HC Deb 06 February 2004 vol 417 cc1092-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

2.30 pm
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)

I am grateful to have the chance in this Adjournment debate to raise some problems facing vulnerable families who cannot get housing. A number of cases that I shall cite are from my constituency in Northampton. Indeed, over the years I have had a steady stream of such cases, although I know that I am not alone in that. There is a real problem with how some of the most vulnerable families in our country are treated and how they manage to slip through some of the large holes in the safety net of the welfare state.

I am particularly concerned about two main groups of families, both of which involve children. The first is families who are refused housing because they are deemed to be intentionally homeless, but who are in fact completely homeless, and the choice is either to house them in social housing or to let the parents and children sleep on the streets. The second is families who have no recourse to public funds because they do not have residential status in the UK. Again, they are victims of circumstance and completely destitute. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will have heard those concerns.

Perhaps it will help if I give an example of each group—but just the bare bones. On families judged to be intentionally homeless, Miss P left her council home with her three children, aged three to seven, because of the domestic violence of her former partner. However, the local housing authority judged her to be intentionally homeless. Miss P has had a difficult time, having been in care as a child and having had problems with antisocial behaviour. However, she is keen to go to college and get some training, and she is well motivated to establish a secure and stable home for her three lovely children. She has spent eight months in a hostel for victims of domestic violence—she is still there—with absolutely no prospect of being able to move out. She cannot get a private tenancy because the council has accused her of antisocial behaviour. She cannot get a council tenancy because the council says she is intentionally homeless.

The other example refers to the group of families with no recourse to public funds. Mrs. B, who has three children aged under 14, came to the UK from Bangladesh to join her husband, who is a UK citizen. They lived in the family home, a privately owned property in Northampton, where Mrs. B suffered violence perpetrated by her husband. Ultimately, she left with the children. In fact, he attacked one of the children. She then visited relatives elsewhere in the country to try to get help, but failed, returning to Northampton after three months. A charity housed the whole family in a single room.

Mrs. B was already pregnant when she left her husband, and her baby was born prematurely with profound disabilities. She stayed in hospital in a maternity ward for three weeks until his life support machine was turned off. She then had to remain another five or six weeks because she had nowhere to go. She also had no one to talk to for most of that time because she cannot speak English.

Going to see Mrs. B in hospital was one of the grimmest things I have had to do. She was completely destitute. She had no money and no home. Her baby was desperately sick. Her three older children were taken away by her estranged husband's family, and all her worldly possessions were in a black canvas bag beside her hospital bed. The hospital was wonderful to her, but ultimately could not solve her problem. The local authority refused to house her because she had no recourse to public funds as she did not have permanent leave to remain in this country. She had no chance of getting a private tenancy because she had no money for the deposit. In summer last year, she moved into a women's refuge and her children joined her. She is still there.

A children's worker at the refuge helps with the children, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, the funds for children's work in such refuges are not secure. That is a separate issue, however, and I shall not go into it at present. At Christmas, Mrs B received indefinite leave to remain because of her husband's domestic violence. More than a year after her marriage first broke down, she will now start to apply for housing again, but this time it will be outside Northampton.

I have raised those and similar cases with my right hon. Friend the Minister in correspondence, and I have spoken about them to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, because those cases involve various complex, inter-related problems. Everyone assures me that those families should be picked up by the local authorities under the provisions of the Children Act 1989, and that the needs of the children—including their housing needs and the need for them to be housed with their mothers if that is judged to be in the children's best interests—should be met. The Minister for Children has given written advice to that effect, and I am told that the whole point of the 1989 Act is to deal with just such cases. However, it is not working.

Of course, it is always possible for women to take the council to court to secure their rights, and there have been important test cases on these issues in London and Oxford. However, such women are the people least likely to obtain access to justice through the courts, and the process imposes a heavy burden on people who are already the victims of circumstances. In Northampton, and some other places, real difficulties also arise from the lack of legal aid services. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has today published a report highlighting that problem and, in particular, the lack of lawyers under the community legal service who specialise in housing and family law, and who would deal with the kind of case that I am raising. That has been an acute problem for those women.

I know that I am not the only MP who has found that that is a problem. It was also raised when the Homelessness Act 2002 was passed, when some housing groups, including Shelter, and individual MPs made proposals to use that legislation to amend the Children Act 1989. That was not possible, but I believe that some additional guidance was issued to local authorities. However, I have to say that if it was, that is not working either.

