Policy Watch

An eye on policy changes in Ireland, the UK and beyond

Homelessness | Social Housing Need NI | The State of the Private Rental Sector | Ongoing Condemnation of Home Office 'New Plan' on Immigration and Related Policies

Right to a Home  |  Mon Jun 28 2021


Housing Executive data initially released in response to an Assembly question (AQW 19518/17-22) showed that the number of households placed in emergency accommodation in Belfast increased 186% during the pandemic, to 4,756. Over the same period, the number of households placed in temporary accommodation in NI as a whole more than doubled, to 9,752. In response to an Assembly question (AQW 19601/17-22), the Communities Minister reported that as of 2 June there were 3,440 children under 18 living in households in temporary accommodation. She'd earlier announced a new £9m allocation to the NIHE's Covid-19 Reset Plan, bringing the total budget for homelessness for 2021/22 to £46m.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Opera has commissioned a new opera to be created together with children and young people with experience of homelessness and housing stress, to be performed at the 2022 Belfast Children's Festival.

Elsewhere, press analysis of homelessness duty statistics revealed at least 130,000 households in England were made homeless during the first year of the pandemic -- despite the 'ban' on evictions -- due to factors such as domestic abuse and breakdown of sharing arrangements. A cross-party group representing local authorities in London estimated the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation in London at 165,000 -- two thirds the total for England as a whole. England's Local Government Association has called for changes to the regulations around Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO)  to make it easier for councils to acquire empty homes for allocating to homeless families. Data from the ministry responsible for housing in England indicate more than 268,000 homes that have been empty for more than six months. In the longer term the LGA continues its calls for more social housing to be built.

Scotland's Everyone Home Collective of 35 organisations concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on homelessness published its first annual impact report. The Glasgow Alliance to End Homelessness (GAEH) created an Advisory Council with experts from a range of disciplines to guide them in reshaping Glasgow's homelessness services. It said the aim was to make them more effective and transformative in people's lives.

Research across England, Wales and NI by Crisis found close links between modern slavery and homelessness.  Of the 331 cases recorded, the largest group of victims were British. The NI Department of Justice published its fourth annual Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Strategy.

The EU Commission launched a new European Platform on Combating Homelessness to address the situation of an estimated 700,000 rough sleepers across the EU and others, following a survey in which 4 in 100 people reported having been homeless at least once in their lives. The charity Focus Ireland expressed deep concern after the Republic's Department of Housing [reported](file:///C:/Users/Paige%20Jennings/OneDrive%20-%20Participation%20and%20the%20Practice%20of%20Rights%20(PPR)/Paige%20Jennings/1%20work%20product/NLB%20website/Vigilance%20page%20policy%20briefings/content%20files/2021/done) over 8,000 people -- including more than 2,000 children -- were homeless as of April 2021.

Social Housing Need NI

The NI Housing Executive reported that over 22,000 of its tenants who previously had a clear rent account went into arrears since the beginning of the pandemic. Over half have their accounts back in the black, but more than 10,000  -- or nearly 12% of the 83,548 households holding Housing Executive tenancies -- are still in rent arrears.

Meanwhile, social housing shortage continues to impact on people's lives. In response to  a NI Assembly member's question (AQW 18921/17-22),  the Communities Minister revealed that over a fifth of the 43,971 households on the NI social housing waiting list have been waiting for over 5 years for a home. Plans to decommission some Housing Executive stock are going forward: it approved the demolition of two of its tower blocks, Clarawood House and Kilbroney House on the Cregagh Estate in East Belfast, and is waiting for the Department for Communities to confirm the decision. It plans to build lower-rise public housing on the footprint of the two buildings and says it will relocate all residents. The Department for Communities issued a two-month-long call for evidence to inform a new strategy on increasing housing supply here.

Elsewhere, developers said that one fifth of the 800 homes in a new planned residential development at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast will be 'social or affordable'. They announced an online consultation on the scheme. The Communities Minister opened works on a new £6.5m 42-home shared social housing scheme in Armagh.

In response to a NI Assembly member's question (AQW 18936/17-22) on fuel poverty, the Communities Minister said that in 2016, over one fifth of NI households were judged to be in fuel poverty (including one in ten Housing Executive-owned properties.) She said the Housing Executive plans to carry out the next full House Condition Survey in 2022.

CAJ raised concerns in the Detail about additional funding to the PSNI to counter paramilitary activity in the absence of greater intervention aimed at addressing objective socio-economic need. It raised the issues of residential segregation underpinned by paramilitary intimidation from housing and paramilitary involvement in racist hate crime and said, "it is not clear what initiatives, if any, have been resourced to tackle these issues.”

The State of the Private Rental Sector

As England's ban on bailiff-enforced evictions from private rentals ended 31 May, Shelter's chief executive Polly Neate said, “the lifting of the eviction ban signals the beginning of the end for many renters facing homelessness…Thousands of people will wake up on 1 June knowing they’ll soon be kicked out of their home, with nowhere to go". The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, highlighting findings that 5% of all renting households had already been served an eviction notice or told that were at risk of eviction, warned of a two-tier recovery from the pandemic and reported new research findings that almost 1 million UK households are worried about facing eviction by the end of the summer, with BAME people and households with children disproportionately at risk. They said that 400,000 renting households have already been served eviction notices or told that they will be, and called for immediate increases to Discretionary Housing Support, changes to Local Housing Allowance rates, an extension of the £20/week Universal Credit uplift past October and its expansion to people on legacy benefits.

