By Charlotte Threipland
As the Immigration Bill 2015 makes its way through Parliament, I wonder how local authorities, already at breaking point, will be able to cope with the increased demand on their services. Assuming the pressure will be too much what, in practice, will this mean for the vulnerable families needing those services?
At the end of last year, as part of a study commissioned by the Hackney Community Law Centre and Hackney Migrant Centre, I interviewed a number of migrant families – mainly single mothers with small children – who are not entitled to welfare benefits. They rely on support from their local authority under section 17 Children Act 1989.
The research found that almost two thirds of London properties in which local authorities are placing vulnerable children fail to meet the children’s basic needs. This can be highly detrimental to their physical and mental health, and their life chances.
Under section 17, every local authority has a duty to ensure that children living within their area who are ‘in need’ have their basic needs provided for, irrespective of their parent’s immigration status. The duty provides a lifeline for thousands of otherwise destitute children every year. However, although many of the children featured in this study were saved from homelessness, their basic needs were still not met.
Some families in the study were placed in accommodation that was in severe disrepair, overcrowded and infested with vermin. Although local authorities have statutory powers to compel landlords to remedy squalid or overcrowded conditions that do not meet standards prescribed by housing law, they do not always do so.
An environmental health officer inspected the properties of two case study families – Mary and Patricia. In both cases, the properties were found to be well below housing law standards. Patricia’s property was found to be ‘unsatisfactory and unsuitable accommodation’. On Mary’s property the expert concluded:
‘In my opinion this accommodation falls far short of acceptable provision for this household. I am very concerned for the health, safety and wellbeing of the occupiers in such a situation and urgent re-housing is recommended.’
It is not just physical conditions that can be a problem. Often, families are seen as having only temporary housing needs (although they can remain there for many months or years) and are placed in B&Bs – frequently moving from one B&B to another. Here they can live alongside short-term guests paying budget rates for London accommodation. Some guests were taking drugs, drinking and smoking in the communal areas and were intimidating or threatening to families. One of the mothers, Mary, had to call the police because a drunk man walked in the room she shares with her three small children and was verbally abusive to her.
The report recommends that social services departments must work closely with housing departments to ensure that their duties are met. Problems could also be avoided if there were robust guidance around the provision of accommodation under section 17. While there is statutory guidance in comparable situations (for example homelessness and asylum support) there is none for section 17. This means that local authority housing duties in the areas of homelessness and section 17 are not working to the same processes and standards.
While local authorities could work more effectively to reduce the problems identified in this study, it is clear that they are also under an enormous amount of pressure. While they have fewer resources (following 40% cuts to their services last year), there is also a rising demand on their services. If provisions contained in the Immigration Bill 2015 are passed, the demand will only rise further as the number of families facing homelessness increases. The Bill introduces new criminal offences for landlords who fall foul of the ‘right to rent’ scheme, which may result in discrimination against migrants in the private-rented sector. The proposed cuts to asylum support will mean that certain asylum-seeking families, currently supported by central government, will become the responsibility of local government.
The research shows how desperate the situation already is for many families, so the prospect of rising numbers of ‘children in need’ is extremely worrying.
Read the report ‘A Place to Call Home: A Report into the Standard of Accommodation provided to Children in Need in London’, published by Hackney Community Law Centre and Hackney Migrant Centre here. This research was funded by the Strategic Legal Fund for Vulnerable Young Migrants.
About the author:
Charlotte Threipland is a solicitor and a researcher in human rights. She has worked in leading human rights and civil liberties law firms and NGOs, including Reprieve, Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, Stonewall, Liberty, Bindmans LLP, Matthew Gold & co, Global Witness, Hackney Community Law Centre, Hackney Migrant Centre and OpenDemocracy. She has recently started working with openDemocracy to create a new area on their site dedicated to justice issues.