Clause 18 - Accommodation for homeless people: duties of local authority

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:45 pm ar 23 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 178, in schedule 2, page 77, line 17, leave out “omit subsection (5)” and insert—

“for subsection (5) substitute—

‘(5) A person is also threatened with homelessness if—

(a) a valid notice has been given to the person under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 in respect of the only accommodation the person has that is available for the person’s occupation, and

(b) that notice will expire within 56 days.’”

This amendment would maintain the homelessness prevention duty owed by local authorities to persons who have received a notice to vacate a property and would extend it to notices for possession issued under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988.

Amendment 179, in schedule 2, page 77, line 26, leave out “omit subsection (6)” and insert—

“for subsection (6) substitute—

‘(6) But the authority may not give notice to the applicant under subsection (5) on the basis that the circumstances in subsection (8)(b) apply if a valid notice has been given to the applicant under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 that—

(a) will expire within 56 days or has expired, and

(b) is in respect of the only accommodation that is available for the applicant’s occupation.’”

This amendment would ensure that the homelessness prevention duty owed by a local authority cannot end whilst a valid notice under section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 has been issued in respect of the only accommodation available to that person.

Government new clause 7—Accommodation for homeless people under section 199A of the Housing Act 1996.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I rise to speak in support of amendments 178 and 179, which stand in the name of my good and hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, the shadow Minister. I am part of the Front-Bench team.

I know that everybody in this Committee room shares my firm belief that no one in our society should face homelessness. Research from Crisis and Heriot-Watt University shows that nearly a quarter of a million households across England now experience the worst forms of homelessness. Lots of us will see the visible consequences of that human tragedy as we travel into Westminster day in, day out, and far too many of us deal with those consequences week in, week out through our caseloads—with people who are in temporary or emergency accommodation. In fact, temporary accommodation is becoming de facto permanent in far too many cases.

According to the Government’s own latest data, 298,000 people are homeless—a rise of 6.8% on just a year ago. The end of a tenancy in the private rented sector is a leading cause of homelessness in England, accounting for over a quarter of households seeking support. To their credit, the Government supported the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which began as a private Member’s Bill championed by Bob Blackman—a Bill that many of us from across the political divide welcomed. Part of the Act ensures that private renters have the right to immediate help from their local authority—the prevention duty, which we are all familiar with—on being served a section 21 notice by their landlord.

Since the 2017 Act came into force in 2018, over 640,000 households have been prevented from becoming homeless or supported into settled accommodation. Hence, it makes little sense that the Bill is diluting that right. It could lead to missed opportunities to help families avoid becoming homeless. I am genuinely perplexed by this and look forward to the Minister’s answer on this matter in the not-too-distant future.

We know that this issue is even more critical right now, as we see a complete lack of genuinely affordable housing options for people who are homeless or at risk, evidenced by the shockingly high numbers of families trapped in temporary accommodation and the rising numbers of people forced to sleep rough on our streets. Everyone In, from the not-too-distant past, seems to be becoming “Everybody Out” at quite a rapid rate. Just over 7,600 homes for social rent were built last year. If we take right to buy and demolitions into consideration, I think on average since 2010 that takes us into the minus 14,000 territory. It is certainly distant from the “building back better” rhetoric that we had in the not-too-distant past. We live in a world where 1.2 million people are in desperate need of social housing.

Currently, a tenant served with a valid section 21 notice can take that notice to their local authority, which automatically accepts the prevention duty and spends the next two months either helping them find somewhere to live or helping to sustain their tenancy. This benefits tenants, landlords and local authorities. It presents a clear opportunity to provide help that could prevent homelessness. When it works, it avoids a traumatic experience for tenants who are facing costly placements in temporary accommodation from local authorities, and a landlord can retain a paying tenant. However, as a consequence of the changes in the Bill, the clarity that a tenant has when served an eviction notice—they are owed a prevention duty—and threatened with homelessness has now been removed.

Tenants served with a section 8 notice will no longer have the right to immediate help from the council, even though there remain no-fault, mandatory grounds within section 8 notices. For example, when a landlord seeks to sell or take back the property for a family member, that could easily result in a tenant becoming homeless, just as the current section 21 notices can lead to. This dilution of rights puts tenants at greater risk of homelessness, which is far from the stated aims of the Bill.

