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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.