Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate supported housing; to make provision about local authority oversight and the enforcement of standards of accommodation and support in supported housing; to prohibit the placing of children in care in unregulated accommodation; and for connected purposes.
We quite rightly in this country have a regulatory system in place for care homes through the Care Quality Commission. In Scotland, as I understand it, the Care Commission also covers supported housing. I am calling for the same to happen in England for hostels, refuges and other accommodation for people with support needs, so that vulnerable people are housed only in decent, safe accommodation where they will get the support they need and where unscrupulous landlords will no longer be able to exploit them to make a quick buck through the housing benefit system.
I stress that there are many respectable, decent providers of supported housing out there, and I appreciate that theirs is not an easy job. In particular, I pay tribute to the work they have done during this pandemic, with local authorities, to house rough sleepers. Sadly, however, not all providers are like that. Because the local housing allowance is so low in places like Bristol, for some private landlords with an eye to profit, renting at the usual rates has little appeal when, if they convert to supported housing, they can charge much more. They only have to provide a level of support that is “more than minimal” to qualify for an exemption that can get them the enhanced rates of housing benefit that make it so attractive to them.
The situation at Wick House, a large supported housing project in my constituency, is why I got involved, in particular the death of residents—there have been seven deaths since a particular charity began running the place—and in particular the deaths of George Mahoney, whose body was found in a pool of blood in 2016, and Paul Way, who died in 2017 and whose body, despite it being supported accommodation, was not found for three days.
One former worker at the hostel shared with me emails he sent to George’s family after his death in which he describes the living conditions. He talks about visible bed bugs on residents. He said that the Salvation Army would fumigate the kit of anyone coming from Wick House. He spoke of the “employment of career criminals”, the victimisation of vulnerable residents and his concern for women living there, saying:
“there is quite a lot of sexual activity in a drunken/drugged and prostituted state.”
He described a “woeful” lack of support: a visit once a fortnight from a local drugs project and from a mental health team for certain residents, but that was it. He also said—I stress this was back in 2017—that the management
“can’t claim not to know about it—they are facilitating it. I don’t really care whether this is deliberate or accidental, it’s still happening and it needs to be stopped, not ignored.”
What many of us came to realise, however, was how little power anyone had to stop them. When a council commissions supported housing, control can be exercised through the contract, but with such an uncommissioned service, Bristol Council was really limited in what it could do. The council did refuse to refer people to Wick House, and both it and I urged prison and probation services to do likewise, but Wick House did not find it difficult to fill its rooms with self-referrals and referrals from outside the local area.
In 2017, the landlord attempted to increase the rent from £125 to £343 per tenant, resulting in tribunal proceedings in which the judge, by consent order, reduced it to £170. The management responded by expanding Wick House from 47 residents to 87, cramming them in to recoup the lost income. Even though Wick House was in breach of planning rules, the council still had to pay housing benefit for all 87 tenants regardless, and tried to enforce measures on the breach.
In September 2019, the Charity Commission published a report on Bristol Sheltered Accommodation & Support—the charity that ran Wick House. It found a failure to report serious incidents, including the death of a resident; unauthorised salary payments to trustees; poor financial controls; and unmanaged conflicts of interest. A new charity is now running Wick House. At the time, the Charity Commission warned that the investigations had brought to light wider issues around the regulation of supported housing that limited its ability to hold charities providing such accommodation to account.
It is quite clear that this is not an isolated case, and many colleagues have expressed similar concerns, particularly in cities. In September this year, The Sunday Telegraph published a piece on suburban family homes that were being converted into unlicensed bail hostels—again, the motivation was landlords wanting to get their hands on higher housing-benefit payments. The article said:
“Such family homes contain a volatile mix of ex-prisoners, drug addicts, those with severe mental health issues, refugees and women fleeing domestic abuse.”
Bail hostels that are classed as approved premises are tightly regulated, but their unregulated equivalents are not, and providers can often get away with little to no supervision or support. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner said:
“Regulation needs to come from central government. At the moment, the law is quite free and easy around these areas. Some of these landlords are actually criminals who are making money out of people’s misery.”
