Friday, 25 July 2014

Who cares?

Experimenting with ALMOs

Tue, 5 Nov 2013

When is an ALMO not an ALMO? This was the intense debate at the Inside Housing towers last week right up to print deadline. The cause? A Scottish local authority that was examining setting up what it called an ‘arms-length management organisation’ to manage its temporary homelessness accommodation in order to escape the impact of the welfare reforms.

Clackmannanshire Council said: ‘Under current regulations it is likely that the housing benefit for temporary accommodation residents will be limited to the local housing allowance (LHA), plus a management fee of £45. As most of Clackmannanshire’s temporary accommodation residents are under 35 the eligible LHA will be further restricted to the shared room rate. This would income from these properties would be capped in these cases at around £106. This means an annual loss of income in excess of £500K.

‘More advantageous housing benefit rules are expected to continue for supported exempt accommodation but this requires that the landlord is not a local authority. If management arrangements could be amended to meet the definitions of supported accommodation, and the management transferred to an ALMO, income reductions could be minimised.’

ALMOs were originally set up to manage councils’ entire housing stock to get increased funding for decent homes under the Labour government. As such, there was discussion over whether a plan to divert management to only temporary housing could really count as an ALMO.

After researching slightly more however, a more blurred definition of ALMOs came to light. City West Homes, for example, controls most but not all of Westminster Council’s housing stock. Eamon McGoldrick, managing director of the National Federation of ALMOs, also said increasingly, ALMOs were taking on different functions to merely managing council stock. He pointed out that some ALMOs have now become stock-owning registered providers. This means they are able to borrow money from the HCA and build homes – which are crucially free from right to buy rules.

ALMOs are also increasing their reach in the number of functions they take on. Last June, it was reported that Colchester’s ALMO – Colchester Borough Homes – was to take over empty properties as part of an expansion of their responsibilities.

So what does this mean for homeless people using temporary accommodation in Clackmannashire? A question hangs over whether merely transferring management housing instead of the stock will really help homeless people escape the DWP’s limits on housing benefits. Under current rules, if the local authority still owns the property, the tenant will not be exempt from housing benefit changes. Transferring only the management at Clackmannanshire may not deliver the financial advantages the council hopes.

Given the changing picture for ALMOs, it is not surprising that a council is experimenting with the model to protect their tenants from the welfare reforms. Hostels and women’s refuges face going broke under changes to benefits and some have already closed. The increasingly desperate picture for temporary homelessness accommodation means we might expect more of this experimentation to come.

Time to care

Tue, 1 Oct 2013

As the Conservatives celebrated their third conference of the twenty tens in power this week, I thought it might be instructive to take a passing glance at the last time the party said something major on homelessness. I wasn’t wrong. It was instructive. It told me that since a big push in 2008, the] party itself has said barely anything on the subject.

Google ‘Conservatives Europe’, or ‘Conservatives planning’, and it will take you to delightful, recently updated webpages telling you ‘Where We Stand on X’. Google ‘Conservatives homelessness’, however, and you’re back to a dusty old web page last updated five years ago.

As opposition leader in 2008, David Cameron launched the Homelessness Foundation, backed by major charities like Shelter and Broadway. It was designed to act as a link between the voluntary sector ‘those with political influence’, in order that the government could attack the issue head on once they got into power. ‘I’ve put tackling poverty at the heart of my mission for the Conservative Party,’ the PM said.

At around the same time, the Conservative then housing spokesperson Grant Shapps launched the Conservative blueprint to tackle homelessness.

Some of its proposals have sat on the backburner. A pledge to reform the housing benefit system for temporary accommodation was shelved because of the extra hassle it would cause for councils having to deal with the bedroom tax.

However, Mr Shapps promised to overhaul the rough sleeper count to reflect the correct figures. He did this in 2011, which saw the numbers of homeless people quadruple. He also promised a welfare to work programme that he said would life homeless people out of long-term unemployment. This has been one of the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship schemes, and yesterday George Osborne went even further and said people who are jobless after being on the work programme will have to work for free. He also said the government would work across Whitehall and include the DWP, the Department of Health, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence in the discussions as well. Just over a year ago, a cross-departmental group was formed, which brought together ministers to thrash out a solution to homelessness.

In fact, unlike the Conservative Party’s radio silence on the subject, the government have made quite a few announcements on homelessness. In January this year, the current housing minister Mark Prisk announced funding to help roll out the highly praised No Second Night Out scheme. Last April, the housing minister announced funding for councils to reach a ‘gold standard’ on homelessness prevention.

On the other side of the coin, charities have said that this government’s cuts programme has made it much harder to tackle homelessness. Homeless Link warned last January disproportionate cuts to housing support services and homelessness budgets meant services that could face closure if implemented. Others are seeing that welfare reforms such as the benefit cap are forcing people out of their homes and into temporary accommodation, one of the problems that Mr Shapp’s 2008 report identified. More still agree that yes, schemes such as welfare to work were brought in, but cannot see how this is alleviating the homelessness problem.

Looking back on the 2008 launch of the Homelessness Foundation, it seems a shame that it did not survive. With housing and welfare reform firmly on the agenda for this conference, and probably right up until the general election, a concerted effort on behalf of the party to look like they care about tacking homelessness might be beneficial.

Costly business

Tue, 24 Sep 2013

The bill for housing families in bed and breakfast accommodation is quickly mounting. Today we learned Westminster Council has offered to pay £500 to every family it illegally placed in B&Bs for more than six weeks and an extra £500 for every six weeks thereafter. This is after the Local Government Ombudsman found it had caused ‘injustice’ to the households. Westminster has been counting up the numbers and its maximum exposure, it estimates, could be anything between £200,000 and £450,000, as the ruling applies to as far back as 2011.

But the council’s potential outlay is still overshadowed by the £3 million it paid between October and March to a hotel booking agency to put up individuals it could not find homes for. Other councils across London have faced snowballing costs in hotel bookings as the gap between supply and demand for accommodation – both temporary and permanent – widens. Councils were caught out. As Westminster says, it did not predict the effect that the credit crunch would have on housing supply. (However the council stopped procuring temporary accommodation in 2010, which wouldn’t have helped.)

The question now is how many more councils will have compensation bills to pay. Westminster was a particularly expensive case because the price of accommodation in the borough is so high. It was also unique in the large number of cases reported to the ombudsman.

But last May, Birmingham Council had to pay nearly £4,000 to a family of five it housed in the same room in a B&B for 17 weeks. Last December, Croydon Council paid £2,500 to a woman and her three children fleeing from domestic violence who were housed in a B&B for nine months longer than they should have been. One woman was paid £250 compensation in Newham last November because she couldn’t even get an appointment at Housing Options for two-and-a-half months.

The problem with these spiralling costs is that this is money the council is never going to see again – it goes straight into the hands of booking companies, or in today’s case, to the families. If the council was able to stop people becoming homeless in the first place, or was able to procure enough temporary and permanent housing, the expense for housing homeless people would be a lot easier to stomach.

Today’s ombudsman’s report gives a taste what Westminster has done to tackle the B&B crisis. It is keen to lease more self-contained accommodation, where people stay in a hotel but do not share facilities. It has set up a temporary procurement board, which has so far considered about 700 new properties. It has said it will borrow more money to buy new properties and has even said it will buy new land which will be available as temporary accommodation.

Just as importantly, it has beefed up its homelessness prevention scheme – arranging more officers to help tenants with court possession proceedings and creating a fast-track discretionary housing payment process to stop evictions in the first place.

Like Croydon Council, Westminster has now cut the number of families In B&Bs for over six weeks down to zero. As Jonathan Glanz, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for housing, said: ‘If we can deal with this challenge, then any of the 78 local authorities with families still in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks should also be able to.’

Councils are aware that housing people in B&Bs is a costly business, and today’s ombudsman’s ruling is a warning to local authorities that costs can continue to grow even after you have tackled the problem.

Tipping the balance

Tue, 10 Sep 2013

Chris Grayling last week launched an impassioned defence of his reforms to judicial reviews in the Daily Mail.

The Justice Secretary’s article describing his crusade against dreaded ‘serial campaigners’ taking on local authorities for ‘media coverage’ was so exhaustive that he failed to describe one change to the system laid out in the government’s consultation document.

Though not detailed by Grayling in the Mail, the consultation – which opened last week and runs until November – outlines several changes which will have ramifications for a large number of vulnerable people.

For homeless families launching judicial review proceedings against councils which illegally place them in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks, the biggest problem will be the cuts to legal aid funding.

Families, with the help of a lawyer funded by public money, can currently challenge a council to place them in more suitable accommodation by launching a judicial review.

The family can be successful at a number of stages in the judicial review game.

First,[A] a lawyer acting on behalf of the family, can write a letter to the council threatening them with such proceedings.

The threat of legal action is normally enough to push the council to rehouse a family in a more suitable property. It is so effective, says Lou Crisfield of Miles and Partners Solicitors, her firm has never had to go any further down the judicial review road in order to get families out of B&Bs.

‘Councils know housing families in B&Bs for more than six weeks is illegal, so no local authority is going to fight a judicial review,’ she says.

If this does not work, judicial review proceedings can be launched. The High Court will issue an urgent, interim order, compelling the council to rehouse the family with immediate effect [B] – which will drive the council to rehouse them permanently and the case is settled.

If this is still not enough to force a council to comply with the law, then the High Court will either grant permission to hear the case at a full hearing [C] or refuse to hear it meaning the case has to be dropped.

A family will almost always win at the [A] stage when the council is threatened by the prospect of legal action.

But under Grayling’s new rules, judicial review cases will only be guaranteed funding if permission is granted [C]. Even if the High Court grants an interim order in favour of the family, there will be no right to payment. This means it will be difficult for the legal firm representing the family to recoup the costs if the case does not go to a full hearing.

Few law firms will want to work only on the basis that they might get paid.

If local authorities know that funding is not available unless permission is granted, the council is more likely to call the applicant’s bluff, says Jane Pritchard, of TV Edwards LLP, which represents families trapped in B&Bs for more than six weeks.

Families will no longer have the security of knowing they can settle before a full hearing.

This will make households, who are reluctant to take on councils without the help of lawyers, less likely to challenge local authorities.

‘This takes away our sharpest weapon and means we are not just less prepared to do battle, but that we could not enter the battlefield,’ says Ms Pritchard. ‘It tips the balance more and more in the favour of local authorities.’

Grayling is convinced that left-wing interest groups ‘swarming around Westminster’ are exploiting the judicial review process. Yet as Justice Secretary, he should be keen to ensure his country’s public bodies abide by the law.

He should be worried about any change that makes it easier for councils to act illegally. But with the reforms Grayling has made to judicial review funding, it looks like he has done precisely that.

Lost in translation

Tue, 3 Sep 2013

Sometimes statements from local authorities raise more questions than they answer. One by Westminster Council last week was a case in point.

It appeared the authority had dramatically cut the number of homeless families living in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks to zero. This was welcome news, given that it is illegal for local authorities to place families in B&Bs for over a six-week period.

We will now wait to see whether the likes of Croydon and Barking and Dagenham, which have won £265,000 and £300,000 respectively to help tackle the problem, are also able to get the numbers down.

Westminster’s testimonial came out after its Labour councillors claimed they had ‘shamed’ the authority into taking action to take its 171 families out of B&Bs after they had hit the six-week limit. Councillor Jonathan Glanz, Westminster Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing said: ‘We are pleased to confirm that there are now no families in B&Bs over six weeks who aren’t waiting to move or have their case under review.’

There seems to be two main questions. 1. Is the number really zero? 2. Exactly where have the families been housed?

Firstly, what is ‘waiting to move’ and what does ‘have their case under review’ mean?

The statement suggests that families who are still having their cases reviewed or who are waiting to move are still in fact residing in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks.  

It will be worth looking at how many families out of the original 171 are in this particular situation. From the statement, it is also unclear how long a family which is ‘waiting to move’, has to stick it out at a B&B until they are moved into more suitable accommodation.

It does not appear that they count in the zero figure given by the council, and the reduction – when this factor is taken into account – may be less impressive than it first appears.

