5th All-Party Parliamentary Group for Households in Temporary Accommodation.
Monday 17/10/2023, 15.00-15.50, hybrid meeting
Room T, Portcullis House.
Joint Secretariats: Shared Health Foundation (SHF) and Justlife (JL)
Siobhain McDonagh MP (Mitchem & Morden, Labour), Rebecca Long-Bailey MP (Salford & Eccles, Labour) Felicity Buchan MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of state, Housing and Homelessness), Dr Mel Nowicki (Oxford Brookes University), Professor Katherine Brickell (King’s College London), Irhaa (Lived experience), Chris (Lived experience), Sam Pratt (SHF), Fran Anderson (Justlife), Jo Spurling (SHF), Sam Khan (Siobhain McDonagh MP), Caleb Neilson (SHF).
Number of attendees online: 20
To discuss findings from the recently published report ‘Debt Trap’, written by Professor Katherine Brickell and Dr Mel Nowicki. The report reveals how debt is a major factor in why families become homeless, how it worsens during their time living in Temporary Accommodation (TA), and then continues to impact on families even when their homelessness ends.
Dr Mel Nowicki
Reader in Urban Geography at Oxford Brookes University and co-author of the report ‘Debt Trap (2023)’ begins the meeting by highlighted the findings from the report:
- Debt is a major factor why families become homeless, it worsens during stays in TA and then continues to impact on families’ futures even when homelessness ends.
- Rent arrears are leading cause of homelessness. Many women we interviewed were economically controlled, forced to rely on credit for everyday expenses, and in some cases enrolled into coerced debt.
- Many describe these debts as another form of punishment that follows them, even after they leave their abusive partners.
- Later still, when some women have needed to flee again, after being found by their abusers are hit with more rent and council tax arrears as they had to move quickly. In short, domestic violence feeds a debt trap.
- Living in TA can negatively impact homeless families contributing towards their debt and a life of uncertainty. Stays in TA should be short, safe and healthy as possible however, the research shows that the key barriers to this are the rent arrears which inhibit families’ transition into permanent or social housing. Applicants in rent arrears can become ineligible to bid for homes or lose prioritisation on housing.
- Women and children remain stuck in TA until they clear or reduce their debt to a certain level – or show their ‘intent to pay’ through consecutive repayments (rules are contingent on local authority).
- Stays in TA also increase debt burden. For example, due to difficulties in procuring TA, homeless families are often moved miles away from their existing support networks and schools. Taking children to school often produces high expenses of up to £280 in transport per month. Additionally, those living in hotels or B&Bs lack basic cooking facilities such as a microwave and/or even a kettle, pushing homeless families to spend huge amounts of their income on takeaways to starve off hunger.
- The rising cost-of-living, credit used to pay for transporting and purchasing household goods between each move, including the repeated errors in Universal credit and council tax calculations adds additional financial burdens on homeless families and increases their debt.
- Inflexible and costly childcare also increases debt burden.
- Even when families are allocated to permanent residency, it is often of substandard quality, meaning debts are accrued further in order to make the accommodation liveable (e.g. paying for carpets).
- Incurring debt therefore becomes a necessity for survival during their homelessness journey.
- While these individual debts ae generally small and negligible in purely financial terms, the research shows the disproportionate and negative impact they are having on the lives of women and children in these predicaments.
- Solution: Scrap rules on outstanding housing-related debt determining property bidding eligibility.
- Other recommendations outlined in the ‘Debt Trap (2023)’ report.
Irhaa (lived experience voice) with Professor Katherine Brickell
Irhaa, in conversation with Professor Katherine Brickell, shares her lived experiences of navigating domestic violence. Homelessness and debt as a mother.
Professor Katherine Brickell asks: Can you tell me a bit about your story?
- Experienced domestic violence for 13 years, ever since the start of my marriage, both from husband and mother-in-law.
- Husband kept my carers allowance from me, and I had very little access to money, which he controlled.
- One of the reasons why I always put up with the domestic abuse was, I used to think, ‘How am I going to do it with the four kids financially?’
