The Ministry of Justice, or MiniJustice for short, is on the verge of wrecking the Court Duty scheme that prevents homelessness

In George Orwell’s 1984, there were government departments that had names with a meaning the polar opposite to what the department did.  According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda ministry. As with the other ministries in the novel, the name Ministry of Truth is a misnomer because in reality it serves the opposite: it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events.”

So too with the Ministry of Justice.  One would have thought the purpose of such a ministry would be to uphold and promote justice, but it appears to do the polar opposite, rationing access to justice, ensuring that accessing justice is difficult for all but the most well off.

But the Ministry of Justice isn’t from 1984, it is Britain in 2017.

The new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, has been in post since the 11 June 2017.  Since that date, for example, the BHT advice centre in Hastings has stopped 11 households from losing their home because they got assistance under the Court Duty Scheme.  (Three years ago I wrote a live blog about the Brighton Court Duty scheme undertaken by our Brighton advice centre.  I also published an account in October 2014 of the experience of someone whose home we saved through Court Duty).

The MoJ, or should we call it MiniJustice, is consulting on the future of Court Duty services. Court duty for possession cases is the last gasp chance at access to justice.  It is the last line of defence, and for many it is their last hope in saving their homes.  BHT, for example, has an advisor or solicitor in the Court building in case someone turns up without legal representation.

Almost everyone who responded to the Court Duty consultation said that bringing in price to the tendering will be a race to the bottom, but the MOJ thinks it will bring in greater competition…..

What price does anyone put on this? Right now MiniJustice says £71 plus VAT. That’s the fee organisations like BHT get at Court Duty for saving someone’s home.  Imagine the costs to the state, local and national, for each household that becomes homeless.  £71 + VAT must be the Bargain of the Century for government.

Solicitors are already pulling out from operating Court Duty contracts.  Just last month Tunbridge Wells became another Court without a Desk Duty scheme.

According to Bob Neill MP, chairman of the Justice Select Committee in the Commons and a Conservative MP, that, while he understands the budget pressures the government is under, he believes “we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible”.

MiniJustice had planned to cut the legal aid expenditure by £350m, but the spending has reduced from around £2.2bn to £1.6bn, almost twice the plan. The cuts have had a devastating impact on the number of firms and local advice centres from which the public can obtain help. The latest statistics reveal a 32% reduction in the number of providers since the LASPO cuts were made.

Most importantly, there are now nearly a million fewer civil legal aid cases than there were seven years ago.  Further cuts and changes to the Court Duty scheme will exacerbate this and we will see yet more homelessness.

Advertisements

Private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s, says the Chartered Institute of Housing

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) recently carried out research into the gap between rents in the private rented sector and what Local Housing Allowance (LHA) will pay.

LHA is based on the 30th centile of the range rents charged in the private rented sector. Except it isn’t. That was how it was supposed to be (having previously been reduced from there 50th centile). In fact, the level of payment has been frozen for three years and will be frozen until 2019/20. LHA no longer reflects in any way the reality of rents in a locality.

In Brighton and Hove the rates are £82.66 for a room in a shared house, £153.02 for a one bed flat, £192.48 for a two bed property. The average one bed flat in Brighton and Hove is now £971 per month compared to LHA of £612.08 for the same period.

In Eastbourne the rates are £67.00, £116.53 and £151.50, and in Hastings £69.77, £92.06 and £120.29. (There are higher rates for 3 and 4 properties).

It is worse for you if you are under 35 where you are restricted to claiming LHA for just a room in a shared house.

And if you think it is bad for under 35s, it is EVEN worse for those under 21 for whom the rate is zero (unless you are ‘lucky’ enough to qualify for one of several exemptions – merely being a rough sleeper is not enough).

So what has the CIH found? It has found that the gap between LHA and rents has widened to the point where private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote how the senior civil servant responsible for housing policy at the Department for Work and Pensions, Darrell Smith, said that the government is now going to use LHA rates to set new, lower rents for specialist supported housing. Why? Because it is such a good barometer for the market? No. He said: “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost the government anything to set it up. I know”, he continued, “that isn’t a great answer but that’s all I have got”.

