The Government recently announced it is supporting Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill and MPs voted the Bill through its second reading. The legislation now has a good chance of becoming law sometime next year. So how will it change things for families threatened with homelessness?
The Bill laudably aims to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place by placing new legal duties on local councils to assess every eligible applicant, regardless of priority need, and help those who are threatened with homelessness to keep their home or find an alternative.
So let’s consider what the Bill might mean for one of the 113,000 homeless households who made an official application for help to their local council last year – not to mention the 212,000 cases dealt with via housing options advice.
Let’s imagine a working mother of three living in outer London. She’s already juggling rent with child care costs when the landlord says he’s putting up the rent by £100 a month. She says she can’t manage this, so the landlord serves notice – but when she starts looking for a new home, rents have become unaffordable and letting fees present a hefty barrier.
How will the bill help someone threatened with homelessness in this way?
Currently, the council would probably say they couldn’t do anything to help until the landlord had an eviction warrant. In the meantime tenants are left to search fruitlessly for accommodation. The Bill aims to address this by extending the definition of ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 28 to 56 days.
So the council would have a legal duty to help someone 56 days before they became homeless. This means the definition of homelessness is important.
The Bill changes this definition by explicitly stating that people are to be treated as homeless on the day a valid notice expires. This is very welcome and echoes the current statutory guidance. This would mean someone served with a notice seeking possession would be entitled to help just after the notice had been given – and long before the bailiffs arrive.
But unfortunately amendments made to the draft Bill mean that in its current form, the council would only have to help if:
- It’s ‘reasonable to suppose’ that the landlord intends to apply to the court
- Tenants can’t ‘reasonably be expected’ to wait for a court order and the council have ‘taken reasonable steps’ to persuade the landlord to withdraw the notice or delay the court proceedings. When assessing if it is reasonable for applicants to stay, councils must take into account the consequences (financial or otherwise) for the tenant, landlord and any other relevant people.
So back to our scenario of the homeless family. They go to the council with the notice seeking possession. The council call the landlord, who confirms that he intends to apply for possession and can’t be persuaded out of it. Having taken ‘reasonable steps’, the council now consider the consequences of requiring the family to remain. Moving the family at this point will require emergency accommodation (homeless hostel) paid for at nightly rates until they can find something more suitable. This will be expensive and may be out of the area. So they decide it’s reasonable to ask them to stay until the landlord obtains a court order. When it expires, they’ll be homeless.
Crucially, this means that are not yet threatened with homelessness under the Bill because it’s likely to be more than 56 days before the court makes an order and it comes into force. So the family would still be in the limbo they find themselves in now, waiting for court papers (and costs) to come through the door – and still there will be no requirement for the council to help them find a new home. As Giles Peaker points out in his Nearly Legal blog, the Bill actually makes the position worse than the DCLG’s current statutory code of guidance.
The Bill’s additional clauses create a dizzying circle around its good intentions. They are also unnecessary because there is no requirement on councils under the law at present to accommodate people as soon as they are homeless – they can already ask them to remain where they are for a limited period of time rather than be placed in temporary accommodation.
By amending the definition of homelessness in this way, there is a knock-on effect on people being threatened with homelessness, when prevention duties commence.
We know the intention of the Bill is to ensure councils do more to prevent homelessness, so we hope it will be tightened up to reflect this before it receives further scrutiny in the House of Commons later this month.