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Rules must change to cut numbers in bed and breakfast

It is right that people living on welfare should have a more modest rent paid for them by the taxpayer than the average rent that those working are able to afford.

It is reasonable that there should be a cap on Housing Benefit - of £250 for a one bedroom property up to a maximum of £400 for a family home - introduced in 2011. It is also reasonable that a total Benefits Cap - of £350 a week for a single person and £500 a week for a family - is being "rolled out."

It is true that this represents a challenge for local council housing officers.

Generally the more alarmist predictions have been proved false. To give a local example my Labour MP Andrew Slaughter claimed that "more than 1,000 children will have to leave" perhaps not only the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham but London altogether. In fact of the 546 households affected just 16 have had to move to neighbouring boroughs and only ten further away than that. I don't know of any that have had to move out of London altogether.

There is also the challenge of finding accommodation for new applications - all those who pitch up at council offices announcing that they are homeless. Across London there was an increase of 35% in Bed and Breakfast placements last year - although in my borough this has levelled off and the number of families placed in this situation has fallen slightly since last autumn.

The problem is not just finding rents in London below £250 a week for a four bedroom flat - there are lots. It is persuading the landlord to overcome the stigma of taking people on benefits - there is a stigma premium.The landlord reckons someone on welfare is more likely to be trouble than someone who is working.

Another complication comes if someone turns up and their claim turns out not to be valid but they have to be put up somewhere while this is checked.

Currently one of the largest categories of homelessness acceptances is of people excluded from their existing home by their own family. The local authority is under a duty to accommodate, including in B&B, unless it can prove “contrivance,” which is almost impossible unless there is an admission by one of the parties. The duty to accommodate is there even if the existing home is adequate.

The unfairness about this is that there are lots of families and circumstances where the “hosts” choose not to exclude their family members or friends and simply deal with what may be a less than ideal situation at home. For them, this is just the reality now of living in London.

Of course there should be a duty to accommodate those facing domestic violence.

But what about a grumpy 20-year-old who hasn't really been thrown out but just decided he would like his own place? At the moment the rules are stacked in his favour. But where is the incentive, should he find living with his parents tiresome, to work hard and earn enough to pay his own rent?

It should be made clear by the Government that there is no right for an individual, or family to be accommodated during a review. This should be a matter for the council's discretion.

At the moment if a council turns down an application for housing from someone claiming to be homeless there is the right for this to be reviewed. This right should be ended. It helps lawyers rather than the homeless. It often just means families holding on a bit longer in bed and breakfast accommodation when they could and should be making their own arrangements.

All the bureaucracy and legal appeals don't produce any more housing. It is just a queue jumpers charter. The Law Centres (often Council funded) mounting the challenges don't shorten the queue - all they might do is change the position of people in it.

That is not fair to the taxpayers. Nor it is fair to those in genuine need who are honest about their circumstances. They are stuck in overcrowded conditions patiently waiting, operating within the rules. Then in another family a teenager pulls a stunt claiming to have been forced out and demanding his own place. Nobody really wins. Not the taxpayer. Not the overcrowded family. Not even the teenager who then gets hooked on welfare for life.

Localism means trusting local government to use discretion. This is a principle the Government has applied to many areas. To reduce the number of families in the bureaucratic B&B limbo it should be applied to homelessness.

It would not be perfect. It can't be an easy job being a housing officer making these decisions. Even those with experience, decency and concern to limit the risk of "reputational damage" might make the wrong call. Someone could be turned away who genuinely has nowhere to sleep that night through no fault of their own. But the current arrangement is not perfect either - as must be apparent to everyone. Local flexibility offers the best prospect of getting the right decisions.

Over to you, Mr Prisk.


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