Homelessness is one of society’s greatest ills and one which we all encounter in some shape or form as we go about our business on a day to day basis. It’s no hidden fact that the numbers of homeless people in England is rising at an unprecedented rate. Crisis reports that in England, a staggering 114,790 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2015/16, which is an 11 per cent rise since 2010/11. In our view, local authorities have, for far too long, been getting away with turning away vulnerable people, trying to make homelessness applications with little or no advice. It is critical that Parliament tackles this social menace head on and without any further delay.
It may not be all doom and gloom however. The impending second reading of the Homelessness Reduction Bill 2016 is due to take place on 28 October 2016. This Bill has not been well publicised but could make a significant difference and is needless to say welcomed with open arms by housing advisors like ourselves. The bill, a brainchild of the Harrow East MP Bob Blackman, is based on the findings of a report from Crisis and offers the opportunity of an overhaul to the legislation governing homelessness.
What is the Homelessness Reduction Bill 2016?
So, what is the Bill? And more importantly, how could this transform the status quo? Some of the more vital proposals are outlined below:
- Under the current law s175 Housing Act 1996 prescribes that a person is threatened with homelessness if it is likely that he or she will become homeless within 28 days. The Bill extends this period to 56 days to enable local authorities to respond to potential homelessness at an early stage and also to provide meaningful assistance such as mediation with the landlord, payments by way of grant or loan, debt management support, or, in some cases, an offer of accommodation. There will be a duty to provide assistance to prevent homelessness for ALL eligible applicants.
- The Bill also makes it mandatory for local authorities to accept Notices to Quit and Section 21 Notices as evidence of homelessness. At present local authorities are routinely advising advising tenants to remain in their properties until the bailiff’s warrant has been executed as they do not have to accept a homelessness application until the eviction has taken place. This is simply not the case and the legislation needs to be changed to make this clear.
- The Bill proposes a new “relief” duty towards eligible homeless people who have a local connection. The duty would mean that a local authority must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation irrespective of whether an applicant is in priority need. This throws up a number of issues, one of them being whether the test for homelessness will also need reform. Will “priority need” be a thing of the past? Priority need has proven almost impossible to define and as such many people in need are often refused help. Perhaps then such a change should be welcomed.
- The Bill recommends a new duty to provide emergency accommodation for homeless people without somewhere safe to stay for up to 28 days to circumvent rough sleeping. Under this duty the provision for emergency accommodation would be for a maximum of 56 days. Thereafter this duty could only be exercised again once six months have elapsed from the previous acceptance of this duty.
For this Bill to stand any chance of success, at least 100 MPs need to show up for the debate of the House of Commons on 28 October 2016. To drive up support for the Bill a Lobby will be taking place on 19 October 2016. This is a crucial opportunity for those who have experienced homelessness and others who are supportive of the cause to get behind the Bill. We also cannot emphasise enough that as many people are needed to encourage their respective local MPs to support the Bill.
It is imperative that this laudable Bill receives maximum support to drive it through Parliament. Homelessness law is outdated and not fit for purpose as it continues to fail thousands of homeless people and families every year. It is therefore the responsibility of MPs to back this Bill and attend the second reading on 28 October 2016. The matter of one MP could make or break the Bill. Let’s make this change happen.