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Temporary Accommodation

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

The Government’s initiative to end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families is one of the achievements of which I am most proud, having served as a councillor in a borough where that was common practice, and where the living conditions that people endured were unacceptable in a modern society. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation has been replaced by reliance on temporary accommodation, which is superficially an improvement because, for the most part, self-contained accommodation is clearly better for families than living in one room in a hostel or hotel.

We have set a target for reducing the use of temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. There are wider policy issues, which I would dearly love to address, but will mention only briefly in this debate. As pressure comes to bear on local authorities to reduce reliance on temporary accommodation, I am finding a number of worrying problems, some of which flow directly from the drive to achieve the target, but others are deeper and arise from management failure to deal with the quality of accommodation.

I want to raise four issues. The first is the condition of the temporary accommodation in which some of my constituents live. There is much disrepair and extreme overcrowding, despite the assurance of the Government and local authorities—in this case, Westminster city council—that contracts with providers for temporary accommodation should at least ensure that people avoid the poor conditions that were a feature of so much bed-and-breakfast accommodation in the past.

Secondly, there is instability in the system as we move towards the target, perhaps as a consequence of some of the factors in the London housing market, particularly the recent strength of buy-to-let. As leases come to an end on temporary accommodation, families are made to move frequently and the casework that comes to me implies that they often have to move out of borough.

Thirdly, I want to spend a couple of minutes on rents and work incentives, and the fact that areas such as mine still face a real problem with work incentives for households in temporary accommodation, which the Government are not willing to address.

Fourthly, I shall spend one or two minutes on the interaction between the homelessness target and broader housing needs.

In essence, we all have—I certainly do—a powerful desire to reduce reliance on temporary accommodation and, in a bigger context, to reduce homelessness. It is a terrible experience for households to go through, and it is an expensive option. We must manage the transition to a reduced proportion of households in temporary accommodation in such a way as to ensure that it is a decent experience for them on their route to a permanent home, and that it does not worsen the situation for other households in housing need. Neither of those objectives is being achieved at present.

The main concern is the poor conditions for people in temporary accommodation, with overcrowding and disrepair. The context is cost. In Westminster at the moment, 3,064 households are in temporary accommodation, and I believe that two thirds are housed in borough. The rent payable by households through the housing benefit system last year was a flat rate of just over £440 a week, so the cost to the taxpayer is £70 million every year to keep families in temporary accommodation in one borough alone. According to my calculations, that adds up to £1.2 billion a year in London, 90 per cent. of which is funded by housing benefit. Despite that investment, conditions are routinely so appalling that it beggars belief that it constitutes value for money. I shall run through a few of the problems.

The first is overcrowding. Two weeks ago, I took members of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government to visit family A in Westminster temporary accommodation. The family consists of two adults and three children: boys aged 18 and 17, and a girl of two. They live in a one-bedroom, ex-council flat in a tower block for which housing benefit pays £440 a week. Last autumn, the environmental services department assessed them, at my request, as constituting a category A, band 1 hazard under the housing, health and safety rating system. That family has been in one-bedroom, temporary accommodation for months. Why? Why can they not be moved at least into alternative temporary accommodation so that their needs can be met while they are waiting for permanent accommodation?

Another person in acute need and in temporary accommodation is Karen Moore. She lives in one-bedroom, temporary accommodation on the estate where she grew up and close to her mother, whom she helps to care for. Karen has three children aged six, five and three, one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome, in that one-bedroom, temporary accommodation. I have been asking the council to find alternative temporary accommodation for a year. The officers with whom I work at Westminster city council are outstanding, helpful and give every indication of doing all they can, yet they tell me that, because of the cost barriers and the fact that they are withdrawing from leases for temporary accommodation, they are unable to find an alternative. To be fair, she was offered one alternative, but it was on the other side of the borough, and she has children in local schools and is the carer for her mother. That was the only offer.

