All posts by lizdaviesblog

Crisis? What crisis? Keynote speech to Housing Law Practitioners’ Association 12 December 2018

Thank you to HLPA for inviting me to give this address. I’ve been attending HLPA for many years & I’m used to hearing the great and the good speaking from her. Lord Justice Rabinder Singh QC sticks in the mind, along with Baroness Hale. So thank you for inviting a coalface legal aid practitioner – one of your own.

I’m going to say something about housing crisis, which is something that is very familiar to housing lawyers, and about the main political responses to it. I should make it clear that this is not a political speech – some of you know that on occasion I can do a political speech – but rather an objective look as a housing lawyer at where we are, and what the two main political parties plans are to tackle the crisis. I’m concentrating on Conservative Party and Labour Party, because one is in government and the other hopes to be in government. Just to complete the disclaimer: as many of you know I am an active member of the Labour Party, it won’t surprise you that I’m more enthused by their proposals but my view is that there still work for the Labour Party to do and I repeat that politics is not my function today.

So, the housing crisis. The first point to note, which is something amazing for those of us who have been banging on about a housing crisis,  is that finally government has accepted that there is a such a thing. Theresa May – who last time I checked my phone was still Prime Minister – used those words in her speech to Conservative Party conference in October. That’s quite a development from just 23 months earlier, in January 2017,  when the Government’s White Paper was called Fixing Britain’s Broken Housing Market. It’s a big leap from broken market, where the government envisaged solutions to fix the market, to admitting that there is a crisis.

As housing law practitioners, we know from our daily working lives that the Prime Minister’s description accords with reality.

Shelter figures from two weeks ago: 320,000 people were recorded as homeless in Great Britain. An increase of 13,000 from last year. They derive that figure from a combination of statutory homeless – people applying as homeless to local authorities in first quarter of 2018 who were provided with temporary accommodation – and the rough sleeping figures from last year which are that 5,000  people are sleeping rough on any given night. That 5,000 figure is thought to be an underestimate: Crisis says local agencies report 8,000 sleeping rough. Shelter’s figure also includes those given temporary accommodation from social services. Shelter also tells us that 130,000 children will celebrate Christmas in temporary accommodation this year, last year it was 120,000. 10,000 of those will be sleeping in bed and breakfast or similar hostel accommodation, which we know has been outlawed as suitable accommodation for families since 2003.

Those are figures from the first quarter of 2018 and they are likely to increase when  the next quarter’s figures come out, from April 2018, because Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in April. The HRA is a substantial achievement because it requires that no one should be turned away & prevented from making an application for homelessness assistance because they do not have a priority need or might be found to have become homeless intentionally. With new figures after HRA came into force, we are likely to see how many hidden homeless there are: people who are not accommodated by local authorities, are not sleeping rough, but are sofa surfing, staying with friends or relative on very insecure basis and are homeless – living out of suitcases, no fixed address, no place to call home. Crisis have estimated over 2 million households contain concealed homeless adults.

I’ve been working full-time on the Grenfell Inquiry so I’ve not seen homelessness cases since April 2018. I hope some of you can describe whether or not HRA has made a difference. It should certainly have stopped people being turned away, even if it has not led to an increase in people being accommodated under homeless duties.

Homelessness is just the sharp end of housing crisis. What is also true is that more and more people are living in insecure accommodation – by which I mean private rented accommodation where they could be required to leave after the first six months by a two month s.21 notice.  And they are paying high rents: the median monthly rent between April 17 – March 18 in England was £675, in London it was £1,400. Shelter estimates half of all private renters struggle to pay rent.

1.6 million households on council waiting lists – waiting for social housing. That figure has barely changed in last few years.

The proportion of people owning their own home has declined from 71% in 2003 to 63%. Why does that matter? One of the causes of housing crisis has been ideology since early 1980s that ownership was the ambition and that renting – either in the social or private sector – was second-rate option. The reason why the decline in owner occupation is an indicator of housing crisis is that many people simply cannot afford to buy. Reason owner-occupation is still so high is age. Older people own their own homes but the proportion of people aged 25 – 34 who own their own home decreased from 57% 12 years ago to 37%. Office of National Statistics Housing affordability survey found that the average house price in 1996 was 3.6 times average annual earnings, in 2016, it was 7.59 times average earnings. Young people simply cannot get into the housing market. So they rent, which pushes up private rents.

It would be wrong not to mention welfare cuts: benefit cap, cuts to local housing allowance which make it more and more difficult for those on benefit to find affordable accommodation. Crisis said in early 2018 relying on figures from 2017 that 61,000 households in England were impacted by benefit cap & 9,000 subject to deduction of over £100 PW from housing benefit/housing element of universal credit. Money that they had to find, in order to pay their rent, from the other elements of their benefits, intended to pay for food, fuel etc.

So what is to be done? What solutions have been offered?

I start with David Cameron’s government between 2015 & 2016, because it contains a rare example of victory. A victory which received very little publicity & which we ought to be shouting about.

Cameron introduced the Housing & Planning Act 2016.  HLPA was amongst a number of campaigners who lobbied against it. It contained proposals that would have decimated social housing, all emanating from Tory Party’s manifesto promise in May 2015 to introduce Right to Buy for housing association tenants.

The question arose how the discounts to be funded were. Housing associations weren’t going to pay for the discounts. And they had to be brought on board – because government realised perhaps belatedly that couldn’t actually force housing associations to sell. They had to get housing associations to sign up to a voluntary deal whereby they agreed would give tenants that right. But not at the housing associations’ own expense.

So – to fund the discounts – Housing & Planning Act would have required local authorities to sell empty so-called high value properties when they became empty, because the tenant had died, or moved, rather than put those houses back onto the waiting list so that families could bid for them. The proceeds of sale would then be remitted to Treasury, which in turn would pass that money to housing associations to fund the RTB discount.

