Supported housing debate – Wednesday 21st July


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. The SNP will continue to give him a hard time as much as we can.

I am glad to respond to this debate on behalf of the SNP and supported housing providers and clients in Scotland, who are deeply worried about what the future holds. Supported housing projects provide a range of people with vital support, which saves the Government money in hospital beds, prisons, and resolving homelessness. As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made clear in an Adjournment debate last Tuesday, a wide range of service provision is under threat by continued uncertainty over this policy.

I am appalled that the people supported by this sector are being put at risk by the lackadaisical, speak now, figure it out later attitude that this Government take to social security. Supported housing covers a range of different housing types, including group homes, hostels, refuges, supported living complexes, and sheltered housing. Those schemes are designed to meet the needs of particular client groups, such as people with mental health issues, learning or physical disabilities, addiction issues, victims and women at risk of domestic violence, ex-service veterans, teenage parents, ex-offenders, or older people.

On Monday 13 June, the Communities and Local Government Committee heard evidence from Peter Searle, director of working age benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions, who told the Committee categorically that

“the intention is to publish the evidence review and policy conclusions before the summer recess.”

More than a month has now passed, but we are no clearer on that. The Secretary of State says that it will happen in the autumn, but I remind him that the Government’s autumn statement last year ended up appearing in November, so I would like more clarity on when those conclusions will be published. I appreciate that the work is complex, but the Government have had a long time to figure it out. I am certain that many housing providers in the sector will have told the Government in a matter of days what they require, and the review has already taken far too long. I hope that the Government will not sneak out a statement on the matter on Thursday when MPs will have limited time to digest it before the House rises for the recess, and I seek confirmation on that.

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations told me that the

“proposals for the capping of housing benefit for social housing including supported housing to local Housing Allowance (LHA) maxima will, as they stand, have a catastrophic effect on provision”.

The SFHA is not mincing its words, and it warns that should the cap proceed, most provision of supported housing will be shut down or reduced in scope, future development will be cancelled or mothballed, and—most worryingly of all—tenants of supported housing and their families and carers will find it difficult to plan for the future. If those services go, there are very few options for people who depend on the support they offer.

In Scotland we are limited as to what we can do about the LHA cap. We have already spent in the region of £100 million mitigating the bedroom tax, until we are able to abolish it. The welfare powers that the Scottish Parliament is receiving do not extend to changing the rules on local housing allowance. As one would expect, the Scottish Government have also condemned that delay and uncertainty, with the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners Rights, Alex Neil MSP, calling back in February for an end to the “unacceptable state of uncertainty”. That was five months ago, yet today we are no further forward.

Let me provide some illustrations of the types of services currently at risk. The Blue Triangle project in Glasgow city centre provides supported accommodation for young people who are at risk of homelessness. The young people I met just before Christmas told me that they hugely valued the support and advice that they were given by staff on that project. One young man told me that his family situation had deteriorated, and he had found himself on the street. He fell in with a crowd who he thought were his friends, but he woke up in the street having been assaulted and robbed. He felt incredibly vulnerable, and had it not been for the service provided by Blue Triangle, he feared that he would not have survived that experience. Such a service does not come cheap, and the young people that it deals with need to be built up—they need help, and tailored support to develop their skills and get their lives back on track. The flats are based in the city centre, which is important in making the service easy to access, but that accommodation costs Blue Triangle significantly more in rent. The building must also be kept safe and secure. Flats need to be refurbished regularly due to the turnover of tenants, and the quality of those flats is important to give tenants a sense of dignity and self-worth. All that is put at risk by continued uncertainty.

The current LHA shared accommodation rate in Glasgow for those under 35 is £68.28, but rent for Blue Triangle’s accommodation is £341.44 per week—a £273.16 shortfall. For the service over a year, that results in a gap of £355,108. For young people who have nowhere else to go, that service is vital. The limit that the Government want to put on housing benefit for young people would leave them unable to afford accommodation of their own.

The ARCH resettlement service in Bridgeton is a vital service in my constituency. It provides support to men coming out of prison, and those who are homeless or in a range of other circumstances. When I visited recently, I met Donald, who had been affected by a stroke and needed help and support to get back to health. He has lived at the ARCH for around 10 months, and he was excited about taking on a supported tenancy in a nearby scatter flat that is owned by the ARCH Move On service. That seamless service allows people to move on when they feel able and ready to continue with some support. I do not know where Donald would have gone if not for the ARCH, but his pride in what the staff had helped him to overcome, and in what he had achieved through the help and support of that service, shone from his face. Donald and others like him need to know what the future holds for that kind of supported accommodation. Importantly, Donald was allowed to stay in that accommodation until he felt ready to move on. If we move people on before they are ready, in order to meet some kind of tick-box target, most people will fail and end up back in some other system, which costs us all more money.

