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23.06.16

Some local authorities unacceptably ‘gatekeeping’ homelessness services

Homeless people are being prevented from registering as homeless by local authorities, homelessness minister Marcus Jones has told the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee.

In a hearing last week, Helen Hayes MP, who sits on the committee, said that evidence to its homelessness inquiry, as well as from a mystery shopper exercise by charity Crisis, found many homeless people felt their local authority had tried to discourage them from applying to be recognised as homeless.

Hayes said one witness, who became homeless after leaving an abusive relationship, was “made to feel that it was her fault” and not treated as a priority case. Other witnesses received unhelpful information from their council, such as a list of shelters that were already full.

Jones said that whilst there are some “excellent local authorities across the country that are doing an extremely good job, not just in terms of helping people that they have the statutory duty to help and get into housing, but also giving good-quality advice and support to people who do not have the statutory right to be housed”.

However, he added that there are also some very variable and mixed situations, where “local authorities do seem to be employing some sort of gatekeeping”.

“That, in my view, is completely unacceptable,” said Jones. “Local authorities have a duty, as I have said, to provide quality advice and information to the people that they have the duty to house. They also have the duty to house vulnerable people and move them into accommodation, whether it be permanent accommodation or a more temporary arrangement initially.”

He added the government was funding the National Homelessness Advice Service to tackle the problem, where local authorities can receive free advice and guidance from experts to help them understand their duty to homeless residents.

He also said that the government is providing £315m homelessness prevention funding across the current spending review period.

The government also promised additional funding to tackle homelessness in the March budget, but councils and Crisis warned that it would not be sufficient.

The CLG committee raised concerns about the lack of reliable data on homelessness rates and local authorities’ response to them.

Figures from the DCLG suggest rough sleeping has increased by 30% in the past year.

Clive Betts MP, the chair of the committee, asked Jones: “Is not one of the problems that we are going to have to try to grapple with that we do not know – and you do not know, I suspect – the extent of homelessness? There are not really any figures or statistics that any of us can believe, are there?”

Jones said that the government had “overhauled” rough sleeping statistics since 2010, but that there was “more to do”, particularly in terms of local authority data.

He praised “innovative” solutions in some areas, such as Newham Council’s ‘data warehouse’ for information on homeless families.

When questioned by Betts, however, Jones could not confirm when the areas of data on homelessness would conform to the UK Statistics Authority standards, but he said he would write to Betts on the matter.

Housing benefits ‘perfect storm’

Peter Searle, director of working age benefits at the Department for Work and Pensions, also appeared before the committee and was challenged about the impact of housing benefit changes on homelessness.

Kevin Hollinrake MP said that the combination of increasing private sector rents and the cap on housing benefits was “almost a perfect storm” in terms of making rented accommodation harder to access.

Searle said that the department was keeping “a very close eye” on the issue and had protections in place.

When asked about the removal of housing benefits for 18 to 21 year olds, he said: “We will come forward with proposals in due course but we recognise there is a risk for some vulnerable individuals where they cannot find alternative accommodation. Housing costs would then be covered by universal credits.”

(Image c. Trowbridge Estate)

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