Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Budget of homelessness: Morning Star 22 March 2016

Despite Osborne’s spin, the stats show that our housing crisis has grown ever worse since he became Chancellor, writes LIZ DAVIES


“OSBORNE set to ‘eradicate homelessness’,” the Sun screamed on March 7, anticipating the Budget and regurgitating the Chancellor’s spin doctors.

The actual detail in the Budget? £115 million for more hostel beds for people who have slept rough. Obviously funding more hostel beds is a good thing, particularly if you are one of those who would otherwise be on the streets. But this is a drop in the ocean in the context of the housing crisis. We are a long way off from eradicating, or even tackling, homelessness.

The structural causes of homelessness need truly radical solutions; solutions which tackle the economic policies behind spiralling house prices, unaffordable private rents, and social housing having been starved of resources.

Homelessness in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different and more generous legal structures) has skyrocketed under the Tories. I’m no great fan of the Blair and Brown Labour governments, but they did reduce statutory homelessness (decisions on people applying to local councils as homeless) from a high of 298,000 in 2003-4 to 89,000 in 2009-10. Since then the numbers have been creeping back up to over 112,000 in 2014-15.

The number of families in temporary accommodation was cut by half between 2004 and 2010: from over 101,000 in 2004 to 48,000 in 2010. Now it’s up to over 68,000.

In 2003, the Labour government deemed it unlawful to house families with children in bed and breakfast accommodation. In September 2015, there were 3,000 families with children in bed and breakfast accommodation and 960 of those had been there for more than six weeks.

Those are the lucky households: they apply to the local council and get some sort of roof over their head. The average number of people sleeping rough in England on any one night has more than doubled since 2010, from 1,768 to 3,569. Throughout that period, the Tory government and Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson have trumpeted their “No second night out” scheme which should have reduced the numbers of rough sleepers.

Obviously it didn’t.

In addition, as Shelter points out, there are many more hidden homeless: people who are sofa-surfing, moving around between friends and relatives with no permanent place to live. And there are even more people who are at risk of homelessness: spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent or living in unsuitable housing.

Councils, especially in London, are screaming. Newham Council’s evidence to the communities and local government parliamentary select committee inquiry into homelessness reads: “Newham and London as a whole is heading towards a disaster scenario” and is “facing a perfect storm of homelessness pressures.”

Private rented accommodation is increasingly unaffordable and cuts to housing benefit mean that low-income households (often working) can only afford low-quality private lets. The government’s proposals to cut social housing rents and its cap on housing benefit levels are likely to lead to closures of homeless hostels (so neatly undoing the good work that the £115m was supposed to provide).

Empty council homes are to be compulsorily sold in order to fund discounts for housing association tenants exercising the new, voluntary right to buy, neatly taking two properties out of social housing stock with every right to buy sale. When the benefit cap is reduced to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), Shelter estimates that families with two children will not be able to afford anywhere to live, even in social housing, in three-quarters of England.

High private rents in London have led to London councils sending families outside London, using a “no choice, one-offer” policy. Children have to leave their schools and friends, adults lose their family support and their mates.

They may have to find new employment. Worst of all, they often have to make a decision whether to move out of London, uprooting themselves for the security of a roof, or stay in London and face sofa-surfing or literal homelessness, at a moment’s notice.

London councils are caught in a cleft stick: they are damned by the government for sending homeless families outside London, and unable to afford to house those families in London. Their response, however, has to been to shirk their responsibilities.

A cross-party alliance of London boroughs, including Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Newham, are calling for the government to legislate to make it easier for councils to insist that homeless households are housed outside London. It might be understandable that Tories take this stance. It is the Tory government’s policy that created this social cleansing. But Labour councils should not be joining in. Instead, they should be calling for caps on private rents and the opportunity to build more social homes.

George Osborne’s spin doctors had the sense to row back from the claim that he might “eradicate” homelessness.

£115m would be much more welcome if it had been accompanied by tackling spiralling private rents, ending punitive welfare benefit cuts and building more social homes.

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Legal Aid Cuts leave abused women to fight alone: Morning Star February 2016

 


OPPOSITION to the government’s legal aid cuts claims some victories.

The well-publicised action by criminal lawyers over the last two years finally forced Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, to retreat from his predecessor Chris Grayling’s “dual contracts” proposal.

“Dual contracts” would have restricted the number of solicitors’ firms providing criminal legal aid services, so that clients would have had no or little choice about who might represent them.

Coupled with a cut of 8.75 per cent in legal aid payment rates, solicitors’ firms would be working on rock-
bottom margins. Legal aid cases would have to be conducted by low-paid employees working from templates, and with the real possibility that an important point might be missed.

The cheap labour is dedicated and committed, usually young law graduates desperately waiting for a training qualification, but high-quality legal aid services should not rely on goodwill, or desperation.

Gove has retreated both on dual contracts, and the more recent pay cut. Criminal legal aid services, currently run on a shoestring, will continue on that shoestring, at least for a while.

And last week the government lost in the Court of Appeal over one of its cuts to family legal aid. In 2013, legal aid for family cases was withdrawn completely unless one of the parties had suffered domestic violence in the previous 24 months. There was a lengthy list of how that person could prove that she (it is usually “she”) had experienced domestic violence: her partner’s conviction or caution, a court injunction, detailed letters from social services, doctors or refuges.

The problem, of course, is that many women do not report domestic violence at all. Then they find themselves wanting to tell the court about it, in the context of a dispute over arrangements for the children. Without proof of domestic violence, they don’t get legal aid and end up representing themselves. Family judges have complained bitterly — in submissions to the government and in high-profile judgements — about the unfairness for all concerned when litigants in family cases are not represented.

The Court of Appeal decided that the 24-month period was arbitrary, and that the evidence required made no provision of victims of financial (rather than physical or emotional) abuse. It’s a defeat for the government, which will have to reconsider those regulations, but doesn’t deal with the underlying restriction on legal aid — that it is not generally available in family cases.

Don’t think that the Court of Appeal will always support legal aid. Another Grayling initiative — to restrict legal aid to people who can prove 12 months’ lawful residence in Britain — was held to be unlawful in the High Court, but the Court of Appeal overturned that decision and decided it was lawful.

Essentially the Court of Appeal decided that politicians knew what they were doing when they approved this “residence test” for legal aid. It sounds on a par with all the other anti-migrant steps taken by this government: restricting housing rights, cutting benefits to EU migrants etc. But it equally affects British citizens.

Not everyone has their passport to hand and can prove 12 months’ lawful residence. And why shouldn’t migrants get legal aid if they need to challenge an unlawful decision?

On top of that, civil legal aid cuts that came into force in 2013 will stay, at least until a change in government.

Legal aid is not available for advice on welfare benefits dispute (surely the area of law where clients are least likely to be able to pay for advice), for employment law cases, for areas of housing law and, above all, legal aid is not available for family cases except where someone can prove she has experienced domestic violence. Add in sweeping cuts to legal aid payment rates and even where legal aid might be available for a civil case, finding a legal aid lawyer can be impossible.

Jeremy Corbyn has consistently defended legal aid, both as a backbencher and now as leader of the opposition. He has spoken at Justice Alliance rallies, done the hard technical graft on the justice committee and hosted legal aid events in Parliament. The Labour Party has set up a review, led by Lord Willie Bach, into the impact on access to justice caused by the cuts to legal aid. The best hope for legal aid is a Corbyn socialist Labour government in 2020.

  • Liz Davies is a legal aid barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is an honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.