Secondly, a question hangs over where Westminster Council housed its homeless families. In June it was reported that the council were planning to buy or lease 600 properties, but that most of them would be outside the borough.

Given that the council said last November it had placed 74 households outside of Westminster since May 2012 through use of the private rented sector, it seems very possible that some families have been housed beyond the borders.

Councillors were told 30 new long-term leased properties have recently been sourced, but it is as yet unclear whether they are inside or outside the borough. As one Inside Housing reader commented yesterday: ‘Where are the 30 new homes? Margate? Hastings? Rotherham?’

Placing a family in long-term accommodation and giving them security and privacy is to be welcomed. But if this means a child has to give up their school place or a mother has to give up her job because they have been housed too far away, this may cause extra problems.

Westminster Council was set with a gigantic task to rehouse homeless families and, on the surface at least, it seems it has been largely successful. But it is worth drilling down to the finer detail and finding out whether any homeless families, still fed up of sitting in unsuitable B&Bs, have been forgotten from the council’s very good news story.

Populist message

Tue, 27 Aug 2013

As most people get back to work after enjoying a relaxing bank holiday, many may still be craving a rest after sacrificing a good night’s sleep in the name of protest. Mass sleep outs were held in 50 cities across the UK this weekend to highlight the recent government welfare changes and specifically to express opposition to the bedroom tax.

Thousands of people gathered last Saturday from Edinburgh to Penzance and the umbrella group organising the event said they slept out ‘to raise awareness of impending mass homelessness brought on by bedroom tax’.

As I walked down to Brighton beach last Saturday, I was greeted by a man handing out leaflets standing outside the tents the local group had pitched up for the night. It was striking that in less than 30 seconds, he could describe exactly what he was standing by the side of the road for.

The man explained that the squeeze on vulnerable people because of an unjust government policy was forcing people out of their homes and leading to a rise in homelessness. In around 50 cities and towns nationwide, this story was hopefully being re-told.

It is a simple message, benefit tax = mass homelessness, and it is a message that went viral with ease. Most of the mass sleep outs were organised through Facebook - local groups had their own pages that were able to reach thousands. The campaign swelled through local campaigning, but retaining the distinct and simple tent logo. The #TMSO hashtag also allowed the message to spread rapidly on Twitter.

Much of the coalition’s policies that affect housing have been populist. They have expounded a simple notion ready to get lapped up by the voting public. A couple of examples include plans to limit immigrants’ access to social housing and to force those who earn above £60,000 to pay higher rent in social properties.

It has so-far been difficult for the opposition to react to some of the current housing policies because the arguments against them are difficult to explain. Who wants to be the party that says ‘immigrants can take all the social housing when Brits stay on the waiting lists’ or ‘rich people can park their feet up in a council house when so others stay homeless’?

But the message against the bedroom tax is straightforward and the policy becomes increasingly difficult to defend when stories such as tragic suicides enter the press.

In fact, one large charity I spoke to last week told me that the welfare reforms were not affecting the rough sleeping figures anywhere like the media had reported. Most rough sleeping is entrenched and caused by trauma other than being forced out because of arrears. And with some councils and housing associations pledging a ‘no eviction’ policy, it is difficult to predict how the changes to benefits will affect homelessness in the future.

Opposition to the bedroom tax has gathered pace and the policy is increasingly becoming a stick to beat the government with. As we reported last week, MPs who voted for the bedroom tax are still using perks that allow their children to visit them in their second homes while tenants affected by the bedroom tax are not afforded the same luxury. This will be difficult to swallow for many voters.

In April, a ComRes poll found that 62% of Britons thought tenants should not lose housing benefit unless they refused suitable smaller accommodation. A small majority thought the bedroom tax should be scrapped. The idea of mass homelessness caused by the bedroom tax has since gone viral and will be interesting to see further polling this autumn.

Perhaps the government will itself soon become victim to a populist and popular message.

Fairness agenda

Tue, 20 Aug 2013

The government’s pay-to-stay scheme was circulated as part of its ‘fairness’ agenda. Wealthy people like RMT boss Bob Crow should not, the government said, be able to live in social housing without paying more rent.

Ministers therefore outlined proposals to allow landlords to make social tenants with a household income of over £60,000 pay more rent or move into the private sector. As we reported last week, landlords are not altogether keen to implement the discretionary programme.

Time will tell whether the popular image of Mr Crow and flush lottery winners basking in social housing is proven true. Although when the Communities and Local Government department consulted on the issue with the housing sector, a passage from the consultation document read: ‘Many felt that, in areas with very low numbers of high income tenants, the policy was unlikely to generate additional income and the costs involved would outweigh the benefits.’

But one thing not widely discussed was the effect the policy could have on households receiving disability benefits. The CLG is set on the £60,000 cap, but apart from that, the pay-to-stay scheme is still hazy on the details.

It is not yet clear whether the £60,000 threshold will include disability benefits. But if one household member receives benefits for their disability, this could easily push this household’s income above £60,000 without making them particularly wealthy.

The government’s consultation asked housing associations and landlords whether disabled people should be exempt from pay-to-stay. Just 10 per cent thought there should be a blanket exemption for disabled people, with 4 per cent recommending one for those in supported accommodation.

Instead, they thought ‘landlords should instead have discretion to decide and take into account factors such as care costs or whether the tenant received care support payments’.

Last year, the Centre for Welfare Reform published evidence from two disabled women, Micheline Mason and Mary Harrison, in which they added up their extra cost of living. After adapting a kitchen and bathroom, renewing a faulty hoist, installing a portable ramp and paying for essential taxi fares, the bill quickly added up. They estimated that every year, their cost of living was on average £8,555.80 more expensive each than a non-disabled person.

Some of this extra cost was paid for by their disability benefits and some of it they paid for themselves. Even if the £60,000 threshold does not include disability benefits, Ms Mason and Ms Harrison were clear that their cost of living was higher than what they received in benefits anyway. Their disability living allowance (which has now been changed to personal independence payments) only provided £3,360. This left a funding gap of £5,196.

Just as the government has left it down to local authorities who receives discretionary payment to alleviate the effects of the bedroom tax, it may be the case that landlords are left to decide whether disabled people are immune from pay-to-stay.

With many landlords apparently reluctant to implement such a high-cost and low-return policy, it is still not clear which areas of the country will bring in pay-to-stay at all. But in those areas that do go down this path, disabled people will be wondering whether they are included in a policy that could potentially force them out of their home.

Home comforts

Tue, 13 Aug 2013

Last Friday I was invited to attend the press performance of Home at the National Theatre, courtesy of St Mungo’s. I’ve been keen to learn more about what it means to be homeless now since reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris (without actually roughing it like he did). I started volunteering with the homeless charity in a women’s hostel around two months ago and when St Mungo’s mentioned this play I was curious about its message.

Homelessness in London has doubled since 2008, and the National Theatre production believes youth homelessness is at an all-time high. Therefore a play about a multi-storey homeless hostel for young people, based on real testimonials, is timely and pertinent.

While watching a part-musical, part-drama may seem like taking a class in homelessness-lite, the play about a young person’s hostel, from my experience so far, is exactly what it needs to be and so much more. Crafted like a documentary, crew are filming and interviewing the residents and staff and the audience hears stories from start to finish – many that are painful to hear and to tell. That the interviewees are putting on their best front makes the tales they share even more hard hitting.

Hopelessness is a constant, even in the lighter moments, but there is also a sense of determination, grit and community which gives the play a poetic backbone. In a world where it is dog eat dog, it is difficult to care but many of the residents and staff do in spite of themselves.

Home doesn’t shy away from the truth for the sake of art – there is a stabbing, there is sexual and domestic abuse, there is racism, there is staff frustration and there is extreme vulnerability. While each of these young people have a roof over their head they all quite rightly want more and this longing fuels much of the narrative and the tension. Nadia Fall considers what home means to these youngsters and for the majority of them the loaded word simply means somewhere safe to call their own. It seems outrageous that they are deprived of such a basic need.

Boris Johnson’s redefined aim is to stop people spending a second night on the street, but what about after that? This play highlights the limbo experienced by the 13,000 people living in hostels and other accommodation for homeless people in London, estimated by the Communities and Local Government department in Total Streetcounts and Estimates Autumn 2012 not including people in bed and breakfasts and squats and sleeping on the floors of friends and family.

Home highlights the strength it takes to get through each day in a hostel let alone the strength it takes to get out of the hopeless situation. I think if George Orwell had been watching alongside me he’d be disgusted that in the 21st century so many people still have no home to call their own.

Rough target

Tue, 6 Aug 2013

Labour’s City Hall housing spokesperson Tom Copley has written a letter to Boris Johnson tackling him about his failure to end rough sleeping at the end of last year.

The London mayor made the pledge in February 2009, nine months after winning the election, saying: ‘It’s scandalous that in the 21st century London people have to resort to sleeping on the streets’.

He decided to make the pledge despite admitting it would be a hard target to reach during a recession. ‘We are fully aware that in the current recession … that this is an ambitious commitment’. Still he said: ‘I have pledged to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012.’

But rough sleeping figures for London from charity Broadway – figures commissioned by the Greater London Authority – out in June this year showed this target failed. The number of rough sleepers between 1 April last year and 31 March this year went up 13 per cent from 5,678 to 6,437.

Tom Copley writes in his letter that Richard Blakeway, deputy mayor for housing, said in a housing committee meeting this May that ‘I think the target was never meant to finish in 2012’. But a press release on the GLA website clearly states the pledge is ‘end rough sleeping by 2012’. And when the mayor answered a question from Mr Copley on the subject in November last year at mayor’s question time saying that ‘it’s very difficult to achieve the end of rough sleeping’ his comment that rough sleeping was ‘growing because there are tough economic circumstances’ seemed irrelevant. His promise was to end rough sleeping despite the economic downturn.

In his letter to the mayor towards the end of last week, Mr Copley said: ‘At the past five mayor’s question times (17 July 2013, 19 June, 22 May, 20 March and 25 February) I have asked you when you were informed you would not achieve your pledge; on each occasion you have refused to answer this very straight forward question. I therefore ask you again, when were you informed by your staff that you would not meet your pledge to end rough sleeping in London by the end of 2012?’

This feels like my experience of asking the mayor’s press office on what next in their attempts to end rough sleeping. The mayor and Mr Blakeway have said they want to continue the target of ensuring no-one lives on the streets of London. Although, there appears to be no time limit (by the end of time?). But despite my repeated requests they have not come back to me to answer how they intend to do this. If, with the measures they put in place before 2012 – The London Delivery Board and the No Second Night Out initiative – they didn’t end up eradicating rough sleeping in the capital, don’t they now have to do more to achieve the goal? And the London Delivery Board has been scaled down to include a handful of councils rather than all the homelessness charities that were involved before. What new initiatives are they looking at introducing to end rough sleeping?

Of course, ending rough sleeping is really an impossible goal. Soon after the mayor made his pledge it became apparent to those involved they had to come up with a definition of a ‘rough sleeper’ to make the target in any way achievable. The target then became to ensure new rough sleepers to the streets did not spend a second night there.

This is a problem thousands of years old the London mayor is trying to solve - there have been people who have ended up sleeping without some kind of shelter since the beginning of time.

Even if it were possible to get ‘entrenched’ rough sleepers off the streets – you could never stop some kind of flow on to it. (And I’m still interested how the mayor’s office is intending to tackle the ‘missed middle’– as in this story here that I asked about a few times without receiving a response).

However, having said all this, the NSNO initiative does appear to be a positive one that is doing a lot of good work. It is helping a group of non-priority homeless people that would otherwise fall between cracks – that councils would normally turn away. Its website says since it was launched in April 2011, it has helped 2,318 people and 80 per cent of all new rough sleepers did not spend a second night out.

Its success in London meant that former housing minister Grant Shapps decided to roll-out the project to the rest of England in July 2011 with a £20 million pot for the voluntary sector to help do this.

Again, reports from NSNO schemes across the country do seem to be positive. The scheme does appear to have been an effective consequence of the mayor’s original pledge.

