A key finding of the Committee’s recent report on homelessness was that the services provided to applicants for homeless support are not always adequate. We recognise the financial challenges faced by local authorities, and the increasing pressure that higher levels of homelessness bring. We believe, however, that more should be done to ensure that vulnerable people receive consistently high levels of service across the country. It is for this reason that the Committee supports the Homelessness Reduction Bill, the Private Member’s Bill introduced by Bob Blackman MP, a member of the Committee. We have scrutinised the draft Bill and made recommendations to help it better achieve its aims. We believe that this report and the evidence we have taken will both improve the Bill and help the House debate its provisions, and that our experience is a model on which other Select Committees and sponsors of Private Member’s Bills can draw.
We have made the following recommendations on the text of the Bill:
Clause 1: Definition of homelessness and threatened homelessness
We welcome the extension of the period that someone can be considered to be threatened with homelessness from 28 to 56 days, but we recommend that Clause 1(2) is revised so that it is clear that an applicant for support need not remain in a property where possession proceedings are underway for the local authority to treat such a person as homeless.
Clause 2: Duty of local housing authority to provide advice
We welcome the emphasis the Clause places on services preventing homelessness from occurring, and recommend that those who have experienced, or are at continued risk of, domestic violence and abuse should be included in Clause 2(4).
Clause 3: Mandatory code of practice
We welcome measures to address unacceptable levels of service at some local authorities: a code of practice for local authorities, alongside a clear explanation to applicants of the service levels they should expect to receive, need not be overly prescriptive, and could improve what is now an often hostile process.
Clause 4: Homelessness reduction duties
We welcome the requirement for an assessment and a personal housing plan as a means of providing more effective support for all applicants. We recommend that the definition of non-cooperation be clarified. We are not convinced that the requirement to secure accommodation for 12 months is workable and recommend that the period be six months, at least initially.
Clause 8: Becoming homeless intentionally
The Clause, as currently worded, is too broad. If it is to stay in the Bill, it should be redrafted to ensure that the protections for vulnerable people in priority need are not weakened.
Clause 9: Somewhere safe to stay
We support the principle behind the requirement that local authorities provide 56 days of emergency accommodation to those with nowhere safe to stay, but it is not feasible for councils to provide accommodation to all homeless people. We recommend that the Clause be revised to restrict the duty to those whose safety is at risk and call on the Secretary of State to issue guidance with objective measures to ascertain when someone is at risk of violence as compared to other forms of homelessness.
Clause 12: Definition of local connection
We do not believe that there is a consensus for changes to the local connection rules. We therefore recommend that the Clause be removed from the Bill.
Clause 14: Reviews of decisions
We agree that applicants should have the right to ask for a review of the support they receive from local authorities, but we recognise the potential impact on local authority resources of a significant increase in cases brought to review. We recommend an amendment to the Clause to restrict the scope of the reviews.
Clause 16: Accommodation suitability
We recommend that local authorities should be required both to take into account an applicant’s location preference and to balance this with long-term affordability for the applicant. Consideration should be given to providing a stronger duty to accommodate certain groups within a reasonable distance of their last permanent accommodation, such as people with mental health conditions who have a support network which is helpful in managing their condition, and families with children at school.
Clause 17: Co-operation between authorities and others
We recommend that the Clause be reinforced by statutory guidance that makes it clear that the diversion of funds away from a body’s primary duties is not a reason to withhold co-operation with measures to reduce homelessness.
Successful implementation will depend on a renewed, cross-Departmental Government strategy and close co-operation with local authorities.
The provisions of the Bill will undoubtedly make a significant call on the resources of local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government should ensure that the costs of new burdens on local authorities are fully taken into account in future funding and in arrangements for the 100% retention of business rates by local authorities. The Department should work with local authorities to develop a funding model that reflects local demand.
13 October 2016