Fighting to reform the exempt system has been battling, but the Bill may be the win we want
A lot can happen in a year.
A webinar series, an open letter to the Government, an All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting, a Westminster Hall debate, publication of the pilot reports, a Select Committee inquiry, more than a hundred pieces of written evidence, three sessions of oral evidence, a Ministerial Statement, a Policy Advisory Group, a handful of Homelessness Ministers, two Housing Secretaries, one returning Housing Secretary, and a couple of Prime Ministers for good measure, reams of media coverage, petitions, a Panorama documentary, the release of the Select Committee report, and now finally, the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill.
It’s fair to say it has been a busy 12 or so months for those of us following the goings on in the exempt accommodation sector – which I have been since I arrived at Commonweal a year and a half ago. Last week, the details of the Supported Housing Bill were published, and on Friday the Bill passed its second reading in the Commons.
Bob Blackman’s Private Members Bill marks a little over three years since the emerging injustices in the exempt accommodation sector caught Commonweal’s eye and consequently commissioned research by Thea Raisbeck, Spring Housing Association, and the University of Birmingham into exempt accommodation.
The now landmark report ‘Exempt from Responsibility?’ revealed a series of ‘accountability deficits’ in the sector, and for the first time demonstrated the scale of the problem. It showed that tens of thousands of vulnerable people across the country were being exploited by landlords, underpinned by a system sorely lacking in regulation and oversight, and were left without the much-needed support that was, or should have been, a condition on which they were housed.
Following the initial buzz around the report and a patient attempt by Commonweal and others to push for reforms, a lull begun to emerge. The Government committed to five pilot projects and demonstrated a willingness to engage on efforts to reform, or at least improve, the sector. But for us and many others, particularly those who had lived experience of this form of supported housing, it felt that the action failed to meet the urgency of the injustice.
Fast forward two years, and we felt it necessary to steer ours, and the sector’s attention once again back towards the issue. Reports from Inside Housing showed why this was necessary: in Birmingham alone – the oft-described epicentre of exempt accommodation – the number of claimants had doubled since the publication of the Exempt from Responsibility? report. Landlords, having wised up to the lack of regulation, were seeing an opportunity and unless organisations across the sector begun to unite in their efforts for reform and regulation, those on the exploitative end of the spectrum would continue to “make hay while the sun shines”, to lend an often used quote from Commonweal’s Chief Executive.
While a small charity, we pride ourselves on our independent voice and our willingness to speak up on the issues that may otherwise go unheard. As such, we wanted to use our position to call on those with the power – from providers to policy-makers and all in between – to move forward with the changes the sector desperately needed.
To form this charge, we had to first raise attention. We decided that a five-part webinar series hosted by Commonweal, but with the reigns of the knowledge and instruction handed over to the experts, was most appropriate. Speaking at our event, we had a host of voices, including senior civil servants, the Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), housing providers, the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH), writers, local authority housing officers, and someone with lived experience; and able therefore, to offer the full scope of perspectives. The series garnered hundreds of highly engaged viewers as well as hundreds more visiting our website to catch up.
Over the course of the next six months we met stakeholders of varying size, stature and space in the sector, helping to better inform our own understanding of the diverse injustices involved in exempt accommodation. But so too did it give us different perspectives and considerations we would perhaps not otherwise considered, building a more complete picture and enabling us to push for the right reforms in the right places.
Meanwhile, Commonweal joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending Homelessness session, helping to investigate ways parliamentarians and Government can fix the issues within the exempt accommodation sector.
With cases of landlords gaming the system seemingly growing, and political action stagnant, we, alongside others in the sector, called on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) Committee to launch an inquiry into the sector, and bring reform up the political agenda. In December 2021, Clive Betts, Chair of the LUHC Committee, formally announced the Committee’s inquiry: a major development in the campaign efforts of so many up and down the country.
Meanwhile, Birmingham Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood secured a Westminster Hall debate where she criticised the Government’s lack of intervention along with numerous other Birmingham MPs. The session came years after Mahmood began pushing the Government to improve regulation within the sector and the high number of exempt units in the city.
While parliamentary progress was churning on, there was little noise from the Government. However, the sector united in trying to change that. Commonweal, in unison with the Local Government Association, penned a joint open letter to the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Work and Pensions, recognisant of the need for cross-departmental collaboration. With the support from more than 80 leading organisations and individuals across the housing sector and local government, the letter called on both departments to enact urgent reform. In response, the Government stated its commitment to “working in partnership with stakeholders to make sure we get this right”.
With the Government seemingly recognising the problems facing the sector, Eddie Hughes, the former Rough Sleeping Minister, followed up with a range of intentions encompassing key points Commonweal and the wider sector had been advocating. Increased powers for local authorities, a minimum standard across exempt accommodation, and revising the definition of support required were all covered in the Ministerial Statement.