The second hugely controversial proposal was mandatory fixed term tenancies for council tenants, to replace periodic tenancies after 1st year introductory tenancy. Tenancy would be for a period of between 2 – 10 years (slightly longer if child in full time education) & it would be up to council whether the tenancy was renewed at the end of the period. This was essentially envisaging council housing as housing of last resort, a bit like homelessness emergency accommodation. We’ll accommodate you but for a fixed period, during which you should get a job, or a better job, and at end of tenancy we’ll expect you to fend for yourself, either in the private rented market or by buying your own home.

H&P Act also brought in help to buy, which has now been abandoned because of course the problem with stimulating demand if you don’t also increase supply is that prices go up.

Fascinatingly the two flagship proposals – selling off high-value council properties & mandatory fixed-term tenancies – were never brought into force. And Government’s Green Paper in August this year announced, quietly, that they would not be brought into force. That was a barely noticed victory for housing campaigners & local authorities who had been arguing would be unworkable.

What about Theresa May’s government?

It started with White Paper in January 2017: Fixing Britain’s Broken Housing Market.

That was mainly about changes to planning system to increase incentives for developers to build houses, or as the White Paper put it, removing disincentives. It included plans to consult on banning agents from charging tenants letting fees, which are now going through Parliament as the Tenants Fees Bill. It also included tougher penalties including banning orders against rogue landlords (not “landlords” as it says on the slide, but “rogue” landlords). And it lauded the measures in the HRA, which was a private members’ bill championed by Crisis & introduced by Bob Blackman MP making its way through Parliament at the time with cross-party support.

Come 2018, we embarked on a year of housing initiatives. The government is committed to building 300,000 homes by end of Parliamentary term or 60,000 a year. That’s still too few: Shelter & Crisis say 300,000 need to be built each year.

In July 2018, the government published Revisions to National Planning Policy Framework. That’s not my area but my understanding is that there is less discretion to local authorities to remove permission, which creates some tension about Green Belt.

The government consulted on introducing three year fixed term tenancies in private rented sector, which is a good thing, and was first proposed, initially by an obscure Labour backbench MP for Islington North about 10 years ago, one Jeremy Corbyn, and subsequently was in the Labour Party manifesto in 2015. The government’s idea would be a six month introductory period, so either landlord or tenant could end the tenancy at the end of 6 months. After that fixed term would continue for two and a half years, subject to usual fault-based grounds for possession.

Tenants Fees Bill is now in House of Lords. It has been strengthened since its first draft to exclude various loopholes.

In August 2018, the government published its Green Paper New Deal for Social Housing. That contained a big step forward: lifting local authority borrowing caps to allow councils to borrow in order to build more properties. But still there is emphasis on home ownership, particularly on encouraging RTB in housing association sector. Problem with that is that for each new property built, how many publicly built homes will end up in private sector? Last year 13,000 properties were sold under RTB. Roughly about a third of those properties – over the years – end up being sold to private owners who then rent them out – either on private rented market or – outrageously – to councils to house homeless families in. So there is a diminution of publicly owned stock. The Green Paper also contains a weird premise, that “many people living in England’s four million social homes feel ignored and stigmatised” which is a quote from Prime Minister and repeated by James Brokenshire Secretary of State “the stigma associated with social housing”.

I have to say that, in all the years I’ve been doing housing law, I’ve heard complaints from council tenants about repairs, not being able to move, their families not being able to get accommodation. I’ve never heard complaints about stigma. I don’t think stigma is the major problem, resources are.

Finally government committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022 & end it completely by 2027. Question is how? On Monday the Government published its Rough Sleeping Strategy which contains some useful pots of money: Rough Sleeping Initiative, Cold Weather Fund and Housing First Fund.

What about Labour’s proposals? And I promise you I will be almost as tough on Labour.

Labour’s proposals are usefully contained in their own Green Paper on Housing for the Many, published in May 2018.

On social housing, they are on same page as government because Labour was already saying that it would lift borrowing cap for local authorities. Labour is committed to building 1 million homes over 10 years – 100,000 a year – which is still not enough. Half of them will be affordable..

Labour will suspend RTB in England, rather than abolish it, which has happened in Wales & Scotland and the world has not stopped turning.

In the private rented sector, Labour will bring mandatory three year fixed term tenancies. They have said separately that they will abolish s.21, so that there is an end to no fault evictions. I don’t know how Labour intend to marry up the abolition of s.21 with fixed term tenancies, because as we know, when a fixed term tenancy comes to an end, a periodic tenancy arises. Let’s watch this space.

There is a very useful definition of living rent at no more than third of average local household income. That’s enforced through the planning system, providing a presumption of no development without affordable housing within it.

Labour is committed to abolish homelessness. Which must be applauded. It will do so by increasing supply of accommodation. And Jeremy Corbyn committed to abolishing the concept of “becoming homeless intentionally” when he addressed Crisis Conference in May.

Labour will abolish bedroom tax. And – cheery news for us and more importantly for our clients – will restore legal aid for housing cases & welfare benefits cases.

Last thing to mention, which comes from neither Tory or Labour  parties but is supported by both. The Homes (Fitness for Habitation) Bill 2018 is today at Committee stage in the House of Lords and will soon to become Homes (Fitness for Habitation) Act 2019. It is a massively important piece of legislation, providing that all tenancies, initially new tenancies and then rolling out to existing tenancies, have to be fit for habitation. You might have thought that such a piece of legislation would be unnecessary. Surely, in the 21st century,  all tenancies are fit for human habitation? Answer to that is 2-fold:

  • far too many homes are still damp, cold, contain trip hazards, electrical wiring hazards etc. CAB survey of private tenants found that 70% of them had issues with health & safety in their current tenancies, not over their renting history, but in their current accommodation.
  • Second, as we know from the discussions after the Grenfell fire, there are a myriad of different laws that govern housing conditions:
    1. From is the property in disrepair? if there was never any heating, then it isn’t;
    2. To there may be mice but where did they come from? If they just came off the street or from the nearest railway line or fast food shop, it is not the landlord’s responsibility.
    3. Are those panels on the outside of my tower blocks flammable, and if they are, what can I do about it? As we know, there was much debate and learned legal arguments about what Grenfell residents could have done had legal aid been available, but the essential point is that tenants don’t want interesting legal arguments. They want quick, effective, accessible and affordable legal remedies.
    4. Why is it that if I am a private tenant, the council can do something about my trip hazard or my lack of heating & excessive cold, but not if I am a council tenant?
    5. Finally, I do have rights, I could sue my landlord, but where do I find a lawyer prepared to take the case on legal aid? Maybe in London, none in Cornwall or Suffolk.

