has unfortunately been, in part, the role of what some local authorities have been calling their housing options routes … Typically we find people saying that you have to go through the housing options route for 14 days or 28 days before they will take a homeless application. If someone is at risk of homelessness, that application has to be made when they present, otherwise it is gatekeeping.
41.Mr Peaker also described to us the level of support usually received by applicants who are not judged to be in priority need:
Protection or help outside of that group is extremely limited. There is a duty to provide advice for people who are homeless but not in priority need. This typically amounts to a list of letting agents and being told to go away … Outside of the full statutory protection, which is typically families or people with very particular vulnerability, there is very limited support indeed.
42.We also took evidence from Mateasa Grant, someone with first-hand experience of council gatekeeping and extremely low levels of support and guidance. Ms Grant was made homeless in 2013. When she approached her council for support she was judged as not being in priority need and only given leaflets about local charities. Following her experience, she started working with Crisis as a mystery shopper and approached different councils posing as a homeless person seeking support:
As I approached them under cover, I was an 18 year-old girl who had been kicked out of her house by her parents. Generally the stereotype around that would most probably be that it was my fault; that is the reason why I was homeless. A lot of the time I was advised to work out what my problems were with my home life. I was never asked if I was being abused by my parents or what the problem was … There would be times I would be given numbers for organisations and the numbers were incorrect or I would have to find the information myself. A lot of the time, as well, they would just tell me to go to Google. If I am homeless without access to the internet or any money or a smartphone, I do not know how I am supposed to access Google.
43.The mystery shopper exercise carried out by Crisis revealed that in 50 of the 87 visits carried out, the help offered was inadequate. In 29 cases the ‘applicant’ was turned away without any help being offered or the opportunity to speak with a housing advisor, despite all of the mystery shoppers posing as very vulnerable individuals. Jon Sparkes from Crisis told us that:
it was not simply that the law was wrong. There were many cases in the mystery shopping where the treatment of that individual was simply unprofessional or even inhumane. Being professional as opposed to unprofessional, or humane as opposed to inhumane, does not cost anything more.
45.In the film ‘Half Way’ we saw how the Hudson family approached their local authority for assistance once they had received an eviction notice from their landlord. However, the council would not help them until they had been declared homeless at the end of the eviction notice period. Shelter told us that:
Local authorities have a duty to make inquiries if they believe an applicant is threatened with homelessness within 28 days. However, the high levels of demand for assistance in some areas, means that homelessness is often left to reach crisis point: authorities routinely advise people to await the bailiffs before they make a statutory application.
46.Witnesses from local authorities, by contrast, provided examples of councils seeking to deliver services in a less hostile way. Cllr Daniel Astaire from Westminster City Council told us that his authority was:
looking at what other services you join up with, how you point people in the direction of employment and skills-related services, and how you make sure that homelessness—which is the symptom of other problems—is tackled in a more holistic way. We are more welcoming with people. We also recognise that when people are coming to the housing options service they are at their most vulnerable and your service should reflect that.
47.However, we also heard evidence that, despite local authorities’ best intentions, the application process can be challenging for homeless people. Nick Hooper from Bristol City Council told us:
In Bristol, it has become more difficult to provide a welcoming and first-stop response to people. When somebody is homeless on the night, we will absolutely do the assessment and find them accommodation, but if somebody might be threatened with homelessness because they have had a notice served by their landlord, because of the volume of inquiries that we are now getting there is a temptation to ask the person to come back again at the point where the risk is greater. That is pretty unproductive.
48.We recognise that councils are under extreme pressure to deal with an increasing demand in a climate of reduced funding—Birmingham City Council for example receives around 6,000 homeless applications every year. In Westminster, the council does not have enough available homes to house all those in priority need and so has to make use of temporary accommodation, at a cost of £4 million. Cllr Astaire summed up the challenge for local authorities: “At the same time as being a caring council and one that understands people’s needs, we also have to make sure that we look after the needs of our city and our taxpayer”.
49.There are many local authorities that go beyond their statutory requirements, and they should be commended. The London Borough of Newham for instance has introduced Personal Housing Plans: agreements between the authority and applicant when the applicant is at risk of losing their home within 56 days. Both parties agree to a range of actions designed to prevent homelessness. In Camden, the council also prioritises early intervention to tackle homelessness before it occurs. Rough sleepers and those at risk of homelessness are identified by outreach teams, and are then provided supported accommodation through the Camden Adult Hostel Pathway with support being provided to progress towards independent living. We consider the experiences of homeless people in more detail in the next Chapter.
50.We acknowledge that the task facing local authorities is significant and that under the current legislation, sorting and prioritising some applicants over others is required. However it is not acceptable that the level of support offered to vulnerable people can vary significantly across the country. We welcome and applaud initiatives such as those at Newham and Camden, but remain concerned that some other local authorities have not been so proactive. As we have heard from witnesses who have been homeless: at a time when they are most vulnerable, people deserve to be treated with compassion and understanding rather than as if they were at fault. We therefore call on the Government to monitor local authorities in order to promote best practice, to identify authorities which are not meeting their statutory duties and implement a code of practice to which local authorities should adhere. We will continue to monitor the work of local authorities and will return to the issue in twelve months and may consider commissioning independent research of local authority practises.