Yet, it does remain that a promise has been made that is unlikely ever to be kept. And it would still be interesting to know just what the mayor and Mr Blakeway are planning to do above and beyond what they have already done. Maybe they have got another NSNO out type-scheme up their sleeves? And maybe I’ll be waiting for a response on this as long as it takes to achieve their goal.

Missing link

Tue, 14 May 2013

This morning, care minister Norman Lamb announced that the government was committed to integrating health and social care services as part of the first ever ‘system-wide shared commitment’.

If we just put aside the hideous management speak for a moment, this appears to be good news. Primarily, it seems, the agreement will put a stop to patients having to constantly repeat themselves to various organisations in a bid to get the variety of help that they need.

In fact, 12 national bodies have signed up to the ‘shared commitment’ (honestly, couldn’t they think of a better name for it?), pledging to make ‘joined-up and coordinated health and care the norm’ by 2018.

There will be new pioneer areas to test this out, which will be announced in September. Local areas that want to pilot the plans need to apply by the end of next month.

It’s a welcome step towards a change which should have happened years ago. In an age of digital everything, why is it so difficult to share information across services – something that would genuinely improve people’s lives?

The report accompanying the announcement may be stating the bleeding obvious, but it does at least note that ‘services can be fragmented, and those who need to rely on them often find that they are hard to access and that there are inadequate links between them’.

It also acknowledges that good housing is an important factor in helping people stay well, and recover when they do become ill. Housing providers could do a lot worse than keep an eye on the pilot areas and offer their expertise at opportune moments.

Quite frankly though, integration is old news. Housing providers have been saying it for ages, Mr Lamb. Now let’s just get on with it.

Criminal behaviour

Tue, 7 May 2013

You lose your job, your home, your family. You hit rock bottom and you end up on the streets, and then in jail. Because by becoming homeless you are a criminal.

That’s not quite the scenario in the UK, but it could happen to you if you lived in Hungary. The Hungarian Government has just criminalised homelessness in its constitution.

Homeless people in Hungary, if a local authority takes the law up, will be fined if they are ‘habitually residing in public places’, and if they can’t pay the fine (how many people who are homeless are likely to be able to pay a fine?) they are jailed.

It’s the first country to do so nationally, although umbrella organisation European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless says other European countries have already started banning rough sleeping in certain areas, including France and Lithuania.

The organisation says this is the answer of some European countries to the increased numbers of homeless people due to the economic troubles across the continent over the past few years. Could it be that countries really think locking homeless people up to get them off the streets is a more effective way of dealing with the problem than ensuring there are enough effective services for them?  

FEANTSA has written to the Hungarian minister of state for social family affairs saying that the move is inhumane, ineffective and a violation of human rights.

Rina Beers, president of FEANTSA, wrote to the minister: ‘We believe that the amended Hungarian Constitution substantially increases the risk that homelessness will be criminalised.

‘Paragraph 3 of article 8 of the amended constitution re-opens the possibility for municipalities to criminalise homeless people who have nowhere else to go.’

FEANTSA had already raised objections to the law, and the minister of state came back saying the government had put in place a sufficient and diverse range of services for homeless people. Thereby saying, if someone is homeless they have an option and are choosing to break the law.

But FEANTSA have replied to say that the provision for the homeless in the country is not enough, or adequate. It says that a survey of homelessness for the country in February this year showed a rise in rough sleeping but this was not matched with the availability of beds in services, which had a 90 per cent occupancy rate at the time of the survey.

The law actually came into effect at the start of the year and has already seen 1,037 people fined for rough sleeping – fines were between 15 and 250 euros – and for 24 homeless people the fines became prison sentences. That’s quite a fair number – if you consider that’s just under half the total number of rough sleepers in England, according to Communities and Local Government department statistics that came out in February (the CLG figures showed 2,309 rough sleepers were recorded in England autumn 2012).  

FEANTSA is calling on the Hungarian Government to come up with a homelessness strategy offering ‘real supported housing options for homeless people’ in the private and social sector.

‘It is clear that, as long as the shelter system does not have enough beds and is not of an adequate standard, rough sleeping might be the only option for some homeless people,’ the organisation says.  ‘Fining and incarcerating those who are thus forced to sleep rough is highly immoral and violates their right to human dignity’.

The Hungarian constitutional court actually found the law to be unconstitutional in the autumn last year. What was the government’s response? Enshrining it in the constitution.

This move seems not only draconian but also unworkable. If someone has no choice but to sleep rough how is this going to stop them from returning again and again to the streets? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to solve any problems, and certainly not in the long run. Quite apart from anything else, is it a sensible move to create a law where your country’s jails are going to be packed full of homeless people?

The UK’s prison service certainly couldn’t cope. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen here.

Opportunity knocks

Tue, 19 Mar 2013

The publication of a scrutiny committee’s report into the draft Care and Support Bill has been widely hailed as a win for housing organisations in the continuing battle to be recognised as the third leg of the care ‘stool’.

The group of MPs on the committee were tasked with examining the broad-ranging reforms that the bill sets out, notably a cap on care costs and improved work between agencies.

‘The draft bill has been widely welcomed,’ the report says. ‘That does not mean that it cannot be improved.’ Well, quite.

Committee members broadly criticised a lack of understand from the government over the scale of the changes that the bill will bring about. If and when it goes ahead, the bill will fundamentally change the way care is funded and designed and the bill, the committee said, does not appreciate that.

But – and I can almost hear the cheering across the housing sector – it also recommends a number of points at which housing should be added to the list of agencies involved in care decisions. In particular, there are recommendations that the word ‘housing’ is added to several clauses, such as statements on well-being, assessment, assessment for carers, cooperation, information and advice, and discharge from hospital.

Most excitingly, or so I’m told, it suggests the government should consider amending the bill to include ‘appropriate housing representation’ in the membership of safeguarding adults boards.

Generally it seems that committee took on a lot of the advice that they were given by housing providers and representatives who gave evidence.

Domini Gunn, director of health and well-being at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said the added housing elements will ‘strengthen the bill’ and help to ensure that the importance of a decent home is recognised.

She added: ‘We do have some concerns – we feel an opportunity has been missed to require housing, health and social care to jointly plan and commission services, and there should also be a requirement for housing to be fully engaged in the preparation and delivery of joint strategic needs assessments.’

But, it seems, people on the housing side of the tracks are largely pleased.

Of course, civil servants and minister in the Department of Health could now choose to entirely ignore the committee’s recommendations and leave housing languishing on the sidelines. But with so many people cheering them on, it would be a mistake to let such an opportunity slide.

Maternity matters

Tue, 26 Feb 2013

There were some uncharitable responses to a report out this week that the health of migrant mothers and their babies was being put at risk by UK Border Agency dispersal policies.

It showed the devastating effects of when they are moved from accommodation to accommodation while pregnant.

Words such as ‘torture’, ‘sexual violence’ and ‘female mutilation’ were not enough to evoke sympathy. Or ‘depression’ or ‘suicidal thoughts’, it seems.

Maybe reading some of the case studies in the Refugee Council and Maternity Action’s report When maternity doesn’t matter? might give more of an understanding of what these women have gone through.

Irene, for example, fled from east Africa after being raped, and to avoid female genital mutilation and a forced marriage. I think most people, if they could, would try to avoid such fates. She became pregnant in London to an abusive partner, and when she refused to have an abortion he threw her out.

She probably didn’t have many options at this stage. She managed to get UKBA help [which does not allow asylum seekers to live in the lap of luxury, to point out] and three months into gestation she was moved to the north despite requests to stay in London, where she had friends and other support.

Having been through a pregnancy myself, moving 10 miles down the road away from support networks while pregnant would have been traumatic, let alone 150 miles or so. And then giving birth away from the people and place I knew - it’s not something I want to even imagine. 

Irene’s ‘punishment’ does not seem just for wanting to escape rape, genitalia mutilation and forced marriage.

Then there is Martha. She was not so lucky as to escape female genitalia mutilation. She suffered it twice, as a child then a few years ago. She fled to the UK to escape a forced marriage. She was so scared about being sent back she says ‘whenever I hear police sirens I wee in my pants. I still have nightmares, and have to have painkillers to sleep.’ She felt forced to sell sex in the past to survive and also had to escape from an abusive relationship.  Martha, who is pregnant but also has a three-year-old daughter, was fortunate to be helped by a refugee agency, and she was allowed to stay in London to continue her trauma counselling.

But other pregnant women, despite complex social and health problems, will be moved about the country, away from any medical treatment they are receiving. Because the UKBA will send them to places where they have a plentiful supply of properties.

Before people condemn these women perhaps they should put themselves in their desperate positions for a minute. Maybe if people met these women and heard their stories they might have more sympathy.

They have had hard lives – why would they have left their own countries in the first place? – which are being made harder here. Surely they deserve some compassion and this country, out of common decency, should allow them the best care they can get during their pregnancy.

As Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, says: ‘It is shocking that in a country which, arguably, has one of the best maternity services in the world more is not being done to prevent such vulnerable women being denied high quality care.

‘If these women or their babies are not to suffer serious consequences we must offer them the chance of continuity of care throughout pregnancy and childbirth from a team who understands their needs. Our society is failing these women and their babies.’

First steps

Tue, 12 Feb 2013

It has happened – the government has finally committed to capping the cost of care for any individual after months, nay years, of faffing.

And it’s come more quickly than many anticipated. In July, there were rumblings that the government had kicked the whole thing into the long grass. The social care white paper, which was widely expected to at least hint of more detail on the plans, contained little in the way of concrete information.

Then, Jeremy Hunt stands up in the House of Commons yesterday and, in a voice so steady and soft you could have been forgiven for thinking he was delivering really bad news, announced that a £75,000 cap would be put in place from 2017.

Brilliant, many cried. The cap signals the end of uncertainty for people facing long spells in residential care and soaring bills. It will allow people to plan for their old age safe in the knowledge that their budget for care is finite.

But the cap crucially excludes so called ‘hotel costs’ – that is food and accommodation costs above care itself – meaning it is not exhaustive. Even if you reach the £75,000 cap, you would still be liable for residential costs after that.

More importantly, the cap is also more than double that suggested by Andrew Dilnot, the leading economist who was commissioned by the government to investigate how on earth this country was going to help an ever increasing older population.

Accordingly, Mr Dilnot suggested £35,000 as a reasonable cap, and probably with good reason. He probably did quite a few sums. The downside was that it would cost the government a whopping £1.7 billion to fund, which in an economic downturn wasn’t ideal.

So Jeremy Hunt bumped the cap to £75,000. In his defence, he did at least stick to the income threshold that Mr Dilnot suggested – boosting the point at which you qualify for state help from assets worth less than £23,000, to assets worth less than £123,000.

Until housing and health can more effectively work together there’s only a limited amount that can be done, some commentators have argued. And it’s true. Capping the cost of care only goes so far if that care isn’t being delivered well, or isn’t appropriate for the needs of the individual.

There’s much to be sceptical about, but at least the government is doing something.

Beginning of the end?

Tue, 5 Feb 2013

The news last week that Derby Council is proposing the biggest ever cut to a Supporting People budget is not exactly good. It’s a dubious honour to bestow on a local authority – one of hundreds which is having to make cuts as the recession drags on and public spending plummets.

But has Derby gone too far? If the decision gets through the relevant consultation stages, it will reduce this financial year’s planned Supporting People budget of £9.3 million to £6.6 million, and then £3.8 million in 2013/14 and £1.8 million in 2014/15. This equates to an 81 per cent cut over three years.

It’s a terrifying amount. The council is all but wiping out vital support for services for vulnerable people, and citing increasingly squeezed coffers as its rationale.

It will hit mental health services, people with learning disabilities, homeless people and families, young people, teenage parents, people with drug or alcohol problems… the list goes on. It is by no means the only council looking at slashing its budgets, but by the unfortunate fact of making the biggest cut, it will attract a certain amount of criticism.

Even the union Unite said it recognised that the Labour-controlled council had been put into an ‘impossible position’ by communities secretary Eric Pickles and the coalition government’s ‘staggering cuts’ to local government funding. But it was clear that more needed to be done to protect people.