Now it wouldn’t be right to say that the Bill – the new Act – will solve all these problems It took Grenfell to shock the government into supporting the Bill – there had been 2 earlier failed attempts when it was talked out – but at least we can now see the prospect of tenants having a right to a decent, safe, warm home. And the possibility of litigating in a relatively straightforward manner if they don’t. Big big shout out to Giles Peaker, Justin Bates & the HLPA executive for all their work in drafting the Bill, and supporting Karen Buck in steering it through Parliament.

Let me finish on what else could be achieved given the right political will. My wish-list, if you like. It’s just the beginning and no doubt all of you will add to it.

  • Reintroduce security of tenure in private rented sector. Happened in Scotland since December 2017. Results have yet to be seen.
  • Should we abolish or suspend RTB in England? It has been abolished in both Scotland & Wales.
  • Homelessness: Scotland has already abolished priority need test and Wales is abolishing the becoming homeless intentionally test. England could be the first to offer emergency accommodation & help with finding own accommodation without tests that some might call unnecessarily judgmental.
  • I would deal with eligibility so that there are clear rules, because it is fair to say that eligibility is not clear at moment. And with right to rent, I don’t see why housing system should act as immigration enforcer.
  • I would abolish not just bedroom tax, but other punitive welfare measures: benefit cap, council tax reduction scheme, local housing allowance rates, universal credit and would start to tackle poverty;
  • Finally, a culture change. It’s very hard to ask political party to spearhead that, but we should make a start. We need to cherish all 3 sectors of housing, that means restoring both private rented & social housing to decent, safe, warm & affordable housing. It also means no longer regarding home ownership as means of wealth creation. It’s a big task, which I will leave it to economists and to those more ideologically savvy than me to work out how. But it’s a necessary task if we are to achieve a right to a home, rather than a right to respect for a home which we all know is different thing. And surely a right to a home is something that we all strive for in our daily working lives?

Thank you for your patience over this whistle-stop tour.

 

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Supporting Momentum’s Charter for Labour Party members’ right

First published Labourlist 22 March 2018

 

The Labour Party’s rulebook, being a document that has evolved over more than 100 years, does not contain any systematic account of both the rights and responsibilities of membership.

Momentum have put forward a charter for members’ rights, which brings together a modern system of rights and applies them to party members, elected representatives and staff. Without a clear and transparent statement of rights, we’re all operating in the dark.

The dangers of continuing to do so have been thrown into sharp relief in the last couple of years. That the party has a disciplinary procedure protects all of us members from abuse. But for a disciplinary procedure to command the members’ trust, and for it to be effective, it must be seen to be acting fairly.

The rules for the National Constitutional Committee (at Appendix 6 Labour Party rulebook) are broadly considered to be fair. However, there have been concerning practices, arising long before any member subject to discipline reaches the NCC, namely:

  • An apparently knee-jerk response by the Labour Party to suspend any member where a complaint has been received, rather than embarking on a preliminary investigation into whether the complaint has any substance and considering whether suspension is justified;
  • No reasons given for suspension and no opportunity to appeal against suspension;
  • Members left suspended – with no right of appeal against the suspension – for months or even years;
  • Members reinstated from a period of suspension without explanation or apology, so with no opportunity to clear their names;
  • Members automatically excluded from party membership without a right of appeal when accused of having supported another political party (without any investigation as to whether the accusation is correct or whether, for example, there is a simple confusion of identification).

The Chakrabarti report in the summer of 2016 recommended that suspension should be a last resort and that there should be a limitation period within which a complaint is processed. It is a shame that these recommendations have not been implemented.

Arbitrary decisions do not assist any party member who has complained about the behaviour of another. Nor do they assist party staff, who are often perceived as the decision-makers. And they certainly don’t assist a suspended member who is anxious to clear their name.

Momentum’s charter protects party members from long periods of suspension. It also allows for a procedure allowing complaints to be treated anonymously, if that is appropriate, and for complainants to feel reassured about the process. Importantly, it protects staff. If the charter is adopted and implemented, they will be seen to be acting fairly. It offers a robust disciplinary procedure that will be fair and will be seen to be fair, and therefore also command the confidence of the membership.

The charter enshrines best practice. Nearly all elected representatives take it as given that they should provide regular written reports to their local members, and take into account (but not be finally bound by) their branch or CLP’s views when deciding how to vote. Momentum suggests that this should be seen as routine, rather than just best practice.

The greatest asset of the Labour Party is its membership. One of the many reasons for which the party confounded media pundits in June 2017 and exceeded expectations in the general election was because of the numbers, commitment and enthusiasm of activists campaigning on the doorstep.

Momentum’s charter celebrates Labour Party members: “Labour is at its best when its members are fully engaged and their talents, ideas and commitments can be fully harnessed.”

Please use the next 24 hours to contribute to Track 2 of the Labour Party’s democracy review, which comes to a close at noon on Friday 23 March. Momentum is suggesting that party members support its proposed “Charter for Members’ Rights”, which is relevant to participation and building a mass movement: peoplesmomentum.com/democracy-review.

The left must stay united the closer Labour gets to power: Morning Star 21 March 2018 with Mike Phipps

Nearly three years since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, his standing has drastically changed.

His opponents in the parliamentary party are a lot quieter. The Labour Party apparatus is at last being reshaped to match the new reality. Recent polls indicate Labour has a real chance of winning a general election.

Today millions of people are invested in the idea of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. That raises a new challenge — how to maintain and strengthen the unity of the diverse forces that got us this far.

Trade unions, social movements and thousands of new enthusiasts are working for this unprecedented opportunity, but, as we get nearer to power, every aspect of Labour’s policy will be subjected to fierce scrutiny by our opponents.