- Emotional abuse developed into physical abuse, and I was almost killed.
- I had to leave with nothing.
- Lived in a hotel for 5 weeks with children before being moved to other temporary accommodation – but it had rats, huge cracks, it was dirty, and the garden was full of rubbish.
- After six months, received permanent housing, but again in a poor state of repair, and required credit card borrowing to buy furniture and lay carpet – you cannot just have children on a bare floor.
Professor Katherine Brickell asks: What impact has debt had on you since?
- Debt has been one of my biggest worries, I couldn’t get back on my feet – making the sums add up is impossible.
- I struggle to sleep at night worrying about debt.
- I sought support from StepChange Debt Charity and continue to repay my debts.
Chris (lived experience voice)
Chris shares her lived experience navigating domestic violence. Homelessness and debt as a mother.
- Some background about me: I was working full time as a teacher in a primary school and my children were between 6-7 years of age. Unfortunately, due to the domestic violence I was experiencing from my partner, me and my children had to flee from home. We moved into a women’s refuge for a duration of 18 months. Due to the distance between my job, my children’s school, and the refuge, I had to leave my job and move my children to a nearby school. The home we had lived in previously was in my partner’s name. He deceived me and coerced me into taking out bank loans. I was in £31,000 debt. He promised to pay them off but lied.
- Every time we moved from accommodation to accommodation in the PRS I was always reassessed for benefits due to being a single mother in debt. By the time we reached TA I had built up so many arrears in rent.
- I also moved my children back to their original school where they felt most familiar and had already made friendships for their wellbeing, however, the monthly transport costs increased my debts. The head teacher at this school, where I worked, was very helpful and even gave me my job back.
- Eventually, we moved into permanent housing which was of poor quality. There was no furniture, so I had to rely on credit cards to buy white goods and cleaning products. The accommodation was in poor condition.
- In 2021, I was made redundant and used the redundancy pay to pay off my credit debts.
- After more than 10 years my children and I are still heavily affected by the trauma experienced.
Siobhain McDonagh opens Q&A
1. Felicity Buchan MP asks: “I have been informed that some of the debt placed onto women is enforced debt that they have not taken willingly. To what extent is it the case that women subject to domestic violence haven’t willingly taking it upon themselves?”
Professor Katherine Brickell answers: Not all domestic violence victims are coerced in debt, however, it is certainly a pattern that you can identify. Not sure if data would exist on all the coerced debt from domestic violence survivor victims. One of the things however, that crops up is the re-punishment of the domestic violence survivors through policies that are punitive in terms of the debts that they hold. Debts either not through their choice or even coerced. Those with rent arrears cannot bid on any social housing. And those in TA are faced with a debt burden to make the TA they’ve been allocated liveable and of proper standards. Most people who are in debt are so not by choice. The priority banding and allocation policy needs to be further reviewed.
Felicity Buchan MP states: “One thing that you brought up Katherine, is the quality of TA and this is something I am very focused on. As a government we need to ensure all housing is of a good and decent standard. Presently, we have just proposed the Social Housing Bill, enforcing higher standards are met on social housing, and we are in the process of bringing through Parliament the Private Renters Bill. This will therefore improve all types of housing and regulation. I know that in London, all the Local Authorities (LAs) have come together to work out ways to improve conditions in TA for households. Anyone who thinks the accommodation they’ve been allocated to does is unsuitable have the right to take it up with their LA.
2. Rebecca Long-Bailey MP states: “The report raises some important recommendations about increasing Local Housing Allowance and Universal Credit. “
Rebecca Long-Bailey MP asks: Following this report, do we want to draft our own letter to the Chancellor?” [agreed as action point that a letter will be drafted and sent]
Rebecca Long-Bailey MP asks: “Felicity, will you be putting the Chancellor under a bit if pressure to improve issues surrounding TA?”
Felicity Buchan answers: “We are in very detailed discussions with the Treasury, although decisions are not made until closer to the Autumn Statement which will be published sometime in November. I have listened to issues discussed and I hear you”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey MP asks: “Do you know when the Private Renters Reform Bill will be proposed?”
