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Who benefits?

 

I have been aware for a while now of a pending problem as a result of benefit changes. The plans to cap benefits for families means that for some families, who live in areas of the country where rents are high, they will no longer have enough housing benefit to cover their rent.

 This is coming to a head in central London, as can be seen from this story in the Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/feb/13/london-council-relocation-benefits-cap

 Camden, for example, will have to be moving 700 families out of their area, unless they can find £90 a week to cover the brand new shortfall between their rent and their Housing Benefit. And they won’t be moving a tube stop or a long bus ride from their homes, but almost certainly out of London. The places being discussed are Bradford, Birmingham, and Leicester.   [As someone who has practised in Birmingham and knows about their housing waiting list this came as a hell of a surprise to me, that Birmingham suddenly apparently has housing to spare]

 Brent estimate that they might have 1,000 families who need to move, and have purchased housing in Luton and Slough.

 This all arises of course from the harsh reality that the cost of housing varies considerably across the country, and there are a lot of areas in the country where people on benefits are provided with housing where it would simply be impossible for an average working family to live.  That leads to costs to the public purse, of course, and we are in a climate of austerity.

 Politically speaking, the sell that it feels wrong for families on benefits to be in receipt of more money than an average working family, has made it possible for these changes to be pushed through.

 In reality, moving your children from a school in Camden to a school and home in Leicester, doesn’t come without an impact. We aren’t talking about moving from one posh street in a town to another rather less posh street, but moving many many miles away, away from your family, your social networks, your supports and your children’s social networks.

 What we can’t predict, of course, is how many families hovering on the brink of care proceedings might be tipped by this, as they try to manage disruption, unhappiness, profound feelings of dislocation, isolation and being moved from all their supports, both professional and family / friends.

From a legal point of view, assuming that being offered housing in Leicester and turning it down legitimately extinguishes the duty of the Housing department towards a parent  (I am not a housing lawyer, and will stand to be corrected if not)  causes a problem for a parent in that situation. They either accept the move or they are voluntarily homeless.  (And of course, there will be either limited or most likely no recourse at all to free legal advice to challenge housing)

 So, if the parent refuses to move to Leicester, and housing discharge their obligations and in due course serve eviction or notice to quit proceedings, what happens then?   

 [My use of Camden here is purely illustrative because they are the lead authority in the story, I don’t work for Camden, don’t represent them, and am sure that they are as utterly horrified as being put in this awful position as anyone else would be]

 Well, they probably approach Social Services and ask them to help with provision of housing, on the basis that the children will be in need of this.

 The Court of Appeal looked in the case of R V B LONDON BOROUGH COUNCIL, EX PARTE G (2001) [2001] EWCA Civ 540  at the issue of whether the Local Authorities duties under section 17 or section 20 of the Children Act 1989 extended to the duty to provide housing for a parent to keep them together with a child and found that it does not.

The LA can be obliged to offer accommodation under section 20 for the children, but not for the parent. So the children could be placed in care whilst the parents sleep rough.

In reality, it seems both unlikely and undesirable that a parent would agree to place their children in care purely as a result of housing difficulties.

 The duties to accommodate an adult arise from the National Assistance Act 1948, and it is unlikely (unless the parent has health or needs over and above destitution) for them to qualify for accommodation under those provisions.

So, a family with 3 children are evicted from their property in Camden, and refuse to go to Leicester.  Housing’s duties to them has ended. They won’t be able to get private rental accommodation, because housing benefit won’t be sufficient to pay the rent. They won’t be able to get Social Services to accommodate the family,  and their choices are therefore :- 

  1. Be homeless in Camden
  2. Put their children into foster care and be homeless themselves
  3. Move to Leicester

 

What if they call everyone’s bluff and go for option 1, being homeless in Camden with their children? Well, there is clearly then a risk of significant harm for the children, who would be living and sleeping rough.

 I can’t, for my part, envisage any family Judge that I have ever been before, entertaining positively an application for an Interim Care Order where the threshold was based solely on homelessness that has arisen through a parents legitimate desire not to be relocated to the other end of the country (this isn’t them being evicted for not paying rent or being anti-social, just that they happen to be poor in an area of the country where it is no longer okay to be poor).

 The grounds for an ICO might be met, but I can’t envisage a Court actually making the order.   [I can’t find the attribution, but the line  “I can believe in hell, I just can’t believe there’s anyone in there” struck me]  and that the Judge would probably be summonsing Directors of Housing and Directors of Social Services to come to Court to explain what the heck is going on with this.  [Not that they are called that anymore, they are probably called Chief of Envisioning and Chief of Commissioning or some god-awful thing now]

 So, a family who call the LA’s bluff are probably not going to find themselves in Court (probably – I emphasise that this is not my advice), and that leaves them and their 3 children sleeping rough in Camden.  Are Camden Social Services going to be okay about that? Or are they going to get somewhat fretful and think that regardless of whether they have a DUTY to accommodate, they might find some section 17 money to finance accommodation at least whilst the family make some transitional arrangements to get housing elsewhere?

 I know that if I were such a family, I would be settling my children down in a park, ideally in close proximity to tramps drinking Special Brew, and calling a journalist to come and take some photographs to illustrate the story.  I think the political fallout from that would lead to the Director of Housing and Director of Social Services being called in to see the Leader of the Council.

 One way or another, the big bosses of housing and social services are going to get shouted at by someone.

This is not merely theoretical, at some point, some family is going to say “no, I’m not moving to X, this is our home” and some really tough decisions are going to have to be taken.

 I was reminded, in writing this piece, of the Westminster “Homes for Votes” scandal, in which in certain key marginal wards, Westminster managed its housing stock in such a way that those who were considered demographically likely to vote Labour (the poor, the unemployed) ended up having to get housing outside of the area. 

I don’t claim that there is overt gerrymandering here [that would be a scandalous suggestion, that a Tory government might want poor people moved out of the home counties and into the midlands and the north], but a consequence, intended or not, of making public housing unaffordable in London to those on benefits and shipping them out to cheaper places in the country, is to further wider the divide between affluent and poor parts of the country?

Those affluent parts will have populations who are council tax payers rather than users of services, and the poor parts will have populations with a high proportion of users of services and low proportion of council tax payers.

 {I’m aware that I’ve been channelling Private Fraser from Dad’s Army this week “We’re all doomed”  but as this hasn’t been implemented yet, there is still a chance of public disquiet changing this course and I’d rather light a candle than curse the dark.  I will try, however,  to be more cheerful next week}

doomed!

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

3 responses

  1. This is cleansing neighbourhoods of the poor and troubled by fiscal means. Its outrageous that on top of the misfortune of being in debt, unemployed or sick, individuals and families whose biographies and histories are associated with an area will have these ties severed and be shipped out to somewhere unfamiliar. This government (and the last) is right to criticise local authorities for exporting children in care to placements at distance from everything familiar to them. Yet the benefit cap achieves the same ends but on a grander scale.

  2. The Mayoress of Awesome Town...

    Thought provoking….’ agents of social control’ stuff…………

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