Already in recent days, the Tories have tried to attack Corbyn over national security.

He is right to warn not to rush ahead of the evidence and John McDonnell to note that Vladimir Putin has questions to answer.

We need no lessons in patriotism from a government that has done such damage to Britain’s infrastructure and caused such hardship to its people, but we must be aware that they will be looking for weaknesses on every front. So what do we need to do?

First, we must strengthen our policies. There were several contradictions in the 2017 manifesto, not least the commitment to maintain Trident, which need fixing.

We also need to develop policy in new areas so we have something to say on every feature of national life and global politics.
Second, we need to transform Labour into a movement that can not only gain power but carry through its programme.

This also means strengthening the social movements that have provided the backbone of opposition to this government and from which Corbyn’s leadership draws its strength.

Maintaining the unity of the forces invested in a Corbyn victory, which may yet be a while away, is no small task. In recent weeks, tension has emerged over the contest as to who will be Labour’s next general secretary. Writing in The Guardian, Owen Jones saw the candidacy of Jon Lansman, the national chair of Momentum, who has since withdrawn, against that of Unite’s Jennie Formby as “a sign of just how hegemonic the party’s left has become.”

He saw the rivalry as “a mark of the left’s sense of political security.”
Martin Kettle in the same newspaper was more sulphurous. He called it a “debacle” that exposed to public view “real and potentially fundamental divisions.” Who’s right?

The truth may lie closer to Jones’s view. There is undoubtedly a tension between the 30,000-plus members Momentum has recruited, arguably the most active section of the hugely increased Labour membership, and the older trade union left.

Momentum mobilised on an unprecedented scale in the 2017 general election. Its My Nearest Marginal app was used by over 100,000 people.

Momentum contacted over 400,000 voters on polling day through viral WhatsApp messaging.

During the campaign, nearly one in four UK Facebook users viewed a Momentum video.

Unsurprisingly, its members are impatient for change and frustrated with the slow pace of internal party reform.

Many are unengaged by the old methods of doing politics in the party and want to see palpable changes that transform it into a mass campaigning movement.

That said, there is an absence of detail on exactly how. It may well be that some concrete ideas could be a basis for unity across the divides.

Leading left unions are both engaged by and a little wary of this new movement, which is youthful and enthusiastic, certainly, but also politically inexperienced.

Unite and others stayed with the party through its leanest years, funding it in elections once New Labour’s fickle donors deserted the party.

In opposition during the coalition years, they pushed for better, more accountable candidates than those wanted by the party apparatus, used to parachuting their own favourites into winnable constituencies, often in the teeth of opposition from local activists.

In the process, they had to confront both the party’s right wing and a hostile mainstream media.

Those who understand the party’s history must communicate that Corbyn is neither the property of Momentum alone, nor of the left unions, nor of the old Labour left, nor even of the broader membership.

There are millions now, both inside the party and out, who passionately want a Labour government. They will rightly take a dim view of any disunity which could jeopardise that.

It’s worth remembering too that there are still plenty in the party, especially among its parliamentarians, who still don’t want Corbyn as leader, even if his strong showing in last year’s election has temporarily silenced them.

They will seize on any sign of weakness — either within the Corbyn-supporting unions or the broader membership — to roll back the astonishing achievements of the last two years and prepare another leadership challenge.

We on the left must continue to work together with discipline, mutual understanding and a focus on the main prize.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power is published by OR Books (www.orbooks.com). Liz Davies is a former member of Labour’s NEC and a barrister specialising in housing rights.

Submitted to Momentum: democratising the National Policy Forum

Summary of 2 issues:
• Composition: making the membership genuinely representative and accountable, abolishing the seats held by elected officials;
• Policy-making process: making the process transparent and open, whilst retaining ultimate decision-making in the hands of Conference.

Composition
55 CLPs reps, elected by OMOV 5 per region, one must be Young Labour, elected by Young Labour members, and two must be women;
30 TU representatives, at least half must be women elected by affiliated TUs;
22 representatives from Scottish, Welsh & English regional conferences, two from each region, at least one of the 2 must be a woman;
10 local government reps: 4 elected by Local Government Association Labour Group, 4 elected by Association of Labour Councillors (at least 2 of each to be women) and one each from COSLA (Scotland ) & from Welsh LGA;
3 members (at least 1 woman) elected by affiliated socialist societies;
4 BAME Labour reps at least 2 women;
9 MPs, elected by Commons members of PLP, at least 4 women;
6 members of European PLP, at least 3 women;
1 Labour Student;
2 Labour members House of Lords, elected by Labour peers;
1 member Northern Ireland LP;
1 member Labour International;
1 member LGBT Labour;
1 member LP Disabled Members’ Group;
4 officers of Welsh Policy Forum;
4 officers of Scottish Policy Forum;
8 front-bench representatives elected by Shadow Cabinet (at least 3 women);
2 Co-operative Party representatives (at least 1 woman) plus General Secretary of Co-op Party;
The NEC.

Proposal to abolish representatives from local government, MPs, European PLP, members of the House of Lords and the Shadow Cabinet. Representatives from these bodies should be permitted & encouraged to attend & to speak. They have important views & expertise on policy. However, they are not accountable to the grassroots, but to professional politicians. They should not have seats with voting rights.

Abolishing those seats would produce a body of 148 voting representatives, of whom 64 are directly elected by members under OMOV (55 plus the 9 CLP seats on the NEC) and 43 are trade union representatives (30 plus 13 seats on the NEC). The remainder are responsible to their Regional Conferences or to the particular societies, groups etc whom they represent.

 

Policy-making:
In principle, nothing wrong with a dedicated body working continuously on reviewing & shaping Party policy. The alternative in the past was that policies were made solely as a result of motions at Party Conference, considered by the NEC, Shadow Cabinet & Leader & not necessarily followed.
Problems with current system of policy-making:
• Although LP website invites contributions to NPF commissions from any individual LP members, this is not well known, very few take advantage, in any event, it is not known how those contributions are sifted;
• NPF consultative events are poorly attended;
• Shadow Ministers tend to dominate their Commissions;
• In the past, LP Conference was offered each Commission report as a whole, without the ability to amend or refer back parts of the report. This year’s Conference showed the benefit of being able to refer back a specific part of a report.