On Monday, I met a young woman who had written to me to say that her temporary accommodation had become overcrowded following her mother’s death when an aunt and her two daughters moved in to care for her. For four years, that family of four—an adult and three children aged 23, 20 and 16—have shared a one-and-a-half-bedroom, converted flat. The daughter wrote:

My mother and I moved in 2002 and sadly my mother got ill…she was diagnosed with liver cancer and passed away in 2003. Whilst my mother was ill, my aunt moved in to look after me because I was still at school. While we were still grieving, they registered us intentionally homeless...we went to a solicitor to appeal…it took a long time but in 2005 they accepted us and told us we had to choose between bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation. The flat we live in is overcrowded and damp and it has a lot of bad memories”.

They are, of course, still there.

Despite assurances to the contrary, and despite the expense, some of the worst housing conditions encountered by members of my staff are in the temporary accommodation sector. Another lady whom I met on Monday was promised alternative temporary accommodation in May 2005 because she is disabled and cannot manage stairs. No offer has been forthcoming despite the promise.

Mrs Querimi wrote to me in December 2005 saying that her

“daughter is sick from pneumonia…my flat is exceptionally cold because the windows are no good and the heaters don't work...I have been in a hotel for 3 years and a temporary flat for 3 years”.

Perhaps the worst instance I have seen concerned Mrs B, whom I visited at home a few weeks ago. The condition of her property was unbelievable. There were holes in the walls big enough to put a fist through, and leaking water was running into the electricity in the downstairs flat, which was also temporary accommodation. There was black mould on the walls and inside cupboards, cabinets were broken or missing, and walls were stripped of plaster and paper. To my astonishment, I was told that Pathmeads was first advised about the level of disrepair in February 2006, but when I visited the property 12 months later, nothing had been done. According to Westminster city council,

“a full assessment of the works required was completed and agreed with Pathmeads in Feb 2006…who will be working with the landlord of the property to have all works completed as soon as possible”.

In this case, “as soon as possible” means a full year.

Another Pathmeads tenant told me that she was without hot water for a year and that her gas meter was capped without her being told. A tenant of Notting Hill housing trust temporary accommodation complained of excessive cold and was living in one downstairs room with her children. The trust told me repeatedly that the repairs had been carried out, until finally a senior officer at my request visited Mrs. T and accepted that that was not true.

In another instance, I had to take a member of the trust’s board to visit another tenant, my neighbour, who had complained of water pouring into his flat from upstairs for well over a year without any response.

Mrs. E wrote to me to say that

“since your last letter, we have had many more problems…leaking from the flat above which no one took responsibility for…I reported this to Acton Housing Trust and they sent an officer and a surveyor who confirmed that this flat was not suitable for anyone to live in…and last night there was leaking from the flat above into my bedroom…this flat has to be properly repaired because it is not safe for anyone…the ceiling could fall in at any day”.

However, she is better off than Mr. K, whose ceiling fell in—twice. His health visitor said:

“As a practising health visitor with 16 years experience, I was absolutely shocked by the risks presented to the family by the present accommodation.”

Many of the issues and case histories that my hon. Friend raises will be familiar to many London MPs, and particularly to me, because I represent a neighbouring constituency. Has she come across the practice, as I have with my local authorities, of taking blocks of flats—particularly those awaiting development or demolition—from which there have been decants, and using them to house families in temporary accommodation? It means that no work is undertaken for three or four years sometimes, and conditions that would be unacceptable in other accommodation are now endemic.

I have indeed had experience of that practice. It is striking that some of the most vulnerable families, who have become homeless, are placed in the worst accommodation—not all, but too much is the worst accommodation—at the most staggering expense.

When the Government adopted the bed-and-breakfast target, two factors helped to drive the decision: the hell of families being cramped up in a single room; and families being forced to move so frequently, with the consequential upheaval in education, health and, in some instances, child safety. Unfortunately, far too many families in temporary accommodation experience the same instability and, from my caseload, it appears that the situation may be worsening precisely because of the instability resultant from the closing of contracts and the ending of leases.

