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Finishing the job

Crisis has just published a plan to end homelessness in Britain. Nick Morris outlines the legal changes needed to do it.

By the time this issue of WHQ reaches you Crisis’s 50th anniversary year will have ended. We were never keen to celebrate this milestone. Nor did our founders expect that we would still exist half a century later. What we did do to mark this occasion, however, was to prepare and launch plan to end homelessness in the three nations of Britain.

Everybody In: how to end homelessness in Great Britain contains evidence-based solutions for the long term, rather than to suit current political favour, building on what has worked in England, Scotland, Wales and abroad to end homelessness. The plan shows the costs of preventing and solving homelessness for people, along with the policy changes needed to get us there. At its core is the belief that everyone should have – and is ready for – a safe, stable place to live. Everybody Indemonstrates that, although it will not be easy, with right policies and the political will in place the three nations of Britain could end homelessness within 10 years. We can get everybody in.

Given the focus on legal matters in WHQ,this article looks at just one of the chapters: the ideal legal framework to help end homelessness. It will not go into the comprehensive detail nor revisit the history of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 but both are contained within the plan to end homelessness.

In preparing the chapter on the plan to end homelessness we commissioned an analysis and proposals for reform from two leading experts, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot-Watt University and Liz Davies, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers who specialises in housing and homelessness law. We were also grateful to Dr Pete Mackie at Cardiff University for his comments on the chapter as it developed.

The right framework of law runs as a thread in our efforts to prevent homelessness, rapidly resolve it when it does happen, and put in place the ongoing efforts needed to end it. But it relies on the following:

  • Welsh Government committing to ending homelessness within ten years and coming up with a specific plan of action to do this. Of course, we also need the Westminster Government to ensure a functioning benefit system, which is why we have also set out the changes needed to do this
  • Measures to supply the affordable housing needed to end homelessness
  • And, of course, adequate funding to meet these duties.

In Wales we can be proud of the wide-ranging housing duties for homelessness prevention and relief. In 2016-17 these duties helped 62 per cent of households threatened by homelessness to avoid it and 41 per cent who were homeless to be successfully relieved. Feedback continues to be positive overall.

Yet, people are still clearly missing out on the help they need and falling through the gaps in the legal system. Everybody In sets out the nine legal principles of an ideal legal framework for ending homelessness – how we can fill those gaps – and includes a generalised ‘traffic light’ rating for each nation of Britain (see box).

Principle 1: For those who face the imminent threat of homelessness (within 56 days), a set of robust prevention duties should be in place. There is plenty of evidence that the duties in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 led to a range of positive effects, not least those identified by Crisis’s Homelessness Monitor 2017report, published with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This principle also needs to be part of a wider ‘Housing Options max’ provision in each local authority area, a greater focus on upstream prevention, and a set of equivalent duties on wider public bodies (Principle 6b below). In all of these areas except the wider duties Wales is progressing but with plenty more to do.

Principle 2: Where reasonable steps to prevent or relieve homelessness are unsuccessful, a complete statutory safety net providing access to suitable settled accommodation must extend across all homeless people, regardless of household type or level of vulnerability, with temporary accommodation provided in the interim. What this means in practice is that the priority need criterion must be abolished in Wales and in England as our colleagues in Scotland have already done.

The immediate safety net is access to emergency accommodation, which must be suitable (including affordable). To work, it also needs the private rented sector minimum tenancy reforms set out in Everybody In. Rebecca Evans, minister for housing and regeneration, has promised a review of priority need, which should focus on how to phase it out along with a timescale.

Principle 3(a): This broadening of the range of discharge options open to local authorities will weaken, but not sever, the link between homelessness duties and social housing allocations. People in the statutory homeless category should continue to receive reasonable preference in local authority housing allocations, and housing associations in England and Wales should give homeless

households reasonable preference in their allocation policies, as is already the case in Scotland.

Principle 3(b): Intentionality should be abolished in its current form. The current intentionality test goes far beyond what is required to control what might be considered to be any perverse incentives to access homelessness assistance. In Everybody In, Crisis suggests a new test of ‘deliberate manipulation’ with much more limited consequences, restricted to households receiving no additional preference in their social housing allocation.