A more open and transparent system of inviting contributions and then considering then could include:
• More public and transparent programme of consultative events, so that each Commission has a programme of regional weekend meetings, widely publicized to LP members with encouragement to attend and “have your say”;
• Each Commission invites experts to address their meetings & publishes the expert submissions, so that LP members can specifically comment on those submissions;
• The submissions received from LP members and from experts should be published and LP members invited to comment before each Commission meets to draw up its report to Party Conference, so that LP members are no longer commenting on a blank sheet of paper;
• Everyone putting in a submission should be kept informed as to what has happened to it;
• Commission reports published sufficiently in advance of Conference for LP members to be able to comment on those reports through their CLP structure and thus mandate their delegates.
Liz Davies

The Consequences of Wealth before homes: Morning Star 26 July 2017

Wednesday 26TH
posted by Morning Star in Features

The Grenfell Tower tragedy shows how little our institutions care for the lives of black or poor people, writes LIZ DAVIES


THE Grenfell Tower fire is one of those dreadful defining moment, which can change public policy. The 1966 Aberfan disaster led to improved safety legislation for mines and quarries. The 1996 Dunblane shooting led to restricted gun ownership.

Immediately, public authorities must rehouse the residents (of the tower itself and the low-rise block in its shadow), provide mental and physical health services and help them to rebuild their lives. The council was slow to respond appropriately. Political pressure has led to rehousing plans which are far more than the legal minimum required.

That’s unsurprising given the tragic circumstances and the public reaction. But it also shows up just how inadequate the legal minimum is: homeless families who have become homeless for the more usual reasons of eviction or relationship breakdown are entitled to temporary accommodation while they wait for an offer of a 12-month private rented tenancy.

Both the temporary accommodation and the tenancy could be anywhere in the country, provided that the council considers it to be “suitable” — a very low threshold.

The government’s announcement that people made homeless from the fire will receive permanent accommodation in the locality within a year is appropriate; a better society would give the same offer to all homeless people.

In the long-term, those bereaved, displaced, traumatised need justice. “Justice4Grenfell” is already a slogan, the name of a campaign group and a Twitter hashtag.

What does “justice” mean in practice? It means not being put in a worse position than they were: rehoused, given facilities and compensation (although money is never an adequate remedy for this trauma).

It means not being treated harshly: those residents who might have had uncertain immigration status should not be deported. And it means answers so that it cannot happen again.

So the Moore-Bick inquiry, if it is to provide justice, has a big job on its hands. First, there has to be a comprehensive, but urgent, investigation into the causes of the fire and the reason for so many deaths — so that other tower blocks can be made safe.

How did the fire start? Why did it spread so quickly? Were the installations, including the cladding, of low quality? Should there have been sprinklers in the common parts? Why was the means of escape so limited?

Moore-Bick needs to make recommendations as to proper levels of fire safety, adequate escape, and the correct instructions to residents. If a fire can spread so rapidly, the instructions to remain in the flats were surely wrong.

Second, the reasons behind any inadequate building works need exploring. What was the budget and to what extent were cheaper materials used, with consequences for fire safety? Who was responsible for inspection of the works? What did the inspection reveal? How comprehensive was it? And how accountable was the inspection — were the works independently inspected or signed off by the contractors involved?

How many contractors and subcontractors were employed and what was the system of accountability for their work to the council? How many layers were there between companies on the ground, the Tenant Management Organisation and the council?

Above all, why were the residents not listened to? It is beyond heartbreaking to read the Grenfell Action Group blog from 2013 warning of electrical power surges throughout the building, and inadequate means of escape, and with no response from the authorities. Was that contempt for residents? An impenetrable bureaucracy?

Third, there are some very deep structural issues to be considered. The residents have complained that they tried to seek legal advice, to take action against the council, and that legal aid was not available.

Legal aid cuts have certainly reduced free legal advice available since 2013.

But even when there was a more generous legal aid scheme, it would have taken some inventive and creative lawyering to produce any legal remedies for the residents.

That’s because there are very few legal avenues available for council tenants: the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (HHSRS) in the Housing Act 2004 provides remedies for councils to take enforcement measures against private landlords, on behalf of private tenants.

Council tenants can sue their landlords for disrepair, but inadequate fire safety installations would not be disrepair.

Councils are liable to tenants for any personal injury caused by defects to the common parts, but only once the personal injury has been suffered.

Lawyers could reel off parts of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, the Defective Premises Act 1972, the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 and several more statutes. Each one is limited. There is no comprehensive legal remedy.

The inquiry could usefully consider whether housing law could be codified, so that there are easily enforceable rights to a safe, secure, warm and decent home.

Kensington and Chelsea has consistently topped the list of boroughs with the highest number of empty properties. The council’s website offers financial help to homeowners, to persuade them to let out the properties.

But it doesn’t tackle the basic problem, which is that properties, particularly in London, are now bought as capital investments, rather than to be lived in, or let out.

The owners don’t want them to be occupied; they just want to watch the capital value increase.

Our economy has prioritised home ownership as a source of wealth, rather than providing homes.

Moore-Bick should investigate the very limited ability of councils to buy up empty properties, and consider systems that would effectively penalise investors leaving homes empty.

Underpinning all of these issues is an inequality of power.

Council tenants don’t have the same clout as richer tenants, or owner-occupiers.

For over 35 years, national governments have systematically underfunded social housing. Council housing stock has diminished — through transfer to housing associations, right to buy and restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow and build more properties.

People waiting for council housing are desperate, and treated as desperate. They are given one offer of social housing only, told to “take it or leave it,” however inadequate it may seem.

Add in that those waiting for council housing are disproportionately from black and ethnic minority communities and there is a real sense that black lives — or poor lives — don’t matter.

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

Labour’s next manifesto should contain the bold aim that no one is left homeless.

MORNING STAR 7 APRIL 2017

Everyone, even the Tories, agrees that Britain has a housing crisis. The government’s Housing White Paper, published in January, was called “Fixing our broken housing market.”

