Today, the Homelessness Reduction Bill passed Report Stage and Third Reading in the House of Commons. Shelter supports the overall aims of the Bill, particularly the emphasis on the prevention of homelessness and offering help to more people. However, the Bill alone will not significantly reduce homelessness, even with the new money announced by the Government.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill has come a long way since it was first introduced to the House of Commons last June. Although the Bill has changed significantly since then, the overarching aims have remained the same.
Shelter supports the Bill because it will mean that all those who are eligible are entitled to some help when threatened with homelessness, rather than just those who are unintentionally homeless and in priority need. It represents a huge expansion in the rights of single homeless people and should help to ensure that no-one is turned away without assistance.
Importantly, the Bill also aims to encourage councils to prevent homelessness by intervening early and taking a more humane approach. By helping people who are threatened with homelessness as soon as possible, councils will not only be able to use their resources more efficiently but will also have a better chance of helping them find a solution.
What changed at Committee?
At Committee Stage, the Government amended Clause 1 of the Bill. The majority of it was stripped out and they only kept the part which extends the period of ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 28 to 56 days. Currently, a council should accept you as homeless if it’s likely that you could lose your home within the next 28 days. This applies if you’re a tenant being evicted or if you’re a homeowner threatened with repossession by your mortgage lender. Clause 1 extends that period from 28 days to 56 days. We are very supportive of this part of the Bill, as it facilitates the early intervention mentioned above.
But unfortunately, if the help to prevent homelessness doesn’t work, Clause 1 now will not prevent the distressing practice of tenants being asked by local authorities to stay in their property until the bailiffs come. This was one of the original aspirations of many supporting the bill. Not just a missed opportunity, this move actually undermines the current statutory guidance by allowing councils to continue to argue that applicants are not homeless, nor entitled to interim accommodation, until the bailiff eviction. This is costly and distressing for tenants, and a reason why landlords can be nervous about letting to people on lower incomes. Even if statutory guidance reiterates that a person should be treated as homeless at the expiry of the notice, councils could continue to flout this as they do now.
What changed at Report Stage?
The Government brought forward an amendment to Clause 7 today, which introduces consequences for people have refused a suitable offer of accommodation at relief stage. Effectively, this means that priority need households could have to accept a six-month tenancy as a relief measure, rather than benefit from the greater protection afforded to them under the main homelessness duty, which requires a minimum of 12 months under the main homelessness duty. Monitoring of the bill must be alert to the impact on repeat homelessness.
The Government also amended Clause 1 to ensure that, in cases where a local authority breaches the Code of Guidance and does not consider a household homeless once a Section 21 notice expires, they will still be required to undertake prevention work with that household until the homelessness is either successfully prevented or the relief duty is owed.
What stayed the same?
The Bill retains the Clause 7 provisions for councils to give notice to applicants whom they consider to have “deliberately and unreasonably refused to cooperate”. This is intended to ensure that applicants cooperate with the help given.
We are supportive of the concept of “deliberately and unreasonably refusing to cooperate” as the justification for this sanction. If vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, are not to be denied help under this measure, it must remain a high bar.
What impact will the Bill have?
Despite the laudable aims of the Bill, we must remain mindful of the fact that legislation alone will not significantly reduce homelessness. The rise in homelessness has primarily been caused by a chronic shortage of affordable homes where they are needed. Indeed, the leading cause of homelessness is people not being able to find somewhere else to live once their tenancy comes to an end. The Bill does nothing to solve this problem.
The Government needs to address the structural causes if it is to have any hope of genuinely reducing homelessness. This should include reversing the freeze on local housing allowance in the short term, and in the long term building homes that people on lower incomes can actually afford.
Housing benefit to tackle affordability problems is the most important tool to prevent homelessness. If the current freeze on Local Housing Allowance rates continues, by 2020 families in four-fifths of the country could face a gap between the support they need to pay their rent and the maximum support they are entitled to. Some 330,000 working families are likely to be affected.
In order to help the many private tenants who could be at risk of homelessness because of the freeze, the Government must review Local Housing Allowance rates and ensure that housing benefit reflects actual housing costs. This would go a long way to reducing homelessness, helping people to help themselves, putting less strain on council resources and, where they are required to assist, giving them more scope to help people keep their homes or find an alternative.