Housing in Hastings: 18 to 21 year olds

(This is the fifth and final article on Housing in Hastings that I have published this week, based on a report prepared by my colleague, Sue Hennell.)

From 1st April 2017 for all new claimants aged between 18 and 21 years will not be entitled to housing costs in Hastings under Universal Credit unless they fulfil the criteria for one of the exemptions.  The exemptions will include:

  • someone responsible for a child or a qualifying young person,
  • a person who is not able to live with their parents because either they have no parents or neither parent occupies accommodation within Great Britain,
  • it is inappropriate for the person to live with their parents (possibilities have been set out for this by the Secretary of State),
  • a person affected by domestic violence, a person who is working (there are clarifications for this) and
  • other exemptions.

People who are in receipt of the Local Housing Allowance when they apply for Universal Credit will be protected against this change.

I believe that if there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We want to make sure that 18- to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career.”

As I have written before, desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

What about the finances – we always hear we have to tackle the deficit. 2015 research from Heriot Watt University calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.

If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

It makes no sense in economic terms. It makes no sense in human terms. It is the wrong policy and goes totally against recent positive moves by government, now least through the Homelessness Bill, to tackle homelessness.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

Housing in Hastings: Rough Sleeping

(This is the fourth of five posts on housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague, Sue Hennell)

The numbers of street homeless people in Hastings have increased. There has been a 700% increase in rough sleeping in Hastings since 2010. The Seaview Outreach Project identified 115 people as sleeping rough in Hastings and St Leonards between April and September 2016. 54% of the 115 had a local connection to the Hastings and St Leonards area. 33% did not have a local connection and 13% did not want to disclose this information.

There is a lot of work going on in Hastings to address this situation and there was a multi-agency event on the 15th of March where the agencies came together to look at ways forward, this included Hastings Borough Council, Seaview, Fulfilling Lives, HomeWorks, Sussex Police, NHS Hastings & Rother CCG, Making Every Adult Matter and others.

IT is my viewthat resolving the issue of rough sleeping cannot be achieved at only a local level and that national housing policy has to change. Yes, the government makes funding available for specific initiatives, but other policies hold back the aspiration that nobody should be rough sleeping by 2020. We need changes to housing policy, the funding of homes with truly affordable rents, and the benefit system should assist, not frustrate such moves. As it stands, the combination of policies, including the real threat to specialist supported housing (which in any case is in short supply in East Sussex, and there are no hostels for homeless people in Hastings) will just make matters worse and we will see, inevitably, an increase in rough sleeping in Hastings.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

 

Housing and Hastings: The benefit cap

(This is the third in five posts regarding housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague Sue Hennell. On Monday I wrote about Universal credit and how the six week wait for the first payment was causing problems for people trying to get accommodation in the private rented sector.  Yesterday I wrote about difficulties in accessing housing in the private rented sector.)

BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has seen clients where possession is being sought by landlords due to rent arrears, but the underlying cause has been the benefit cap.

The benefit cap was reduced in autumn 2016 to £20,000 for couples with or without children and lone parents, and £13,400 for single people. Any reduction to benefits over this amount is taken from their local housing allowance or housing costs via Universal Credit.

The only ways to increase a client’s income is for them to be in one of the groups that are exempt from the benefit cap or for them to be in work over 16 hours. Sometimes this is not possible and this means that any housing is not affordable for this client.

If the landlord was a social landlord and they brought possession proceedings in the county court, the court would have no option but to grant possession if the client had no means to cover the rent plus an amount off the arrears each week.

Having said all of the above, Hastings Housing Access Project still managed to assist eleven single clients to access accommodation within the private rented sector from the 1st of September 2016 to the 31st January 2017.

Since the 1st of April 2016 BHT Hastings Advice has seen 230 clients in private rented accommodation where they have been served with notice to leave their property.

I repeat the question I often ask, where are people going to live if there is not enough social housing, if the private rented sector is inaccessible, and now if those in housing can no longer afford to live there.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

Housing in Hastings: Difficulty in accessing the private rented sector

(This is the second in five posts regarding housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague Sue Hennell. Yesterday I wrote about Universal credit and how the six week wait for the first payment was causing problems for people trying to get accommodation in the private rented sector)

There are a number of reasons why there is more difficulty in accessing private rented accommodation in Hastings at this time.