The problem is that the Tories offer a few tweaks to the planning system and then revert to market solutions. The idea is that private developers will then build more houses and the increased supply should bring down prices and private rents — problem solved.

The most visible sign of the crisis is homelessness. On any average night in England, approximately 4,000 people are sleeping rough — twice the number of 2010. The numbers of people applying to local councils for help because they are homeless has also doubled over the same period.

As of December 2015, 75,740 households were in temporary accommodation, waiting for a permanent home: 10 per cent more than the previous year and 58 per cent more than in 2010. These days a permanent home no longer means a long-term home, or a council home. A permanent home could mean just one year’s tenancy in the private rented sector.

The key issue is supply — but not the supply of expensive homes for sale. Average house prices are now around seven times average annual earnings.

The average rent paid in the private rented sector is £179 per week and in London £298 per week. Some Londoners pay up to 70 per cent of their income in rent. Shelter estimates that, nationally, half of all privately renting tenants struggle to pay their rent.

Building more homes for sale or commercial rent might bring prices down, but only if the market is sufficiently saturated that demand starts to decrease. When housing campaigners estimate that at least 250,000 new homes need to be built each year in order to keep up with demand and the numbers built last year were only around 150,000, the scale of the crisis is obvious.

The issue is supply of genuinely affordable housing.

Labour went into the 2015 general election with a detailed manifesto on housing. It included a promise to build 200,000 new homes each year, to control private rents by legislating to require landlords to offer three-year tenancies and to give local authorities powers to penalise developers who leave land earmarked for house building empty — “land banking.” This practice by developers illustrates just how the market cannot deliver sufficient numbers of affordable homes — it can be more profitable for developers to acquire land and then sit back and watch it escalate in value without even building on it.

When Jeremy Corbyn stood for re-election as Labour Party leader in 2016 he stood on a manifesto of 10 pledges. His housing pledge was that a Labour government would build 1,000,000 new homes over five years with at least half of those homes built by councils.

The onerous restrictions on councils borrowing money would be lifted and councils would be enabled to borrow using their existing stock as security.

Building more council homes would start to meet the affordability gap — people who cannot afford to buy and are struggling to pay private rents would have another option. Council waiting lists would decrease. And, as housing became less of a scarce resource, house prices and private rents might yet fall.

The Labour Party’s National Policy Forum is now consulting party members on policies that will help to form the next general election manifesto. On housing, it asks how local authorities can help solve the housing crisis, how can Labour help social housing providers deliver high quality homes, what are the benefits of shared ownership or discounted home ownership and how can standards be improved in the private rented sector.

Labour’s next manifesto should contain the bold aim that no-one is left homeless. To do that, councils need to be enabled to build at least 500,000 new homes.

Existing council stock should be retained — the sale of council houses required by the Housing and Planning Act 2016 (not yet in force) should be reversed and there is a good case for ending right to buy, which is now abolished in Scotland while the Welsh government is consulting on its abolition.

Rents in the private rented sector need to be controlled and tenants offered security. There are a number of ways to do that: minimum contractual terms as offered by Labour in 2015, a national system of rent controls (abolished by Thatcher in 1988) or a more sophisticated system allowing local councils to regulate private rents in their local areas.

It’s not possible to tackle housing without also tackling poverty. People are homeless because they are poor. Since 2010, the Tory governments have introduced the bedroom tax, cut housing benefit, subjected claimants to sanctions, slashed disability benefits and frozen amounts paid below inflation. Above all, the benefit cap — lowered last November to £20,000 for families with children, £23,000 in London — is making private renting unaffordable for families in most parts of England.

When there is barely any social housing on offer, and private rented housing is unaffordable, families end up homeless and placed by council in expensive, insecure and sub-standard temporary accommodation. That’s bad for them and uneconomic for government.

From yesterday three more offensive cuts to benefits come into force. Child tax credit is limited to only two children per family regardless of how many children are actually born after April 6. Also housing benefit or help with housing costs for 18–21-year-olds is abolished. Some will stay with their parents, others may end up on the street. Bereavement benefits are also cut — perhaps the cruellest cut of all.

 

Labour could commit itself to its own Great Repeal Bill — a bonfire of all the punitive measures attacking benefit recipients since 2010. Housing benefit should cover market rents, which, if regulated, will fall anyway.

Council tenants should not be penalised for a “spare” bedroom, disabled claimants should be treated with dignity, welfare benefits should be paid according to need — not capped at an arbitrary amount, or number of children.

Social security should be seen as just that — a decent safety-net provided by society.

 

• The National Policy Forum consultation process is open to all Labour Party members – and organisations who want to contribute – until May 31 2017. Join in at: http://www.labour.org.uk/index.php/npf-2017

 

• Liz Davies is a member of the Labour Party and a 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.

Fixing our Broken Housing Market: an admission of crisis but no effective solutions

FIXING OUR BROKEN HOUSING MARKET: Housing White Paper February 2017

Well, at least the government admits the housing market is broken. The problem is that the government’s solutions are that the market should be enabled to fix itself, in the belief that the housing crisis in England will be solved by market forces.

This ideology produced, under Thatcher, right to buy for council homes (depleting council stock from 5 million homes in 1980 to 1.6 million today) and an end to security of tenure and controlled rents in the private rented sector. The market would provide.

We’re living with the results today. 1.24 million households (around 3 – 4 million people) are waiting for social housing. Private rents are at unaffordable levels: Shelter says that half of private renters have struggled to pay rent. Houses are no longer bought to provide a home, but also as an investment (earning the owner £22 per hour during the working week). Buying a house is increasingly unaffordable, particularly for first time buyers. The numbers of people who apply to councils as homeless has increased by more than 50% since 2010. And the single most common cause of homelessness is where a private renter has been evicted by his or her landlord for no specified reason (an end to security of tenure means that landlords don’t need to give reasons for possession). Over 4,000 people in England sleep rough on any given night. Shelter estimated that 124,000 children spent their Christmas in temporary accommodation: in overcrowded, insecure places. This is indeed “broken” or – to be frank – a housing crisis.