A local authority will instead need to decide whether tenants are threatened with homelessness and make that judgment—on the serving of the notice, when the notice expires, at a court hearing or when the court has granted a possession order? Without the legal trigger or automatic right upon notice, it will take more time to establish what help is needed, making the prevention duty more onerous for local authorities. It risks tenants facing burdensome additional tests and gatekeeping. That gatekeeping is driven in a lot of cases by the precarious finances of local government, not really made any better by yesterday’s autumn statement. Authorities might tell tenants to come back at a later date—maybe when a landlord has started court proceedings—and well beyond the point at which steps to prevent homelessness, such as help with rent arrears, could have been taken. This will create a postcode lottery up and down the nation.

I recognise that due to years of underfunding and a complete lack of social housing, local authorities’ homelessness services are under immense pressure. Yet the change risks people falling through the cracks and missing out on vital early support. Even more people will be forced into stays in unsuitable temporary accommodation or sleeping rough on the streets, and local authorities will face the more complex and costly task of relieving cases of homelessness.

In its written submission, Shelter argues that removing the right to assistance under the prevention duty following an eviction notice could breach equalities legislation. It is likely that people with certain protected characteristics, such as mental health, learning and/or physical disabilities, would be at disproportionate risk of repossession, eviction and intentional homelessness. I am sure that is not the intention of the Minister or the Government.

There are currently more than 104,000 households languishing in temporary accommodation, with long-term impacts on their health and wellbeing. Last year, the cost to councils was £1.7 billion. Temporary changes announced yesterday to the local housing allowance are welcome, albeit very late for far too many and they need to be on a sustained footing. If we are serious about tackling the prevention of homelessness, I urge the Minister to support our amendment.

Amendments 178 and 179 seek to restore clarity and consistency, ensuring that tenants maintain the right to access support when served with a valid section 8 eviction notice. It is prevention-focused, reconnecting with the principles of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. The amendment is to replace the consequential amendment in schedule 2, paragraph 9 relating to section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, on “homelessness and threatened homelessness”. The current effect of the Bill would be to remove a person’s automatic right to be considered “threatened with homelessness” if they are served with a valid no-fault eviction notice under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.

In summary, the nature of section 8 grounds offers broader opportunities for compromise and co-operation between tenants and landlords. With access to the right support to put in place arrangements such as a rent repayment plan, tenancies can be sustained, benefiting all parties. The amendment, to maintain access to the prevention duty, would ensure that homelessness from the private sector can be reduced. I urge the Minister to support the amendment.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:00, 23 Tachwedd 2023

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The reforms in the Bill will remove fixed-term tenancies and section 21 evictions. The changes mean that we also need to amend part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 to make sure that councils’ statutory homelessness duties align. Clause 18 makes three changes to homelessness legislation.

First, the clause makes changes to how local authorities discharge their main housing duty. One of the ways in which local authorities may currently bring their main housing duty to an end is by making an offer to a tenant of a suitable private rented sector tenancy with a fixed term of at least 12 months. With the removal of fixed-term tenancies, section 193 of the Housing Act 1996 is amended to refer instead to an “assured tenancy”.

Secondly, the clause amends section 193C of the Housing Act 1996, relating to what happens when a person owed either the prevention or relief duty deliberately and unreasonably fails to co-operate with the local authority. If the local housing authority is satisfied that the applicant is, first, homeless; secondly, eligible for assistance; thirdly, has a priority need; and fourthly, is not intentionally homeless, the applicant is still owed a duty to be accommodated. However, that duty is currently a lesser one than the main housing duty. The lesser duty is to offer a fixed-term tenancy of at least six months, as opposed to the period of at least 12 months required under the main duty. With the repeal of fixed-term tenancies, the lesser offer is redundant and removed by the clause.

Thirdly, subsection (4) repeals section 195A of the Housing Act 1996, which is the duty in homelessness legislation

“to offer accommodation following re-application after private sector offer.”

It is known more commonly as the “reapplication duty”. The reapplication duty is a homelessness duty that offers accommodation following a reapplication after a private sector offer, where the applicant becomes homeless again within two years and reapplies for homelessness support. The duty applies regardless of whether the applicant has priority need. It was introduced to respond to concerns that, due to the short-term nature of assured shorthold tenancies, applicants who accept a private rented sector offer may become homeless again within two years and no longer have the priority need.

