Is it right and is it possible to ban tenants from smoking in social housing accommodation?

I hate smoking. Always have.  Back in the late 1980s I was regarded as being completely unreasonable if I asked that just one colleague smoked at a time in a staff meeting held in a small room.  It was about individual freedom of choice, I was told, although no consideration was given to my freedom to choose not to work in a smoke-filled environment.

How things have changed.

However, the proposal from Professor John Middleton from the Faculty of Public Health, who has said that tenants moving into social housing should have a no smoking clause in their tenancy agreement. His intentions are very worthy – to protect children from second-hand smoke.

There will, inevitably, be the freedom of choice argument against Prof. Middleton’s proposal. There is also the legality.  Without primary legislation, I cannot see how such a clause in a tenancy agreement can be enforced.  Smoking might be disgusting, it might be anti-social, it might har, the smoker and those around them, it might be inconsiderate.  But it is not illegal to smoke …. Unfortunately.  Policing what a tenant does, beyond the legal terms of the tenancy agreement and the law, is not the role of landlords.

But good on Prof, Middleton for raising the debate.

Inbox for the new housing minister

Here is an open letter to the next Housing Minister who will take up this most challenging of portfolios after the election.

Dear Minister

Congratulations on your appointment by the Prime Minister.  You will know what a major crisis we are facing in housing, and you will have many competing demands, most coming from loud and powerful voices.  Please may I make a plea that you consider the uncertain future of residents, current and future, of the country’s specialist supported housing schemes?  They are not the loud or the powerful, but how we as a country treat such people is a sign of what kind of society we have.

Previously it was announced that the charges for specialist supported housing would be capped at the level of Local Housing Allowance.  A senior civil servant has said that the reason for using LHA is that it I “already there” and that it “doesn’t cost the government anything to set up”.  He said it wasn’t a great reason but it was the best he had.

LHA was established, originally at the 50the centile for rents paid in the private sector, later reduced to the 30th centile.  LHA rates were subsequently frozen and in areas like Brighton and Hove they probably equate to less than the 10th centile.  For example, the average one bed flat in the city is £971 per month, LHA is £612.08.

Putting aside the fact that the private rented sector is increasingly unaffordable, and the chances of securing social housing is disappearing over the horizon, LHA is a singularly unsuitable tool for setting charges in specialist supported housing.

This is not just my view but one shared by two cross-party committees which have called for these plans to be scrapped.

I believe it is almost unprecedented for the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee to publish a joint report such as this, illustrating how wrong this judgement by the Department for Work and Pensions is.  The Committees have said a “supported housing allowance” should be used instead of the LHA.

In 2011 I wrote an item on my blog in which I warned that the number of rough sleepers, then 37 in Brighton and Hove, would massively increase in the next few years because of a combination of factors. We now have between 140 and 150 in spite of excellent joint working between the City Council and very many third sector organisations.

Should the LHA cap be imposed on specialist supported housing, this number will inevitably increase.

The DWP is consulting on protections for such services, but these will inevitably be bureaucratic and expensive to operate.  A simple supported housing allowance could resolve the matter or, better still, scrap the proposal altogether and provide some reassurance and stability to the most vulnerable in our society who most need reassurance and stability.

Yours sincerely

Andy Winter

Real Life Stories: How First Base Day Centre helped Joe off the streets

Many of the people we are seeing are new to rough sleeping, like Joe who was helped by First Base Day Centre.  This is his story:

“When Joe first came into our service, he had never before been in the position of rough sleeping.  He was 45 years of age, had worked fairly consistently and always had friends or partners he could rely on if work dried up and he found himself in between jobs.  The recession had meant that he had faced a longer period of not working, his relationship had succumbed to stress and he found himself sleeping on the beach.

“Joe had made a claim for Job Seekers Allowance, but had not received a payment after several weeks.  He had eaten nothing for two days and was embarrassed, he said that he had not washed or changed his clothes for a week.  We made sure that Joe had a hot meal, a change of clothes and was able to use the shower at First Base.

“Joe was assigned a caseworker who met with Joe every day for the following week and it became clear that he was feeling overwhelmed by his difficulties, ashamed and hopeless about his future.   He said that he had visited a railway bridge on several nights in the previous month and had considered throwing himself under a passing train.  Joe disclosed the difficulties that he experienced throughout his life and that these experiences were re-visiting him on a nightly basis and tormenting him.

“Joe’s caseworker referred him to the Mental Health Team, a multi-agency team providing mental healthservices for homeless people, contacted his GP and made Joe an emergency appointment.  The Doctor was sympathetic and offered medication and follow-up visits.

“It was obvious that Joe was in no position to be actively seeking work and he needed a new claim for a sickness related benefit.   Joe was very anxious and physically shaking while he spoke with the Department for Work and Pensions on the phone so his caseworker supported him with the call.  It was a further two weeks and many phone calls later that Joe received any benefit payment.

“Joe met with the Mental Health Team at First Base and they agreed to offer some on-going support, seeing Joe fortnightly, alongside regular contact with his GP and daily support from his caseworker.