Principle 4: Local connection should cease to be a bar to assistance. In proposing this, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Liz Davies accepted the need to fairly distribute the burden of tackling homelessness between local authorities. However, they propose better ways to manage this necessity than the current crude local connection rules. Although the current rules are intended simply to determine which local authorities have a duty to provide settled housing, they are often used unlawfully as a gatekeeping filter. Four potential ways forward are suggested in Everybody In, none of which is mutually exclusive but aim to, for example, recognise that local connection affects people in some local authorities more than others.

Principle 5: Appropriate provision must be made for households who remain homeless after exhausting their entitlements under the homelessness statutory framework, particularly families with dependent children.If households refuse suitable offers of accommodation made by a local housing authority then there comes a point where that authority’s duty towards them is discharged. It is possible they may remain homeless. Amendments to Welsh social services law would be needed to make clear that where the children are at risk of homelessness accommodation will be provided for the whole family.

Principle 6(a): Local housing authorities should have a duty to provide housing support in relevant cases. All relevant forms of support should form part of the personalised plans required by the guidance in Wales and recent legislation in England. These plans should extend beyond housing support, to health, social care and other relevant support, bearing in mind that not all homeless households will have additional support needs. Scotland already has an explicit housing support duty in place,while in Walesand in Englandthe relevant duty is limited to making an assessment of support needs.

Principle 6(b): Other public bodies should have robust duties to both prevent homelessness (see Principle 1) and to cooperate with local housing authorities in relieving homelessness, for example, by providing relevant health and social care support services.A duty to prevent homelessness placed upon key public agencies outside local authorities will support the prevention duties on local authorities discussed in principle 1. Although cooperation duties on housing associations and social services were strengthened in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, the Wales Audit Office concluded in January 2018 that they were ‘not operating effectively’. Key duties to prevent and cooperate should be integrated into health and social services, and (currently non-devolved) criminal justice legislative frameworks.

Principle 7: There should be a robust but proportionate regulation, monitoring and inspection regime of how local authorities, other public bodies, and social housing providers discharge their duties. The Scottish Housing Regulator has played a key (but reducing) role in the monitoring and inspection of homelessness services in Scotland. This could be looked to as starting point in building a model for England and Wales.

Principle 8: A more open system of individual reviews and appeals. If the principles above are adopted there would be fewer challenges to local authority decisions. This is because everyone would be entitled to some form of accommodation. Furthermore, the issues of whether an applicant is vulnerable and/or has become homeless intentionally would have fewer significant consequences. The disputes that might arise could then be over the suitability of the accommodation offered. It should be independent of the local authority and supported by access to good free or means-tested legal advice.

Principle 9: Much moreemphasis should be placed on training and supporting frontline homelessness officers. They work in a quasi-judicial capacity, yet there is no specified standard of educational attainment or prescribed professional qualification to recognise the importance of their roles. An ongoing emphasis on professionaltraining and skills development among frontline homelessness workers is essential to the successful implementation of progressive legislation. The recent PATH training programme in trauma-informed approaches to preventing homelessness – by Cymorth, WLGA and Public Health Wales – is a good example.

Principle 10: aminimum safety net for people in migrant status. For Wales this means working with the Home Office to phase out all distinctions between ‘migrant’ and ‘UK national’ legal status to bring all people into the statutory support system and offer all homeless people the chance of a home and a life regardless of where they originally came from.

What is clear from the traffic light rating is that no one nation has the ideal legal framework for ending homelessness. There is, however, much we can learn from each other’s current strengths. And with these legal principles each national government in Britain has the template to use to help bring forward the primary and secondary legislation to bring about the ideal system.

We’ve already started the job in Wales and have done so much to proud of in recent years with the legal framework and beyond. What we now need, however, is to remain ambitious, pioneer more of the changes needed to end homelessness, and get everybody in to a safe and stable home.

Nick Morris is policy and communications manager at Crisis (Wales)

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