Policy Director Marc Francis on the illegal use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families, a powerful judgement from the LGO and a heart-rending report on homeless children

Z2K has long campaigned against the unlawful placement of homeless families with children in bed and breakfast accommodation, and so we were delighted to see a powerful judgment by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) against the London Borough of Ealing in a recent case.  Not only did the LGO order compensation to be paid to the family, it also advised that Ealing should write to all other families in B&B explaining the legal position and saying they have a right to make a complaint, seek compensation for this breach of the Homelessness regulations and take action to secure more self-contained temporary accommodation (TA).

To be fair, Ealing hasn’t historically been the worst offender for this unlawful practice.  Back in 2015, it was still recording no homeless family in B&B longer than six weeks.  It wasn’t until December 2016 that the authority suddenly reported 60 families unlawfully placed.  That figure was still 60 in September 2017, and by December 2017 had only dropped down to 50.  The most recent figures for March 2018 are due to be published in the next week or so. 

There is no doubt that this problem is exacerbated by the cuts to Housing Benefit.  But if other London Boroughs can avoid breaching this law, Z2K feels Ealing can too.

Interestingly, Ealing’s council has a new Cabinet Member covering the Housing and Homelessness portfolio, Cllr Peter Mason.  Having to present such a damning and potentially costly LGO judgment to his Cabinet colleagues – and the public – is a real baptism of fire.  But the Cabinet report effectively accepts all the recommendations – including the one to write to all homeless families in B&B and procure more self-contained TA.  If the level of compensation awards to other families is similar to this case (£1,600) the total cost to Ealing’s General Fund (and local tax payers) could easily amount to £100,000 in the past 12 months alone.  Cllr Mason has committed to bring back a report on progress with these recommendations within three months. 

This is exactly the kind of shot across the bows Z2K hoped for when we highlighted the inadequacy of the LGO’s reactive approach in our evidence to the Public Accounts Committee inquiry last November.  Following a series of complaints we helped make back in 2013, the previous LGO not only castigated Westminster City Council for its failures, instructed compensation to all those families and went on to publish a wider-ranging report warning all local authorities to stick to the six-week limit.  But then it didn’t follow through on that at all over the next three years.  We hope this much more proactive approach will now be extended to every authority in breach of this vital law.

The LGO’s much tougher stance coincides with an excellent new report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).  It’s like being in prison is based on interviews with some of the children and young people involved in CRAE’s Change it! Campaign who have themselves been stuck for months in totally unsuitable B&B when they were homeless.  I was privileged to attend the report’s launch at the House of Commons last week.  To hear the testimonies of Fowzia, Margreth and Esther in person was absolutely heart-rending.  It is certainly true that many B&Bs are not as bad as they once were, but their descriptions of the cold, cramped and squalid rooms they were in were very similar to those I used to hear from homeless children in the 1990s.

CRAE’s report rightly demands that the Government now takes the decisive action necessary to “strictly implement” the six-week limit as recommended by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) back in 2016.  Given that there were just 40 homeless families unlawfully placed by 2010, this really shouldn't be that hard.  But while Ministers have been congratulating themselves for the Homelessness Reduction Act, they have done nothing meaningful to enforce this law that is already in place.  London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has also been noticeably silent on the issue.   

CRAE’s report was well-covered by the BBC and so it may be that some real pressure will now mount on ministers to back up the LGO in its renewed effort to end the use of B&B for homeless families.