Blog Post

Localism Bill holes homelessness safety net

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Most people will never get to know about the work that many MPs put in, in quality and in quantity.  But anyone following the Committee stage of the Localism Bill would be impressed by the hard graft put in by the key members of the Labour opposition, their analysis of the issues and their knowledge of the subjects under discussion. 

The Bill covers such a wide range of topics and working out the ramifications of over 200 specific clauses and more than 20 schedules is a herculean task.  As of 10 March there had been 24 sittings of the Bill Committee, and the leading Labour members have attended just about all of them, making dozens of amendments and speeches.    

I have been following the debate on the homelessness sections of the Bill – see my previous post for more background here.  The government’s policy of allowing councils to discharge their homelessness duty by obtaining a private rented sector letting for the applicant drives a coach and horses through the homelessness safety net, legislation that is arguably one of the legs of the welfare state.  The whole debate can be read here

On 10 March Nick Raynsford made a powerful speech on this section of the Bill – unfortunately to no avail.  It traces the history of the homelessness legislation, how the Tories have always opposed it, and how the Lib Dems have always supported it – until now.  Raynsford was of course heavily involved in achieving the passage of the original homelessness legislation in 1977.  Here are a few highlights from what he said.

“Homeless people are not different from other people. There are some who have special problems, but the vast majority of homeless people are those who have fallen on difficult times. They may have lost their home through a variety of different circumstances, and they are exposed to all the horrors of not having a home. Above all, they need help and support to get back on their feet and to move back into the mainstream and normal life.

“That is what brought me into working in housing in the late 1960s. I was of the generation that saw “Cathy Come Home” and was horrified by the revelation in that powerful programme of just how badly we as a society treated homeless people in the 1960s. It was a revelation. I was not aware that old workhouses were still being used as accommodation, or that families were routinely split up and husbands were not allowed to go into accommodation for homeless families—only the women and children could go in, and the husbands were split away. There was no proper safeguard for homeless families or people. That led me not only to work in the voluntary housing sector, but to campaign in the 1970s for a law that would give hope and security to homeless people and help the process that I have just described.

“That process involved helping homeless people through the difficulty and back into the mainstream of society, rather than allowing them to be stigmatised, marginalised and punished, as was the case before the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. That Act was very important, and I helped Stephen Ross, the Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, who bravely undertook to promote that as a private Member’s Bill in 1976, a time when he could have easily adopted other causes that might have been more popular in his constituency. I know from talking to him at the time that he was determined to do something hugely important for society, not just take on something that would be popular and help him to win a marginal seat in the ensuing general election, so I pay huge tribute to him. He did so with the support of the then Labour Government, which had a wafer-thin majority, so Liberal support was important. The two parties worked together, and that legislation was the product of Labour and Liberals working together to give rights to homeless people.

“I am sorry to say that the Conservative party at the time opposed that legislation. It voted against it and fought it literally clause by clause through this House. However, it got onto the statute book and made a difference. It changed attitudes towards the homeless, and it ensured that provision for homeless people was brought into the mainstream of housing provision, rather than being something on the margins that separated them from the rest of society. That continued throughout the 1980s, until in 1996 a Conservative Government sought to weaken the safeguards for homeless people. In Opposition, we in the Labour party fought that unsuccessfully, supported by the Liberal party—I think they were the Liberal Democrats by then—who were absolutely at one with us in defending the 1977 Act against the Tory Government’s attempt to weaken it. I welcomed that support.

“In 2000-01, when I was Minister for Housing and Planning, I had the privilege of introducing the Homes Bill, which reinstated the principal safeguards of the 1977 Act which had been weakened by the 1996 legislation, and also introduced the concept of local authorities developing homelessness prevention strategies. That Bill did not reach the statute books immediately—it fell because of the 2001 general election—but it was re-introduced by my successor immediately after that election, when I had moved to another responsibility, and made it on to the statute book. That was passed by a Labour Government with the support of the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I well remember the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who led the Opposition for the Liberal Democrats in the Committee that discussed the Homes Bill in the run-up to the 2001 general election. He was pressing us to go further, rather than saying we should weaken in any way our commitment to homeless people.

“This is what really saddens me about what is happening now, because we are seeing here a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats weakening a piece of legislation that should be a proud monument to parties working together to advance the prospects of disadvantaged people and help those in difficult circumstances to get  back on their feet. I am delighted that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has—to a degree—maintained the honourable tradition of his party in seeking to safeguard the position of homeless people. I hope when on Report he will continue to do so with a commitment to voting for his views, rather than simply articulating them.

“I say to this Committee, and to all Members of this House, that this is a retrograde step. This is weakening the safeguards for homeless people…. it will expose more people to a position where they are subject to a dependence on benefits; where the work incentives are to very large degree taken away by punitive rates of taxation because of the withdrawal of benefits; and where they do not have the security to be able to rebuild their lives because they live in insecure lettings where they cannot be certain they can stay from one year to the next and continue to occupy it as their home, providing they pay the rent and meet the tenancy obligations. This is a sad, retrograde step, and I believe that the House will ultimately regret it and will come to realise that if it passes the clause, and the Bill, it will have made a serious mistake.”

Localism Bill Clause 124 3 March 2011

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