The increased security of tenure and removal of section 21 evictions through this Bill means that the reapplication duty will no longer be relevant. The amendment will streamline the management of reapproaches, and make sure that all applicants are treated according to their current circumstances at the point of approaching. There will be no differential treatment between those placed in either private rented or social housing accommodation.

Amendments 178 and 179 seek to broaden the scope of those threatened with homelessness, and thereby owed the prevention duty, to all those who have been served with a valid section 8 eviction notice that expires within 56 days, and to remove the option for local authorities to limit the assistance under the prevention duty to 56 days.

These amendments would prevent a local authority from using its judgement as to whether there is a risk and from deploying its resources to cases where there is a more imminent risk of homelessness. If the amendments were accepted, they could result in local authorities having cases open for a long time. Requiring local authorities to accept a duty in such circumstances, with no time limit, would create significant resourcing pressures. That would ultimately be to the detriment of those seeking homelessness support if local authorities were overwhelmed and unable to manage their increase caseload.

Local authorities are experienced at identifying when someone is threatened with homelessness, as opposed to arbitrary requirements that do not account for individual circumstances.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

The Minister must acknowledge that local authorities will push lots of constituents back to the very last statutorily permitted minute because their resources are so pressured. That often makes the situation worse: it is saving a penny here, but losing a pound down the road.

Homelessness duties are mixed and varied. Some of them, with early intervention, can mean re-placing in the private sector—that actually does not cost the local authority very much. Without providing a clear duty, many officers will go to councillors saying, “You need to push the policy back to the statutory minimum, because we cannot do anything else. That is all we can do at the moment.” Those conversations are happening in every council. Surely the Minister recognises that without clear statutory guidelines on when they need to intervene, councils at the moment, I am afraid, will not.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, although I do not think his intervention directly addresses the amendment. The amendment would put more burden on local authorities. For example, if I was served a section 8 notice, I would not need to be covered under the homelessness prevention duty, because just me and my partner would be involved. We do not have any dependants, and would probably find it quite easy to find a new property. It is important that we do not overburden local authorities unnecessarily, as these amendments would.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

The duty does not mean a requirement for a place for every person; it means that there is a duty to analyse the need of the person, assess their ability to access the market and provide access into the market in different ways. If the Minister was involved, the duty would be for the council to point him in the direction of private letting agents; to ensure that he was able to search properly; and to monitor and ensure that he was getting on with that properly.

The duty is rather light-touch. The danger is that if we do not provide a duty that everyone comes through, including light-touch people—of course, no one has to go to their local authority, so they could just divert that if it was the Minister anyway—the most vulnerable people will not come at all until it is too late. Does the Minister recognise that vulnerable people tend to come only when it is too late if they feel that there is not an earlier duty?

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why we have said, in various discussions throughout the debate, that forms will be provided to people when they are served with such an order. They will be pointed in the right direction. That addresses the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, rather than forcing everyone to be considered under the duty, no matter how light-touch—[Interruption.] I do not think that I need Redcar and Cleveland Council to be worried about me.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will end that point there.

Government new clause 7 delivers a technical change that will ensure that a tenancy granted in carrying out a local authority homelessness duty to provide interim accommodation cannot be an assured tenancy, other than in the circumstances allowed for. There is an existing provision in the Housing Act 1996 that already provides an exemption to that effect; however, it does not encompass all instances where the local authorities have an interim duty or discretion to provide temporary accommodation, as section 199A is not included. The new clause remedies that. It allows private landlords who provide local authorities with temporary accommodation to regain possession of their property once the local authority’s duty to provide it ceases. That will ensure that local authorities can continue to procure interim temporary accommodation to meet their duties.

I commend the new clause to the Committee, and I ask the hon. Member for Weaver Vale not to press the Opposition amendment.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is essential that the prevention duty is extended here. The Renters (Reform) Bill is supposed to be about homelessness prevention. Local authorities use their discretion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown said. I will not press the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Mohindra.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 28 November at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

RRB38 Universities UK

RRB39 Student Accredited Private Rental Sector

RRB40 College & University Business Officers (CUBO)

RRB41 Citizens Advice Gateshead and Citizens Advice Newcastle (joint submission)

RRB42 Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London

RRB43 openDemocracy