The Bill seeks to protect young people. The recent report, “Unregulated”, by the Children’s Commissioner, revealed that 12,800 children in care —or one in eight—spent some time in an unregulated placement that was not registered with Ofsted in 2018-19. They are usually older teens, but there are some under-16s and children with high needs. They are housed in independent or semi-independent accommodation with limited support that is not regulated by the quality inspectorate. The accommodation might be a flat, hostel or bedsit. Even worse, in some cases, it might be a caravan, tent or barge. Children who are supposedly in care are left to fend for themselves with limited support from key workers—perhaps five hours a week or fewer. Young people use words such as “disgusting”, “absolutely terrible” and “like a prison cell” to describe their living arrangements. In some instances, they end up living alongside vulnerable adults, who have their own difficulties, or in placements where they are exposed to the risk of exploitation and other negative influences. The Children’s Commissioner has called for the use of semi-independent and independent provision to be made illegal for all children in care and for the regulation of unregulated settings. That is included within the scope of the Bill.
There has been growing awareness in recent years, but little action. In May 2017, for example, in a joint report on the future of supported housing, the Committees on Communities and Local Government and on Work and Pensions recommended that the Government should establish a set of national standards to enable monitoring of quality provision in all supported housing in England and Wales. They said that all providers should be registered with a local authority, whether or not their services had been commissioned locally, and that local authorities should undertake annual inspections of all supported housing schemes in their area to ensure a minimum standard of provision.
In response, the Government committed to working with local authorities on how they might best ensure decent and appropriate standards. Very little happened until three years later. Last month, on 20 October, we suddenly saw some movement from the Government. Five pilots in priority areas—Birmingham, Hull, Blackpool, Blackburn and Bristol—will be funded to the tune of £3 million for collaborative working between local partners to test different approaches on greater oversight and enforcement of higher standards in non-commissioned provision. That has been accompanied by the publication of a statement of national expectations that focuses on accommodation.
I am pleased that Bristol was chosen for one of the pilot schemes, and that the Government recognise the good work that Bristol City Council has done. The funding will give the council the opportunity to carry out a quality check on the city’s non-commissioned sector involving a team from environmental health, safeguarding, support review officers and housing benefits to help identify the problems and take what enforcement action we can. However, for reasons I have already set out, I have my doubts about whether a voluntary approach is enough. Local authorities do not have sufficient powers to enforce standards—which are only expected standards, anyway—and while many decent providers will be happy to co-operate, those in it purely for the money will not do so.
Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness recently told The Big Issue that the new measures were “nowhere near” enough. She said that
“40% of the deaths we recorded in 2019 occurred when a person was in emergency or temporary accommodation, and our research clearly shows these tragedies will continue without real action”.
She questioned whether providers would really take time to follow recommended guidelines and was concerned that private landlords and providers, who account for 86% of the £1.1 billion temporary accommodation industry, had not even been identified as supported housing providers in the policy. I think the Government—or at least some Ministers—recognise the flaws in the voluntary approach and view the pilots, which run only for six months, as an evidence-gathering exercise, which I hope will inform future regulation.
I have had Ministers from three different Departments acknowledge in one way or another the need to address the concerns I have raised. I am meeting two more Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who is in her place today, before the end of the month to discuss what can be done. Across the Atlantic, we have seen a new expression of a desire for bipartisan working in difficult times and, despite our many differences across the House, people would want to see the same approach from us on an issue such as this.
Question put and agreed to.
That Kerry McCarthy, Mr Clive Betts, Shabana Mahmood, Steve McCabe, Bob Blackman, Helen Hayes, Fleur Anderson, Tim Loughton, Andrew Selous, Mohammad Yasin, Munira Wilson and Andrew Gwynne present the Bill.
Kerry McCarthy accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read the Second time on Friday 15 January, and to be printed (Bill 212).