The government’s solution? We saw it first in the Housing & Planning Act 2016, not yet brought into force because it is possible that the government is having second thoughts. And we see it again with the Housing White Paper. The government believes that the market will sort out the housing crisis, with a bit of help.

The White Paper’s big fix is to change the planning process. Now, I’m not a planning lawyer. I don’t get the technicalities. But the main point is that this is all about developers being able to get planning permission quicker, and with fewer conditions. The government wants to please everyone (or at least potential Tory voters) by promising to protect the green belt whilst speeding up the process for planning applications. Developers routinely blame the planning process for delays in delivering new house building. That ignores the practice of “land banking”: developers obtaining planning permission and then holding onto the land in the hope that house prices will increase.

Everyone agrees that at least 225,000 – 275,000 new homes need to be built each year to tackle the housing crisis. Is that figure achievable if you rely on private developers? And will those homes be affordable? The government believes that increased supply will tackle house price inflation.  So far, since the early 1990s, that’s turned out not to be true.

What about renting? The White Paper proposes new “family friendly” tenancies in the private rented sector of three years, rather than the current norm of six months or one year. Incidentally, this was Labour Party policy in its 2015 general election manifesto. But the proposal is limited to new build homes. That’s shocking. If it’s good enough for new build, surely it’s good enough for new tenancies granted in older properties? The government has taken the Labour Party’s relatively modest proposal from 2015, and seriously diminished it.

And what about social housing? Which so many people used to regard as a realistic option if they couldn’t afford to buy. Housing association stock will be depleted by “voluntary” right to buy (“voluntary” because housing associations choose to sign up to the scheme). Council housing stock is going to be depleted by the mandatory obligation in the Housing and Planning Act to sell so-called “higher-value” empty council homes (“higher value” is as yet unspecified). The Housing & Planning Act requires councils only to offer fixed-term tenancies – between 2 – 10 years – rather than tenancies for life (subject to good behaviour) so that you can call your council house a “home”. Not only is a secure home for life a good thing for the tenant; it means people are more likely to take care of their properties, look after their neighbours etc.

The government will put regulation of housing associations on a more independent footing. And may, or may not, encourage local authorities to use innovative financial packages to build. But the government is not prepared to invest in a large-scale council (or even housing association) building programme.

Jeremy Corbyn, during his leadership campaign in 2016, promised “We will build a million new homes in five years, with at least half a million council homes, through our public investment strategy. We will end insecurity for private renters by introducing rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights, and increase access to affordable home ownership.”. Ironically, the scale of the housing crisis is such that a promise in 2016 to build a million homes in five years – 200,000 each year – now, in 2017, looks conservative. He will have to revisit the numbers. But the key difference between the Tory government and the Labour Party is that Labour knows that housing – and the security of an affordable, safe and decent roof over your head – is too valuable to be left to arbitrary markets. The public sector – through councils and housing associations –can deliver homes at a genuinely affordable rent and with an expectation that this will be your home for life.

Article in Morning Star, 21 December 2016, with Mike Phipps

Jeremy Corbyn is right to call on the governemnt to provide humanitarian aid rather than wage more wars, writes LIZ DAVIES and MIKE PHIPPS


WHAT is happening in Aleppo is a human rights calamity.

It’s impossible to watch the footage without wanting to do something, immediately. That leads some on the left to surprising positions.

Disrupting Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on December 10 did nothing to help civilians in Aleppo; it diverted attention from the important pledges he made on women and human rights. Equally, this newspaper was wrong to characterise President Bashar al-Assad/Vladimir Putin’s military assault as a “liberation.” Faced with brutal horrors, the West — both the left and the right — reaches too quickly for military solutions.

Jeremy Corbyn is right to continue to reject military intervention, and to call for “humanitarian assistance to Aleppo and other besieged areas and serious pressure to negotiate ceasefires across the conflict zones […] the UK, as a member of the United Nations security council, should bolster and affirm the UN as the primary avenue for international efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria.”

Corbyn has repeatedly and correctly condemned Russia’s involvement in Syria and its actions in Aleppo, as have shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith.

The analogy has been made with Guernica. As with all historical analogies, it’s only partly correct. As with Guernica, Aleppo’s civilians have been subjected to brutal military air strikes. However, the political context is different. In 1937, socialists had no difficulty defending — including militarily — the elected Republican government from Franco’s fascist military rebellion. They did so as individuals or through the labour movement, not by calling on the British government to intervene.

In Syria, what began in 2011 as a political revolution against a dictator has collapsed into a multilateral conflict involving many military forces, most of which — Isis, al-Qaida, etc — are guilty of the most appalling crimes, including kidnapping, arbitrary executions and rape.

Assad’s crimes are also well-known: a dictator with a record of torture and arbitrary detentions in secret prisons is raining down hell from the sky, with hospitals, residential areas and schools all bombed.

As government forces entered the city, the UN reported that civilians, including women and children, were summarily executed — collective punishment for the actions of the fighters.

Both sides are guilty of horrific war crimes. Rather than take sides, surely the answer is to condemn all human rights abuses and all military action against civilians?

What should and what should not be done? Military intervention causes more harm than it is intended to prevent. In 2013, the Labour Party was completely correct to oppose British military intervention in Syria. The Tories, and shamefully some Labour MPs, now blame the current tragedy on that vote. Ben Bradshaw said: “In August 2013, after the international outrage at his use of chemical weapons, we had the chance, but we blew it.” John Woodcock MP agreed.

It’s nauseating watching Boris Johnson and others talk about their concern for civilians in Aleppo. They don’t show the same concern for civilians in Yemen, murdered by US drones and Saudi military forces — armed by Britain — nor for the deaths in Iraq, over 13 years after the invasion. The city of Mosul is seeing dozens of civilian fatalities every week, the result of aerial bombardment, which British MPs backed a year ago.

Humanitarian aid, through air drops, might be right, but only if it has been negotiated. Unilateral action, without agreement of the local or international combatants, could simply escalate the conflict.