“With the support of his caseworker, Joe arranged an appointment with a BHT housing adviser who suggested that he make a homeless application.  His application was rejected due to lack of medical information supporting his case.  As Joe did not have a local connection to Brighton and Hove it was not possible for him to be referred into one of the City’s hostels, so we began to explore the possibility of privately rented housing with support from another BHT project, Firm Foundations.

“Throughout this time, Joe was continuing to sleep on the beach and his mental and emotional state would fluctuate greatly on a daily basis.  Joe made very good use of services at First Base, including volunteering and on good days was able to plan the direction of casework himself.

“Over time, we collected letters from his GP and from mental health specialists involved in his care and re-submitted his homeless application.   With the additional evidence gathered Brighton and Hove City Council accepted Joe’s application for housing.

“Joe is now living in BHT supported accommodation for people experiencing mental health difficulties.  He has key work support from this project alongside specialist mental health support for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He is engaging with alcohol support services and still calls in periodically to let us know how things are for him.”

First Base operates in the centre of Brighton and is the main centre for the provision of support to assist people who are homeless or vulnerably housed in Brighton and Hove to move on from the streets or insecure accommodation and realise their aspirations.  First Base operates client-centred specialist services to support people who are sleeping rough in the city to get off the streets, start realising their aspirations through work, learning and leisure and find a place they can call home. Several services run from First Base including a Healthy Lifestyles Project (comprising the Catering Training Project and Fitness 4 All), PASH (Promotional and Awareness of Sexual Health), First Impressions (CV and Employment Service), Culture (Heritage and Cultural Activities), and Dine, our catering Social Enterprise company.  

The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

Modern Slavery: A hidden crime

(I was sent the following which is such an important issue, not least for homeless and vulnerable people.  Please read it.  All credit for the content must go to Unseen and the Modern Slavery Helpline.)

The “chains” of modern slavery are often invisible. The threats, lies, and mentally abusive techniques used by exploiters make it impossible for victims to leave. Victims may not self-identify. We may encounter them in our daily lives and not realise it. Traffickers often transport the victims to disorient them and to avoid detection.

The UK-wide Modern Slavery Helpline and Resource Centre is a key tool in the UK’s fight against this terrible crime. The Helpline is confidential and operates 24/7, 365 days a year, taking calls from potential victims, members of the public, statutory agencies and businesses. The Helpline is staffed by fully trained specialists who can provide information, advice and guidance on any aspect of modern slavery. The Helpline works with statutory agencies and non-governmental agencies to help safeguard and protect vulnerable women, men and children who are exploited at the hands of others. Through the resource centre, we also work with other agencies and organisations to better understand the nature and scale of modern slavery in the UK.

Since October 2016, the Helpline has taken over 800 calls and made more than 150 police referrals and 30 safeguarding referrals. The Helpline is a central point of contact for anyone wanting to access support, including government-funded support through the National Referral Mechanism.

The following is a list of possible indicators that may indicate a modern slavery situation. The indicators may not be present in all modern slavery cases and are not cumulative. There may be several indicators that suggest that someone may be a victim of modern slavery. These include physical appearance, isolation, poor living conditions, few or no personal effects, restricted freedom of movement, unusual travel times, or they may be reluctant to seek help. More information is provided below.

The individual(s) in question:

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is transported to and from work
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behaviour:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behaviour particularly towards the authorities
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Poor physical health
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control:

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

Other:

  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

If you think you have come into contact with a potential victim, call the Modern Slavery Helpline for information, guidance and support on 08000 121 700.

Will we have the fifteenth housing minister since 1997 by the end of June?

In July last year I wrote that we now have our fourteenth housing minister since 1997 and concluded that none had got the job done.  I was hoping that Gavin Barwell would be different and I have to say he did make some progress, albeit small.

With the calling of a general election for June, the chances of a fifteenth housing minister is increased.  Mr Barwell is defending a majority of 165 votes and the seat is 47th on Labour’s target list.

Far be for me to make a prediction regarding the overall election results, or the result in his Croydon Central constituency, but whatever the result, Mr. Barwell is unlikely to be the housing minister in seven weeks time. He will either lose his seat, be moved to another job if his party forms the next government, or he will be in opposition.

Discuss.

Actually please don’t!

All I will say is that housing is the issue that impacts more profoundly on the lives of so many people and I hope it takes centre stage in the election. Unless the housing crisis is tackled soon, it will remain with us for generations, long after the changes in our trading arrangements with Europe have been forgotten!

You might wish to discuss that!

What I want to see in the parties’ manifestos

The political parties are yet to publish their manifestos for the June general election. I have three simple requests to all parties for policies to be included in those manifestos:

  1. Make a commitment to building council houses, in massive numbers, as an investment for current and future generations. Abolish the Right to Buy so that these homes remain in public ownership in order that they continue, in perpetuity, to meet housing need, and not investment opportunities.
  2. Make an unequivocal commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of the 2017-2022 parliament. In a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom, it is an outrage that people are living on the streets, and their presence should shame those in a position to end rough sleeping.
  3. Put an end to benefit cuts. More than half of all voters think that benefit cuts have gone too far, according to an Ipsos Mori poll published on Thursday. Denying 18 to 21 year olds the right to claim benefit support to help towards their rents will drive young people into homelessness, into crime, and into sex work. What politician wants that as part of their legacy?