The Local Housing Allowance Levels have not kept pace with rent increases:  The average monthly rent for a single room in a shared house in Hastings is £360 per calendar month and the Local Housing Allowance is £279, the shortfall per month is £81. For a tenant who is in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance at the rate of £57.90 (under 25s) or £73.10 (over 25s) per week this would mean using £18.69 per week to just cover their rent.  For a one bed room flat, the average rent is £426 per calendar month and the Local Housing Allowance is £368.20, the shortfall being £57.80 per month.  It is the same for families:

Number of bedrooms

Local Housing Allowance Average rent price in Hastings* Median rent price in Hastings*

2 bed

£521.26 £738.00 £693.00
3 bed £693.12 £890.00

£850.00

4 bed £847.69 £1,009.00

£936.00

*taken from Hastings Market Rent Summary (home.co.uk)

Reluctance to house people on benefits: Private sector landlords have always been reluctant to take tenants in receipt of Local Housing Allowance but it would appear they are even more reluctant with housing costs payments under Universal Credit. BHT’s Housing Access Project undertook a ‘secret shopping’ exercise with 25 local letting agents in Hastings in August 2016 and 75% said that they would not take on tenants in receipt of the Local Housing Allowance (this was before the full roll out of Universal Credit)  and the rest responded that they might possibly do so.

Rent in advance: Those private sector landlords that will take tenants in receipt of the above benefits require rent in advance, 6 weeks rent in advance, deposits, guarantors and fees. Whilst it is possible to get the rent in advance and deposit for one month via different routes (e.g. Hastings Borough Council) the 6 weeks rent in advance and access to guarantors is more difficult for people who are poor and/or claiming benefits.

Rental increases following welcomed improvements: Hastings introduced selective licensing for certain areas in order to address poor standards of housing. Whilst this is really good news some private sector landlord cannot afford to upgrade their properties so have pulled out of the market and where properties have been renovated rents have increased.

The question I asked yesterday was where will people live if social housing is not keeping up with need and private landlords are less willing to rent to claimants? I add a further point today: where will people live if they simply cannot afford the high cost of rents?

We are a nation in the midst of the worst housing crisis in living memory, if not ever. And it will only get worse.

If you are facing eviction due to rent arrears, get advice early from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are details of the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

Housing in Hastings: Universal credit and the 6 week wait for the first payment

(This is the first of five daily items I will be posting this week. My thanks to my colleague Sue Hennell who wrote a briefing paper on which I have drawn for these posts).

Hastings is one of the areas that is now in the ‘full service’ roll out of Universal Credit. BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has found it is dealing with tenants in rent arrears due to the waiting time for payments to commence.  This can mean that the tenant accrues rent arrears and it can increase existing arrears.  For some clients they have had to wait longer than 6 weeks for their first payment.

While social landlords on the whole are willing to wait for their rent and will arrange a repayment plan for any rent arrears due, many private landlords are not so willing to wait and will serve notice.

This is not just a problem in Hastings, but one that is replicated across the country. The Guardian in January of this year reported:

  • Eight out of 10 social housing tenants moved on to Universal Credit are falling into rent arrears or increasing the level of pre-existing arrears.
  • Families unable to manage the regulation 42-day wait for a first payment are regularly referred to food banks by housing associations or local MPs.
  • Some claimants are waiting as long as 60 days for an initial payment because of processing delays on top of the formal wait.
  • Uncertainty about the system has contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of private landlords willing to take on benefit recipients, even if they are in work.

Private landlords said that without changes they would be reluctant to let to Universal Credit recipients because of the high risk of tenant arrears. Alan Ward, the chairman of the Residential Landlords Association, said: “Landlords are rapidly losing confidence in the system.”

Meanwhile, membership surveys by the National Landlords Association reveal that the number of private landlords willing to let properties to recipients of Universal Credit – or the local housing allowance that predates it – has fallen sharply from 46% in 2010 to 18%.

A question I ask from time to time, where are people going to live if social housing isn’t keeping pace with need (and it is certainly not), and private landlords are less willing to rent to claimants?

If you are facing eviction due to rent arrears, get advice early from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are details of the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings