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Gatekeeping continuing despite new homelessness act, MPs told

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Housing experts have raised concerns that one year on from the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act the number of households in temporary accommodation has gone up while gatekeeping behaviour by housing officers is continuing in some places.

Giving evidence to the Commons’ housing, communities and local government committee yesterday, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said while most councils have “entered into the spirit of the act”, with 58% introducing new prevention and relief services, some housing officers are taking its wording too literally.

“Some are not advising [an individual] unless there is absolute proof that the landlord will make them homeless in the 56 days – you can’t get that proof. But anyone can see that that person is at risk of homelessness,” he said.

“There is some evidence of gatekeeping in place - of running down the days.”

The act, which came into force on 1 April 2018, was intended to prevent homelessness by imposing a new duty on councils to work with people at risk of becoming homeless within 56 days.

Committee member Bob Blackman (Con), who introduced the act as a private members bill, said he knew of examples in London of people “being told to go away and come back when they are evicted”.

Responding, housing minister Heather Wheeler said: “I make a plea that when anybody has specific evidence of councils turning people away then let us know and we will pay them a little visit. That should not be happening.”

Jeremy Swain, deputy director, homelessness and rough sleeping division at the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government, said: ”Our homeless advice and support team are getting councils to change their game and coming down hard when they see evidence that local authorities are not following the spirit of the act.”

The government allocated £72.7m in funding for councils to implement the act, of which £10m went to London. However, Redbridge LBC cabinet member for housing & homelessness Farah Khanum Hussain (Lab) told MPs the £285,000 received by her council fell far short of the £2m they estimated they would need to implement the act.

Ministers had suggested that once implemented the act should reduce costs by preventing people ending up in expensive temporary accommodation.

However, Cllr Hussain, who was giving evidence on behalf of London Councils, said there was little evidence this would be the case.

“Housing directors are pessimistic, we don’t see it becoming cost neutral,” she said. “It’s generally very unpopular in London and is a major administrative challenge for staff.”

Ms Hussain claimed that the time members of the public get to spend with an advisor has doubled, from one to two hours to three to four hours, but says this is not resulting in different outcomes.

Adele Morris (Lib Dem), deputy chair of the LGA’s Environment, Economy, Housing & Transport Board, said the average gap between the funding received by a council to implement the act and the cost of it was £155,000, equivalent to four full time staff members.

She added: “There was a perception that temporary housing cost would come down in the original estimate, but we have found the opposite has happened.”

An LGA survey published last month found that 8 in 10 councils have seen an increase in homelessness presentations since the introduction of the act, and 6 in 10 councils said they had increased the number of people being housed in temporary and emergency accommodation.

However, the committee heard there had been improvements in the experience of people receiving homelessness services. Crisis surveyed 545 people that have used housing officers since the act was introduced last year and conducted 50 in-depth interviews. More than half (51%) of respondents said they left feeling positive about the options.

Mr Sparkes said the perception is that the people using the service are being “listened to and respected”, and there has been a reduction in the number of people being turned away with no advice at all.

“We are seeing some local authorities implementing a full culture change, and others simply layering the act on top of existing services,” said Mr Sparkes.

“But we still think overall awareness of the act is low and it is not encouraging people to come forward.”

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