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Category Archives: Social policy

Coronavirus crisis: just the time for an experiment in deregulating child safeguarding

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Everyone agrees: the coronavirus lockdown is putting particular pressure on vulnerable children. They are more at risk of violence and abuse when confined to their own homes and less able to seek help. Only 5% of them are believed to be at school, where they have a right to go despite the lockdown.

So the Government will have put much thought into helping under-pressure local authorities and their social workers to have the emergency legal backing to perform their child safeguarding duties in these particularly challenging circumstances, right?

Wrong. In fact what has most exercised the Department for Education is launching an experiment to reduce or remove certain statutory local authority child safeguarding duties – using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse. Hence the  Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 – a piece of secondary legislation published by the Government on 23 April in a Parliament of MPs scattered around a country on lockdown and passed into law the morning after.

The worry is that the Government has used coronavirus as a stalking horse for an experiment in what it has already been trying to do for some years despite Parliament’s opposition – producing a less regulated system of child safeguarding. The fear is that emergency legislation is actually crafted as a response to a longstanding Conservative bugbear – that councils should be relieved of safeguarding obligations – rather than a response to the Covid-19 emergency. Read the rest of this entry

‘Inaccurate and misleading’: Judge rejects Legal Aid Agency’s attack on eviction advice service

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A High Court judge has delivered a devastating crtitique of the UK Legal Aid Agency over its moves to change the way people facing eviction or repossession of their homes receive legal help. A crucial part of his argument for the change was based on a claim that was “both inaccurate and misleading” – or, as will be seen (and thankfully this blogpost can be less circumspect in its language), what is commonly known as “untrue”. The LAA had claimed two lawyers organisations backed the changes. In fact they had not been asked for their view.

The arguments of the Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency used to justify the change were “based on assumption or conjecture or, at most, ‘anecdotal’ evidence from a handful of un-named providers [of the legal services]”, said Mrs Justice Andrews, hearing a judicial review application brought by the Law Centres Network (pdf) in the High Court.

The matter at issue was the Housing Possession Court Duty (HPCD) schemes that seek to ensure on-the-day legal advice and representation for people in court facing repossession and eviction. They are largely funded by legal aid to the tune of £3.6m a year – 0.2% of the legal aid total – and in many cases not-for-profit organisations, including local law centres, have the contracts to do the work.

Around 2014 the Legal Aid Agency suggested the schemes should be subject to price competition for the first time and re-tendered in a more consolidated form – ie a reduced number of schemes covering wider areas rather than focused on local courts. (At around this time there were were 117 HPCD schemes covering 167 courts; this was to be reduced to less than 50).

The argument was that some providers had withdrawn from offering schemes for economic reasons and  the change would promote “sustainability” (that weasel word meaning anything and nothing). But Andrews found no evidence for either contention. Read the rest of this entry

Citiscape: Tribunal says leaseholders must pay for cladding

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The property tribunal considering who should pay for possibly unsafe cladding on a pair of London tower blocks, Citiscape, has delivered a blow to the leaseholders who own the individual flats. It has confirmed they must pay huge bills for replacement cladding after the Grenfell Tower tragedy highlighted dangers.

Leaseholders in the Croydon, South London, blocks had argued that the cladding – presumably perfectly legal when it went up – should now be treated as defective owing to post-Grenfell changes in regulation. They argued the freeholder, Proxima GR Properties, ultimately owned by the Tchenguiz family trust of property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz, should pay. Or else the managing agent, FirstPort, should pay and then find who the money is due from: freeholder or developer or insurer or cladding manufacturer or possibly even the Government.

Read the rest of this entry

Citiscape cladding case at the Property Tribunal: report

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Note: The Tribunal has now [March 2018] ruled against the leaseholders; report here.

The first battle in the tortuous struggle over who pays what for post-Grenfell tower block cladding has shown how complex this issue is going to be – but also offered some clues as to how the battle lines will be drawn up. One of the leaseholders of the Citiscape blocks in Croydon, south London, made a compelling submission to the Property Tribunal in London to explain why leaseholders should not have to pay for replacing allegedly dangerous cladding.

New government regulations require blocks to be stripped of cladding of the sort assumed to have been the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in Kensington, west London, last year.

