England’s supported housing sector is a “complete mess” that is failing communities at the expense of the taxpayer and making residents “victims of terrible crimes at the hands of staff”, according to a scathing select committee report.
Jessica Murray www.theguardian.com
The report found loopholes had turned the sector into “a licence to print money” for unscrupulous providers and that there has been “a complete breakdown of the system, which calls for immediate action from government”.
After a year-long investigation into “exempt accommodation”, a type of supported housing for vulnerable people with a broad range of needs, the cross-party levelling up, housing and communities (LUHC) committee called on the government to implement urgent reforms, including national standards and compulsory registration.
“We were absolutely shocked and appalled,” said the Sheffield MP Clive Betts, the chair of the LUHC committee. “As 11 MPs, we’re generally pretty experienced, we’ve been in public service a long time, and I think this was as bad as anything we’ve ever seen.”
The committee heard evidence residents were being “raped and sexually harassed by their landlords under threat of eviction” and “staff were assaulting residents and asking them for sexual acts in return for money, food or better accommodation”.
The report, published on Thursday, said residents had been forced to carry out work, such as tiling a bathroom, “for nothing or for a pittance”, and staff and landlords were selling drugs to residents.
There have also been instances of residents dying of drug overdoses or being murdered by fellow residents.
The Guardian recently reported that organised crime groups were taking millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money by buying properties and setting them up as supported accommodation to receive higher housing benefit rates but providing little to no support for the vulnerable tenants.
“We would describe the system of exempt accommodation as a complete mess,” the report states. “The current system offers a licence to print money to those who wish to exploit the system.”
Exempt accommodation, which is paid for through housing benefit, is set up to support people with a range of needs including refugees, care leavers, the formerly homeless, people with alcohol and drug addiction and those who have recently been released from prison.
It is exempt from locally set housing benefit caps to cover higher costs of maintenance and insurance.
The report criticised the government for failing to collect data on how many exempt accommodation claimants there were or how much taxpayer money was being spent on it, saying “successive governments have been caught sleeping”.
Crisis, a charity for people experiencing homelessness, estimates the number of households living in exempt accommodation grew to 156,868 from 2016-2021, a rise of 65%. A report from Prospect Housing estimated the annual cost in 2020-21 to be £816m, but the committee suggested it could be much higher.
“This issue has been ignored unacceptably. It’s happening all over the country,” said Betts. “We’re seeing people set their own rents, charge what they want and then provide nothing for it but bad accommodation.”
The report calls for urgent reforms, including national minimum standards for support and housing, extra powers for local councils, compulsory registration of all providers and the creation of a national oversight committee to mend “patchwork regulation”.
As part of their inquiry, committee members travelled to Birmingham, which has become a national hotspot for exempt accommodation. The number of claimants in the city rose to nearly 22,000 earlier this year.
The Birmingham MP Preet Gill, who campaigned to shut down a poor-quality exempt accommodation property in her constituency, said “the government needs to urgently get on with the job” of tackling the issue.
“For years I have been sounding the alarm about the explosion of the exempt accommodation sector in Birmingham, which has become a magnet for rogue operators, exploiting vulnerable residents and visiting misery on our area,” she said. “I am delighted the select committee has endorsed many of the reforms we have been campaigning for.”
Sharon Thompson, the Birmingham city council cabinet member for housing and homelessness, said the report reflected what the council “has been saying for a long time”.
“The government has finally woken up to the scale of the problem and, based on this report, they must now commit parliamentary time to bringing in new legislation,” she said.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “It is unacceptable that unscrupulous landlords are trying to profit at the expense of vulnerable people and we are bringing forward a package of measures to stop them in their tracks. This is backed by a £20m investment to drive up quality in the supported housing sector and protect the most vulnerable in society.”