Sally Kosky, national officer for Unite, said: ‘Derby Council’s decision means that at least one of the city’s few remaining providers plans to cut its service to the bone, with fewer support workers on greatly reduced salaries, some below the living wage.’

It’s not only going to hit vulnerable people, it’s going to hit providers too, with redundancies being an inevitable consequence.

The decision has been on the cards since last year. In August, the chief executive of YMCA Derbyshire Gillian Sewell wrote an open letter to council leader Paul Bayliss, saying: ‘The proposed scale of the cut is surely not proportionate and represents a decimation of support for vulnerable people in housing crisis, including young people.

‘The cut goes much further than other comparable local authority areas and will cause real harm to the local community as a whole.’

Is this a sign of things to come?

Missing link

Tue, 29 Jan 2013

Today, the Welsh Government published a new social services bill, aiming to ‘transform the delivery of social services’ for many vulnerable people.

It promises to strengthen powers for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults and give people more control over the services they use by increasing the range of things which can be paid for directly by the individual. It also plans the introduction of a national eligibility criteria to get rid of the so-called postcode lottery that exists with some services.

Moreover, it’s won praise from commentators (mostly on Twitter – I haven’t done any comprehensive research) for its plans to give carers rights which would be equal to those they care for.

It’s been broadly welcomed by a sector that is, without doubt, clamouring for reform. But Mel Nott, the Welsh Local Government Association’s spokesperson for health and social care, points out that without extra money, or ‘available resources’ as she diplomatically puts it, the bill can only do so much.

‘The social care system is already under extreme pressure, and it will face fundamental challenges over the coming years. While the new bill’s focus on preventative approaches will go some way to delivering a sustainable framework for social care in the future, the overall pressure on the system is expected to increase even further in the coming years due to an ageing population and the year-on-year increase in demand for public services that this will lead to,’ she explains.

It’s a fair point. But what really has me flummoxed is the complete lack of acknowledgement of the housing sector in all this. Having had a quick skim through the bill document itself and a search using that friend of journalists the world over, CTRL F, I can barely find any mention of housing at all. Indeed, the only mention seems to be in relation to things a local authority doesn’t have to do if it’s meant to be done by the housing department.

There is some allusion to local authorities working with other ‘partners’, which I suppose might mean housing associations, but nothing explicit. The bill all but ignores the work housing organisations do to help vulnerable people live independently and stay healthy.

If I had a pound for every time someone told me about the importance of housing, health and social care working together, well, I wouldn’t be sat at my desk in misty old London this afternoon. I’m not sure why this isn’t filtering through to those writing the legislation.

Care costs stalemate

Tue, 8 Jan 2013

So another week has passed with little more news on the government’s plans for funding care for older and vulnerable people. There were hints that David Cameron and/or Nick Clegg would commit to a care cap in the mid-term review, released yesterday, but it came and went with little more than a nod towards the issue.

You have to cast your minds back to July 2011 to find the origins of the plan to cap the cost of care to an individual. Economist Andrew Dilnot – whose name has since become synonymous with the plans – unveiled his idea to make care costs more predictable for people as they entered old age.

His plan was to cap care at £35,000, even though this would incur a cost of around £2 billion pounds for the government. In July 2012 – yes, a full year later – health secretary Andrew Lansley hinted that the government would shelve the plans because it couldn’t cough up the necessary cash to fund them. But a month later the deal seemed back on, with reports that details of the scheme would be announced soon.

The Sunday Times trailed reports this weekend that the chancellor and the Department of Health had come to an agreement to fix the cap at £75,000 – significantly higher than the £35,000 cap that Mr Dilnot had proposed. The mid-term review this week could have been the ideal vehicle for the announcement, but so far it hasn’t materialised.

It did contain confirmation of the government’s support for the scheme, but there is so far no word on how high the cap would be.

It’s taken the government the best part of 18 months to get even this far, but really we’re no closer to a solution. Mr Dilnot was commissioned by the government to write his report in the first place, but the lack of response since then suggests his conclusions perhaps weren’t the ones ministers wanted.

Care costs

Tue, 4 Dec 2012

You can almost imagine George Osborne practising his speech for tomorrow, as he paces back and forth in his office somewhere in deepest darkest Whitehall.

‘Growth, job, business, deficit,’ he’s probably chanting – but there’s one aspect of reform that hasn’t had much airtime in the inevitable trailing of the content of the speech, and that’s social care.

After the budget, the autumn statement is probably one of the most important events in Mr Osborne’s calendar. It’s his chance to set out his plans for government spending and outline how he intends to drag the country kicking and screaming out of recession.

In July, the government published the white paper on care, which set out a number of changes to the care system. In it, ministers committed to the proposals from economist Andrew Dilnot, who had previously said the cost of care should be capped.

The government agreed to this in principle in the white paper, but stopped short of pushing to actually implement it. If nothing is done, charity Age UK estimate that the £500 million gap in funding needed for the current system will simply increase, the NHS will be put under more pressure, and more tax will be lost from people forced not to work to care for a loved one.

It seems unlikely that Mr Osborne will solve the care crisis in one fell swoop tomorrow, but he could do much worse than address some of the funding issues surrounding the proposals for reform. However, it’s more likely we’ll hear of further welfare cuts and tightening of belts all round.

Unfortunately for Mr Osborne, it’s going to take more than a royal pregnancy to distract people from what is likely to be a difficult speech to hear.

Picture of health

Tue, 27 Nov 2012

On Friday, the Care Quality Commission published its report on the state of care in England. It’s a mammoth piece of work – an amalgamation of 13,000 inspections of care homes, nursing services and health facilities.

And what did it find? Well, things are not universally rosy.

One in 10 NHS hospitals failed to treat people with the respect they deserve and failed to involve them in decisions about their care, and 15 per cent of social care services were not providing care that respected people. Almost a quarter of services did not have adequate staffing levels.

And all this in the face of growing demand for nursing homes services: in 2011/12, there was a 1.4 per cent increase in the number of nursing home services that registered with the CQC.

There were some services where ‘unacceptable care has become the norm’, the report said.

In the news release that accompanies the report, David Behan, chief executive of the CQC, said different services ‘need to work well together in an integrated way that meets the best interests of the people who use these services’. It’s what housing providers have always said – and continue to say.

Last week’s news that the new NHS commissioning board has approached a group of housing organisations to draw up a ‘compact’ for local health groups to work with landlords is heartening. But there is a real opportunity for landlords to get involved in people’s care, and for the ‘compact’ to work the other way. More pulling together could avoid long hospital stays and repeat admissions if people can return to their own, suitable, homes more quickly, and the overstretched NHS might have a chance to cope.

Likewise, if housing organisations were consulted when people leave hospital, perhaps the standard of care they received could improve if doctors understand the home conditions of the individual.

The CQC report only serves to show the scale of the problem – and perhaps housing is part of the solution.

Out of the cold

Tue, 20 Nov 2012

There have been reports that this winter is going to be a cold one. Possibly like the big freeze a couple of years ago.

EU umbrella group the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) says there have already been reports of homeless people freezing to death in Europe this year.

It has heard of deaths in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland. The organisation is using this to renew its call for a European-wide homelessness strategy.

‘We are at the dawn of a new winter’ FEANTSA says. ‘Homeless people are dying because of a lack of solutions.’

As Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach, says: ‘It can be a life or death matter for those sleeping out on the streets when the temperatures plummet below zero.’

But in 2010 Inside Housing reported a survey done by homelessness charity the Simon Community which said half of rough sleepers in London had not been offered emergency cold weather shelter.

Out of 90 people interviewed 51 per cent spent the previous night on the street, and 31 per cent said they would prefer to stay out because emergency shelters were ‘too busy or had problems with drink and drugs’.

Charities obviously make extra efforts in cold temperatures, increasing the number of outreach shifts looking for rough sleepers to get them into accommodation.

But clearly not everyone gets access to the winter shelters.

The usual rule councils in England follow – councils co-ordinate the response getting people into winter shelters every year – is to open the shelters when the Met Office predicts three or more nights of zero degrees celsius or lower.

Umbrella group Homeless Link recently called for local authorities to use the winter shelters as a way of cutting rough sleeping – by finding out a person’s needs whilst they are at a shelter to get them off the streets for good. At the same time they said councils should offer emergency cold weather accommodation throughout the winter rather than just when the weather is at its worst.

It does seem obvious that this would be a better way to go – why not have winter shelters open right the way through the season? It surely seems cold enough during winter at any point to get people off the streets, before it hits freezing.

Apart from anything, the Met Office is not always right. The Met Office did not predict the big freeze two years ago. If temperatures drop below freezing, and the Met Office doesn’t predict it, there is then no emergency winter provision for rough sleepers.

Why should councils not make winter shelters available to rough sleepers from, say, the end of November to the end of February? Especially this year, if we are to have another big freeze as some are predicting. And, while performing a great service every year, it does seem there could be a few improvements to the shelters. By making sure people know that they are there - and providing advice while people are there to help them out of rough sleeping altogether.

Then there would be less likelihood of the Simon Community’s 2010 report being repeated next year.

Homeless state

Tue, 6 Nov 2012

As we highlighted in recent research, thousands of migrants who the Home Office believe will get on a plane and leave the UK because they are failed asylum seekers have ‘gone to ground’ in the UK, most likely rough sleeping or sofa surfing.

But just because they have exhausted all appeals and no longer have a legal right to be here, doesn’t mean they are going to get on that plane. If you have no documents, no money and you going home means you face a war zone, what is the likelihood you might take your chances on the streets of Britain?

The BBC’s Inside Out last night revealed even more shocking evidence, that migrant children are sleeping on the streets because they have no nationality. Not necessarily in the same position as failed migrants, as they have not applied to be here and failed. But in the same situation as they are miles away from their country of origin and homeless. They are migrants without recourse to public funds in this country.

Rick Henderson, chief executive of the umbrella body Homeless Link, says that one in ten homeless services help people who are undocumented migrants. ‘These individuals often only avoid extreme deprivation by drawing on their own resources or by seeking help from homeless charities,’ Mr Henderson said.  ‘I recently met a number of people who, because they have no recourse to public funds, are forced to sleep rough under a railway arch.’

More extreme than that, the BBC programme tells us that for some children those recourses are selling sex to eat and find shelter.

Councils, never shy to gatekeep, have also, apparently, been assessing children as older than they are so they do not have to help them.

There are some that might say, if people do no have a legal right to be here, they should not have recourse to public funds. They should have no right to help with housing, or food. Would they also apply this to children? They may have been smuggled out of their own countries, or have had to run away from an abusive guardian. If they have no documentation, how would they get back to their country of origin? There could be all sorts of reasons a young person is on the streets through no fault of their own.

But, even with failed asylum seekers, who some people have little sympathy for. Why, simply because they failed the strict tests to be legally allowed to stay in this country, do they deserve destitution in this country? Since 1976 the UK has been bound by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in which article 11 says that states should: ‘Recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.’

As Mr Henderson says of migrants sleeping rough or sofa surfing, with no recourse to public funds: ‘This just should not be happening in modern Britain.’

Housing the young

Tue, 30 Oct 2012

Care leavers have hit the news today, after children’s minister Edward Timpson accused councils of failing to do enough to end the ‘national scandal’ of young people leaving the care system without adequate support.

Mr Timpson told the annual Care Leavers’ Conference that the fate of people leaving care is in stark contrast to that of other young people who rely on support for their parents as they struggle to get on the housing ladder.

Basically, these children are facing much bigger problems than just not being able to find a 30 per cent deposit.

David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, hit back at the idea that councils aren’t doing enough: ‘Like any family, councils try to provide a package of support that reflects the circumstances young people face as they move towards adulthood, which may include money, help in kind, support with housing and finding a job,’ he said.

Figures from the Department for Education suggest more than a third of children in care leave by the age 16 and, of those, 45 per cent will not be in education, employment or training three years later.

Mr Timpson called the experience of leaving care a ‘cliff edge’, where help suddenly ceases. No wonder the rate of former care leavers who are unemployed is far higher than the rest of the population.

In his speech, he urged councils to award teenagers a minimum £2,000 grant to cover the cost of setting up a new life outside care and warned that he would consider setting a national rate if they ‘did not make more progress’.

