Amid the reaction to the Queen’s Speech and publication of the Levelling Up Bill, few noticed that the government had laid regulations in parliament that take away the hard-won rights of certain homeless households, particularly refugees.
As far as we’re concerned, this removal of rights, without public consultation, has crossed a red line. It’s likely to lead to refugees being left in – or moved to – wholly unsuitable accommodation, which risks damaging their health and wellbeing. This includes many children who’ve already gone through the trauma of fleeing their home and then faced the stress of homelessness in the UK.
What rights are being removed?
We’ll be publishing an explanatory note, but in short, the amended regulations mean that certain (see below) homeless individuals and families applying to the council for homelessness assistance from 1 June will no longer be entitled to two important protections:
1. Bed and breakfasts six-week rule: 2003 regulations require that homeless pregnant women and families with children under 18 shouldn’t be accommodated in B&B-style accommodation (i.e. accommodation from private providers with shared bathrooms and/or kitchens) and certainly for no more than six weeks.
Councils often breach this (over 40% of families in B&B have been there over six weeks), but the 2003 regulations allow those affected to challenge it. However, the amended regulations allow councils to accommodate some families with children in B&Bs for months on end. Homeless B&B accommodation means living in one, cramped room and sharing a toilet, bathroom and/or kitchen with complete strangers. It’s not uncommon for families to have to share beds.
The impact on both adults and children of B&B accommodation, even for just a few weeks, is very well documented. Younger children have no room to play, especially in winter, stunting their development; teenagers have no privacy or space to study, affecting confidence and grades; parents have to sit in the dark once children are in bed, straining relationships; and families struggle to prepare or eat healthy meals.
2. Out-of-area offers: The law requires councils to accommodate homeless households in their own area, unless it isn’t ‘reasonably practicable’. 2012 regulations make clear that accommodation can be unsuitable if it’s in a location that causes serious disruption to education or employment. Likewise, if it isn’t close enough to where the family were previously living, or to essential medical or support services they attend.
Again, councils often accommodate homeless households out-of-area (28% of households in temporary accommodation). But the amended regulations allow them to accommodate some individuals and families in a completely different part of the country to where they’ re settled.
This erodes 2012 rights, so councils don’t have to take into account serious disruption to education or employment when deciding where to accommodate. For example, where children may be settled in school and adults in work or training; or where people are attending regular medical appointments or have support packages that may have taken months to access.
Again, the impact of accommodating homeless families out of area is well documented, with families making long commutes on a string of buses simply to keep children settled in school, or facing the isolation of moving to an unfamiliar area where they have no friends to support them. It also means they can lose access to important services, such as bereavement counselling.
Whose homelessness rights have been cut?
These cuts to rights will affect people who arrived in the UK within the past two years and are eligible for homelessness assistance. This includes refugees – such as people from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong who have been offered resettlement visas to flee conflict or human rights abuses following an outpouring of public support, and who (in a welcome move) had been given immediate rights to homelessness assistance.
Most recent immigrants to the UK are already ineligible for homelessness assistance. Instead, people seeking asylum usually have to apply for accommodation from the Home Office. Others with No Recourse to Public Funds have to apply for support (including accommodation) from social services.
Now, as fast as they were given rights to homelessness assistance, these rights have been restricted. The regulations are apparently temporary: they have effect for 12 months and will then be reviewed.
The new regulations exclude people who (for the past three years) have had a right to occupy accommodation in the UK for at least six months. So, people returning to live in the UK after a spell of living abroad are unlikely to be affected – although they may be.
Some children who were airlifted from Afghanistan last summer have been waiting for months for a school place and will finally have started to settle down and make friends – the amended regulations mean they can be offered accommodation miles away and have to start all over again. Other refugees may have just started to access local counselling for PTSD, or other vital medical treatment, which they won’t be able to keep up.
Why is the government doing this?
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities laid these regulations quietly and under the radar, without making public any evidence for why it was necessary to remove these hard-won rights. It’s unclear if they’ve formally consulted with people likely to be affected: those with direct experience of being a homeless refugee.
This removal of rights appears to be an attempt to make it easier for councils to find accommodation for the hundreds of Afghan families still stuck in hotels more than nine months after being airlifted from Kabul. It may also be in response to the growing numbers of Ukrainian refugees applying for homelessness assistance because accommodation from family or hosts has broken down.
But a lack of suitable accommodation in some localities (which can be fixed by government) shouldn’t be a reason to remove the rights of homeless people.
What do we think about this?
Shelter campaigned hard for both the 2003 and 2012 protections for homeless people. So, in our view, the government has crossed a red line by taking away these hard-won rights, even temporarily.
It’s appalling and potentially discriminatory to set up a two-tier system that singles out refugees and strips away their rights. It suggests that it’s acceptable for children still processing the trauma of fleeing Kabul or Kyiv to stay in accommodation that’s not considered suitable for children from Kidderminster.
We urge the government to withdraw these damaging regulations before they take effect on 1 June, so that all homeless people have the same rights to somewhere suitable to stay.
Support our campaign to end the housing emergency so that councils can help all homeless people in England to access a suitable home.