Of course, I realise that local authorities need to be able to refuse to house people. They need to have sanctions that they can apply to tenants who wilfully refuse to pay the rent and run up big arrears, or who are completely antisocial. If, in practice, they cannot refuse to house people who have children, however big the arrears or however bad the behaviour, council housing becomes completely unmanageable. However, there has to be a balance between evicting rogue tenants and rendering destitute families who are themselves victims.

There must also be the possibility that neighbours from hell might, with the right support services, be enabled to hold down a tenancy without disrupting the entire neighbourhood. In the longer term, it is important that the cycle of disadvantage that has often scarred the parents should not be revisited on the children, and that the children should not be taken into care. We all know that the prospects for children in care are not very good.

It is difficult for local authorities to distinguish between the genuinely destitute and families who are able to get private tenancies or to stay with friends or relatives—but that is the issue. I strongly believe that there is a need for clear protocols for inter-agency working on such cases, including for joint working across two-tier local government. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to look into providing such protocols. My area has two-tier local government: the housing authority operates at district council level within Northampton borough council, while social services operate at county council level, in Northamptonshire county council. They do not have adequate arrangements for joint working and liaising on these issues.

The protocols would have to cover referrals, data sharing and arrangements for access to local authority housing stock. At present, if social services house a family, they tend to allocate not to existing social housing but to hostels or to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is not particularly suitable for families. The data sharing would need to make it possible for references to be made between social services and housing authorities and departments. That means proper referrals, rather than those couched in terms such as, "Well, we can send you to the social workers, but they might take your children away."

Clear guidance needs to be given to local authorities about their legal duties and responsibilities under both housing and social services legislation, so that if they are supposed to provide housing as well as emergency financial payments, they are clear about what to do. They must also be clear about the standard of housing that has to be provided. For example, in April, we are supposed to see the end of the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children, except in an emergency, and then for not more than six weeks. I assume that that will also apply to families picked up by social services under the Children Act; otherwise the rule about not putting families into hostel-type accommodation will be completely ineffective, because social services would simply put families into such accommodation.

In the longer term, I believe that there will be a need to amend the relevant legislation, but that will obviously depend on circumstances that are beyond my right hon. Friend's control. Perhaps legislation arising from the children's Green Paper "Every Child Matters" will provide an opportunity for that. In the meantime, these very vulnerable families need help to break the logjam and to get themselves housed as a first step to rebuilding their lives. The two families whom I mentioned have a total of six young children in need of proper homes, and two mothers who are completely committed to reestablishing their families but are unable to do so. There are many more families like them up and down the country, and we need to establish clarity for them, and to ensure that they are not further punished by a system that is supposed to support them.

2.42 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate and using the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of families with children who need accommodation but who, for whatever reason, are not entitled to be secured such accommodation by the local housing authority under homelessness legislation. It goes without saying that I will study carefully her proposals for protocols, guidance and possible changes to the law. This is a difficult area of policy to get right, because it embraces a number of different policy aims and principles that do not always sit easily together. The two key issues here are homelessness and people at risk of domestic violence, and the Government are seeking to bear down hard on those two evils.

In today's debate, we are focusing on two different groups. The first is families with children who, while not ineligible for housing assistance, are entitled only to limited help under homelessness legislation because they have brought homelessness on themselves through their own behaviour. In other words, they have been found to be intentionally homeless. The second group is families with children that comprise persons from abroad who are excluded from housing assistance through not having recourse to public funds because they are subject to immigration control or because they are not habitually resident here. My hon. Friend has referred to specific cases in her constituency involving families with children from both those categories.

We need to consider each of those categories separately, because although the plight of those families might seem similar, the underlying policy considerations are different in each case, as are the potential positive outcomes that can be achieved. Let us take the category of intentionally homeless families first. As my hon. Friend knows—she was, after all, the Minister who took the Homelessness Act 2002 through Parliament—the homelessness legislation provides an important safety net for families with children, and other vulnerable groups, who become homeless through no fault of their own. We have broadened that safety net by extending the categories of homeless applicants who have a priority need for accommodation. However, the main duty, which in practice is to secure suitable temporary accommodation until a settled home becomes available, can be onerous and expensive for local housing authorities. It is therefore right for the full duty, as it were, not to apply when applicants have brought homelessness on themselves. That is not to say, however, that no help should be provided, and there are certain duties that are owed.

When applicants who fall within a priority-need category—for example, families with children—are found to be intentionally homeless, the authority must provide them with short-term accommodation, for long enough to give them a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation themselves. Accommodation secured for as little as 28 days may be sufficient in some cases, but authorities must consider the particular circumstances of each case and make an objective judgment based on the facts. They must ask themselves this: given the overall circumstances, how long is it likely to be before the applicant can reasonably be expected to arrange accommodation for himself, or herself?

