Heres the real privilege Mr Shapps

Yesterday I posted a blog which included the detail of how Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which is the form of Housing Benefit for tenants in private rented accommodation, will be frozen from April 2012 to March 2013.

This came about as there had been a few comments on Twitter from private landlords late last week about a freeze on LHA payments yet this remained rumour until I found the official announcement from DWP buried in Hansard on 6 December 2011.

It read:-

On local housing allowance, at the emergency Budget in June 2010, the Government announced that from 2013, local housing allowance rates will be calculated annually by using the lower of the rent at the 30th percentile of local rents or the previous year’s rate uprated by reference to CPI. This will end the monthly uprating of LHA rates and bring the system into line with the uprating of other pensions and benefits. As part of the preparation for this change, we need to fix LHA rates, to establish a baseline from which they will be uprated in future. As the new cycle for uprating LHA will be annual, we have decided that the baseline should be one year ahead of the first uprating event. Therefore, LHA rates will be fixed from April 2012. This approach means that there will be no reductions in ongoing awards as a result of this change

Nice last sentence which also means there will be no increase as well as no reductions in LHA rates from April 2012 to March 2013.  Of course it also means in relative terms it will be a reduction as no account has been made for inflation.

The number of blog views went haywire. The last couple of months I had been happy with 500 blog views per week which had increased from 150 or so per week when I started blogging in late August 2011.  By 5pm Monday evening I had received 719 views alone yesterday. By midnight rising to 789 and at 11am this morning by a further 131 making 920 in all.

I commented briefly on some of the obvious direct consequences of this freeze, for example:

  • Private Sector Landlords (PSLs) will seek to increase rents significantly between now and April 2012
  • PSLs will inevitably seek to issue more evictions to tenants in receipt of benefit as the LHA level pays much less of their total rent
  • It will lead to an increase in homeless presentations because of that (PSLs ending assured shorthold tenancies is already the biggest reason for homelessness)
  • It will lead to increasing demand for social housing

All of the above will impact on general needs housing and rightly many social landlords and large housing associations viewed and commented or retweeted it on Twitter.  Yet my area of expertise is supported housing and the above obvious implications I’m sure will be commented upon by general needs housing experts.  Instead I discuss below the specific areas of interest to supported housing providers, the consequences of which are far greater than an increase in national demand for housing and will interest the general public.

Homelessness – The problem with LHA freeze

A homeless hostel is emergency accommodation and people leave them to go to their own newly arranged accommodation.  This process is known as ‘move-on’ and those moved-on often go to private sector accommodation.  Yet private landlords who are often reluctant to accept such persons will now be more reluctant.  Obviously, this means spending more time at a hostel as the ‘move-on’ is harder to arrange.

That basic explanation hides the fact that if you can’t get people out (move-on) you can get people in (the roofless).  Hostels will become even more bed-blocked.

Staff members who work at hostels supporting homeless people are funded by Supporting People (SP) and this is in the form of a contract with the local council.  In return for the funding the local council expect ‘outcomes’ or targets.  Some councils have gone a stage further and linked SP funding to targets – payment by results or PBR.  Some contracts only pay 80% of total funding and the other 20% on attaining performance targets and these are usually throughput – ie a target number of how many successfully moved-on. So what is going to happen when SP providers can take fewer homeless persons in because of bed-blocking and have fewer ‘successful outcomes’ because the cant move-on existing residents?  They will lose funding and this may in turn threaten their survival.

So at a time when the need and demand for homeless hostels rises with the LHA freeze directly creating more homelessness, existing homeless hostels are threatened financially with closure due to councils and commissioners naive belief that PBR will work in such a dynamic environment as hostels.

Domestic Violence and Abuse Refuges

The exact same bed-blocking issue described above for homeless hostels applies in exactly the same way for refuges.  If you can’t get people in you can’t get people out and so will lead to many fleeing violence and abuse being refused entry as there is no space.  Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of Work and Pensions and self-described committed Christian, whose department made this change, will look leniently on allowing all refuges to build annexed stables to overcome this ‘no room at the inn’ inevitability.

Last week many reports came out citing that DV refuges had to turn away more and more women fleeing domestic violence and abuse.  That figure is going to rocket.

The same DV refuges will also be in receipt of SP funding and will probably have the same performance targets.  Yes, here we go again, DV refuges are now financially threatened just at the time we need more provision

What is less well known and less obvious to deduce is the fact that many DV refuges have many women without children residing there.  A quick telephone survey of some of the refuges I advise put this at about 30%.  Of these lone women about 70% of them are under 34 meaning they comprise about 1 in 5 of all refuge residents.  The relevance here is that the HB reform changes to the shared accommodation rate (SAR) mean that those 34 and under will only receive HB at the shared room rate.  This was introduced in January 2012 and refuge residents are not exempt from this yet perversely sex offenders are – see here and here for full details in my previous blogs.

What this means is that PBR or other forms of contractual performance measures will be harder to achieve also as will move-on be harder and take longer to arrange by support staff as private landlords will begin to increase not admitting benefit claimants.  Again refuges are threatened financially just at a time when more are likely to be needed.

I also blogged yesterday about a real sneaky change the same DWP are intending to apply to group homes and supported living services. The DWP are seeking to reduce HB spending by about £20 per week per person or £1000 per year in these schemes.  Group Homes or SLMs are small houses typically accommodating 3 – 10 persons who have learning difficulties, mental health or physical or sensory disabilities.

