Desperation among local authority housing departments is running so high that homeless families are regularly told they can be given accommodation only if their children go into care, writes Elizabeth Davidson. This shocking response on the part of the authorities is clearly a fob-off given that this would not only breach their legal duties but would cost their social services departments a lot of money.
Nevertheless, it illustrates the pressure local authorities are under. ‘It happens on a fortnightly basis,’ reports Pamela Fitzpatrick, director of Harrow Law Centre. ‘If that’s what you tell a family, then they disappear pretty quickly. If you raise this with the council they will say it doesn’t happen but, on the ground, it is happening. The reason is to make the family go away.’
Fitzpatrick, who says she often hears of families with children who are sofa-surfing, expects the situation to get worse when a cap on the total amount of benefit is introduced in April 2013. In addition, from that date legal aid will no longer be available for housing (except where there is an immediate threat of homelessness) or welfare benefits matters.
More demand than we can meet
‘There will be an increase in homelessness – we are seeing that now – it’s our main area of work,’ says Fitzpatrick.
‘Lots of people don’t make it to an advice agency, and fewer people will be able to get advice. Demand is already more than we can meet, and this is coming at the same time as other agencies are withdrawing their services due to funding pressures.’
‘We can still deal with homelessness but it becomes a “chicken and egg” situation. A mistake may have been made in the calculation, or the person may have been able to apply for a “discretionary housing payment” if we could have advised them earlier, but at the point of eviction it is often too late. It is always more difficult when people come to us at a late stage.’
However, she emphasises that Harrow Law Centre will fund-raise and will carry on advising people.
The benefits cap is £350 per week for single adults without children, and £500 per week for single parents and couples. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) expects the cap to affect 56,000 households losing on average £91 per week.
Currently, five million households – many of which have an adult in work – receive housing benefit, at a cost of £23bn per year. Of these, 1.6 million are in the private rented sector. Last year, the government introduced changes to housing benefit, including reductions in housing allowance rates for private sector tenants and deductions in payments to social sector tenants in under-occupied homes, with the aim of saving £2.3bn per year.
In total, the DWP estimates that about two million households will receive lower benefits, with about 660,000 social rented sector claimants losing between 14 and 25 per cent of their housing benefit.
‘More and more people on low incomes are going to need advice on Housing Benefit as the changes start to bite,’ reckons Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Federation. ‘At the same time Law Centres and other organisations will lose their legal aid income for this type of advice. We will do their best to find ways to continue to help vulnerable people struggling with benefits problems but it will be an uphill struggle and may prove impossible.’
Between a rock and a hard place
According to a report by the Child Poverty Action Group (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) about 63,000 households with children will be unable to pay their rent as a result of the reforms. This will lead to overcrowding, a problem which already blights the lives of more than quarter of a million households in London.
Test cases are likely to be brought as the benefit reforms bed in, with one potential area of challenge being the ‘suitability’ of accommodation offered. Kate Bell, London campaign co-ordinator, CPAG, says: ‘The government is strengthening its guidance on suitability of accommodation under homelessness legislation, so people may bring challenges against local authorities where they are moved outside of London.’
Plans to move families out of the capital have been revealed by several London councils. Newham council caused controversy earlier this year when it said it was considering moving 150 families to Stoke-on-Trent, while Westminster council has reportedly considered Derby and Nottingham as potential destinations – see reports of social cleansing.
According to Fitzpatrick, Harrow council has offered homeless families accommodation in Luton, the Midlands and Northampton.
Given that many housing benefit recipients work either part or full-time, does this mean that some of those being moved may have to give up their jobs?
Fitzpatrick says this is ‘perfectly possible’ — individual local authorities have discretion over what criteria they apply – even though it seems counter-productive to the government’s stated aims of reforming the benefits system to encourage people into work.
She makes the point that those being moved include people with poor health or anxiety problems, and they will lose their support networks with family and friends. This could lead to or exacerbate other problems. She adds that the areas they are relocating to generally have low job prospects. Children will also need to move school.
And how will people unable to pay their rent afford the cost of moving to another city? Surely, some help will be available?
Not so, says Fitzpatrick. There will be no help given to move house. People can apply to the Social Fund for an emergency grant or loan, but it is not yet known whether, or how much, local authorities will give.
She makes the point that there is a myth around benefits, which is that people are being given lots of money. In fact, the money goes to the landlord, and the accommodation is usually modest albeit with an extortionate rent because of the property price boom in certain parts of London and the South East.
‘People with high rents are not living in luxury. The cost of travel is also going up, so you have to wonder what’s going to happen.’
While the housing benefit bill is high, is this the best way to reduce it? Once other spin-off costs are taken into account, how much will be saved? Why is the government focusing on tenants rather than landlords? These are questions for politicians, but it is community lawyers who will witness the impact of the changes on the ground.
Fitzpatrick says she would like to see the return of rent regulation, which was abolished in 1989.
She makes the point – familiar to most legal aid lawyers and advice agency staff – that ‘if you cut money in one area, the cost springs up somewhere else’.
‘If someone can’t pay their rent, that leads to homelessness or sickness which leads to added costs for the local authority or the NHS. Their children are tired at school, their schoolwork suffers. Perhaps their behaviour suffers and they are excluded from school. It leads to a cycle of events.’