How a legal stitch-up could undermine progress on homelessness

The Homelessness Reduction Bill potentially improves provision for non-priority need single people but Shelter is concerned by changes impacting families and vulnerable adults. Broadening the scope for finding someone intentionally homeless risks denying priority need households vital access to housing and opens up a legal minefield.

Parliament will next month debate Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill. It aims to ensure that local authorities help people threatened with homelessness as soon as possible. This would be available for all – families and vulnerable singles (who have a ‘priority need’ under the law) but also single people.

As a point of principle, making sure everyone gets some support can’t be disputed, and the proposal to provide emergency accommodation for single people with nowhere safe to stay is a game changer to reduce rough sleeping. (Although, as England’s largest provider of housing advice we know all too well that good law doesn’t always translate to practice unless resources are available).

So far so good. And this isn’t surprising as the bill is heavily influenced by Crisis’ research into the experiences of single homeless people and their recommendations for legal reform. This drew on the approach introduced in Wales in 2015.

Under the proposals only priority need households would have the right to be rehoused, but the council would have to prevent homelessness and try to help everyone eligible to find accommodation if they become homeless. This would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all.

It also marks a change in the way families and vulnerable single people are treated. In practice currently, most priority need applicants first go through an unofficial process of Housing Options advice. This looks at whether their homelessness could be prevented and relieved, for example by persuading family members to let them stay at home or finding a private rental.

Bringing this informal process under a statutory footing does mark an important shift in the spirit of the law and brings both opportunities and risks. On the plus side, it will formalise an often unaccountable process. It recognises the benefits of involving families in resolving their housing need, as indeed the best housing options teams already do. But it will need to be extremely carefully crafted to avoid the potential for people to fall through the net.

Both the Welsh legislation and the Homeless Reduction Bill impose an expectation to cooperate on applicants throughout this process. On the face of it, this is reasonable, but the concept of ‘cooperation’ is unworkably broad at present. This should concern everyone, as the current drafting of the bill opens up an expensive and time consuming legal minefield.

The bill says councils must set out “a summary of the steps to be taken by the applicant” when assessing the household. It’s obviously useful if people are given a checklist of documents the council will need to see and actions they could take to help themselves. But the risk is this sets people up to fail by failing to acknowledge people’s own capacities at a time of huge stress or the huge structural barriers in the housing market. Applicants who do not cooperate with what is expected of them will be denied further support.

In Wales, already one in ten applicants fall out of the system for failure to cooperate. Shelter Cymru has flagged concerns that this is higher than expected and too little is known about what is going wrong.  Unless drawn very tightly, it is likely that this will become subject to an unsustainable number of legal challenges – were demands reasonable and did the applicant really fail to cooperate?

Most alarming is that cooperation is being used to bring about a seismic shift in legislation.

The full rehousing duty is at present only owed to households who are unintentionally homeless. This is itself a controversial concept and the subject of much legal challenge. But at least it starts with a specific question: did the applicant do something or not do something that caused them to lose their last home?

The bill risks introducing a far murkier definition. What has someone done since they lost their home? This will be a lawyer’s charter; costing councils money and heaping stress and confusion on homeless families. Worse, it will mean that families who have lost a home through no fault of their own may no longer be entitled to rehousing. As a result, we will see a return to families with children becoming social service’s concern.

We are concerned that this change represents an erosion of existing protections for families and is out of step with the bill’s overriding intention to improve homelessness provision. But it is also unwise from a financial point of view, heralding a future of costly legal letters and more people living in expensive B&B accommodation provided by social services. MPs backing the law must ensure that welcome protection for single people isn’t at the expense of families already failed by the housing market.