In the past few months, I have been approached by an increasing number of families who have been confronted with yet another move, or even worse, with a move out of borough, despite in some instances, the families having either been born in Westminster or having 10 to 20 years of local connections in private rented accommodation.

One family had to spend two months in a hostel in east London earlier this year, despite representations from social services who were concerned about the extreme vulnerability of a teenage child who had just been bereaved. They pleaded with the housing department to keep the family in Westminster with all their connections. The family have now returned, but they should not have had to go through that trauma.

Mrs. H has been in the local area for 10 years, but the lease ended on her temporary accommodation on 5 March. She came to me pleading not to be moved out of borough, because she had been told that that would be the likely outcome. I am unable to ascertain the location at which she and her three children are living.

Three families in the past six months have told me that they have been commuting from east London back to their children’s school every day—in one case back to work—because their entire support systems are locally based. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister can imagine not only the expense of taking one, two or three children on the tube every day, but the sheer pressure on those families. However, they want to commute, because they do not have any idea how long they will spend out of borough. The one constant for families in such difficulty is the children’s school, and they will do anything to avoid moving. However, we do not consider that situation to be a sufficient factor.

One lady, who came to see me a couple of weeks ago, is recovering well from a history of substance abuse, and she is caring for her young child in an attempt to get her life together. She was born in Westminster, and her nine-year-old is already in her third primary school. The lease on her temporary accommodation expires this week on what is her 12th address. The council told me that she was

“placed on a data base in August 2006 in soon as a suitable property becomes available she will be notified...every effort will be made to find something in her preferred area but this does depend on the availability of suitable properties.”

We can see the situation coming, but we are unable to find families decent and suitable accommodation in-borough that keeps them and their networks together, and their children in school. The council said:

“Her overall position for permanent accommodation is 1,249.”

Mrs. B is in temporary accommodation in Barnet, a long way from the Westminster street that she grew up in, and she travels back there every day to care for her sick mother and to take her child to nursery. Like other parents, she talked about her child’s exhaustion and distress at having to commute.

Ms G wrote:

“The reason that I am writing this mail is because I am really concerned and sad that my mother, my brother, sister and I have being waiting and living in temporary accommodation for about 10 years now in different parts of London…like Maida Vale to Enfield…to Walthamstow and from there to Edgware Rd.

I now see that this changes has affected my education and my social life completely. I had to leave many friends and close friends behind in those places. I should have been in University by now but instead am struggling to complete all my GCSEs. I am really worried because my brother who is ten had to already change like 3 schools because of this problem. I realise how this sort of problem puts children off studying…my mother does not want to work because she is worried that she might lose her home.”

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of an experiment that is under way in Newham called “Working Futures”, which seeks to treat the rent of temporary accommodation as a local authority or a registered social landlord rent, allowing the family to enter work knowing that the only rent that they will have to pay is the equivalent of a local authority rent, and not the £300 or £400 that is payable for temporary accommodation.

I have met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the matter, but unfortunately, there is an unwillingness to extend the experiment through block-grant funding to other boroughs. Some 90 per cent. of households in temporary accommodation are out of work, compared with 60 per cent. of households in social housing, so it is completely unreasonable not to develop a model that allows households in temporary accommodation to work.

I shall read from a letter written by another constituent whom I also took the Committee to see a couple of weeks ago. She said:

“I have lived in my present accommodation since 2003. The level of rent then was £240 weekly”—

double the local authority rent for the flat next door—

“so after a few months I resolved to enquire to my housing association about the reasons behind the high rent for a one-bedroom flat in a 20-storey council block. I was told I should not worry about it, since I was not the one paying, but the local authority. The reply mystified me and it still does. My concerns were that once I returned to work I would not be able to afford the high rent without relying on housing benefit.

