A surprising degree of consensus has broken out in support of the Homelessness Reduction Bill, a private members Bill due to be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow (Friday), with backing now being given by both the Government and by the Opposition as well as the Local Government Association (whose members will have to implement it) and the charitable homelessness sector, primarily Crisis, which is in enthusiastic support. The Bill will need to get the backing of 100 MPs in a division tomorrow to be able to pass the first substantive stage and then go into Committee for more detailed scrutiny.
The version of the Bill to be debated tomorrow (it has already been amended from the original version after negotiations with the LGA and scrutiny by the CLG Select Committee) can be found on the House of Commons Library site here and the Library has also done an exceptional (as usual) Briefing Paper for those interested in the detail, which can be found here. There is a summary and a full briefing, covering not only the Bill but the current legislative framework and the various measures of homelessness. You can also sign up to regular Library bulletins on the Bill if it progresses to further Parliamentary stages. The scrutiny report by the CLG Select Committee is also of interest and can be found here. All of this background activity suggests that there is an expectation that the Bill might go the distance.
The Bill seeks to bring into English practice something similar to the system developed in Wales which is widely deemed to have been successful in reducing homelessness by providing early intervention and support and proper advice and assistance to all homeless people not just those deemed to be in priority need. Bob Blackman MP, the Tory sponsor, has said he wants the English system to do more to prevent homelessness in addition to being a safety net (one with large holes these days I have to say). He believes councils do not engage early enough when people are threatened with homelessness, especially from a private tenancy, single people are often turned away without advice, and there is too much variation in council practice.
Of course any improvement in the provision of services and enhancement of the rights of people threatened with homelessness is to be welcomed. My purpose here is to make a few more general comments.
First, the system introduced in Wales was carefully developed after detailed research and in close consultation between the Welsh Government and local councils – a method they call coproduction – and it has been regarded as being a success in its first year of operation, providing advice to a wider range of people and preventing homelessness actually occurring for many. Sensibly, there is close monitoring of the outcomes so the Welsh Government is in a good position to assess progress. Given the budget cuts imposed on Wales it is an outstanding piece of cooperative governance. However, the pressures in Wales, great through they are, are not as overwhelming as those in some parts of England and especially in London. It is good news that the LGA has considered the Bill in detail before agreeing to support it with a few amendments, but it will still be hard for some councils to respond in the way intended.
Secondly, there are doubts about some of the detailed content of the Bill which should be borne in mind if it goes into Committee. Those interested in the legal detail – how the Bill might operate and its impact on the existing legislation – are advised to follow Giles Peaker’s contributions on the Nearly Legal blog. After consideration, Giles also supports the Bill’s second reading, saying: ‘Overall, taken as a whole, the Bill is a positive step and my view is that second reading should be strongly supported. But there are some serious issues and drafting points that need to be addressed in committee and subsequent stages.’
Third, my cautionary tale. I was closely involved with Shelter during the implementation of the 2002 Homelessness Act. This introduced mandatory homelessness reviews and each council was obliged to put in place a homelessness strategy. There were positive changes to the priority need categories. In parallel, Government adopted a target to reduce the number of households in temporary accommodation by half (which was achieved a few years later). It all seemed so positive. Sadly the emphasis in strategies on the prevention of homelessness, combined with strong Government moves towards meeting the TA target, had some perverse outcomes. In particular, the desire to increase prevention led to the introduction of ‘housing options’ services which too often spilled over into stronger gatekeeping, as we have reported on Red Brick before. Use of TA came down (until the Tories took over in 2010) but it seemed this was often at the expense of homeless people who were turned away rather than an improvement. Similarly, councils have been under an advice and assistance duty in relation to single homeless people before, but with only limited results.
Fourth, the title ‘Homelessness Reduction’ is a total misnomer and gives a false flavour of what is happening in the housing world. Councils, especially in the highest demand areas, are struggling to find even temporary accommodation at present and the supply of genuinely affordable permanent accommodation will continue to fall as a result of Government policy. Councils have faced massive cuts to budgets and most have struggled to maintain any kind of advice service. The impact of many of the social security changes, especially the new benefit cap, has yet to be felt and there is likely to be a significant rise in homelessness as a result.
Homelessness can only sensibly be seen in the wider context of housing supply and poverty. None of the relevant policies and none of the indicators are going in the right direction. I hope this Bill will provide more support for individuals facing the trauma of threatened homelessness and will help many of them to postpone homelessness or obtain other accommodation: if it does, it is worth supporting just for that. But let no-one be in any doubt that homelessness is going to get worse not better. Cathy will not be coming home any time soon.