DWP has been defeated by the courts previously (Upper Tribunals) and while they have appealed against this they are determined to legislate to bring in this change.  The change means those residents in group homes / SLM will have to pay this £1000 or so per year personally out of savings or other benefits.  It amounts to a £1000 per year tax in simple terms.

Ignoring the outrage of this intended legislative change and even ignoring the outrageous 9 working day consultation period they gave, the practical issue is one of the cost and especially as this has been paid for by HB up until now.  Why should I pay £20 more per week when I have got this for nothing previously will be the refrain from these vulnerable residents.  This is especially likely given that residents in group homes and SLM have been told for the last few years that they have choice that they are in-control and other superficial nonsense that’s all part of the ‘Personalisation Agenda’ – which I maintain is a heap of theoretical nonsense that reduces choice and increases cost.  This proposed change amplifies that nonsense.

Undoubtedly many will be upset if not irate at this.  Many may want to move and many may refuse to pay this tax.  Given that these are ‘service charges’ and not rent payment such payments are difficult to enforce.  The support providers may well like not to enforce payment and suffer the debt yet if you are a charitable support provider  with say 20 group homes accommodating 120 people then it’s a £120k per annum loss.  That can’t happen for obvious reasons.

Support providers will have greater financial risk from this propose change and will seek to mitigate it – they have little choice.  This means services will be cut and/or costs of service go up and in overall terms a lesser quality of service is received by the vulnerable resident or tenant.

Group home providers will also have SP performance targets and maybe even care performance targets too.  Yet when you have disgruntled ‘customers’  it goes without saying that such targets are harder to achieve and if these are PBR targets then there is further financial risk for support and care providers.  That same truism applies with hostel and refuge residents who will need to stay in such provision longer thus creating difficulty for support staff to maintain current performance let alone increase it as these outcomes and performance targets seek.

In summary:

  • More homeless hostels will close
  • More homeless persons will be turned away from hostels
  • More Refuges will close and/or struggle financially
  • More Refuges will have to turn away more women and children fleeing violence
  • More group homes and supported living models will become less financial viable
  • Choice and supply of all forms of accommodation base supported housing will decrease
  • Achieving successful outcomes in all forms of supported housing becomes much more difficult
  • The vulnerable are being shafted yet again

Support providers need to challenge these latest cuts and changes. 

If they don’t they will not survive. 

Yet I know  – because 95% of my work caseload since SP was introduced in April 2003 has been challenging local authorities on their plans to reduce SP funding to small specialist providers or SSPs  – that there the mindset of “we can’t bite the hands that feeds us” pervades.  That has to change.  Some of the larger housing associations will challenge as they always do but that is a more equal power struggle, and of course larger HAs tend to have their own marketing departments unlike small specialist providers.

Many of these SSPs don’t realise how needed they are for the general good and for local authorities strategies.  They are very ‘strategically relevant’ and far more so than they imagine. Yet many are hamstrung or constrained in challenging because they are the managing agents of larger social landlords – they deliver support in properties leased to them by Has – who don’t want to ‘fall out’ with the local authority.

Challenge is not easy and always very sensitive to such considerations.

For those providers think on how local authorities use the term ‘challenge.’  It is they say one of the 4 ‘C’s of Best Value and they have to ‘challenge’ you as they are the ‘guardians of the public purse’ and other such comments you will have heard.  They are right of course but they can, and often do, take umbrage if you ‘challenge’ them.  That can’t be right can it, local authorities want their cake and eat it and cannot be allowed to act in this duplicitous way.

Easy for a consultant to say I hear you cry!  Yes it is on one level but it’s a very superficial level and I wouldn’t be a consultant very long if I ignored those concerns would I? It’s also a lot more difficult to challenge these days as many authorities don’t have SP teams as a separate identity and department but have subsumed them into ‘procurement teams’ or other such fancy titled departments.

Yet, that said, think back and ask yourself not why you got into this incredibly rewarding line of work, but why you have stayed there.  Lord knows it’s not the financial rewards, it’s the simple fact that you stay in this line of work because vulnerable people deserve better.  They need you to fight on their behalf and you remain in this line of work because your altruism is deep down and part of your make-up.  It’s that innate sense of doing what’s right that brings unbelievable levels of stress in these austere times, that brings little financial reward, but unbelievably high levels of job satisfaction that you can’t get in any other job. Being a support worker is a vocation not just a job.

This is why you have to challenge the chronic ignorance of central government policy and local government commissioning.  Whether that’s ignorance of what you do or just because you are a comparatively easy target compared to the larger providers.  Your residents are not ‘units’ as SP like to label them, they are people, real people and you are in the people business when you work in supported housing, whereas the other 95% in general needs housing deal with bricks and mortar.

The Housing Minister Grant Shapps would have us believe that living in a council house is a privilege. Working with and for vulnerable people is so much more of a privilege than that.  Yet it’s the same poor vulnerable sods that you get out of bed for each morning (or night) that will have no services if you don’t challenge the HB or SP cuts.  It also explains my moniker – Speye – keeping an eye on SP matters as I was once many years ago working on the same frontline and challenging the ignorance and fighting the cause of vulnerable people that the system shafts on a daily basis.  If you don’t challenge, don’t finally say enough is enough and don’t stand up and fight, then you don’t deserve to be called a support worker.

Go and work in Tesco….. It probably pays more anyway!

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