The issue of who pays will come down, not to who has the most money – freeholders or leaseholders – nor to the “moral case” according to Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Housing (that “the tab should be picked up by the freeholders of those properties”). It will come down to interpretation of the leases between freeholders, who own the land (and hence are paid annual ground rents), and leaseholders who have bought flats in the blocks up and down the country (and hence have to pay the annual service charges for work on the buildings and administration).

The flats are bought on leasehold which means they revert back to the freeholder after a term of years – in the Citiscape case 999 years in total (they were built in 2004). This period is deemed “almost freehold” (ie almost as if the leaseholders owned outright), and that fact may have a bearing on the eventual outcome of the case. Note also that not all leases are the same, so the Citiscape case may give clues for other cases (of which there are likely to be many) but won’t be a precedent.

Read the rest of this entry

Grenfell Tower: was the cladding really banned material?

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Was London’s Grenfell Tower, scene of a horrific fire that killed dozens of people, covered in “banned” flammable cladding?   The  answer – worryingly – is probably no. And if that is the case, it exposes the shocking flaws in Britain’s regulatory system for high-rise developments.

The Department of Communities in initially answering this question – before any tests were made on the actual material – said this: “Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m in height.”

But this is not the case. Such cladding – described officially as “material of low combustibility” (MOLC) is lawful and recommended above 18 metres, as is the more fire-resistant cladding described officially as “non-combustible”. Composite aluminium panels with a polyethylene core may well meet the standard as MOLC. So, as long as the suppliers didn’t do some sort of substitution with inferior stuff, such panels are lawful. Read the rest of this entry

Bedroom tax case: don’t forget the ECHR

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Not enough has been said about the human rights legal dimension to the successful bedroom tax cases in the Supreme Court. It is important for two reasons:

  1. The cases succeeded thanks to Britain’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights where homegrown “British” law was unable to help (apart from the Human Rights Act, giving access to ECHR remedies). Neither English Common Law nor British parliamentary anti-discrimination legislation could assist either the Rutherfords or Jacqueline Carmichael gain exemption from having housing benefit docked  for their “extra” bedrooms.
  2. An earlier judgment of one of the cases, when it came before Lord Justice Laws, was intended to place a clear marker down discouraging such  cases based on ECHR rights on the grounds that “the courts are not the proper arbiters of public controversy”. The Supreme Court has therefore repudiated Laws’ attack on ECHR remedies.

The legal cases
The cases challenged the bedroom tax regulation on the grounds that it failed to give entitlement to an extra bedroom (without having housing benefit reduced) in cases where the bedrooms were needed for disabled people. The regulation restricts exemptions to “a relevant person … who requires overnight care; or a relevant person [who] is a qualifying parent or carer” (Regulation B13 (6). The relevant person (in paragraph 9) is the housing benefit claimant, his/her partner or another person liable to pay rent and his/her partner (see regulations below in full). But, as Lord Toulson noted in the latest case: “A person who requires overnight care is defined in Reg 2(1) in terms which have the effect of not including any child”.
Read the rest of this entry

Can’t get about? Get a taxi, disability benefit claimant told

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A man who says his anxiety and agoraphobia mean he cannot get to unfamiliar places unaccompanied has had his disability benefit claim rejected – on the grounds he could always get a taxi. The Devon man was denied Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a decision upheld by a tribunal which said:

“We found on the balance of probability that he would be able to use a taxi for example to get to an unfamiliar place and that therefore he would be able to get to a specified place with which he was unfamiliar without being accompanied by another person.”

In evidence to the Upper Tribunal, where the man, known as AB sought permission to appeal, a lawyer for the Department of Work and Pensions insisted “where a claimant is taken to a destination in a taxi the taxi driver, who is simply providing a paid-for transport service, cannot be said to accompany that claimant”.

An Upper Tribunal judge has now referred the case back to the First-tier Tribunal raising the question of whether “in such circumstances, such a journey could not be described as one made ‘without being accompanied by another person’ given the presence of a taxi driver”.

