It doesn’t sound very exciting but the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 came into force yesterday.
Behind the apparently harmless jargon of this statutory instrument is a story of indifference to human need and hypocrisy of the highest order.
In short, the Order sets out the matters that a local authority should take into account when using their new power under the Localism Act to discharge their main homelessness duty by finding accommodation in the private rented sector for a priority homeless household.
The order refers to the standards of physical accommodation and management which should be achieved, for example ensuring electrical and gas safety and that landlords are fit and proper persons.
The Order also sets out what seem to be reasonable conditions about the location of the private rented accommodation to which homeless households should be referred. Councils ‘must take into account’ distance, potential disruption to employment, health, education or caring arrangements, and the accommodation’s proximity to local services and transport. But in reality it’s a bit like saying we should all ‘take into account’ our health when tucking into a large pile of jam doughnuts because the Order is a million miles away from what councils – and the Government itself – are planning for homeless households.
Just as Grant Shapps wrote to 20 councils telling them they shouldn’t use bed and breakfast accommodation for more than 6 weeks whilst fully aware that many simply could not avoid doing so under current Government housing policies, Mark Prisk has signed this Order in the full knowledge that homeless households will be transported huge distances with the guaranteed disruption that his Order supposedly seeks to avoid.
Prisk even has the nerve to say the new system would provide ‘certainty for households’ and would offer ‘new protections’. Compare that with the case studies offered recently by the Guardian and the Child poverty Action Group, which showed that the outcomes for families are often horrendous.
At the same time as the Minister spouts about it not being fair or acceptable to place households many miles away from home, councils and his officials are planning to do just that.
Many newspapers and magazines have now carried stories about councils, especially London boroughs, moving households many miles away from home. Many more are procuring accommodation right now. Towns and cities have been mentioned in all parts of the Midlands and the South. The vast majority will not meet the location criteria set out in the Order, and everyone knows that.
To be stating one policy whilst practicing another is simply hypocritical. Patrick Butler in the Guardian has reported on what official Government advisers are telling the sector. He quotes a Government representative, Andy Gale – confirmed to me by another person present who was appalled by his message and tone – briefing that councils would have to undertake a procurement exercise for private rented accommodation and that, for many London authorities, this would involve looking outside the area. He briefed that the changes have to be ‘sold’ to council members including how to deal with questions like ‘is it about cuts’ and ‘surely the homeless are in the greatest housing need’. He talks about people playing the system. And, as Butler quotes, he exposes the underlying rationale behind the new brutal regime: ‘The overall conclusion of introducing this framework is inevitably that new statutory homelessness applications will become minimal.’
Gale, and presumable the department on whose behalf he was speaking, accepts that councils may seek to discharge their duties in distant towns, and that they may face legal action. Rather than show how councils can meet their obligations, his paper advises councils how best to frame their policies to avoid legal challenge.
On the ground, there is common acceptance that the mixture of welfare caps and changes in the homelessness duty will lead to many households having to move out of London. For example, 7 West London boroughs have joined forces to adopt a Homelessness Strategic Action Plan which explicitly aims ‘to manage the movement of households out of London in anticipation of the overall benefits cap and other benefit changes’.
The Government’s adoption of the title ‘Affordable Rent’ for its programme of unaffordable housing has rightly been called Orwellian by many. One meaning of Orwellian is ‘denial of truth’. A homelessness policy where the Government does exactly the opposite of what it says it is doing is fully deserving of that description.
And late addition – Nearly Legal has published Andy Gale’s briefing paper, so you can read more of his progressive thoughts if you want to.