Policy round-up: updated guidance for Local Authorities, the return of conditionality and changes for EEA nationals
Over three months into the coronavirus pandemic and within the past few weeks Government has introduced some additional measures to help respond to the impact on homelessness. At the same time, some of the changes which we welcomed at the start of the outbreak have now expired, seeing a return to ‘business as usual’ in some aspects of the welfare system. Below is a short round-up of some of the recent changes which will impact on people experiencing homelessness and the services supporting them.
At the end of June, the statutory Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities (see para 8.44) on priority need was updated. Now, when assessing priority need, local authorities must, “carefully consider the vulnerability of applicants from COVID-19” .Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are “likely to be assessed as having priority need.” Those with COPD or severe asthma, amongst others, may be categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable. The vulnerability of those who are clinically vulnerable should also “be considered in the context of COVID-19”. Government guidance provides more detail of those who may be considered clinically vulnerable, including anyone eligible for a flu jab, which includes those who have, for example, hepatitis or diabetes. Where diagnoses aren’t confirmed, the local authority - not the person applying as homeless - should seek a clinical opinion. In addition, the updated guidance (see para 8.45) states that local authorities must also “carefully consider whether people with a history of rough sleeping should be considered vulnerable in the context of COVID-19, taking into account their age and underlying health conditions [emphasis added].” Local authorities are directed to Pathways guidance for further information.
These changes do not go as far as the guidance in Wales, which says that, if a local authority decides person who is street homeless or threatened with homelessness is not vulnerable and so in priority need, they “must have a documented and robust evidential basis for its determination which will withstand rigorous scrutiny and legal challenge [emphasis added].” Nevertheless, even under the English guidance, local authorities - if challenged - will have to evidence their consideration and rationale for deciding that a street homeless person is not vulnerable in the context of COVID-19.
So some positive change for people with a history of rough sleeping in relation to priority need for housing.
Over the in world of welfare benefits, Government are shifting back to the old normal. Again at the end of last month, the Work and Pension Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, said, “It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment.” This heralds the return of benefit conditionality and the risk of sanctions. DWP have told us that Work Coaches began contacting claimants, via their online journals, from 01 July, with an initial focus on new claimants. Despite there being a general expectation that claimants are looking for work, DWP tell us there will be no proactive monitoring of claimant activity until the claimant is contacted by their Work Coach. When contacted by their Work Coach, all claimants should have their Claimant Commitments reviewed.
In last week’s mini budget speech, the Chancellor announced £1bn will be spent on doubling the number of Work Coaches in Job Centres, increasing the Flexible Support Fund, extending the Rapid Response Service, expanding the Work and Health Programme and developing a new scheme to support the long-term unemployed.
As for benefit rates, there is no news on whether the extra £20 a week Universal Credit (UC) standard allowance will last beyond February 2021. We do know that the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) 30th percentile rate will not be reduced, but don’t know yet whether it will be frozen or linked to inflation come the new financial year. However, in some instances, claimants simply haven’t gained as they should have done from the increased UC and LHA rates. Why? The benefit cap is still in place and despite far reaching calls from across the charity sector to lift this, there is as yet no indication from Government that this will change. As for legacy benefits, they were not increased, which has led to a legal challenge – more on that as we get it.
And back to housing again. In their response to the recent Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee report, MHCLG say they are working with the judiciary, legal representatives and the advice sector on solutions to the expected problem of a raft of evictions come the end of the stay on possession proceedings on 23 August. Government are looking at ways to ensure that “courts are better able to address the need for appropriate protection of all parties” and “ensure that judges have all the information necessary to make just decisions and that the most vulnerable tenants can get the help they need.” Concerns remain that unless Government does more, many people will be at risk of homelessness once the suspenson of possession proceedings is lifted.
Government have made a small concession to EEA nationals who can show that they are seeking work. Government has temporarily suspended an EU derogation (normally applied through Article 24(2) of the EU Free Movement Directive) to enable local authorities to accommodate and support a specific group of rough sleeping EEA nationals. They still won’t be allowed to access welfare benefits or statutory housing services, but will be able to access non-statutory housing support (such as hostels) for up to 12 weeks. This policy will be in place until the end of December 2020 and will apply across England.
Strengthening protection for people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) remains a major concern for our members and was one of the issues we raised as part of Homeless Link’s #EveryoneInForGood campaign. At a recent Local Government Association event, Louise Casey, said, “It doesn’t matter where people are from, right now they’re human beings and we agreed they’d be accommodated in temporary accommodation.” And she’s right. According to arguemnts developed for a recent court case (R (W) v SSHD May 2020), it is arguable that the law of humanity principle, set out in 1803, might be sufficient basis on which to argue that those with NRPF in COVID-19 emergency accommodation should continue to be accommodated by the state. So, whilst the Prime Minister may say that 'The public interest in migrants being financially independent and not being a burden on the State is long established…’, the principle of the state protecting people from destitution has a longer pedigree still. In practice, this means that people with NRPF evicted from COVID-19 emergency accommodation with no alternative accommodation to go to, could have grounds to challenge the eviction.However, this is a remedy of last resort and the outcome should the matter proceed to the High Court is far from certain.
As well as this, Crisis - alongside forty other charities including Homeless Link - have called for emergency legislation to remove NRPF conditions for 12 months. Were this legislation passed, it would mean those currently categorised as having NRPF could claim benefits and be eligible for homelessness assistance.
If you interested in finding out more about the policy updates outlined above, please do get in touch with Sue Christoforou, Policy Manager at email@example.com
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Sue Christoforou is a Policy Manager at Homeless Link.