Perhaps this is happening already, but it strikes me that there’s a great opportunity for councils to build relationships with housing associations to help care leavers find homes. Housing associations would benefit from a cut of up to £2,000 to help with costs, and the councils would know children were going on to a stable start.

This blog has never been afraid of trotting out research which suggests there’s a link between decent housing, and good health and employment prospects, and while I can’t find anything that exactly illustrates the point, it would seem obvious that having a home helps you get, and keep, a job.

There has to be more that can be done for children who have most likely already faced some real difficulties. Finding them a home is just the start.

Feeding the poor

Tue, 23 Oct 2012

The foodbank charity The Trussell Trust recently revealed that it had handed out emergency food to more than 100,000 people in the past six months in the UK.

Shockingly three new foodbanks are opening every week now in the UK to meet the growing demand.

The charity says since April 2012 it has fed almost 110,000 people across the UK compared to 128,697 in 2011/12.

And it anticipates things will get worse with the rising cost of food and fuel, high unemployment and the changes to the benefit system. It believed in 2012/13 it will end up feeding more than 200,000 families.

Charity Save the Children launched a report and started a campaign last month saying that one in eight of the poorest children in the UK go without at least one hot meal a day. One in 10 of the UK’s poorest parents cut back on food to ensure they provide for their children, the report found.

No doubt many of those struggling to make ends meet will be in social housing, or trying to meet their rent with housing benefit in the private rented sector.

Will people end up choosing between paying their rent and eating? And if keeping a roof over your head is better than getting a good meal, how are organisations like the Trussell Trust going to cope with such increased demand? Or, if the other way round, how are homeless charities going to cope? As the benefit cuts kick in, demand for these charities’ services will just go up and up.  

The trust’s chief executive Chris Mould does say that: ‘The good news is that at a time of growing difficulty for people on low-incomes, communities across the country are pulling out the stops to start new foodbanks and people are donating more food to help those in crisis on their doorsteps.’

But it does seem like it shouldn’t have got to this stage. People surely shouldn’t have to rely on food handouts to survive? It can only be assumed that the government doesn’t intend to reduce benefits safe in the knowledge that people will still get food from charities. (Can’t it?).

Mr Mould adds: ‘The Trussell Trust has seen first-hand the devastating impact of rising food prices on people in poverty. Day in, day out, foodbanks already meet UK parents who are going without food to feed their children, or are forced to consider stealing to stop their children going to bed hungry.’

It’s no fun at the bottom of the income scale, and the immediate future is not bright. Christmas is likely to be a grim time – luckily the Trussell Trust give out Christmas hampers during the festive season.

But what can be done? What are the answers? What is the best way to ensure people have the basic necessities of life - heat, housing and food?

Strategic failings

Tue, 16 Oct 2012

The first ever Northern Ireland housing strategy has received a cautiously warm reception from housing professionals. Generally, people seem to be pleased that the executive is taking positive steps towards tackling some serious housing issues.

The one thing that has been repeatedly praised is the inclusion of an entire chapter dedicated to ‘meeting housing needs and supporting the most vulnerable’. This, people have told me, is a refreshing move from ministers to push oft-marginalised groups to the fore.

According to the strategy, the department will embark on a more ‘joined-up’ approach to helping older people by working with health and social services departments to help people stay in their own home. It is also going to commission research to find out whether older people want to stay in their own homes or not – an eminently sensible idea.

The last page of the chapter is dedicated to welfare reform - which perhaps is the issue most likely to cause problems in the coming months.

The department has promised to publish research on the impact of welfare reform on tenants, and put in place services to advise people on the changes, but will it be enough? A chink of light occurs in the shape of discretionary housing payments – which are supposedly to be extended to help those people in the most acute need – but ultimately Northern Ireland is heading the same way as the rest of the UK when it comes to reforms like universal credit and the bedroom tax.

All in all, I think it’s a mixed bag. While it’s clear the department is keen to help vulnerable people, it are merely paying lip service to the idea while it watches its own welfare reform bill limit many benefits. It’s not going to be an easy year for many people – and it would seem that the minister, Nelson McCausland, understands this. But without more detail, and some decent commitment to funding, the strategy means little more than the paper it’s written on.

Squatters' rights

Tue, 2 Oct 2012

The first person has been jailed for squatting. A 21-year-old man was sentenced to 12 weeks for squatting in a housing association flat in Pimlico.

Separately a homeless man last month reportedly told a court he stole a vodka drink from Marks & Spencer to go to jail and get a roof over his head.

John Golden, 51, apparently begged the judge to send him to jail so he didn’t have to sleep on the streets. Twenty-one-year Alex Haigh – the man who was jailed for squatting – probably didn’t feel quite the same. He sounds like a single man who probably didn’t want to end up in prison.

His father, Hugh, told the Evening Standard newspaper his son was an apprentice bricklayer who had come to London from Plymouth in July to seek work. But both men are linked because they were homeless, and would not be considered in priority need for housing by local authorities.

Jailing someone who is homeless for six months or fining them £5,000 seems pretty harsh. They may well be in a state of desperation.

There have been cases reported in the press where people have gone on holiday to find squatters have moved in and done terrible damage to their properties while they were away. Prosecuting in these cases, or where an empty home has been vandalised, seems understandable. But if someone is genuinely homeless and trying to get out of the cold – is jailing them justifiable?

Government figures show there are about 720,000 empty homes in England at the moment. Squatters rights group Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes said when Mr Haigh was jailed the ‘real crime’ was by the people not bringing empty properties back into use. This law will punish the victims of the housing crisis, they say.

But maybe for homeless people like Mr Golden this law is a good thing. The judge in his case declined his request to be sent to jail, and fined him instead. Perhaps he’ll try squatting now, because there seems more chance of him achieving his aim through that route.

Suicide watch

Tue, 25 Sep 2012

According to World Health Organisation figures for each 1 per cent rise in a country’s unemployment rate there is a 0.8 per cent rise in the rate of suicides.

Someone losing their job can lead to them becoming homeless. And, as we know, austerity measures in the EU are leading to job losses and increased homelessness across the continent. Communities and Local Government homelessness figures out earlier this month showed the number of homeless households in England had gone up 9 per cent in the second quarter of this year from the same period last year.

Mental health is a well-known cause for homelessness and homeless can have a serious toll on people’s mental health.

A European-wide homelessness umbrella group is so concerned about the rise in homeless and so potential increase in suicides it is renewing a call for the European Commission to create an EU action plan on homelessness, which gives adequate attention to mental health problems.

The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, along with Mental Health Europe, say more than 50 per cent of the homeless population in EU countries suffer from serious mental health problems. It points to a study from Denmark showing homeless men there were found to be 7.3 times more likely to take their own lives than the general population, and homeless women were 14.8 times more likely to do so. 

The call went out on September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, in a press release saying: ‘The helplessness and desperation felt by a person willing to take their own life is unquantifiable, and real action must be taken to ensure that all people have their most basic needs met, such as that of a stable home, in times of crisis or otherwise.’

Suicides are about people, not numbers. They say.

Quite right.

But how many more people are interested in those severely affected by austerity, the homeless and the mentally ill, than the debts that have to be cleared, or the latest gross domestic of a country? Or, at least, how many people in power are more interested? And even if they were interested, would they do anything?

Probably not. And would the action plan have much effect? Maybe.

And will the European Commission listen? Probably not. But you never know. I’ll watch the space. Meanwhile, we are likely to see homelessness figures continue to rise and so probably suicides too.

Maria Nyman, MHE director, said: ‘If we are to talk numbers, by 2020, suicides are estimated to contribute more than 2 per cent to the global burden of disease,’ said Maria Nyman, MHE Director. ‘Surely, in a cash-strapped Europe dependent on healthy workers, that ought to mean something.’ Surely. Let’s hope someone or something can stem the rate of homeless, as well as suicides. As we can all but hope there will be enough jobs to go round by 2020 too.

Banging on health's door

Tue, 18 Sep 2012

It’s the age-old question – and no one seems to have any concrete answers.

Martin Knapp, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and director of the School for Social Care Research, explained that his research showed that people are generally very happy with the care they receive in housing schemes, but that there isn’t a lot of material out there to show how to do these schemes well. Surely that’s where housing providers should step in, to demonstrate how housing schemes with a care element work well.

Richard Humphries, senior fellow at the Kings Fund, said the key to integrating services was understanding how government policies fit together – and that it wasn’t limited to the obvious ones. As well as explaining some of the NHS reforms and care papers to come out of Westminster, he also pointed out that policies such as welfare reform could impact enormously on how care services are delivered. Not least because it’s still unclear how supported housing will be funded.

He encouraged providers to muscle their way onto health and wellbeing boards, to make sure that they are building relationships with local health providers from the off. ‘Housing will need to be banging on the door of health and wellbeing boards to make sure they are engaging with you,’ he said.

There was also much discussion on how homes – not housing – impact on people’s wellbeing. Andrea Sutcliff, chief executive of the Social Care Institute for Excellence, explained how it is one of the major factors in people’s lives which help them to live independently. It’s about providers knowing what each other is talking about, she explained, and knowing what words mean in a health context versus a housing context.

So it’s the same old arguments – housing, health and social care need to integrate more, providers need to talk more, ministers need to produce joined-up (how I hate that phrase) policies. But why isn’t it working?

‘Housing is key to the policy ambitions of health and social care,’ Mr Humphries explained. And if it’s so key, providers should do something about it and shout a bit louder, if that’s what it takes.

Making the grade

Tue, 28 Aug 2012

Social care assessments hit the news last week, when a report from the Audit Commission found that councils could provide care packages for almost 20,000 older people if they scaled back their outlay on assessment procedures.

The report suggested that local authorities could release more than £300 million to frontline social care by spending less on assessments and reviews, which determine what type of support people can receive.

As the Local Government Association pointed out last week, it would be wrong to suggest that efficiency savings alone are going to sort out this country’s aging population, but there was definitely a varied picture over the cost of assessments which should be standardised.

Assessments aren’t getting much good press all round this week: Paralympic sponsor Atos is at risk of being bigger news than the Games themselves as furious campaigners launched a five day protest against its assessment system.

The healthcare company has been criticised for its handling of a £100 million-a-year contract with the coalition to assess whether people claiming for sickness and disability benefits are fit for work.

According to some, the assessments result in people who cannot work being deemed fit during a 15 minutes assessment.

There has to be a middle ground here: councils are already spending around 40 per cent of their budgets on social care, with an extra £2 billion needing to be found each year after 2015 just to keep up with demographic changes, so throwing money at long consultations with individuals over what support they need doesn’t seem appropriate.

But, these reviews determine whether people receive state-funded help – which for some is quite literally a life or death decision. Isn’t there a better way?

More care confusion

Tue, 21 Aug 2012

There’s nothing the press like better than a ministerial u-turn: that brilliant, 180 degree swoop back towards a policy that looked like it was going the way of the pasty tax.

Last week it was widely reported that the Department of Health had u-turned on plans to quietly drop a proposed cap on care, and would, in fact, be giving it the go ahead.

This care cap – part of the now ubiquitous Dilnot report – would mean no individual would pay more than £35,000 for the cost of their care. This would end the practise of older people being forced to sell off their homes in order to fund years of expensive residential care.

The government had always approached the issue with caution, not least because the plans carry a hefty £2 billion price tag. Even as recently as last month, Andrew Lansley hinted in the care and support white paper that he would not commit to funding the cap proposals until 2013, meaning the cap wouldn’t take effect until 2015.

So when last week’s reports suggested the government had had a change of heart, there were whoops and cheers all round.

But a statement from the Department of Health is less than conclusive. Mr Lansley said in July that the government supported the principles outlined by Andrew Dilnot – last week he said little more.

‘As we made clear when we published our progress report on care and support funding reform, the government supports the principles of a capped cost model as recommended by the Dilnot Commission. It would, as Andrew Dilnot himself said, enable people to plan and prepare, so that they are not so vulnerable to the arbitrary impact of catastrophic care costs,’ he said on Thursday.

So that’s all well and good.

