Southwark reckons its gatekeeping isn’t illegal

Southwark Council have kindly pointed out a recent judicial review of the way in which Birmingham City Council treats homelessness applicants.

 

Although Birmingham’s practices were clearly nasty and evasive – especially given that homelessness applicants are some of the most vulnerable people – the High Court didn’t find that there was a ‘systematic’ failure or breach of the law.

 

The High Court looked at the way in which Birmingham had treated the four applicants who had brought the claim. Some of it is eerily familiar to HASL.

  • It was said to be “beset by individual errors”.
  • The council’s record-keeping system meant that the absence of any record that someone has made a homelessness application did not mean that they hadn’t tried to.
  • The council had used the wrong test in refusing to accept one of the homelessness applications.
  • Council staff “may not have fully understood the procedures” and – wrongly – asked applicants whether they were ‘homeless that day’.
  • When one woman was turned away and told to come back the following day the council had not made an appointment for her.
  • A homelessness officer dealing with a pregnant mother “neither asked nor considered whether [the applicant] wanted interim accommodation at any time prior to the appointment [which was four weeks later]; nor is there any evidence that he made clear to Ms Edwards that, if she wanted interim accommodation at any time before the appointment, she should attend the HAC to get it”.
  • Birmingham had given one applicant an appointment at an office “that had not taken homelessness applications since October 2014” and, when the office sent him away, recorded him as a ‘no-show’.
  • One of the council’s departments withdrew an offer of accommodation, which a different department then treated as a ‘refusal’ by the applicant.

 

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However, Birmingham had eventually managed to deal with all of the claimants before the case got to the High Court, and the judge found that the council had complied with the law.

 

There were no statistics that suggested homelessness applicants were being turned away. Of course, it’s impossible to compile such statistics. Councils obviously don’t keep records of applicants they’ve failed to deal with, which means that they convincingly deny gatekeeping practices (even though, of 180,000 inquiries at Birmingham’s housing advice centres, the council only accepted around 5000 homelessness applications).

 

HASL has lived experience of gatekeeping. Virtually everyone we meet at Bournemouth Road faces high hurdles when trying to make an application. Our lives, our experiences, and our continuing desperate housing situations weigh heavily against the council’s lack of statistics.

 

Southwark claims it has liaised with Birmingham and that its policies comply with the judgment. First of all, ‘woeful but not illegal’ is hardly an impressive claim. Secondly, no one can say for sure whether Southwark’s policies are unlawful until they’ve been examined by the court. The last time that the High Court looked at Southwark’s gatekeeping it showed the council to be an absolute disgrace.

 

HASL continues to call on Southwark Council to acknowledge that it routinely treats homelessness applicants with disrespect and disbelief, throws up obstacles to making an application, and creates a culture of abuse and fear.

 

Southwark must strive to improve instead of pointing to Birmingham’s dreadful behaviour and saying “look, it’s not unlawful”.

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