The issue may be crucial to interpreting one of the ESA tests used to qualify for financial support for those who are unable to work. Number 15(c) on a list set out in the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2008 says: “Is unable to get to a specified place with which the claimant is unfamiliar without being accompanied by another person.”  Read the rest of this entry

Rutherford and Others bedroom tax case: hold the celebrations

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Anti-bedroom tax campaigners are very pleased about the Court of Appeal case that has found unlawful discrimination in an element of the Government’s policy to punish “under-occupiers” of social housing. Sadly their joy may be premature. The Court of Appeal’s ruling in Rutherford and Others v Secretary of State [2016] EWCA Civ 29 was very much a holding judgment. When the case is reviewed in the UK Supreme Court (Note: the Rutherfords have now won their case in the Supreme Court: see note at end) the issues of right and wrong about how we treat disabled people or rape victims will be largely overlooked. Instead issues of legal proceduralism, high policy (plus low politics) and constitutional wrangling are likely to hold sway.

The essence of the case for the Rutherfords, who care for a disabled grandson, and for “A”, a rape victim (who has a son by her rapist) and has a panic room in her house, is that their situations should have been covered by exceptions to the Bedroom Tax provisions (ie the cut in Housing Benefit when a family has “extra” rooms).

If the benefit claimant is disabled or has a disabled partner an exemption might apply (if overnitght care is required). But not if a benefit claimant is caring for a disabled child. And there is no mention of rape victims in fear of further attack. There is, though, a system of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) for those who might have needs “which could be met by DHP”. They are administered by the relevant local authority.

The claimants’ case is that their exclusion in the legislation (Regulation B13, set out here) from the categories whose position “has to be taken into account” (in the clumsy phraseology of the regulation) is unlawful discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (and under public sector equality duty under s.149 of the Equality Act 2010) – on grounds of sex for A and disability for the Rutherfords and their grandson.

The Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, acknowledges the prima facie discrimination. The issue therefore became: is there an “objective and reasonable justification for that discrimination which was not manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Broadly the defence is that the DHP is there to cover categories of people who don’t have to be taken into account under Regulation B13 but may have good cases for an exemption. Although their housing benefit would be reduced, DHP might (if the local authority agrees) fill the gap.

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Eviction without court order: irrational answer to the wrong question

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First they came for the squatters. Then they came for the illegal immigrants. Soon they will come for everyone in rented accommodation. The Government’s apparent intention in the forthcoming Immigration Bill to allow landlords (in England) to throw illegal immigrants out without a court order matters less in practical legal terms (arguably it doesn’t make that much practical difference) than in terms of incursions into the principle that courts should oversee the relationships between landlord and tenant because of their inherent inequality. 

The legislation is intended to deal with landlords who find their tenants do not have the “right to rent” (under the Immigration Act 2014) or that their perfectly legal right to remain has come to an end. Eviction would thus become a summary matter. Except that, in realistic scenarios, it wouldn’t.

The proposed legislation means that the right to evict summarily will be triggered when the Home Office issues a notice that the tenant “no longer has the right to rent in the UK”. The usual two-month notice period for an assured shorthold tenancy does not apply.  Read the rest of this entry

Housing associations: right to buy versus right to property

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Fast forward five years. A new leftist government is elected in Britain (majority 12) with a flagship policy to extend home ownership to “Generation Rent”. Legislation is drawn up to force private landlords to sell their properties at a discount to their tenants under a radical right to buy scheme. Unfortunately there is a stumbling block. One of the few human rights still standing amid the ruins of the old human rights regime following the Human Rights (Abolition of Trivial Provisions) Amendment Act 2017 is the right to property. Forcing owners of rental properties to sell them offends against Part 1 Chapter 1 Article 1(1) of the new British Bill of Rights which says:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”

Fortunately, though, there is a precedent. Backtrack five years and the Conservative Government of 2015 had just such a radical policy of redistribution of property. It similarly forced property owners to sell homes to their tenants at a discount of 35% or more – caring not whether those property owners were driven to bankruptcy as a result. The fact that the property owners are housing associations doesn’t mean they don’t have human rights: they are private bodies (hence “legal persons”) and the flats they let out are their private property. The wording quoted above is that of Article 1 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which applies now and which the Tories have no known plans to repeal – because the human right to property is one of the “important” human rights they set great store by. Read the rest of this entry

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