He added: ‘We are continuing to explore a range of options for funding such a system, and as we have said any proposal which includes extra public spending must be considered alongside other priorities at the spending review. Today’s press speculation is entirely consistent with the approach we have already set out.’

So are we really any further on at all?

Championing asylum rights

Tue, 14 Aug 2012

The decision not to carry out a fatal accident inquiry into the deaths of three asylum seekers in Glasgow brings to an end a sorry tale of desperation.

Russian refugees Serguei, Tatiana and Stepan Serykh died when they fell from the 15th floor of one of the Red Road tower blocks in the Springburn area of north east Glasgow on 7 March 2010.

What complicated the case was that their application to remain in the UK had been refused and they had been told they had to leave their flat, leading to fingers being pointed at agencies which might have been able to protect them.

The family had not, however, been issued with a removal order at the time of their deaths, and were reportedly also suffering from mental health issues.

We will never know whether these people were so desperate that they leaped to their deaths rather than be sent home, or whether there were other factors at play. It would be wrong to speculate either way.

Inevitably, not everyone who arrives in this country seeking asylum will be granted it. The homelessness charities, housing associations and council workers who support the families have a job on their hands to provide suitable accommodation, sometimes for months on end, for people who are in limbo.

Asylum seekers seem to represent the unseen side of housing-related support. The individuals are often traumatised, unable to speak English and not eligible for much state help. They might have complex needs, and cannot work, meaning charities have to pick up the slack.

There are organisations that do a lot to support asylum seekers and champion their rights. But people like the Serykh family show that there’s still a huge amount of work to be done, and it’s not something anyone can take lightly.

What is 'vulnerable'?

Tue, 7 Aug 2012

If you thought the new Universal Credit regulations were done, dusted and ready for implementation, you’d be wrong.

Behind the scenes, a debate is still raging about who should be exempt from caps to benefits – people whose accommodation is necessarily more expensive than ‘normal’ housing because they need extra support or adaptations.

These people are expected to qualify for ‘exempt accommodation’ – where the cost of housing can be shown to be above the £26,000 benefit cap for disability reasons.

But as part of this, the government needs to work out a definition of ‘vulnerable’ so it can define who qualifies for an exemption and who doesn’t. The debate has hotted up this week with housing groups and charities warning that the changes could affect certain groups and services which wouldn’t necessarily qualify for extra money.

Women’s Aid believes limiting the types of charges which are eligible to be covered by housing benefit to just three leaves several which will not be covered, including the maintenance of communal gardens, fire safety equipment, communal heating, lighting, lifts, door entry systems, children’s play areas, white goods, furniture and rubbish collection.

This could threaten refuge accommodation, it said, and has asked for women in refuges to be considered exempt from the cap.

Across the border, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has warned that vulnerable people could find it hard to access benefits.

Maureen Watson, policy director at the SFHA, said: ‘As yet, there is no definition of ‘vulnerable’ in the regulations. A comprehensive definition is needed to ensure that people with literacy, numeracy and confidence challenges are not disadvantaged.’

The core definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ from a 1997 consultation Who decides? issued by the Lord Chancellor’s department, said it is a person ‘who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of disability, age or illness; and is or may be unable to take care of unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or exploitation’.

But is this enough? I’d be interested to hear what you think the definition of ‘vulnerable’ should be below.

On banning soup runs

Tue, 17 Jul 2012

A mayor in the US has just been blocked from attempts to ban people feeding rough sleepers on the streets.

Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter brought in a law last month that banned groups from serving food to people in public parks. Nutter by name, and maybe just a little bit crazy to try something against what seems to be an international strength of will by charitable folk to give food to those on the streets.

Something similar happened in London last year. Westminster Council caused outrage when they tried to bring in a bye-law to ban soup runs in parts of the borough at the start of the year. In March hundreds of people turned out to lay on the ground outside the doors of the Communities and Local Government department to protest. By the autumn the council had backed down from its plans. 

US district judge William H Yohn in Philadelphia has halted the enforcement for about four months and could still decide to uphold it when he files his written judgement. But religious charities have vowed to break the law come what may and continue to feed the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. Charities in Westminster had similar reactions to the Westminster plan. They also said they would break the law to feed people.

Giving people food when they are in need might seem the very obvious charitable, humane response to the situation. But Mayor Nutter argues his ban is to stop well-meaning church groups spreading food-borne illnesses from ‘improper handling of food’ and feeding rough sleepers on the streets does not helping to tackle all the other issues they may have, such as mental health or substance abuse issues.

There are homelessness charities in the UK that would agree that soup runs are not the way to go. Along with the Communities and Local Government department, charities Thames Reach and St Mungo’s supported Westminster Council’s move. They believe soup runs can help ‘encourage’ people to stay on the streets, making it easier for entrenched rough sleepers to stay on the streets.

But could these attempts just be a way of removing rough sleepers away from places where they could be considered an ‘eye-sore’? Westminster Council only wanted to ban soup runs from the Westminster Cathedral piazza and surrounding areas. The cathedral is the heart of the catholic community in England and Wales, and a tourist attraction. Critics of Mayor Nutter’s plans say it was an attempt to clear rough sleepers away from Benjamin Franklin Parkways, an area where tourist attractions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum and the newly relocated Barnes Foundation collection are found. The four charities that filed the law suit said the law demonstrated ‘a determination to remove from the vicinity of the Barnes Foundation those that some view as undesirable to the public image of the city of Philadelphia’. (If this is the case, a trick the London mayor has luckily not used in his aim to end rough sleeping this year – something he could have used to ‘clean up’ the streets before the Olympic Games next week?)

It does seem there might be an argument banning them could be a disguised attempt to move rough sleepers on from tourist attractions. But, certainly, there is an overwhelming strength of feeling from many people that they should stay. If they are to continue, it does seem obvious that they should in some way, attempt to help and encourage people out of a life of rough sleeping. If their very existence and nature doesn’t stop them from doing that.  

Health concerns

Thu, 12 Jul 2012

The eagerly-awaited social care white paper was published by the Department of Health yesterday to what turned out to be a slightly limp fanfare. Widely trailed, and woolly in terms of detail, it wasn’t the panacea many had hoped for.

The major points – a deferred payment system for older people and a commitment to introducing a cap on care costs at some point – were broadly welcomed by the sector, but many expressed frustration that there wasn’t more detail, especially on when the cap might come in.

Here’s a round-up of what people have been telling us:

Sue Adams, chief executive of Care and Repair England: ‘We warmly welcome the acknowledgement that decent, suitable housing underpins independent living and can determine the need for social care. This white paper goes further than anything before in embedding that integrated vision.

‘As well as a vision, we need radical new delivery methods. Very modest capital investment would reach thousands of older people, enabling self-help and better use of limited resources.’

Chris Munday, director for care and support at Midland Heart: ‘It is a step forward, but disappointing too that the detail on how people will actually pay for their future care is still not clear. 

‘We now need certainty. Without it, our collective and fundamental longer term challenge for our ever growing aging population to live in their home with confidence and independence will never fully be addressed.’

Jane Ashcroft, chief executive of Anchor: ‘Every day that passes, without government detailing a plan of action, sees people losing a lifetime of savings. Despite election promises to prioritise social care, less than a quarter of older people are confident that good-quality care will be made available to them when they need it.’

Des Kelly, executive director of the National Care Forum, said: ‘The continued uncertainty will impact on investment prospects, delay innovation and development, and also mean that vulnerable people will continue to be served by a system widely perceived as complex, inequitable and unfair.’

Rebecca Mollart, director of policy at supported housing lobby group Erosh: ‘What we’re really concerned about is the delay in costing these proposals – without this we can’t really assess the implications of the proposals. With local cuts to Supporting People funding that have hit people really hard it’s difficult to see how local authorities will have the funding to support a loan scheme [to help people pay for care].’

Rachael Byrne, executive director for care and support at Home Group: ‘I’m disappointed that the government hasn’t addressed the cap issue and I don’t think local authorities are set up to loan money or have the processes in place to do it. We are pleased about the money for older people’s housing, and the £300 million for integrated working between the NHS and adult social care teams.’

Shifting blame

Tue, 3 Jul 2012

Who would have thought that this blog would dip its care-shaped toe into the murky world of inter-bank lending rates? But here we are, just hours after top bod Bob Diamond stepped down from his post at Barclays, presumably to enjoy his enormous payout and his Nantucket mansion in peace.

Even before Mr Diamond jumped ship at around 8 o’clock this morning, Grant Shapps, surely king of the hefty leap onto the nearest bandwagon, made the link between the former chief exec and the housing crisis.

In a Commons debate yesterday afternoon, Mr Shapps said attempts to manipulate interest rates – for which Barclays was fined £290 million last week – could have caused people to lose their homes and increase homelessness.

‘All the research into homelessness proves that there are a lot of different causes, and Libor [the inter-bank lending rate] may be a contributory factor if it transpires that mortgage rates have been adjusted as a result,’ he said.

I’ll leave the clever interpretation of the figures to our business pages, but the implication is that if Barclays’ fiddling has been altering the mortgage market, people might have not been able to meet payments and could have had their homes repossessed.

This outburst, topical as it was, smacks of finger pointing of the worst kind. On Friday, new figures from homelessness charity Broadway revealed the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of London has increased 43 per cent in the last year, and not all of them have suffered because of a bit of creative accounting by Mr Diamond and his minions.

Mr Shapps probably has a point – homelessness has many causes and no doubt there will be article after article written about Barclays problems in the coming months, not to mention a possible inquiry and calls for an overhaul of the banking system. But, the things that are really hitting people hard, the things that really will increase homelessness are things like welfare reform, a lack of affordable housing, and the cutting of support services.

And for all this, Mr Shapps doesn’t need to look anywhere other than his own department.

Targeting homelessness

Tue, 26 Jun 2012

Rough sleeping figures for London are thought to be out this week and charities are expecting big rises.

When homelessness charity Broadway released the figures last month it showed 648 people had slept rough in the capital in the two months before 30 April, a 73 per cent rise from the same period the year before.

Although the figures showed that 515 of the people that came onto the streets had no second night out, there were still 468 people who returned to the streets in those two months after a period away. There were still 133 of new people on the streets who had a second night out and 223 (up 23 per cent from the same period the year before) were counted as ‘living on the streets’ [entrenched rough sleepers, or in danger of becoming so].

The mayor’s team at City Hall were not pleased when Inside Housing suggested they might have to ‘lower the bar’ to hit Boris Johnson’s aim of ending rough sleeping by the end of this year. But might they now have to admit this will be necessary to hit the target? Or at least admit – with rising figures in the year they aim to end rough sleeping - that target is going to be impossible to hit. There is a chance they may stop people ending up on the streets a second night, especially now as they are planning a second hub – where rough sleepers can be taken to find them accommodation - is soon to be set up. But they can not stop people (‘flowing’) onto the streets, and it appears they can not stop people who want to live on the streets staying there – and returning.

Perhaps eyes should turn to Scotland to find out what they are doing right there? Scottish homelessness figures came out today (not rough sleeping, but they can have a knock on effect) and they do provide a stark contrast to the English figures. Scottish figures are going down, whilst English figures sharply rise.

Is it something to do with housing being higher up on the political agenda in Scotland, an emphasis on preventing homelessness in that country? Every one waits with baited breath for Grant Shapp’s inter-departmental ministerial working group to produce its strategy on preventing homelessness. It was expected to come out this month, but now appears to have been delayed until next month. At least.

Maybe we can expect to see homelessness and rough sleeping figures in this country start to fall soon after it comes out. Maybe. Or (more likely) maybe not.

Let's welcome refugees

Tue, 19 Jun 2012

If you didn’t know already, this week is Refugee Week. This year, there is a special focus on people who have made a difference to the Olympics and to UK sport.

Housing providers are often central to a refugee’s experience of this country. After all, this is a group of people who are more likely to need housing support than almost anyone else.

A snapshot survey of asylum seekers and refugees living in Glasgow, carried out by Glasgow University, found that more than 100 were living in destitution, for an average time span of one and a half years, though one survey participant had been destitute for as long as six and a half years.