Women fleeing domestic violence need to know that life-saving refuge services provided by women’s aid organisations across the UK will continue—I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) will speak about that later from her expertise. Those services do not often shout about what they do, as understandably a lot of secrecy and privacy is needed to protect the women and children they support. However, if such services did not exist, women and children would be in situations of grave danger.

In a letter to Lord Freud, Minister of State for Welfare Reform, Dr Marsha Scott of Scottish Women’s Aid indicated that the limit on housing benefit will have a “devastating impact”. That organisation has provided some examples of the impact that the LHA cap will have, and stated:

“In one rural area, introducing a cap linked to the LHA rate would result in an annual loss of £5,800 for a 2 bedroom refuge flat. In another urban area the annual loss for a 1 bedroom refuge flat is £7,100. In another semi-urban area the loss on a 3 bedroom refuge is £11,600 per year. In each case this financial cost will be multiplied by the number of refuge spaces provided.”

It is clear that such losses will make the service unsustainable, and they will close.

The letter from Scottish Women’s Aid to Lord Freud also mentioned the shared accommodation rate for those under 35:

“The proposed introduction of the under 35s shared accommodation rate to social rented housing also places women under the age of 35 at much greater risk of further abuse. If women under the age of 35 are unable to access refuge accommodation or move into their own tenancy because of a restriction on their entitlement to housing benefit, this effectively prevents them from leaving an abusive partner. In 2014-15, the 26-30 years old age group had the highest incident rate of domestic abuse recorded by the Police in Scotland. Women in this age group clearly have a significant need for domestic abuse support services—including refuge accommodation.”

It seems clear that the Government have little understanding of the impact of their policies on women, and particularly on women suffering from domestic violence and coercive control. Those policies are in addition to the two-child policy and the rape clause in tax credits, and the single household payment in universal credit. Such measures limit women’s options and put them at risk. The statement that the Secretary of State referred to gives me no reassurance that those aspects regarding the vulnerability of women in the welfare system have been addressed, and I seek further clarity and detail from Ministers on that.

In Scotland, refuges are sublet to Women’s Aid organisations from local authorities and housing associations, and funded by local and national Government. They are a crucial part of Scotland’s leading “Equally Safe” strategy to protect women and girls. The UK Government are undermining that significant work. We now have a female Prime Minister who claims to be a feminist. She needs to take note, as does her utterly gormless and heartless Welfare Reform Minister, who is unaccountable to this House.

Justin Tomlinson: I know that the hon. Lady does a huge amount of important work in this area, but the Government have trebled the funding for women’s refuges. The discretionary housing payment now stands at £870 million in this Parliament, and it is delivered with flexibility—working with the police, social services and medical professionals to provide the best support for the people being highlighted.

Alison Thewliss: The Government giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. That is not good enough. It has also been made absolutely clear by women’s organisations, and a range of other organisations in the sector, that the discretionary housing payments are not enough to guarantee the certainty and future of these services. They are discretionary. That means that they are not part of the funding package; they are at the discretion of those providing that payment. That is not good enough. There needs to be greater certainty.

The Government need to make sure that the infrastructure to protect women and children is not dismantled under this supposedly feminist new Prime Minister. On her watch, these services must be guaranteed with a sound and solid future, because women’s lives depend on it.

I am still not reassured by the language of the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) at the Dispatch Box last Tuesday night. He said:

“we must also ensure that funding for supported housing is efficient, workable, transparent and sustainable, so that it delivers a secure, quality service that provides for those who need it and makes the best use of the money available”

and that

“Services must be outcomes-focused, accountable, planned and responsive to individual and local needs.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 272.]

That suggests to me an element of a box-ticking exercise for these services. I caution that there are very varied support needs among those accessing supported accommodation. That must be reflected whatever the outcome of the review. A woman with children fleeing from a life of abuse and coercive control does not have the same needs as an elderly man moving into sheltered accommodation or a young person recovering from a stroke. We must be mindful of the needs of each person. When we talk about outcomes, it cannot just be that they move on after six months. As I mentioned earlier with the case of Donald, we are dealing with people who have very complex needs. They must be allowed to stay in that accommodation until such time as they are able to move on. If they are unable to move on and we push them out of that accommodation before time, they will end up on the streets or in prison. They will be very, very vulnerable.

I urge the Government to take the widest possible interpretation of value for money as regards these services. I am deeply concerned by the proposed changes. I have only scratched the surface of the impact of the LHA cap. I am sure that other speakers this afternoon will elaborate on that. Those who depend on accommodation for the elderly, the services for those with learning or physical impairments, the services for ex-service personnel, or any other type of supported accommodation and the support it provides, will be exceptionally vulnerable without them. Attending to their needs outwith specialist supported accommodation could mean hospital stays that cost about £530 per night or prison, which costs about £194,000 per year, not to mention the huge societal cost we all bear from the loss of those people’s potential. They can live life with a great degree of independence when they receive the right support and this type of accommodation. We need to think long term and invest in these services, and invest in preventive spend. Supported accommodation can save lives and it can turn lives around. The Government must recognise that and ensure the future of supported accommodation.