51.Homeless households found to be unintentionally homeless and in priority need are owed the full housing duty. Section 208 of the Housing Act 1996 requires that where it is “reasonably practicable”, local authorities should secure accommodation within their administrative boundary. However, the combination of a limited supply of social housing and rising costs in many areas (particularly in London) means that some authorities are increasingly looking to house homeless households in cheaper areas outside their administrative boundaries. According to Shelter, the number of households placed outside their home area has increased by over 200 per cent since 2010. Shelter express concern that out of area placements were not suitable for all. Moves can be severely disruptive to work, schooling or support needs and the charity argues that “families are given no choice in terms of location, and are sometimes made an out-of-area offer on the day they are made homeless, with no time to consider a move”.
52.Westminster City Council was subject to legal action when it attempted to house the family of Titina Nzolameso in Bletchley near Milton Keynes. The Supreme Court found that the council had failed to consider the family’s needs or offer alternative solutions:
There is little to suggest that serious consideration was given to the authority’s obligations before the decision was taken to offer the property in Bletchley. The temporary lettings team … did not ask any questions aimed at assessing how practicable it would be for the family to move out of the area. Nor were any inquiries made to see whether school places would be available in Bletchley and what the appellant’s particular medical conditions required.
53.Cllr Daniel Astaire told the Committee that “The Nzolameso case was not about whether or not we could house families outside of the borough; it was about the process that was adopted to get there. I do not think anyone is debating the principle of whether we can house people out of borough.” Housing people away from their homes and support networks should be an action of last resort, but we appreciate the pressures that councils are under and do not oppose out of area placements in principle. Nonetheless we are concerned that some authorities do not always follow the statutory guidance and fully consider the needs of the family being placed, or whether there might be a nearer available home.
54.Cllr Astaire described the pressures that authorities such as Westminster face. He told us that in the past his authority had accepted between 300–400 applications a year as being owed the full housing duty. In 2012 this went up to 812 and has now stabilised at around 700. Cllr Astaire explained that while some of these households could be accommodated in the local private sector, finding homes that were affordable to tenants in receipt of LHA was “nigh-on impossible”. For this reason, he argued that when a council considered whether a placement was suitable for a family, the affordability to the family must also be considered. This view is shared by other London Boroughs, such as Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea, which argue that the Code of Guidance for local authorities needs to be amended to place a greater weight on affordability, both to the household and to welfare benefit budgets. Westminster City Council also advocates amending the Code of Guidance so that councils can place families in affordable areas “without fear of legal challenge”. Local authorities seeking to house homeless families face a significant challenge, especially in high value areas such as London. However the needs of the individuals must be fully considered. When this has not happened, it is entirely appropriate that they should be able to challenge the decisions taken by their local council. The Secretary of State should write to all local housing authorities to reiterate councils’ duties as outlined in the Code of Guidance and emphasise the duty of care that local authorities owe to some of their most vulnerable residents.
55.Jim Crawshaw told us that Birmingham City Council had received around 130 households placed into the city by other authorities, usually from London. When a council chooses to place a household in another area, it should notify the receiving authority, but this does not always happen. Mr Crawshaw also pointed to the pressure that the placements have on the receiving authority. Councils with high living costs placing families in less expensive areas is affecting the availability and affordability of housing in those areas. Birmingham has recently started to place its families outside of the city boundaries as it is unable to find accommodation in the city. Thurrock Council state that local rents have risen as a result of London boroughs paying higher rents and offering financial incentives to landlords, sometimes as much as £4,000. Similarly Braintree District Council expects
more competition from other Local Authorities (from London or nearer to London) as they seek to discharge their housing duty to the private sector. This creates a ‘ripple effect’–Chelmsford already use property in Braintree to help discharge their homelessness duty and we expect this to increase.
56.The impact on the areas receiving homeless households from other parts of the country should be recognised, and the Government should monitor local authorities to ensure that such placements only occur as a last resort. The practice and process of housing homeless families in areas away from their support networks, employment and schooling should be monitored. Local authorities should be required to demonstrate that the families are supported to make the moves successful, the receiving authority has been notified, the placement is as close to the family’s former home as possible and all the family’s needs have been fully considered. The Government should also consider what guidance should be given to local authorities where families move from low cost areas of the country to higher cost areas and subsequently present themselves as homeless after short periods of time in privately rented accommodation. We recognise that this might need new secondary legislation.
49 Q31 [Kate Webb]
50 Q31 [Giles Peaker]
52 Qq 177-178
53 Crisis () para 5.5
55 Shelter (HOL94) para 41
56 Q71 [Cllr Astaire]
57 Q71 [Nick Hooper]
58 Q71 [Jim Crawshaw]
59 Q72 [Cllr Astaire]
60 London Borough of Newham () para 4.2
61 London Borough of Camden () para 2.3
62 Shelter () paras 33-34
63 Quoted in “Tenant wins battle to stop Westminster council moving her out of London”, The Guardian, 2 April 2015
65 Q73 [Cllr Astaire]
66 Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Wandsworth Borough Council () para 3.2
67 Westminster City Council () para 1.3
68 Q81 [Jim Crawshaw]
69 Thurrock Council ()
70 Braintree District Council () para 5.3
3 August 2016