Reflections on Crisis’ new campaign for a stronger legal safety net for single homeless people

Z2K was delighted to be invited last week to the Parliamentary launch of Crisis’ independent review of the legal duties owed to homeless people.  This review was conducted by an expert panel, including representatives of homelessness charities and local authorities.  Its purpose was “to consider and recommend legislative change in order to prevent and tackle single homelessness more effectively, while ensuring the current entitlements for families and others who are assessed as in priority need and might be owed the main statutory homelessness duty were not undermined”.

The second half of this objective is an important caveat.  Z2K helps many single homeless people who have no chance of being accepted as being vulnerable and in priority need by their authority, and so we think Crisis is absolutely right to press for a stronger safety net for its service users.  However, given the way Housing Ministers have turned a blind eye to how the growing number of homeless families with children, and vulnerable single people in priority need have been denied their legal right to pursue a formal application in recent years, there is clearly a risk the current safety net for some will be eroded at the same time it is improved for non-priority households.

This risk is even greater when we know some local authorities with the ear of ministers are lobbying hard to reduce their duties further.  That’s why Z2K was pleased to see, not only the balanced terms of reference for this review, but also that both Giles Peaker of Nearly Legal fame and Shelter’s Principal Solicitor, John Gallagher, were involved in the expert panel.

The panel was chaired by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, from Heriot-Watt University, who has led the Homelessness Monitor research commissioned by Crisis and the JRF over the past few years, and she presented the review’s findings.  These include a stronger advice and information duty on local authorities; a homelessness prevention duty extending the definition of “threatened with homelessness” from 28 to 56 days; a relief duty to all eligible homeless people who have a local connection, including the provision of an new tenancy in the private rented sector; and emergency accommodation for those who have nowhere else to stay.

These recommendations are backed up by Crisis’ own report No One Turned Away by Hannah Gousy, which details the problems single homeless people face under the current system and the more positive experiences of those in Scotland and Wales since the legislation there was reformed to end priority need and enshrine the prevention duty respectively.  It also includes helpful statements supporting the change from several of those English local authorities who face the biggest homelessness challenges.

It was good to see both the Conservative Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, and his Labour Shadow, John Healey MP, at the review’s launch.  Inevitably, given the freedoms of Opposition, Mr Healey was more wholehearted in his support for the proposed legislative changes than the Minster, but Mr Lewis also welcomed the proposals.  Crisis, St Mungo’s, St Basil’s and Homeless Link have done a great job in building a coalition of Conservative MPs behind these plans, and our host, Flick Drummond MP (Portsmouth North) made it clear to the minister that she and her colleagues would be keeping up the pressure for this legislative change.

That promise will now be put to the test.  Crisis had hoped a Bill might be included in last week’s Queen’s Speech.  It wasn’t.  And so they are now looking for a back bench MP to take this up as a Private Members Bill.  Very few PMBs ever make it onto the Statute Book, but it is worth remembering that the original 1977 Homeless Persons Act was itself a PMB, and so there are still grounds for optimism.  The ballot to decide which 20 MPs will get to bring in a Bill takes place tomorrow, quickly followed by a scramble by charities and lobbyists to persuade them of the merits of their own Bill.  Fingers crossed Crisis will find an MP to take its Bill up!

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