Felicity Buchan MP answers: “I cannot give exact timing of when this will happen, but we are looking into it. It is a manifesto commitment of ours, so we are committed.”
Amanda Aremie, (Adur & Worthing Councils) asks: “Is there anything that can be done to lift the cap on the rents LAs can charge on TA, so that LAs can procure better standards of accommodation?”
Felicity Buchan MP answers: “Very fair question. We are in discussions with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Treasury. Thank you for raising it.”
Siobhain McDonagh MP states: “There are councils fearing bankruptcy because of the amounts of money being spent on temporary accommodation. London councils are spending lots of money on TA. There are 400 TAs used in my constituency, throughout 23 years of my career I have never seen this”.
Felicity Buchan MP states: “We’ve huge pressures on the PRS and the Home Office have been hovering up lots of properties. We’ve had lots of arrivals of refugees from Ukraine (190,000), those from Hong Kong (180,000) and lots of asylum seekers. There are intense pressures on the housing market, and I am aware of the issues and the increasing usage of TA. My budget in DLUHC is £2 billion for TA for over 3 years, with £1 billion on homelessness prevention. We believe homelessness prevention is the key to reducing numbers in TA and so we’ve distributed this money to all the LAs in England. There has been lots of money invested into this. We are very focused on decreasing the numbers of TA. We are also aware of the problems involving Out Of Area (OOA) placements and Domestic Violence (DV)”.
Sam Pratt asks: “Felicity, there is a place held for the matter of TA in the Renters Reform Bill, but that’s just there as a placeholder with no government commitment included. Will TA be in the Bill?”
Felicity Buchan MP states: “Our philosophy is on improving all types of accommodation, and we are less focused on categorising TA as a specific type of housing. We are working more to improve standards instead”.
Siobhain McDonagh MP asks: “If someone was to approach the LA in my constituency, their response – most likely- would be to move you away to a different borough as there would be no stock of TA available. Trade off is between quality of TA and location and many sacrifice good standards just to remain local and live near their family and friends.
Professor Katherine Brickell states: “One thing Irhaa and I didn’t cover was how debt continues after homelessness journey.”
Irhaa states: “After 3 years of being on this journey, my mental health was affected, and I had no choice but to move back in with my husband because of the financial situation. He pays for me to live in a separate place with my children, however, I have to be careful. I must keep playing happy families with someone I hate; someone I am petrified of just so he can financially support me and my children. He has all the power, and he can decide one week to just not pay for the rent or food.
Professor Katherine Brickell states: “Irhaa’s story is very powerful because it shows the debt trap. Because of the impossibility of the maths, having to take this huge life decision, that no one should have to make. It is a trap that is failing women. It serves to show issues around gender inequalities and domestic violence, that have not been taken seriously enough. We hope from the report that the gender dimensions come out and the issues surrounding childcare and the difficulties women have to access employment are tackled. These issues are messy and complex and should be unpicked as such because TA is complex. So often when we think about homelessness, the issue of debt gets lost. Debt doesn’t occur through recklessness and financial literacy will not solve the problem. Women we spoke to are hugely financially literate. This needs structural change”.
Gabriella (online) asks: “In order to reduce numbers of vulnerable women (such as survivors of gender-based violence) and their children living in TA, the reforms in the PRS should involve procuring rent-controlled tenancies for women, as proposed by the Women’s Budget Group. If the Local Government works in tandem with the National government to ensure affordable rent are set to the local women’s wages (rather than the general average wages), some of the bottlenecks in the emergency housing system could be addressed. What are the likelihood measures such as this to be considered by the government?”
Felicity Buchan MP answers: “We are not going to do rent controls and the reason for this is, when rents were controlled, it introduced (ironically) higher rents. This was due to landlords leaving the PRS housing market and the shortage in supply. It just hasn’t worked. What we are looking into in the Renters Reform Bill is where rent can only be raised once in the year and can only be done so fairly to prevent high rent increases and rick of evictions”.
Meeting was concluded at 15:50.