On a more positive note, London-based association Metropolitan are tackling the problem of a language barrier with a home learning project. The project provides tuition for refugees who are unable to leave their homes, often due to mental health issues arising from the trauma experienced by having to leave their country of origin.

Sixty-four refugees have received tuition and seventeen refugees, including both learners and learning mentors, have taken up voluntary work as a result.

Rosie Ward, project coordinator, says: ‘The extent of isolation experienced by refugees is unbelievable. Some of them have had little or no contact with their local community for several years and many are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and a sense of displacement. The home learning project teaches them the language skills they need to function within the community, improves their confidence and knowledge of the local area and gives them hope.’

It all sounds like good news, but Ms Ward adds that the funding for the service will come to an end in September, leaving its future unclear. Currently, it’s the only project of its type in London.

The Refugee Week focus this year seems just right – there is so much focus on Britishness in the country at the moment that it is probably worth stepping back and looking at people who have come to Britain and genuinely made a difference.

But more than that, at a time of squeezed budgets, shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can to make people who come here in search of protection, welcome?

Homelessness tested

Tue, 5 Jun 2012

You might have thought when the government was drawing up a test to see if ill or disabled people claiming benefits were fit for work they might have thought homelessness a consideration.  

People claiming employment and support allowance might well be homeless. Homelessness often means people have chaotic lives and multiple needs – such as drug and alcohol dependency issues – and while deemed physically fit to work, their life circumstances might mean they are in no way ready to hold down a job.

Homelessness charity Crisis research last month found the tests were ‘inhumane’ for homeless people and 80 per cent of the homeless people they spoke to for the study did not have a positive view of their experience of the assessments. Ninety seven per cent of individuals were stressed their claims would be turned down.

Professor Malcolm Harrington is now in his third year of reviewing the work capability assessment, but it took a recent submission from charities Crisis, St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Broadway for homelessness to be recognised as an important consideration.

He has now agreed the assessment should consider homelessness and the charities are coming up with ways to do that.

This might mean homelessness is now flagged up on questionnaires, and Department for Work and Pensions employees trained to recognise homelessness.

But does this reflect the attitudes of the people in power to homeless people? Do many of them think homeless people should just go out and get a job, and be stopped from getting the benefits they skank from the British taxpayer?

Hopefully this is not an attitude reflected in the strategy from the inter-departmental ministerial working group set up to tackle homelessness, expected to come out this month.

Homelessness charities have already criticised a draft they have seen because they say the strategy – aimed at preventing homelessness – provides few sticks to ensure councils comply.

Maybe the ministerial working group will show the government really can come up with something that understands the problems of homelessness, and that it cares. It will be interesting to see if the group really is more than the talking shop people thought it might be. Or perhaps it will miss out vital considerations, just like the WCA.

Inside Housing is conducting a survey examining care and support provision, in partnership with Capita. Complete the anonymous survey to let us know your experiences and be in with a chance to win an Apple iPad or equivalent charity donation.

Social care crisis

Tue, 22 May 2012

If there’s one thing that is often written about in the care sector, it is people’s ability to live independently in their own home. Staying in your home, despite any care needs, must be a great comfort to a great many people.

But a report from Mencap today points out that people need to get out as well, and if you have a learning disability, it’s becoming increasingly hard.

The charity said that nearly a third of local authorities have closed day services in the last three years, meaning one in four adults with a learning disability now spends less than one hour a day outside of their home.

Freedom of information requests to 151 local authorities revealed that more than half of people with a learning disability who are known to social services do not receive any day service provision whatsoever, compared to 48 per cent in 2009/10.

In addition, 60 per cent of local authorities have increased charges for going to day services and for vital services like transport to a service, on average by 70 per cent.

They are worrying figures – particularly because when Mencap asked 280 people with disabilities whether they had been consulted about changes made to day services, 88 per cent said no.

The cuts also hit families who are having to look after their loved ones because of a lack of any other service, possibly leaving them unable to work. It’s not a financially stable time for anyone, but this is another blow for an already hard-hit group.

Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, said the report is yet more evidence that the care system is ‘in crisis’. Given that social care barely featured in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, I’m inclined to agree.

Not working out

Tue, 15 May 2012

What a time to try to push a load of people into work who haven’t worked for years. A time when unemployment is high and there just aren’t enough jobs for everyone.

When people with years of experience can’t get a job in their chosen field, nor can young, keen people fresh out of university with a degree.

But this is the time the government has chosen, and it appears to have done an effective job of persuading the masses most of the people on benefits are workshy scroungers. And so the work programme started up last June.

It is to ‘support claimants who need more help to undertake active and effective jobseeking’. This includes homeless people. So, homeless people, whose priority is likely to be to find a roof over their head for the night, now have to be out there competing with people whose first priority is to get a job.

Obviously, getting a homeless person back on their feet and into work is a good thing. But it will take a homeless organisation some work to get a homeless person to the stage where they are ready for employment.

Homeless people are likely to have complex needs, such as drug and alcohol issues. To get them to an interview will take time and resources. Then they have to be got through an interview, and there might be psychological fall-out to deal with if they don’t get the job.

So not paying an organisation until someone has been in work for six months is likely to put off cash-strapped charities from getting involved. And has. How are they going to fund the months of work to get the people to the interview? Then there is the danger that people will choose to work with those with less issues – easier to get into work, more likely to bring in the cash reward. This system of payment is one bar to the work programme being effective for homeless people.

There is also the issue that those taking part have found a real lack of referrals. Two charities have now pulled out of the work programme because of this. Other charities involved are thinking of doing the same. I understand there are various reasons for the lack of people referred to the charities. One is because job centres are just not recognising people are homeless and referring them. Main contractors apparently use software to find the word ‘homeless’ in employment lists. People sofa-surfing (so homeless) will have a postcode – so will not be recognised as ‘homeless’ (which, to most people, means rough sleeping). And, if you are rough sleeping, how many times will you get to a job centre?

A programme which does help homeless people get back into work could be a good idea. But the work programme looks set to fail for them.

A lot of the charities are already working with their clients to build their confidence and get them back into work. Perhaps the government should speak to them, look around and see what is going on already?

Inside Housing is conducting a survey examining care and support provision, in partnership with Capita. Complete the anonymous survey to let us know your experiences and be in with a chance to win an Apple iPad or equivalent charity donation.

Care reforms forgotten

Tue, 8 May 2012

Momentum is building among care providers and campaigners as the Queen’s speech approaches, not least because the promised social care reforms might not be included.

Tomorrow, Her Majesty will announce what the government will be doing between now and the summer recess. It’s likely there will be a Crime, Communications and Courts Bill and a Banking Reform Bill, but thanks to a bill on the reform of the House of Lords, the Social Care Bill looks to have fallen by the wayside.

The Bill could have dealt with a number of things – but notably it might have included details of financing care in the future. We’re still waiting for a response from the government to Andrew Dilnot’s recommendations of a care cap which were published last July. The Treasury, which is thought to have balked at the £1.7 billion cost of the Dilnot Commission’s proposals, could now put off a decision on who pays for care until 2015.

Age UK is calling for people to tweet about the need for new care laws with the hashtag #CareCantWait to @Number10gov – the Prime Minister’s twitter feed. Reading the feed it’s clear there is a lot of feeling from people who think the current system isn’t fair, or affordable.

On top of that, a number of groups, including the Local Government Association, and housing associations Anchor, Home Group and Housing 21, have written to David Cameron to tell him the current system is ‘under- funded and in urgent need of reform’.

A white paper will now be published in June, although no formal response to Dilnot’s proposals will come with it. A progress report on cross-party talks over long-term care funding will be published alongside the paper instead.

It’s undoubtedly a complicated business, but with the elderly population of the UK steadily rising and people living longer, there needs to be a solution to the impending crisis. And fast.

Stroke victims need help

Tue, 1 May 2012

Stroke survivors say they are being denied the chance to make the best recovery because of a lack of coordination between care services, according to a report published today.

It’s hardly a new story – there has been much criticism of the aftercare that patients receive after leaving their hospital beds.

The Stroke Association interviewed more than 2,200 stroke patients and found 38 per cent had never received an assessment of their care needs. More than half of those who had had a stroke in the past three years had only received one assessment.

Even where assessments were being given, only 38 per cent of those had been given a care plan outlining how services and treatments would be put in place.

Almost a half (48 per cent) of those receiving services said that health and social care services did not work well together – forcing families and carers to take on the responsibility for coordinating care.

There are more than a million stroke survivors across the UK.

The Stroke Association is calling for better cross-agency working for care providers, and that has to include housing-based care. There are pages of evidence – much discussed on this blog – about how helping someone to live independently in their own home can save a small fortune in hospital admission costs.

Jon Barrick, chief executive at the Stroke Association, said: ‘Many stroke survivors tell us that after all the effort to save their lives they then feel abandoned when they return home. The NHS and local authorities are failing in their responsibilities to provide appropriate and timely support to stroke survivors and their families; and the growing evidence of cuts for people currently getting services is very worrying.’

It could be something as minor as putting in a grab rail or a ramp, and housing professionals are best placed to work out what people need. It’s for local authorities and hospitals to make sure there’s the information – and the money – to help them.

Float or sink?

Tue, 17 Apr 2012

When I started working at Inside Housing in July 2010, wardens, or the lack thereof, were big news in the care sector.

All over the country, supported housing schemes were losing their wardens as the service became unviably expensive. People who had previously enjoyed 24 hour care from someone who lived in their scheme had their service reduced to someone on the end of a phone.

This week, the issue reared its head again in Barnet, north London, after residents launched a court case against their council over plans to introduce a floating warden to sheltered accommodation.

The two tenants claim the local authority is in breach of its tenancy agreements by offering to provide floating support rather than a live-in carer.

And these campaigners have been here before: in December 2009 they went to court on the same issue, when the judge ruled in favour of the campaigners. The council subsequently revised the plans, but the residents are still not happy.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of removing warden services. The Communities and Local Government department carried out a study into the effectiveness of floating support versus wardens in April 2008, which found that there are ‘limitations’ to floating support.

‘There are some individuals for whom floating support services can do very little either because their problems are so overwhelming or because they disengage from the service – in these circumstances an accommodation based service may be more effective,’ it said.

In addition, the review concluded that there are a number of limitations to the research studies that have been carried out on floating support services and that a more effective evidence base needs to be developed to assess the impact and effectiveness of these services.

Are floating support services a better use of resources, helping people be more independent, or a gross breach of tenancy agreements which promise to look after people?

If cases like this are still arising, clearly no one has an answer.

Don't forget the grey vote

Tue, 10 Apr 2012

On 3 May, communities up and down the UK will be voting for their new local leaders.

Local elections will be held in 131 English local authorities, all 32 local authorities in Scotland and 21 of the 22 Welsh councils. Added to that, there will be three mayoral elections, and 11 cities will be voting on whether they want a directly elected mayor or not.

But among all the campaigning, leafleting and posturing, will politicians forget about vulnerable people?

The Housing and Ageing Alliance, a group of organisations championing the rights of older people, thinks they will. It has called on politicians across parties to focus on older people when they are campaigning, and to make sure that they are willing to make sure older people have decent homes and advice.

It’s an admirable goal, and any politician worth his or her salt should know that proving you can appeal to all generations may well get you a few more crosses at the ballot box.

But more than that, it is increasingly councils which hold the keys to services for older people. Localism is in full swing, and council budgets are theirs to do what they like with. You only have to look at the discrepancies in Supporting People funding, which has no ring fence, to see that councils are very much in charge of their destinies.

As he launched the party’s campaign in the north last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband said local councils can make a real difference to people’s lives.

‘In the end, these local elections you know aren’t about individual politicians, they’re actually about the people of Britain and they are about who the people of Britain want leading them in their local councils,’ he told ITV.

‘That’s a really important decision because I think local councils can big decisions to protect children’s centres to protect local libraries to protect older people.’

Some politicians are already stepping up: Sean Morton, a Labour candidate for the Fochabers Lhanbryde ward in Moray, Scotland, has pledged to fight to give people who receive care more choice, flexibility and control over their own lives.

There are surely others with a similar ethos. But as 3 May creeps closer and the debate grows louder, politicians need to make sure they’re keeping the door open for older people as well.

