NI Homelessness and Social Housing Need
In line with New Decade New Approach commitments, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced £26m more to build social housing in 2021/22, bringing the total for this budget line up to £162m. She also reported that 2,403 new social home starts - almost 30% more than the target of 1,850 -- were logged in 2020/21. Saying “housing stress levels here are totally unacceptable… I am determined to deliver more social homes", she promised to bring back the practice of ring-fencing new build spending to ensure homes are built in areas of high demand. Meanwhile the new head of the Housing Executive said, “despite sustained and continued investment in social and affordable housing, supply is not keeping pace with demand - and this impacts profoundly on the life chances of many households".
In related news, NI Assembly members formed an All Party Group on Homelessness to identify policy measures to combat homelessness. The chair is Paula Bradley, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA for North Belfast. Nicola McCrudden, chief executive at the Council of the Homeless Northern Ireland, will be secretariat. The group called on Stormont to prioritise preventing homelessness. Young people from the Relentless Change Programme, who have launched a film to talk about youth homelessness, called for improved housing services for young people experiencing homelessness.
Emerging from Lockdown: the State of the Private Rental Sector
In a newly-issued response to a 2017 consultation on reform of the private rental sector, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced plans for a draft bill raising the notice period for evictions and mandating safety measures for rental accommodation amongst other measures. The Department for Communities’ press release noted that, with nearly half of those in the private rented sector in receipt of either Universal Credit housing element or Housing Benefit, in 2019/20 over £270m in public funds was paid out to private landlords.
On the heels of Generation Rent-commissioned research showing that one in 12 private renters in England have been given notice to move out without a reason since March 2020, the Big Issue reviewed the UK government's failure to ban these no fault (Section 21) evictions despite pledges dating back to April 2019. Shelter has called for the UK government to make good on its promises by putting forward a Renters’ Reform Bill that abolishes these evictions in England and creates a National Landlord Register with standards safeguards.
Homelessness in England: Youth, Families, Foreign Nationals
Centrepoint published a report on youth homelessness during the pandemic, drawing attention to factors like the increase in unemployment amongst this age group and record demand on its advice helpline, including from young people with a history of care and the those recently made homeless. It said, "lockdowns have made it harder for many young people to sofa surf with family and friends, and closure of face-to-face services have made it extremely challenging for some to access the support they need, even in acute crisis". It called for long-term funding for youth specific accommodation, support to people with rent arrears and for Universal Credit (UC) personal allowance rates to cover the real cost of living. Meanwhile, Shelter reported 100,000 homeless families were living in temporary accommodation at the start of 2021 - an increase of 8% on the preceding year.
EU sources, charities like Crisis and the Home Office's own newly-created Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales all criticised Home Office policy after it published guidance on 20 April on how to enforce its new rules allowing for deportation of foreign national rough sleepers. The head of charity Homeless Link said the policy would "drive people away from the support they need". As some lockdown measures eased, charities urged that 'Everyone In' measures for rough sleepers remain in place.
Widespread Condemnation of Punitive Home Office Policies towards Asylum Seekers
Nearly two hundred organisations jointly called the Home Office's proposed 'New Plan for Immigration' “vague, unworkable, cruel and potentially unlawful”. In addition, several dozens of Scottish groups including charities and faith groups wrote the Prime Minister asking for a rethink of the proposals. The Royal College of Psychiatrists called on the Home Office to allow asylum seekers with mental ill health to remain in the community rather than being placed in reception centres so that they can access treatment. Launching a Jesuit Refugee Service UK report called Being Human in the Asylum System, its director Sarah Teather said, “we need an asylum system rooted in a sense of shared humanity, not a barbaric rehash of the old culture of hostility. Reform of the asylum system is badly needed. This is not it."
At the start of the year, Brexit invalidated the UK's participation in the Dublin Agreement and the Home Office has since failed to secure any form of replacement. In a blow for proponents of the New Plan, EU countries ruled out bilateral deals with the UK for asylum seeker returns. Despite the lack of any mechanism for returns, the Home Office sent hundreds of letters to asylum seekers threatening they might be removed to third countries, causing needless fear and distress.
As the UK began to emerge from lockdown, rights groups, charities and press sources raised alarms about Home Office resumption of evictions from asylum accommodation of people whose claims have been rejected, in defiance of public health guidance. A range of bodies criticised the Home Office's de facto freeze on family reunifications post-Brexit, which has left vulnerable family members stranded in third countries.
The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on immigration detention urged the Home Office to cease its practice of housing asylum seekers in Napier military barracks after the then independent chief inspector of borders and immigration called the practice a “serious error of judgment”. The Red Cross echoed the calls. At the same time, however, press reports indicated that the Home Office was planning to escalate its use of the Napier site.
The Home Office also came under fire for its treatment of asylum seekers in hotel accommodation during the pandemic. An investigation by the Independent found pregnant women and families living in damp, vermin-infected asylum accommodation ostensibly managed by the Clearsprings company under contract to the Home Office. The Home Office is facing legal challenges over the conditions.
Despite a coroner requesting in August 2020 that the Home Office desist from a practice of undermining police investigations by deporting witnesses to deaths in immigration detention centres, the practice has reportedly continued. A court has ruled that the Home Secretary is accountable for failing to ensure full investigations.