Realistically, Britain can do four things: political pressure, humanitarian aid as soon as there is a ceasefire, a welcoming approach to refugees and taking action against the arms trade. Sadly, the Tories and some Labour MPs would much rather bomb than provide assistance for refugees, or stop selling arms.

Political pressure must continue, especially against the executions of civilians. The government should offer humanitarian aid — food, shelter and medical assistance. This should include, once people are safe, fed and sheltered, taking testimony so that war crimes are documented and perpetrators can be held accountable.

The government should welcome Syrian refugees — far cheaper than military engagement. The Dubs amendment was a humane response but by mid-November only 330 children from Calais had been received. The government has failed to meet the inadequate quota of 3,000 children and spent its energy contesting its international obligations.

More than five million Syrians have been displaced since 2011. Thousands are stranded in France, Greece, Italy and elsewhere, where all European governments, including the British, are trying to avoid granting them asylum. The government should allow asylum claims from those refugee camps, recognising that most Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Those who prefer to stay close to Syria, so that they can return home quickly when it’s safe, should be supported too.

Finally, we need national and international action on arms sales. The British government could ban, overnight, the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Libya and Iraq. It could lead an international non-proliferation process, seeking to reduce economic dependence on arms manufacturing, to increase the types of arms that are banned under international law and to reach agreement on the gradual decommissioning of the arms industry. If we can change our habits to beat climate change, can governments be persuaded to solve their problems by talking, rather than fighting?

  • Liz Davies and Mike Phipps are Labour Party members and were involved in setting up Iraq Occupation Focus in 2004. Mike continues to publish a regular Iraq Occupation Focus newsletter, documenting events in Iraq: mstar.link/IOFnewsletter.

Derided by the state today, heroes tomorrow: Morning Star 27 October 2016

Despite the PM’s objections, holding British military personnel to human rights laws reflects our common humanity, writes LIZ DAVIES


IN HER leader’s speech to the Tory Party conference, Theresa May said: “We will never again — in any future conflict — let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave: the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.”

Cards on the table: I’m a political activist, I’m left-wing, and — like all lawyers who represent people rather than corporations — I deal with human rights in my day job.

While my work is about housing rights, my comrades in the Haldane Society, in my chambers and in similar chambers and firms do the sort of legal work condemned by the Prime Minister.

She’s riding high when she says that two of the solicitors’ firms which represented Iraqis claiming abuses of human rights by British troops are under investigation by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

One of those firms, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), has closed. PIL was run by my friend and fellow Haldane Society activist Phil Shiner.

The investigations into PIL are private and so it is not known what it is accused of.

What is known is that those lawyers, and others, have established, through litigation, the circumstances when human rights should be respected by the British army when it is occupying another country, such as Iraq.

Since 2003, judges have decided that human rights and the rule of law must be respected whenever someone is detained by troops, and when the army is carrying out a policing role.

Those rules do not apply on the battlefield or when troops need to defend themselves.

What the British army cannot do is torture or use inhuman or degrading treatment on people in captivity. Nor can it shoot civilians except in self-defence.

Those are entirely appropriate rules, reflecting common humanity as well as human rights.

The most famous case is Baha Mousa — an Iraqi hotel worker arrested by the British army as a suspected insurgent who died while being detained and interrogated in September 2003.

The subsequent inquiry found that Mousa and other civilian prisoners had been subjected to “an appalling episode of serious gratuitous violence” by the army — torture — which led to his death.

The then defence secretary Liam Fox said to the House of Commons that what had happened to Mousa and the other detainees “was deplorable, shocking and shameful.”

Following that inquiry, the government set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) which investigates claims by Iraqi civilians of murder or ill-treatment.

Some of those claims — investigated in the associated al Sweady public inquiry — have been found to be false, such as people claiming to be civilians were in fact insurgents. This had led to the disciplinary proceedings against some of the lawyers involved. But other claims have been upheld.

A recent report found that a 15-year-old Iraqi boy had drowned in Basra in 2003 after soldiers forced him and others into a canal and left them floundering.

This was called “wetting,” a practice apparently used by British troops to humiliate and deter suspected looters. It has no relationship to the rule of law.

Sometimes the soldiers acted in self-defence, sometimes not.

In all cases, those who died are casualties of an immoral and (as Chilcot found) unjustified invasion.

It is important to note that the role of lawyers is to bring what appear to be legitimate claims.

It is for judges to decide whether those claims are, in fact, legitimate. Or, indeed, for the government to decide.

The British government has already settled and paid compensation for 326 cases of abuse, paying over £20 million so far. The government would not settle spurious claims.

Soldiers, as well as civilians, are victims. PIL represented families of soldiers killed in Iraq at inquests.

Soldiers put their lives at risk but their families are entitled to assume that they will not be killed by friendly fire.

Activist lawyers tend to be abused while they pursue controversial cases, and then feted as heroes afterwards.

Gareth Peirce represented the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. They were all considered terrorist murderers in the late 1970s and throughout most of the ’80s.

Lawyers, politicians, journalists and other campaigners who argued that they were innocent were accused of being IRA sympathisers, supporters of terrorism.

As we know, all of them were innocent and had been imprisoned for years for crimes that they had not committed.

After the event, campaigning lawyers are held up as heroic or saintly, as the film In the Name of the Father portrays Peirce. Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is often cited by aspiring lawyers as their inspiration for studying law.

In real life, lawyers representing African-American defendants, challenging institutional racism in US courts, usually working for or with the NAACP, were subject to physical attacks and death threats.

Medgar Evans, not a lawyer but a NAACP and civil rights activist, was assassinated.

In Northern Ireland, lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, who brought human rights cases against the British government in the 1980s, were both assassinated by loyalist paramilitaries. In the case of Finucane, the government has admitted the collusion of the British security services.

Lawyers have not killed anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor have they prevented British troops from acting legitimately in conflict.

Human rights abuses of Iraqi civilians — exposed by litigation, acknowledged by judges and by the British government — stand alongside the over 150,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, the displacement of more than a million people and the chaos that continues today as part of the dreadful legacy of Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.

  • Liz Davies is a barrister and honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.