98.As discussed in paragraphs 37 and 38 above, homelessness legislation in England requires local authorities to make inquiries of those seeking support to ascertain whether they are in priority need. Those who are unintentionally homeless and in priority need receive the full housing duty, and those who are not receive the guidance and support that we have heard can amount to little more than a “list of letting agents and being told to go away”. Single people without children are the most likely not to fall into the priority need categories. Priority need is assessed on basis of vulnerability, with the test being someone who is more vulnerable than an ‘ordinary street homeless person’ (see paragraphs 38 and 68). Mateasa Grant described being told she wasn’t “vulnerable enough” but anyone who is vulnerable should be able to expect appropriate support. The legislation allows there to be a two-tier support system between those judged to be in priority need and those who are not.
99.The Scottish and Welsh Governments have in recent years introduced new provisions to tackle homelessness. With effect from 31 December 2012, the priority need criterion for assessing homeless applications was abolished in Scotland. As a result, local authorities in Scotland have a duty to find permanent accommodation for all applicants who are unintentionally homeless. The changes were introduced in the Homelessness (Scotland) Act 2003, so the abolition had had a ten year lead-in time to allow councils to prepare for the change.
100.We asked Marcus Jones MP about the different legislative approach in Scotland, and he explained:
Our housing market is significantly different from the one in Scotland, and therefore I am not as sure that the system that is being employed in Scotland is one that we should look at too closely. We have looked very carefully at the work that they have done in Wales and the changes to the legislation.
101.We agree with the Minister’s assessment of the abolition of the priority need categories in Scotland. The Scottish housing market is significantly different to that in England, with, for example, a more stable private rental sector. For this reason, we do not advocate abolishing the priority need criterion.
102.The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 introduced a duty on Welsh local authorities to provide housing advice and assistance to everyone within their local area, regardless of whether or not they were homeless or threatened with homelessness. The new homelessness provisions are focused on getting local authorities, in partnership with other relevant bodies, to prevent and relieve homelessness wherever possible. The 2014 Act treats differently those assessed as homeless and those threatened with homelessness. For applicants threatened with homelessness, the local authority has a duty to prevent them from becoming homeless. By providing mediation, financial support or guarantees of financial support or security measures for applicants at risk of abuse councils should take steps to prevent the person’s homelessness. The timeframe when a person can be considered to be at risk of homelessness was also extended from 28 to 56 days. For applicants who are assessed as being homeless, local authorities in Wales have a duty to help secure accommodation for a period of 56 days (or fewer if they feel reasonable steps to secure accommodation have been taken). After this period, the local authority only has a continuing duty to secure accommodation for those in priority need who have not become homeless intentionally.
103.The Welsh model of homelessness legislation and the priority given to prevention was welcomed by many homeless charities. Representatives from local authorities were also broadly positive but had concerns over the resource burden that the enhanced prevention duty could place on local authorities. The Welsh Government told us that:
Additional funding was provided to Local Authorities to support the transition to the new legislation (provided for the first three years, however, reducing year on year)… In addition, a national training programme for front line staff was developed in partnership with Shelter Cymru and the Welsh Local Government Association. More than 600 people were trained, and this was supplemented by regional events which brought together Local Authority, Housing Association and Voluntary Sector staff for joint learning on the legislation and its implementation.
104.We received evidence from South Cambridgeshire District Council which already seeks to prioritise prevention, but has found that the effectiveness of prevention measures is being eroded by the wider context of the local market:
Prior to 2010/11 the Council had a high success rate in preventing homelessness with close to a 100% success rate. From 2010/11 onwards the rate of unsuccessful preventions increased so that in 2011/12 117 preventions were unsuccessful. This increased to 122 unsuccessful preventions in 2012/13 … even where a willingness to prevent homelessness exists (either through a statutory duty or through a Council’s own philosophy), the overall success is dependent on the wider housing and welfare context. The availability and affordability of the private rented sector as a viable option is particularly crucial.
105.The Minister told us:
I would say that the initial evidence shows that what they are doing in Wales looks promising. However, we need to see the data over a period to make sure that that data backs up what is promising evidence. We are certainly not ruling out looking at legislation and how that could change but we want to see how the data pans out and how it really works in Wales.
106.We welcome the aspirations of the Welsh legislation and support efforts to prevent homelessness before it occurs. Extending the timeframe over which someone can be considered to be at risk of homelessness from 28 to 56 days is particularly important as it gives councils the time to provide meaningful support. We appreciate the Government’s position of waiting for more evidence on the impact of the Welsh legislation and will be returning to the matter next year. We look forward to hearing from the Department on its assessment of the Welsh legislation in twelve months, including both on strengthening the duty to prevent homelessness and on measures to address applicants who are deemed to have behaved unreasonably.
107.A vital component in addressing homelessness is making sure that the support given to those at risk of homelessness and to those who are not in priority need, is meaningful. We heard regularly that many councils are doing their best to house those in priority need, while those not in priority need receive unacceptably variable levels of assistance. We therefore support the Homelessness Reduction Bill 2016–17 sponsored by Mr Blackman and urge Government to support the legislation. The Government should introduce statutory monitoring of local authority housing departments to ensure they meet the requirements of a revised Code of Guidance that outlines service levels to ensure that every homeless person receives the support they need.
108.In this report, we have called on Government to ensure that there is effective oversight and monitoring of local authorities. We recognise the pressures that councils are under and applaud the positive work that is taking place. However all homeless people deserve to receive the best possible support. In particular we would like to see monitoring of the quality of customer service in housing teams, the frequency of out of area placements and the process followed when housing families away from their home. This would most effectively be done by the Government, but we do not rule out the Committee seeking assurances directly from local authorities that our concerns are being met.
126 Q10 [Giles Peaker]
130 Welsh Government (HOL157) para 2
131 South Cambridgeshire District Council () para 5.2
3 August 2016