This Tuesday, North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) will be taking action against Haringey council, who have been denying migrant families basic housing support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Section 17 is the bottom rung of housing that councils ought to provide, and is intended to prevent children from literally sleeping on the streets. The two groups of people housed under this law are migrant families who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (and therefore no access to mainstream housing support), and families who have been deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ by a council (this could be because they fell into rent arrears, or potentially because they refused one of Newham’s many ‘offers’ to move to Birmingham).
NELMA are taking action to highlight how Haringey council have been denying help to families who are eligible for this support (leaving at least one family street homeless), whilst also threatening to separate children from their parents. As Section 17 support is accessed through social services, these threats are very real, with recent research by Inside Housing finding that a third of councils have separated children from their parents at least once in the last year, citing families’ homelessness as the main reason for doing so. What’s more, even if they manage to obtain housing under Section 17, the accommodation is poor quality, with another report finding that half the accommodation was in B&Bs and that families regularly had inadequate access to cooking, heating and washing facilities.
As part of Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, we investigated this little-known area of housing policy further through sending Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 32 London councils. Alongside uncovering the massive profits being made by private landlords through Section 17 accommodation, we also found that councils have little recorded information on this form of housing, with 13 out of the 26 councils who responded not holding such basic information as how many families they housed under Section 17 this year. This makes it hard to understand fully what councils are doing, and makes the figures for London outlined here likely to be around half of the true scale of the issue.
The FOI requests showed at least 1,100 families were living in Section 17 accommodation this year – almost 100 families per London borough. These families are stuck in this poor quality housing for an average of 21 months, and in the case of one Islington family, for six and a half years. This means that for years, families can be living in just a single room that shares kitchens and bathrooms with other families. These long stays are normally a result of protracted immigration application processes, which often grant families access to public funds in the end anyway.
The data obtained through FOIs also suggest that Section 17 is used as a tool for social cleansing. Of the 670 families whose destinations councils declared, nearly half (45%) were housed outside of their home borough. In total, almost 1 in 5 (18%) were housed outside of London entirely. Last year, Lewisham housed 16 families needing Section 17 support outside of London, with 14 of those being sent to the West Midlands. Bexley went even further and sent over half the families it supported through Section 17 to Greater Manchester. The fact that so many families are sent hours, if not hundreds of miles, from their support network is an additional punishment to the inadequacy of Section 17 housing.
In the case of Brent, the council-administered social cleansing enacted through Section 17 appeared to be racist. 96% of families who required Section 17 support because they were found ‘intentionally homeless’ (having the right to access public funds and therefore less likely to be recent migrants) were housed in London, and the other three families were housed within 35 miles of central London. However, over a quarter of the families who needed Section 17 support because they had no access to public funds – by definition, migrant families – were housed either in the West Midlands or Yorkshire. This seems at best a lack of concern for the importance of these migrants’ communities and support networks, and at worst an attempt to cleanse London of poor migrants.
Considering the length of time people are kept in this poor quality housing, often in cheaper areas of the UK, such implementations of Section 17 may appear to be a product of austerity – councils’ attempts to save money in the face of cuts to their funding. However, this is not the case – the FOIs showed that the costs of Section 17 housing are extremely high, even compared with London prices. The average cost of Section 17 housing is £45 a night (£1350 a month), which when considering this is often for a single room shows just how much private landlords are profiting from this accommodation. Costs can, however, be even higher, with Lewisham council paying an average of almost £80 a night, and some councils paying hundreds of pounds a night at times. This works out at an average of £28,000 a year spent housing each family in poor conditions, with London councils in total spending around £160 million a year. Even the average rates of housing under Section 17 are well above what housing benefit is for one or even two bedroom self-contained flats, and demonstrates how a hyper-exploitative niche of the private housing market is profiting from families living in the worst housing situations.
Everyone should have access to decent accommodation, and the housing provided under Section 17 is grossly inadequate. The costs are higher and conditions worse than in mainstream private renting, with these conditions being a punishment for either not understanding or legally challenging the housing office, or for daring to apply to stay in this country with your children.
North East London Migrant Action support and fight for families trying to access Section 17 support. More information about their action on 13 December can be found here.