Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

5. Memorandum from Shelter

  Shelter is a national campaigning charity that every year works with over 100,000 homeless or badly housed people, including many families with children and young people. We aim to provide practical support and innovative services for people in housing need and to use evidence gathered from this work to campaign for long-term changes to reduce and prevent homelessness and housing problems.

  We believe that everyone should be able to live in a decent and secure home that they can afford, within a neighbourhood where they feel safe, can work and fulfil their potential.

(a)   Current breaches of children's rights

  Children that experience homelessness are not having their rights protected through existing mechanisms. There is extensive evidence of the detrimental effect on the health, well being, education and physical and mental development of children living in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast. Despite this, the current rate of homelessness acceptances by local authorities suggests that over 100,000 children experience homelessness every year.

The right to good health

  "States Parties recognize the right of children to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health"

  Article 24, The Convention on the Rights of the Child

  Studies have shown the detrimental effects on the health of children of living in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast related to overcrowding, inadequate facilities and poor standards including:

    —  high prevalence of infectious respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases amongst children[1];

    —  increased risk of trauma to children as a result of accidents, and in some cases abuse as a result of additional stress on parents[2];

    —  Range of illnesses such as asthma and allergies linked to damp, mould and condensation; and

    —  poor diet linked to the limited cooking facilities available[3].

The right to a decent standard of living

  "1.  States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development . . .

  3.  States Parties, in accordance with national conditions and within their means, shall take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right and shall in case of need provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing."

  Article 27, The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  Temporary accommodation also affects children's mental health and development due to insecurity and problems associated with living in cramped conditions and enforced moves between different forms of temporary accommodation. Studies have identified:

    —  mental health problems and strains on family relationships linked to the stress of living in cramped accommodation[4];

    —  behavioural problems such as mood sings, hyper-activity, depression, reluctance to eat, disturbed sleep and bed-wetting; and

    —  impaired development of motor and speech skills[5].

The right to education

  "States Parties recognize the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity."

  Article 28, The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  "No person shall be denied the right to education."

  Article 2, Part II, Human Rights Act 1998.

  Evidence has also shown the negative impact on children's learning and behaviour at school due to frequent changes of school associated with moves between different forms of temporary accommodation; the difficulties doing homework in overcrowded conditions; and the stress and health impacts of temporary accommodation.[6].

  A Birmingham Study found that school attendance dropped dramatically when a child became homeless, three quarters of children were attending before they became homeless compared to only 29% afterwards[7].

The right to play

  "States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities."

  Article 31, The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  Overcrowding is a common feature of temporary accommodation, particularly bed and breakfast. Children living in cramped conditions have no personal space in which to relax, play and develop.

(b)   Why do existing mechanisms fail to prevent these breaches?

  Current legislation prevent street homelessness among families; most families with children who are homeless are automatically in priority need and entitled to be re-housed by the local authority. [8]However, existing legislation fails to prevent the use of temporary accommodation for families which is often of poor quality. This is due to a shortage of affordable housing and pressure on local authorities in areas of high demand. Placing families in temporary accommodation is the only way that some local authorities can currently fulfil their homelessness duties.

  In March 2002, the Government published "More than a roof" and a response from the then Secretary of State Stephen Byers. Included in this response was a commitment to end the use of bed and breakfast accommodation to house homeless families (for periods of more than six weeks) by March 2004. The Bed and Breakfast Unit (part of the Homelessness Directorate in the ODPM) will work with local authorities, housing associations, the voluntary sector and others to implement a £35 million programme to meet the B & B reduction target. While this will address the worst kinds of temporary accommodation being used, it may not achieve stable and good quality housing for children.

  Some homeless families with children are not entitled to accommodation from a housing authority. Homeless households can be deemed ineligible for assistance because they fall into prescribed categories of "persons from abroad" and households that are found to have become homeless "intentionally" do not qualify for temporary accommodation with the housing authority. In 2001-02 over 8,500 households in England were found to be homeless "intentionally". In such cases where the household has included children it has generally been the case that they have been referred to the social services authorities who have a range of powers to assist "children in need" under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. A child without housing is by any definition a child in need. However recent court cases[9] created uncertainty about the ability of social services to provide accommodation for homeless households including children in these circumstances. This meant that the only response available to social services authorities was to offer to take the children into care instead of providing accommodation for the whole household, which they could no long do. To a large extent these problems have been addressed by a further court case[10]. More effective liaison and referral arrangements between housing and social services authorities have also been brought into effect by the Homelessness Act 2002. The Children and Adoption Bill, when it receives Royal Assent, will amend section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and make it clear that social services authorities can provide accommodation for a family in order to meet the needs of the children in the family. What the changes in statute and case law do not address is the very wide discretion for social services authorities as to how they exercise their powers to assist children in need.

  The discretion extends to offering practical and effective support to children and their families in finding and keeping accommodation, at one end of the scale, to deciding not to make use of powers to help at all and, instead, offering as a long-stop the removal of the child from the family, at the other end (see R (W) v Lambeth LBC). Even after the amendment to s 17(6) of the Children Act, the core scheme will remain "power-based", without clear duties to help, even where children are in need. In cases where the European Convention on Human Rights might apply, there is uncertainty regarding the extent to which social services authorities must help. In R (J) v Enfield (4 March 2002, Administrative Court No 5054/2001), the Court accepted that in a case where, through homelessness, social services were proposing to take a child into care, Article 8 of the Convention (right to respect for family life and home) was engaged. In that case, the Court noted that under the Local Government Act 2000, authorities have a broad power to help which extends to assistance with accommodation. If not using the power would result in a breach of the Article 8 rights of the child (and of the parent), the Court held that the power must be used. In other words, it might be characterised as a duty in these circumstances.

(c)   What would be the role and powers of a Human Rights Commission or Children's Rights Commissioner with respect to the above?

  A Children's Rights Commissioner would act as an independent watchdog to defend the rights of children as set out in the Convention. In the Children's manifesto produced by charities, the appointment of a Commissioner was the first recommendation.

  The advantages of appointing a Commissioner would include their independence and their ability to address a range of issues that fall within different Government departments. A Children's commissioner could promote the full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) including the rights highlighted in section (a) as those denied to children that become homeless.

19 September 2002

1   Royal College of Physicians of London (1994) Homelessness and Ill Health: Report of a working party of the Royal College of Physicians, London: The Royal College of Physicians. Back

2   Health Visitors' Association and the General Medical Services Committee (1988) Homeless Families and their Health, London HVA and GMSC. Back

3   Stitt, S, Griffiths, G and Grant, D. (1994) "Homeless and Hungry: the evidence from Liverpool", Nutrition and Health, 9(4), pp 275-287. Back

4   Vostanis, P and Cumella, S (1999) Homeless Children: problems and needs, London: Jessica Kingsley. Back

5   Health Visitors' Association and the General Medical Services Committee (1988) ibid.  Back

6   Power, S, Whitty, G and Youdall, D (1996) No place to learn: homelessness and education, London: Shelter. Back

7   Vostanis, P and Cumella, S (1999) Homeless Children: problems and needs, London: Jessica Kingsley. Back

8   Under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities have a duty to re-house families with children or families that include a pregnant woman who become homeless, unless they are subject to immigration control or are intentionally homeless. Back

9   The cases were R (on the application of G) v Barnet LBC 11 April 2001; R v Lambeth LBC ex parte A, 5 November 2001. Back

10   R (W) v Lambeth LBC 3 May 2002. Back

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