Jocelyn Davies says the Housing Bill is a far cry from radical reform.
I have been an outspoken critic of the Welsh Government’s Housing Bill since I first had a chance to read it and see its lack of vision and failure to achieve the radical reform that had initially been promised.
This week on Click on Wales
This week Assembly Members will debate the Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Bill, which has reached stage three in the legislative process. Although the Bill has been welcomed by many across the sector – with some calling it ‘extremely progressive’ – there are others who rue it as a ‘missed opportunity’. As the debate continues in the Senedd we are pleased to present a series of blogs from a leading academic, a former Housing Minister and a prominent Welsh housing and homelessness charity.
Yesterday: Dr Peter Mackie assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Housing Bill.
Tomorrow: Jocelyn Davies gives her perspective as a Former Housing Minister now in opposition.
Thursday: Shelter Cymru give their view on the role of the Housing (Wales) Bill in tackling homelessness in Wales.
Certainly, there are some measures contained in the Bill that are to be welcomed. Whilst I was initially unconvinced, I have come to see the mandatory registration and licensing of landlords and letting agents as a positive move towards professionalising the private rental sector. As the number of people living in rented accommodation increases, we need to tackle the bad behaviour and poor conditions found in a sizable minority of the sector.
I worry that the registration standards set by the Bill are not high enough. Rather than improving the quality of properties in the private rental sector, the Bill enforces the current basic, minimum legal standards. We should be aiming higher than properties that do not pose an immediate health and safety risk. I am pushing to amend the Bill to ensure that licenses are only granted to landlords and letting agents whose properties are of a decent standard. Housing has a significant impact on health and wellbeing and the Housing Bill is an unparalleled opportunity for the Welsh Government to act. It would be a great shame for them to squander it.
The provisions to tackle homelessness in the Bill are a step in the right direction, but I remain disappointed not to see the end of the intentionality test. At Stage 2, the Government amended the Bill to reframe it so that the intentionality test only applies in circumstances outlined by the Welsh Government or a local housing authority. While this is an improvement to the Bill as initially introduced, it still falls short of the Government’s earlier aspiration to abolish the test. I have tabled an amendment at Stage 3 to add a deadline of 2019 for intentionality to be completely disregarded. I want to see the Government make a concrete commitment to following through on removing intentionality entirely.
I am also concerned about the way the Bill enables local housing authorities to discharge their homelessness duty in the private rental sector. The short tenancies and sometimes poor conditions of privately rented accommodation often make it unsuitable for those who have experienced homelessness and remain vulnerable. Currently, the Bill asks for housing authorities to only secure six month tenancies. This could leave previously homeless people struggling to cope with anxiety about the threat of rent rises and eviction. Tenancies should be for at least twelve months to enable tenants to feel able to put down roots and create a permanent, stable home for themselves. This is currently the position in England and I am frustrated by the Welsh Government’s refusal to move on this point.
I understand the Government’s intention in placing a test for vulnerability on the face of the Housing Bill. It is an attempt to ensure that there is consistency in how those facing homelessness are assessed and treated across the country. In some ways this is to be welcomed. I want to see a consistent approach to tacking homelessness through early intervention. However, the test for vulnerability they have chosen, known as the Pereira Test, is a misguided choice. The test defines vulnerability as someone who would be less likely to fend for themselves and suffer more harm than ‘an ordinary homeless person’. This test is outdated.
Since its first appearance in a court decision in 1998, the Pereira Test has caused a great deal of confusion and distress. In decision after decision, those who, by any reasonable common sense criteria, would be considered vulnerable have been found not to have priority need for housing. Take the case of Mr Kata who despite having been diagnosed with AIDs, was found not to be vulnerable and so not in priority need for housing under the Pereira Test. This was upheld at appeal. In another case, a man who suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and had a learning disability was initially found to be vulnerable but denied housing because it was assumed that his brother would be available to provide support if he became homeless which would prevent him being more vulnerable than the ‘ordinary homeless person’.
I find it astonishing that the Welsh Government would want to enshrine guidance that has led to decisions like these on the face of a Bill that was intended to be progressive. I fear that it is likely that the Pereira Test will be poorly applied and that we will see numerous cases that rival the heartlessness of these examples in Wales. Particularly as the Government has resisted any attempts to provide accredited training for frontline staff who will be applying the test.
As the Housing Bill makes its passage through the Assembly, I will continue to speak out because I believe the Welsh Government can do better. This Bill can be improved so that it truly acts as a progressive piece of legislation that will make a substantive impact on housing and homelessness in Wales. As it stands, it remains a missed opportunity.