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Policy Watch

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

NI: Homelessness and Social Housing Need | Covid-19 and Housing Pressures | Protecting Rough Sleepers and Challenging NRPF | Scrutiny of Home Office Asylum Accommodation

Right to a Home  |  Tue Apr 20 2021

NI: Homelessness and Social Housing Need

Department for Communities figures revealed that the number of young people placed in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation in 2020 was 1,481 -- over four and a half times greater than in 2019, when the figure was 320. Requests for Housing Executive temporary accommodation more than doubled, from 3,500 to 7,500. These were believed to be people unable to make the deposits and monthly payments required to rent privately, many of whom would have been living with family or friends until lockdown pressures made those arrangements untenable.

In response to analysis published in the Belfast Telegraph showing that at the current rate of new social housing growth, it will take 20 years to clear the waiting list, Communites Minister Deirdre Hargey told the NI Assembly "we need to get the Housing Executive to build again… We are bringing forward some work on the house sales scheme, because I recognise that, on average, we build 1,800 homes a year and that nearly 500 of them are being sold off through the house sales scheme. We need to fundamentally deal with that in order to prevent depletion of the social housing stock." She also said "whilst we can be more ambitious with the housing development programme, 1,800 homes a year is not enough, and we need to have better ways of developing. Land is an issue, and we are looking at the land and supply strategy as well. We are trying to work with councils on that".

Covid-19 and Housing Pressures

As the government moved to freeze the amount of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) benefit paid to private sector tenants regardless of rent rises in many areas, press reports revealed that between April and November 2020 Conservative MPs claimed almost £3m in housing rent on taxpayer-funded expenses. Many of them also earned income by renting out other residential properties as landlords.

Protecting Rough Sleepers and Challenging NRPF

The high court has ruled that local councils in England can provide emergency housing during the pandemic to homeless people with no recourse to public funds. However it is unclear how long the emergency measures dictating that local authorities can house people who are not usually entitled to support will be in force. Charities warn that with the eviction ban ending in May, the numbers needing housed will rise sharply.

The Home Office's own equality impact assessment of its policy to deport foreign nationals found sleeping rough found that it potentially discriminates on the grounds of race and against groups like survivors of domestic violence, and may disproportionately impact others, like disabled people. Critics say the policy flies in the face of the government's domestic abuse bill and other nominally protective measures. The policy has yet to be implemented in the absence of guidance to staff on how to carry it out.

Scrutiny of Home Office Asylum Accommodation

The House of Commons all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on immigration detention has opened an inquiry into the Home Office's use of military barracks as 'quasi detention' sites for asylum seekers. The findings will be made public before the summer and will inform parliamentary discussions about proposed changes to Home Office policy and practice towards asylum seekers and refugees.

The issue of use of military barracks for asylum seekers is also before the High Court. Public Health England had raised concerns with the Home Office about the use of dormitory accommodation for asylum seekers during the pandemic, and a Home Office representative told the court that Home Secretary Priti Patel had "always accepted and acknowledged that transmission risk is higher in congregate settings of this sort". Counsel for some of the plaintiffs said the Home Office had placed them at "exceptionally high risk".

Press reports emerged that asylum seekers are being placed in areas where they are at risk of far right attack over the advice of local councils. The Home Office's Operation Oak -- to accelerate moving 9,000 asylum seekers from pandemic accommodation in hotels to longer-term accommodation -- began in February. Local councils in Yorkshire and the West Midlands reportedly expressed concerns about the viability of certain areas, but these were ignored by Home Office contractors such as Mears Group (which is also responsible for asylum accommodation in Northern Ireland). Councils that voluntarily house asylum seekers – known as “dispersal areas” – have withdrawn from doing so on the grounds that ministers are failing to “meaningfully engage” with them before placing people in their areas.

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