Last week’s official homelessness statistics revealed that the number of homeless families illegally placed in Bed and Breakfast accommodation beyond the six week legal limit has risen to 1,140. This is the first time in a decade the number has been this high. Astonishingly, three London boroughs are alone responsible for around one-third of those breaches of the law. At the end of June, Croydon had 168 families in B&B longer than six weeks, Harrow had 120, and Redbridge had 132.
Unheralded research Shelter published last year reminds us why prolonged stays in B&B have been outlawed for families with children. This is no place for a child recounts the experiences of twenty homeless families placed into emergency accommodation by their local authority. In it, the parents describe the impact of the lack of space on their children, and the particular difficulties caused by having to use shared facilities at mealtimes and bedtime. Many of those interviewed were clearly also worried about the safety of their children.
Those were exactly the same concerns that prompted the prolonged use of B&B to be outlawed in the first place back in 2004. The regulations were hard fought for. Initially, ministers said a maximum period and a target to reduce the use of B&B would place too onerous a duty on local authorities. Instead, building on the experience of the Rough Sleeper’s Unit, they established a B&B Unit, to try to identify solutions. It soon became clear, however, that good intentions alone would not be enough. In March 2002, minsters set a target to end the use of B&B beyond six weeks by March 2004 and made £35 million available to support this objective.
Even with this extra funding and increased Housing Benefit subsidy for temporary accommodation, it became apparent that the target was still unlikely to be met, and so ministers were finally persuaded to take more decisive action. In December 2002, they announced their intention to outlaw the use of B&B beyond six week. Local authorities quickly got the message, and by April 2004, there were no homeless families in B&B in London beyond six weeks. By and large the target was adhered to over the next six years – by 2010, the number in B&B beyond this legal limit was around 70 families.
The current Government’s unwillingness to do anything to help these families has been evident for several years now. What is more surprising is that those charged with holding it to account for this failure have taken very little interest in this issue. Earlier this year, the Communities & Local Government select committee undertook an investigation into homelessness. The committee’s final report, published over the summer included many welcome recommendations to try to increase the help to single homeless people. But it didn’t even mention the illegal use of B&B for families.
This silence is in keeping with another organisation responsible for holding local authorities to account. In 2013, following an investigation into complaints about illegal B&B use in Westminster, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) ordered that authority to compensate 40 families who had suffered that injustice. It also published a wider-ranging report, which concluded, “despite councils telling us that financial pressures and changes to the welfare system are affecting their ability to provide suitable accommodation, this cannot be a justification for failing to meet statutory duties.” This was a welcome initiative, but disappointingly, the LGO has not taken any further steps to ensure local authorities do anything about it. Instead, it is simply waiting for individual families to complain. No wonder the numbers are rising.
With no help on offer from the select committee or LGO, it seems Shelter’s researchers will have plenty more homeless families to interview about B&B in the years ahead.