In 2005 my housing association entered into a new agreement with the City of Westminster, resulting in my lease being reassigned to the City, who became my landlord. The new contract I signed revealed a greater rent of £416…Should I be furious? Who cares? Let us accuse market liberalisation. I have a few innocent questions: which decent job would pay me enough to solely handle these payments? Where is the protection for the made-poor individuals? Where has gone the responsibility of the government to protect the deprived?

In 2006 I eventually returned to work and the reality of the situation is that I have slipped miraculously (I mean, not by my own carelessness) into arrears while being assessed for Housing Benefit eligibility. The impact of this is a suspension from bidding for a permanent home and the risk to see my tenancy agreement terminated. I have already been threatened once with eviction and keep getting reminders for my arrears.”

We agree that we want to reduce the reliance on temporary accommodation, not least because of the ridiculous expense, but we must ensure that, in the process, we do not trap families in instability and further moves. Some 30,000 households will remain in temporary accommodation even when the target is reached, and the conditions in which many of them live are completely unacceptable. We should also properly fund the temporary-to-permanent scheme—I know that there will be an announcement about it soon—and extend the “Working Futures” grant model to allow families to work. We must bear down much more rigorously on the quality of the accommodation that local authorities and registered social landlords provide.

We must prevent families from being moved from pillar to post, and we must prevent families with strong local connections in boroughs such as mine from being offered moves to east London, which they find extremely difficult and often traumatic. Finally, we must recognise that the savings being made from the reduction in the cap on housing benefit for those in temporary accommodation and the reduction in the use of temporary accommodation will accrue to the Department for Work and Pensions. As I have said, the savings amount to £70 million in London alone, but where is that money going? Is it going on ensuring that the terrible pressures on families in housing need in temporary and permanent accommodation will be relieved? I do not think that that is the case at the moment, so I am looking for help from my hon. Friend the Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on the way in which she has presented her case. She is well known as someone who takes an enormous interest in her constituents’ housing issues. Her constituents are extraordinarily well served by the way in which she puts her case and the evidence that she presents. I do not think that anyone could fail to be moved by the cases that she has cited. Think of poor Mr. K in his home as the ceiling is falling down or Mrs. G having to move her family and her children going to several different schools. That is unacceptable, so I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some information that will help both her and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) in their work.

There is sometimes a tendency for the Government to say, “The council’s got the money” and for the council then to say, “Well, the Government’s got to give us more money”. The issue descends into a blame game, but I do not think that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North care who is at fault or what the problem is. They just want the problem sorted out. Westminster city council receives the highest housing benefit subsidy in London, at £417 a week. Given that level of subsidy and the quality of the accommodation in which people are living, it is clear that we need to see whether that money is being spent as effectively as possible in the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I should like to put the issue in context and consider the work that has been done on tackling homelessness, for which my hon. Friend praised the Government at the start of her speech. Having a strong commitment to tackling homelessness, setting ourselves the challenging target of reducing the number of rough sleepers and being prepared to put the money in where it is required has led to a massively sustained reduction since 2001. I remember walking through the streets of London before I became an MP and regularly seeing people curled up in doorways or on mattresses, with blankets wrapped round them. In 1998, more than 1,800 were sleeping rough on our streets, but now the figure is down to 502. That is 502 too many, but part of that reduction has been about getting people into accommodation, including temporary accommodation. A lot has been achieved, but a lot more has to be done.

We need to set ourselves targets that challenge the Government. We still aim to achieve the target that we have set ourselves of halving the number of households living in temporary accommodation by 2010 so as to tackle the overcrowding that my hon. Friend raised, and youth homelessness. She mentioned homelessness in general, but youth homelessness is a specific problem.