Coupled with this, Hughes announced £20 million of funding for the Government’s ‘Supported Housing Programme’ – a three-year strategy aimed at helping local councils better manage their supported housing market and drive out exploitative landlords.
This programme builds upon the supported housing oversight pilots the former Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) ran between 2020-21 across Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bristol, and Hull. By testing ways to improve quality and oversight in the sector, the pilots demonstrated a point that Commonweal had been stressing: funding local authorities to deliver tailored approaches to ensure greater scrutiny over providers can help minimise exploitation within their communities.
And we were able to stress this point as well as all of our learnings from the wide-ranging stakeholder engagement we undertook, as we submitted our written evidence to the LUHC Committee.
Through our submission, we outlined the key concerns that Commonweal and many others across the sector held around the exempt accommodation system.
We ultimately called on the Government to:
- Support, enable and fund councils to review their local situation, including where appropriate the development of an Exempt Accommodation Strategy so that local authorities can be actively engaged in oversight of this sector.
- Introduce a local authority-managed accreditation system to ensure providers meet the necessary standards of housing quality, support and governance.
- Ensure that there are specific housing and support quality standards relating to exempt accommodation.
- Complete a comprehensive review and revision of the definition of “more than minimal care, support and supervision” that is a key condition of providing exempt accommodation as set out by the DWP.
- And ultimately deliver a greater volume of good quality social housing and appropriately fund local authorities to commission support services based on the needs of the local community.
A few months later, and we were invited to give oral evidence to the Committee alongside representatives from Crisis, Women’s Aid and the Chartered Institute of Housing.
Watch Ashley Horsey, Chief Executive at Commonweal, give evidence to the LUHC Committee.
After 106 pieces of written submissions, three oral evidence sessions, and the Committee’s trip to Birmingham, Clive Betts dubbed the system a “complete mess”. The recent LUHC Committee report into exempt accommodation echoed many of the concerns that Commonweal had raised throughout our evidence submissions. So too did the report recommend the majority of our suggestions to Government that we have campaigned for over the last year. These include implementing local authority strategies, an accreditation scheme, the compulsory registration of providers, and national minimum standards across exempt accommodation.
In the meantime, our independent, (sometimes) vociferous voice was heard by Government, as we were invited by the Minister to join the Policy Advisory Panel into exempt accommodation. Working alongside the Minister and stakeholders across the sector, we continued to provide scrutiny and support in the policy development process.
And then finally, the breakthrough the sector had been waiting for. Last week saw the long-awaited publication and then second reading of Bob Blackman’s Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill. The Bill – intended not to draw out the exact minutiae of how new rules and regulations would be implemented but rather enable Government, regulators and local authorities the power to act when and where necessary – passed through without opposition; a sure and hopeful sign of things to come.
This issue, as we have long-argued, is cross-party and cross-departmental. To solve it will require all stakeholders to be at the table.
Now we sit and wait as the Bill goes through the scrutinous committee stage. And while we wait, we want to reflect. This blog outlines some of the work Commonweal has done or been involved in over the past year or two. But this somewhat pales in comparison to work that individuals and organisations across the country have been doing.
Local politicians like Birmingham’s Councillor Sharon Thompson, who has been an ever-present campaigner for a better sector and a champion of solutions. Activists and organisations such as Crisis who have dedicated such time and effort into raising awareness. Researchers like Thea Raisbeck whose work has set the framework for reform. Providers who have been delivering the quality of care and accommodation that should be demanded across the board. Journalists, like those at Inside Housing and Birmingham Live, whose coverage has made this issue matter.
For myself, it has been an incredible if not slightly depressing experience. Delving deeper into this issue brought with it layer after layer of injustice; harrowing stories that should not ever have happened, and must not happen in the future. But so too have I worked alongside so many vital and hardworking people, many but far from all, I have listed above. All of them I thank.
Exempt accommodation is, by all intents and purposes, a necessary system. It is for many, the last foundation they can rely on. It is painful, therefore, to see a system that rather than support those most in need, has used them, throwing away any vestige of care for the wilful opportunism of an easy buck.
This element of the system must now belong in the past. And it looks now as if it will. But the lessons must be learned: people must be at the forefront of policy-making; the sad reality being is that without proper rules and robust regulations, there will always be those willing to monetise misery. The Bill must change this, and we hope it does.
It has been a tough race to run for everyone involved. But change finally feels afoot. For us, it feels like the baton has been formally passed on, but needless to say, Commonweal will continue to work with all involved in the exempt accommodation sector to end the exploitation and profiteering, and ensure that this system works for the people it was designed for.