The Local Government Association urged government to provide councils with resources to support people to keep their tenancies, and Generation Rent called for a Covid Rent Debt Fund "to clear these debts, get tenants back on their feet, and allow landlords to claim up to 80 per cent of the income they’ve lost".

Protections for renters following the lifting of the partial 'ban' had been debated in the House of Lords, while a cross-party group representing local authorities in London had warned of “a fast-approaching summer wave of homelessness" given rent arrears affecting 400,000 Londoners; unemployment, particularly once the furlough scheme ends in September; and lack of clarity about funding for homelessness response.

Ongoing Condemnation of Home Office 'New Plan' on Immigration and Related Policies

Shortly after the Home Secretary presented her 'New Plan' to parliament, analysis of government records by the Together With Refugees coalition showed that, of the half of recognised refugees who are women and children here, two thirds would not have been eligible for asylum under the New Plan due to their method of arrival.  As a range of UK voices marked Refugee Week, five asylum seekers amongst those to be affected by the Home Office's 'New Plan' brought a legal challenge against the policy on the grounds of insufficient public consultation.

The cornerstone of the 'New Plan' was presented as controlled arrival of already-vetted refugees via resettlement schemes. Nonetheless, reports emerged that the Home Office has quietly scrapped the previous  resettlement target of 5,000 refugees during the first year after the end of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, saying that instead of following international norms and actually agreeing targets and timeframes with UNHCR, it will simply keep its own performance 'under review'. Newly released UN statistics indicate that Turkey is the country currently hosting the most refugees -- 3.7 million; even before this announcement, the UK ranked only 31st on the list of countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers globally.

The Independent Monitoring Board charged with monitoring asylum accommodation reported that in the second half of 2020, as the Home Office rushed to deport as many people as possible in the run-up to Brexit, a full third of people held at Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick -- many of them survivors of torture or trafficking, according to charity workers -- were placed on constant suicide watch. This was nearly five times as many as during the first half of the year. The Board chair referred to "unprecedented levels of self-harm and suicidal thoughts" in explaining the Board's finding that the Home Office was guilty of inhumane treatment against asylum detainees during this pre-Brexit 'compressed flight programme'.

Following a legal challenge at its failure to heed Public Health England guidance to refrain from deliberately making people homeless during the pandemic, the Home Office reversed its decision to evict 'with immediate effect' around 4,000 asylum seekers.

After residents of Pollokshields in Glasgow blocked the van of immigration officials attempting to detain two of their neighbours on Eid, 27 local politicians including Nicola Sturgeon wrote to the Home Office criticising its immigration policies and the 'New Plan' pledge to speed up deportations.  Under new policies, around 1,500 people seeking asylum have been informed that the Home Office is seeking to return them to third countries transited on their way to the UK- though none of these countries have agreed to take them back. Amnesty International UK said that the number of asylum claims awaiting an initial decision after more than 6 months -- 31,516 one year ago -- has risen by roughly two thirds, to 50,084, indicating severe blockages in the system.

Meanwhile on 3 June, in a case brought by six asylum seekers, a High Court ruled use of Napier Barracks to detain asylum seekers unlawful. It found the Home Office-provided accommodation there was inadequate and unsafe. Calls for the barracks to be closed intensified. Already, since the Home Office began again placing asylum seekers in the notorious Napier Barracks on 9 April over the objections of its own watchdog agencies, press sources indicated that one in five people have been removed to other accommodation after it has been shown that they are victims of trafficking or torture.

Amidst numerous examples of denial of support, charities reported that thousands of asylum seekers and their families were left in crisis situations overnight, without access to money for food or other necessities, for a period of several days, during a bungled changeover in the Home Office contract for the asylum seekers debit card system. The Independent reported that over 50 organisations wrote to the Home Secretary three weeks after a the problems began, reporting that for a great many people the problems have yet to be resolved. Their letter reportedly describes this as “one of the worst asylum crises we have experienced”.

A High Court judge ruled that the Home Office system discriminated against two asylum-seeking single mothers who were victims of trafficking, denying them crucial support. For its part, Kent County Council put the Home Office on notice of a potential judicial review over failures to provide support for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK.

Reports in Northern Ireland revealed that the Housing Executive requested the use of Covid-19 homelessness funds to fly foreign rough sleepers back to the EU during the pandemic; the requests were denied by the Department of Health. Stranmillis University College researchers, commissioned by the NI Education Authority to review the experiences of almost 700 children and young people from among the 1,900 Syrian refugees currently settled in NI, indicated that teachers and schools needed more support to help the children with language skills. The study is meant to inform development of the EA's pilot referral service for schools, the Schools Trauma Advisory and Referral Service (Stars). In a racist hate crime, armed masked men broke into the home of a group of asylum seekers in the Holylands in Belfast and beat several of them so badly they required hospital treatment.

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