To put the issue in context, 87 per cent. of people in temporary accommodation are now living in self-contained homes, with their own front door and cooking and washing facilities, as are 93 per cent. of families with children. However, I am particularly concerned about the examples that my hon. Friend gave, such as family A and Karen Moore, where carers are trying to stay close to their families. It is difficult because, as my hon. Friend said, the one constant for children at school can be their friends at school, their teachers and the relationships that they make. Every effort should be made to ensure that families are housed as close as possible to their support systems, other members of their family and their schools.

I am concerned that Westminster city council houses so many families outside the borough. I am not convinced that that is necessarily down to the lack of available accommodation. It may be that Westminster finds it cheaper to house families outside the area. However, the subsidy that Westminster receives is adequate for it to be able to house families in the borough. A lot more effort has to be made to take into account all the other factors, not just housing. Housing cannot be considered in a vacuum; it must be considered in the context of jobs, family and friends. Every effort should be made to ensure that families can be housed as close to their schools and work as possible. That is why Westminster receives a higher subsidy than any other council in London—to assist it in doing that. The council has a responsibility to find suitable accommodation. The Government take the view that, in the vast majority of cases, the subsidy that is provided assists the council in doing that.

My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but many of the examples that she gave seemed to concern housing associations. She said that when the health visitor visited, they said that they had never seen anything so bad. When my hon. Friend pressed council officers, who were trying their best in difficult circumstances, to visit, they were shocked at the conditions that they found. Who is checking those properties before people move into them? If councils are putting people in temporary accommodation and paying money to a registered social landlord, a housing association or a private landlord, the onus is on them to check the quality of that accommodation.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, but part of the argument is that landlords sometimes refuse to carry out the work. I have seen evidence of that. In one of the cases in which I was involved—I cannot remember which letter it was—the family was suffering from stunningly bad disrepair, which had taken a year to address, but the landlord was unwilling to carry out the repairs and was going to take the property back. That family will have to move. We are over a barrel, to be honest, with the pressures of the private rented sector and the unwillingness of some landlords to comply.

Some of those issues can be dealt with in the initial contracts that the council comes to with the landlords, but that is an issue that has to be examined in greater detail. Looking at ways of providing more settled accommodation for people is the key, so if we can provide accommodation for families where they can have a home and plan for the future, the money that the landlords are taking—my hon. Friend gave the figure of £1.2 billion that she had worked out for London as a whole—will be well spent.

We have set ourselves other challenging targets in reducing the number of people who are homeless or in temporary accommodation. Another thing that we are trying to do is produce a good practice paper for local authorities on making greater use of the private rented sector, which will be published shortly. There is also a fund of £19 million to fund the London pilot on overcrowding, which will convert 550 social housing units to free up larger properties for families. My hon. Friend also mentioned the “Working Futures” pilot. In the context of somebody who is homeless, there is no doubt that temporary accommodation, and finding work and incentives to work play into the same equation and cannot be treated separately.

The pilot is due to finish in December. There is a long time scale and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern, but we need to ensure that we get robust evidence. I shall certainly take back the comments that she has made, because we need robust evidence, and there is a lot of evidence available at the moment. If we can move the issue forward as quickly as possible, the information that we have—evidence-based information—will inform decisions. We need to ensure that we do not delay any of those projects unnecessarily, but get the information as quickly as possible. I shall take my hon. Friend’s comments back to the Minister for Housing and Planning, to see whether there is anything that she can do in that regard. We not only want an informed opinion about the outcomes of the pilots that can enable action to be taken, but want to see whether anything can be done in the meantime to use the information that we have.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, but I do not have time to go into all of them. However, dealing with homelessness and the problems of temporary accommodation are high priorities for the Government. Every person has the right to a decent home. That is a fundamental human right. The information that my hon. Friend has given us shows that some people do not have the accommodation that any of us would want to live in. If we do not want to live there, we should not expect other people to do so either. I shall take her comments back. I hope that the action being taken that I have outlined is helpful. We would be happy to work with any local authority to improve the condition of citizens.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.