Housing authorities must also provide advice and assistance. That is another duty that we strengthened recently in the Homelessness Act 2002. Handing applicants a simple list of possible vacancies is not enough; authorities must assess families' housing needs and provide details of the location of accommodation that is appropriate to those needs.

There is, of course, always the risk that some authorities will do only the minimum. I must make it clear that when it comes to families with children, that is not good enough, if it means that they are left without a home and without any assistance. Authorities must ensure that their advice and assistance are robust, so that families have a real chance of securing accommodation.

In most cases the principal option will be helping a family to obtain accommodation in the private rented sector. Assistance with rent deposits, rent guarantees, rent in advance and, where appropriate, completion of housing benefit claim forms will help to achieve that. On some occasions the housing authority's advice and assistance may not result in the family securing accommodation. It should be remembered that success will depend to a large extent on the family being proactive, and actively taking up the various available options.

In some cases, families may still be homeless at the point when housing authorities' duty to provide short-term accommodation ends—that is, after the period that gave them a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation for themselves. At that point, families may seek further assistance from social services departments under the Children Act 1989. My hon. Friend commented on that.

Let me now deal with the position of families from abroad who are not eligible for housing assistance. Here different policy considerations apply. There are sound policy reasons for not giving such families access to social housing and homelessness assistance, which generally leads to an allocation of long-term social housing. Social housing is a scarce and increasingly valuable resource, and its allocation carries other benefits such as the chance of a secure tenancy for life, succession rights and the right to buy. In many areas, the discharge of a homelessness duty will require expensive temporary accommodation, which itself may tie up a property that would otherwise be used to meet the long-term housing needs of others.

Nevertheless, the Government are clear about the fact that no family with children should be left without any assistance. That is why the Homelessness Act 2002 places a new requirement on housing authorities to alert social services when they have reason to believe that they are dealing with a family with children who have been, or are likely to be, found to be intentionally homeless or ineligible for assistance. It is important for social services to be alerted quickly, given the possibility that families with children could face homelessness once the housing authority had fully discharged its obligations to them.

The responsibilities of social services departments in relation to families with children who are homeless and not entitled to further assistance from housing authorities are not matters for which I have direct responsibility; they fall within the ambit of my colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills, who will no doubt read the report of this debate very carefully.

My hon. Friend raised the case of women who come to the UK for marriage or for unmarried partnership, and who may be forced to leave their home during the probationary period as a result of domestic violence. In fact, the Government have taken steps to help domestic violence victims who do not have recourse to public funds because they are here on limited leave on a probationary basis. To help these victims, a concession was introduced in 1999 to enable those who left their partners during the probationary period because of domestic violence to apply for settlement, subject to providing specified forms of evidence. The criteria were extended and the provision was formally incorporated into the immigration rules in 2002. To qualify, the relationship must have broken down during the probationary period due to domestic violence, and victims will need to provide some evidence of violence.

Under the immigration rules and Department for Work and Pensions regulations, anyone still subject to probation leave with a condition of no recourse to public funds will not be eligible for benefits and homelessness assistance. However, in such circumstances, domestic violence victims can get access to Supporting People-funded domestic violence services such as refuges, and housing-related support services.

The Government's position as set out in "Safety and Justice" is that, in order to protect the integrity of the rules, we do not believe that victims making applications under the immigration and domestic violence rules should have access to public funds. However, to keep the time during which the applicant does not have access to public funds to a minimum, we are committed to ensuring that applications for indefinite leave to remain, based on the 2002 immigration rules, are dealt with as quickly as possible. They are therefore flagged and dealt with as a matter of priority. In addition, where the applicant is destitute, applications for settlement on the basis of domestic violence are exempt from the fee charged for processing such applications.

As I have said, this is a difficult policy area, and the Government consider that people should take responsibility for their own housing needs wherever possible. They must certainly take responsibility for their own behaviour and their children's behaviour. The homelessness legislation ensures that all homeless people must be given some assistance, and it provides a strong safety net for families with children, and for vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. But people who bring homelessness on themselves cannot expect the same degree of help as those who become homeless through no fault of their own.

As I have said, social housing is a valuable and scarce resource. The provision of temporary accommodation is expensive, and it would not be right to expect the British taxpayer to meet the accommodation needs of people from abroad who have been given permission to stay on the clear assumption that their accommodation and support needs will not be met by the taxpayer. But inevitably, there will always be difficult cases, and ultimately we must make sure that the needs of vulnerable children can be met, and that victims of domestic violence can get the protection that they need.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock.