English homelessness legislation’s focus on priority need leaves single people and childless couples with little help, and requires reform
The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 has survived almost 40 years with its core provisions more or less intact. But the radical reform agenda of the coalition and now Conservative governments has weakened the national housing and welfare safety net. Is it now time to consider whether the homelessness legislation remains fit for purpose in protecting the most vulnerable in this increasingly harsh climate?
In summer 2015, Crisis convened an independent panel of experts to assess the current homelessness legislation, focusing on two key problems. First, the distinction between priority and non-priority groups embedded within the legislation from the outset means single people and childless couples are entitled only to advice and assistance (often of poor quality), rather than settled (or indeed temporary) housing. Second, the growing emphasis since 2003 on preventative (housing options) interventions sits uncomfortably alongside the formal statutory framework, raising concerns about unlawful gatekeeping in some areas. Equally, there are concerns that local authorities engaged in good-quality prevention work can be left exposed to legal challenge.
The panel therefore set out to design a new legislative model to tackle single homelessness more effectively without unduly weakening the current entitlements for priority need groups. As chair of the panel, I was impressed with the rapidity with which we came to a consensus on many of the core aspects of a new legislative approach. While we considered the Scottish approach (the priority need criterion was abolished under the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003), this seemed unlikely to be viable in England’s much more pressured housing market.
The introduction of a universal homelessness prevention duty covering all eligible households is the key recommendation.
More feasible, we felt, was the approach encapsulated in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which sees a far stronger emphasis on prevention and relief duties owed to all eligible households that are homeless or at risk, regardless of priority need status. The Act’s changes appear to command a high degree of support in both the statutory and voluntary sectors in Wales, and a significant fall in the number of people accepted as owed the full duty to be secured accommodation has been apparent since they came into force in April 2015. Survey evidence from The homelessness monitor: England 2016 (Crisis, January 2016) found that the majority (56 per cent) of English local authorities favoured moving towards the Welsh model, with only 25 per cent expressing disagreement.
Inspired by this Welsh model, the Crisis expert panel attempted to sculpt an alternative system for England (see The homelessness legislation: an independent review of the legal duties owed to homeless people, Crisis, April 2016). The central recommendation is the introduction of a universal homelessness prevention duty covering all eligible households, as well as a relief duty to take reasonable steps to help secure accommodation for all homeless applicants, regardless of priority need status or intentionality. The proposed legislation would also extend the length of time within which homelessness can be ‘threatened’ from 28 to 56 days. The current legislation often leads to applicants receiving support only once they reach crisis point; this model emphasises prevention work at the earliest juncture to reduce the number of people who lose their homes and require an offer of settled accommodation.
Crucially, it would bring housing options casework inside the main statutory framework, helping to ensure that local authorities provide a meaningful service to single people as well as families with children, and that they can be held to account when they fail to do so. Just as importantly, it would offer local authorities greater flexibility in the range of solutions that they could legitimately offer to homeless and at risk households, without fear of being accused of gatekeeping. It would also give them the means to bring prevention and relief duties to an end if households manifestly and unreasonably refuse to co-operate (though priority need households would still be entitled to access the main rehousing duty). Other recommendations include a strengthened advice and information duty, clarification that the expiry of a Housing Act 1988 s21 notice must be accepted as valid evidence of homelessness, a widened cooperation duty on the part of other relevant public bodies, and the provision of emergency accommodation for homeless people who have nowhere safe to stay.
With the panel’s recommendations attracting cross-party support and the backing of many local authorities and homelessness and housing organisations, it is looking increasingly likely that the government may consider legislative reform along these lines. ■