Turned back

Thu, 5 Apr 2012

‘I don’t think housing officers are hard-faced people at all. I think it’s lack of training or knowledge.’ So says Vera Baird QC, former attorney general, on why it is that councils are making it difficult for women made homeless by domestic violence.

We were talking on Tuesday, just after the deadline had slipped past for this story, where our investigations found widespread reports that homeless persons units at local authorities are failing in their legal duties to people made homeless by domestic violence. One pan-London service, run by Eaves, reported to us that they see one case a week where they have to involve solicitors before the HPU will even carry out the assessment to see if the woman is homeless.

As a reminder, councils have a duty to provide temporary housing when a person presents themselves as homeless because of domestic violence – and then to investigate. The victim doesn’t have to ‘prove’ that they are a victim in order to get help.

It is extremely hard to leave an abusive relationship – as some readers will have personally experienced. For women – and the vast majority of victims are women - to approach a public service for help in leaving, Ms Baird says, is ‘miraculous’. They should be believed, not doubted. They shouldn’t need a solicitor or specialist advocate to be in with a chance of getting the basic help they are entitled to.

Among the obstacles that victims leaving a relationship might face are: losing their jobs; losing their homes; losing contact with friends and family, who all too often side with the abuser; and even losing their lives – and victims are most at risk of being killed when leaving the relationship. Two women a week are murdered by their current or former partners.

Many refuges did not want to be quoted about their experiences with HPUs – worried about risking their funding from local authorities, they are not always the loudest of critics. ‘I don’t want to be too cowardly,’ one chief executive apologised – before asking me not to identify the London council which had refused re-housing help to at least two women in her refuge at that moment.

Some cases are public. For example, last year the Local Government Ombudsman instructed Hounslow Council to change its procedures, following a particularly bad case, which involved a series of failures. As a result, the council is rolling out training for its housing staff and has put new processes in place.

Surely there is a case that councils provide such training to all front line housing staff. For victims trying to flee an abusive partner, family member or carer, the knowledge base of the person they happen to encounter shouldn’t be the difference between getting help, returning to more violence, or homelessness.

In with the new

Mon, 2 Apr 2012

Another week, another scathing attack on the Care Quality Commission. Last week, the latest big wigs to launch an assault of the infamous regulator found it has been ‘poorly governed and led’.

The CQC, which inspects care homes and domiciliary care services across the country, was criticised by the House of Commons public accounts committee. A report from the committee said the CQC had focused too heavily on registration rather than inspections.

Worse, the Department for Health, which oversees the CQC, had begun to take action only after it was clear it had been ‘struggling for some time’, the report said.

Anyone with older relatives will know the pain and difficulty of finding the right care home for them. And with care costs in danger of going through the roof, effective regulation of services is surely more important than ever.

In fact, a study carried out by Age UK and published in The Daily Telegraph today predicts that the cost to families of funding care for older people will more than double in the next 13 years, from £8.4 billion at present to £17.5 billion by 2025.

Gradual changes to care funding have been labelled a ‘stealth’ cut by campaigners who think the cost of care is becoming unaffordable. Age UK calculated that the number of people paying for all of their care in England will rise from around 490,000 this year to 530,000 by 2015. That’s just more families under pressure as the threshold for qualifying for care creeps up.

Social landlords are in the perfect position to offer well-run, quality care services for people who really need them. Perhaps now is the time to look at new models to find better ways to help people who have to pay for their care as well – and save an entire generation from poorly-regulated, poor quality homes in the future.

Time to act

Tue, 6 Mar 2012

I can almost hear the collective wince from people reading the latest report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which says the treatment of some elderly people in care is akin to torture.

It’s a huge statement. The commission says that some care providers’ services are so terrible that they are breaching the Human Rights Act. That’s not just a lax night shift here and a forgotten meal there, that’s systematic, widespread abuse.

The Care Quality Commission – the body charged with inspecting and regulating care homes – was also accused of failing to identify and prevent abuses of the basic human rights of elderly people.

I can’t help feeling a tiny bit sorry for the CQC. I’m sure that most of its staff do a sterling job of what must be a really hard task. Its chief executive stood down last month following report after report criticising the organisation’s work, and it’s taken a real bashing over a couple of high profile cases.

But why is the treatment of elderly people sometimes ‘undignified and humiliating’, according to the EHRC, despite the constant media outrage? Why isn’t anyone stopping it?

A recent survey from care provider Anchor found 39 per cent of older people have been made to feel like second class citizens, and 29 per cent felt vulnerable after being treated negatively as a result of their age.

Almost two thirds said that they would like a minister for older people to represent their views. It might be a step in the right direction if there’s someone in the higher echelons of government who has the needs of older people at the top of their agenda.

There’s just weeks to go until ministers publish a white paper on the future of care, and the media and public at large are sure to be watching like hawks as the plans are unveiled. There’s nothing like the mistreatment of our elderly people to stir emotions, and this will be no exception.

A growing concern

Tue, 28 Feb 2012

Last week we reported that the great and the good in housing were called to Number 10 for meetings about the future of smaller supported housing providers.

If nothing else, it showed a clear intent from the government to protect some £1.5 billion of public money in the shape of annual Supporting People contracts.

But more than that, it hinted at a growing concern in the upper echelons that small businesses are missing out as the recessions shows no sign of letting up.

Where councils are looking to save money, they are procuring bigger contracts to achieve economies of scale. Small providers can’t hope to compete with larger providers who inevitably win the contracts. The government called the meetings to find out whether the sector has any solutions, and they did. There were calls to allow big providers to subcontract to smaller organisations, and to allow groups of organisations to club together to form a procurement consortium.

But that’s not the only reason that providers are having a tough time of it. As Vic Rayner, chief executive of Sitra pointed out in a recent blog, it’s increasingly difficult to deliver a service at a price councils are willing to pay.

‘I have spoken with many of our members who have talked about the very real shift in contract pricing – with one recent example talking about contracts which in 2003 paid £27 per hour, and are now offering the contract at £12 per hour,’ she said. ‘In this scenario, it seems unlikely that this kind of shift in price can be matched by anything other than a significant reduction in terms and conditions to bring the service costs in line with the commissioned price.’

Indeed, John Wade, managing director at Bromford Support, said his organisation has walked away from a number of tenders recently ‘because the council would not pay more than £13-14 an hour’.

The organisation – which with 6,000 customers could hardly be called small – is missing out because it says it’s unwilling to compromise on the service.

Do we want to get to a stage where all providers are pushed out except those who will accept rock bottom prices and huge contracts? We need to protect the specialists, the perfectionists and the people who love the nitty-gritty.

Or, as Mr Wade puts it, the sector need to be more like Aldi. The supermarket has bargain basement prices, happy customers and pays the highest wages to its staff who enjoy some of the best terms and conditions in the industry.

He said payment by results models would see more investment in understanding the service, and so employing the best people at good wages. Providers would work more effectively and save money, but also deliver better outcomes.

‘In short they would be able to offer better prices to commissioners; deliver great quality outcomes for customers; and all whilst offering a great reward package to their people,’ he said. Just like Aldi.

So if Number 10 needs any more help, there are a few people lining up already. If there’s one thing people don’t seem to be short of, it’s ideas.

Council support

Tue, 14 Feb 2012

Good news for thousands of people in Birmingham this week, as the council decided not to cut its Supporting People budget by as much as initially proposed.

Birmingham Council’s budget for 2012 said cuts to Supporting People – which as regular readers of this blog will know is one of my particular bugbears – would only be £1.9 million this year, rather than £3.8 million.

It’s a small victory for people who think the money does an excellent job of providing housing-related support to elderly and disabled people across the city. But more interesting is the way that the council was persuaded to change its mind.

Within the budget document is a report of responses to consultations on a variety of issues. It shows an online consultation did not support the cuts: ‘there was a strong feeling from all of the community forums and stakeholder meetings that this preventative service should not be reduced further,’ the report said.

One of the important points that respondents to the consultation made were that Supporting People ‘is a preventative service [and] reducing this would lead to cuts to some groups leading to higher costs later and additional costs to other services’. Overall benefit from preventative services should be taken into account in budget setting – not treated separately, it said.

It also identified a need for adult social care, homelessness, health, young people and probation services to work together more effectively – echoing a report from the government’s health select committee last week.

It’s great that the council reconsidered this cut – and listened to people who use the service when doing it.

More than that, it outlined points of improvements to existing services such as better awareness for residents of what services are available and better referral protocols to make sure people get the care they need.

But a smaller cut is still a cut, and if you look closely at the budget, there are proposals to deliver some services in group sessions, cut down on hours, consider charging people for wardens at supported housing, and consider closing the doors to new customers.

The council might also create waiting lists for access to SP funded services.

Should older, vulnerable and disabled people have to wait – perhaps years – for support they need? Almost certainly not. Birmingham Council has done an admirable job of cushioning people from the worst of the cuts, but there’s still so much more to be done.

Housing the debate

Tue, 7 Feb 2012

The debate about how housing providers should play a role in care services is as old as the hills. It certainly pre-dates my time at Inside Housing anyway.

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has quoted the Capgemini report at me with its ubiquitous findings: for every £1 spend on Supporting People, £1.17 is saved on other services, like health care or homelessness support.

Housing is important. But then, you all knew that.

Tomorrow, the government’s health select committee will publish a report on evidence it’s heard on social care. It will make a slew of recommendations for consideration by the government before it publishes a white paper on the issue later this year. With funding being cut on all sides and resources stretched to breaking point, it’s an issue that needs debating.

While I can’t report any of the content today – tune back tomorrow for that – I think it’s clear to everyone that housing must get a mention.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation was called to give evidence last month: ‘Those of us who have been involved in housing have felt a degree of frustration over the years that the health and social care debate is a health and social care debate,’ he told the MPs. ‘We think it needs to be a housing, health and social care debate, because it is almost impossible, outside the delivery of acute services, to consider how best to meet someone’s needs unless they are properly housed.’

He also made the point that around half of all housing association tenancies are held by people who are 60 or over.

‘It is our assumption that that group of people, as they age and become more frail, are likely to require considerable degrees of support and care, and that very often that support and care will be provided in their home rather than in some external residential setting,’ he said.

But more than that, he made the point that even where housing associations are doing this, there is not the support in place to help them. ‘We do not think the systems and structures are in place yet to ensure that it is properly delivered,’ Mr Orr added.

This group of MPs could really influence care policy ahead of the white paper, so it’s vital that they see housing as central to the continuing work around care. If nothing else, it would stop us all banging on about it.

A forgotten age

Tue, 31 Jan 2012

What with bankers bonuses and transfer windows, you might have missed the report out yesterday which suggests older people in this country are losing out on half a billion pounds of care.

Half a billion is a lot of money. £500 million is the entire budget of the Growing Places Fund, which has been given to 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships to help them boost economic growth. It was the Scottish Government grant given for the Edinburgh tram scheme and, slightly bizarrely, it was the reported amount the government spent on Tamiflu at the height of the swine flu outbreak.

According to Age UK, the government should be spending £7.8 billion this year in order to maintain the same levels of service for older people as in 2010. In fact, councils have only budgeted £7.3 billion, leaving a gaping hole where care should be.

It’s the same old story - councils, hit by massive cuts across the board, are digging into unringfenced services to help them keep the show on the road.

Age UK projects that by next year the government will need to spend £1 billion more than this year just to stop things getting any worse.

Domini Gunn, chair of lobby group the Essential Role of Supported Housing, said there is a lack of recognition of good housing as a requirement of care and support: ‘Housing related support, including that offered in sheltered housing and to older people in the wider community, provides older people with valuable, low-level preventative services that can reduce the need for higher cost care and health services,’ she said.

The report coincides with discussions on the Dilnot report, which suggests no one should pay more than £35,000 for care over their lifetime. Ministers will have to decide whether the government can pick up the tab for any extra costs.

It’s not going to be an easy decision to make. There have already been indications that if a cap is put in place it will be nearer £60,000. But as Michelle Mitchell, charity director of Age UK said: ‘Behind these figures are real older people struggling to cope without the support they need, compromising their dignity and safety on a daily basis.’

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