Blog

20 Mar 2020

Councils must protect migrants during the pandemic

2020-03-20T17:05:24+00:0020th March 2020|

The UK’s border regime already condemns hundreds of thousands of people to extreme precarity: sofa surfing, rough sleeping and illegal work. Unless urgent steps are taken, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak will have disastrous consequences for undocumented migrants and others with insecure immigration status.

Public Interest Law Centre, Project 17 and Migrants’ Rights Network have today coordinated an urgent joint letter from over 50 organisations calling on local authorities to protect and support vulnerable migrants, particularly those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, during the pandemic.

This letter follows a letter to central government, coordinated by Medact, Liberty and JCWI and sent on March 16.

We will provide updates on how local authorities are responding (or failing to respond) as the situation unfolds.

12 Feb 2020

‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t fancy sleeping on the streets.’

2020-02-12T13:24:20+00:0012th February 2020|

EU citizens sleeping rough face direct and indirect discrimination when it comes to accessing the NHS. The situation is likely to get worse now Britain has left the EU.

One of our homeless clients attended a hospital appointment last month after an urgent referral from his GP. He was turned away. A member of hospital staff told the person accompanying him: ‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t fancy sleeping on the streets.’

Our client died a week later.

It’s still not clear exactly what happened in this case, but the dismissive reception our client received at hospital will surprise nobody who has worked with rough sleepers—or been one.

Most at the frontline have at one time or another received a phone call to say a rough sleeper they knew has died. One charity we work with has lost five of their EU homeless members in the past year. Often the rough sleeper concerned will have sought medical treatment in the days before their death.

Living outside is associated with a range of health conditions, from hypothermia to malnutrition. Rough sleepers are more likely than other people to be the victims of violence. There is also a strong correlation between street homelessness and psychological distress, including the ‘dual diagnosis’ of mental health issues and substance misuse.

Homelessness charities hammer home the message about the dangers of rough sleeping. The truism that ‘rough sleeping is dangerous’ has been used as a specious justification for sharing information about homeless people for immigration enforcement purposes.

Less attention is paid to the raw deal rough sleepers get from the NHS. Street homeless people are subject to direct and indirect discrimination when it comes to healthcare, both on a day-to-day basis and in an emergency.

Another of our EU clients went to A&E twice complaining of swollen feet and legs. He was turned away both times. He was only admitted after we sent a volunteer to accompany him. He spent seven weeks in hospital with a serious infection.

It’s important to note that there are some brilliant GP surgeries and secondary services working with rough sleepers, including specialist practices. Nor should the blame for poor treatment be loaded onto individual NHS staff, who operate under incredibly challenging conditions.

The problems are systemic. From GP practices which refuse to register people of ‘no fixed abode’ to healthcare workers who think rough sleepers only come to hospital to scrounge a bed—the barriers homeless people face in accessing NHS care are underpinned by fallacious narratives that blame homelessness on individuals’ ‘bad choices’ and ignore the structural factors that keep people on the streets.

Rough sleepers from the EU face very specific obstacles to accessing healthcare, including a startling lack of knowledge among NHS workers about the rights of EU citizens.

We’ve seen emails from professionals stating that a seriously ill rough sleeper should only be referred for tests ‘once he has regularized his immigration status’. We had to point out that EU nationals living in the UK should not be barred from, or charged for, using the NHS.

The UK’s healthcare system is residence-based. This means entitlement to healthcare is based on ordinary residence:

To be ‘ordinarily resident’ an EEA national must be:

1) lawfully in the UK
2) here ‘voluntarily’; and
3) ‘properly settled for the time being’

The overwhelming majority of EU nationals will meet this test almost all the time. Despite this we’ve had to write to NHS trusts asking them to withdraw bills for treatment sent to homeless Europeans.

To be clear: EU nationals resident in the UK enjoy most of the same rights to healthcare as UK nationals.

For now, at least.

Britain’s departure from the EU on January 31st makes access to healthcare for homeless migrants an ever more urgent issue. Foreign nationals still make up more than 50% of the rough sleeping population in parts of the country—and it’s often an immigration issue that keeps them on the streets.

It’s not yet clear what new rules the government will dream up for European homeless people now that Britain has left the EU. In the meantime the rest of us need to stand up for the right to healthcare of a group who are still human and still here.

Read our information sheet on EEA nationals’ entitlement to NHS care.

22 Jan 2020

Challenging Lambeth’s unfair treatment of homeless families!

2020-01-24T13:56:23+00:0022nd January 2020|

We’ve been working with our friends at Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) on a challenge to Lambeth’s unfair and misleading ‘Temp2Settled’ scheme. In the second of our series of interviews with PILC solicitors, we spoke to Helen Mowatt about how working with grassroots groups can help lawyers see the bigger picture when it comes to strategic litigation.

Can you tell us a bit about the Temp2Settled case?

When a homeless family presents to Lambeth as homeless, the council gives them a number of options. One option is Lambeth’s Temp2Settled Scheme. Under this scheme, if a household agrees go into private rented sector accommodation rather than council-provided temporary accommodation, the council will put them into a higher band on the housing register. (Councils decide who gets offered housing based on a priority ‘banding’ system. The higher your band the more likely you are to get housed). Families are advised they’ll have a much higher chance of getting permanent accommodation because they’ll be in band B instead of band C.

They’re also told that if they stay in band C they’re unlikely ever to get permanent accommodation—or that it could take years and years. Basically the council is saying: ‘You should go down the Temp2Settled route. Go into band B and you’ll have a much better chance of getting permanent accommodation.’

So what’s the problem?

The problem is it isn’t true! Families often think it sounds like a really good deal and they accept the offer. But what Lambeth council don’t tell them is that if they’re placed in private rented accommodation outside of the borough, they’ll be removed from the waiting list after two years if they haven’t been successful in securing a property.

We’ve got FOI data showing that only 2% of households needing a 2-bedroom property were accommodated through the housing register within a 2-year period. Far from having a better chance of securing permanent accommodation through Temp2Settled Scheme, people have almost no chance of securing accommodation within those two years, at the end of which they’ll be removed from the housing register.

What kind of people are being affected by this?

Many of those affected are families from South London’s Latinx community. The issue tends to affect migrant families for two reasons. One is that they are more likely to be new to the borough so they haven’t had a chance to build up time on the housing register before entering the scheme. The other reason is that—for language reasons—migrant families often don’t understand the nature of the scheme. They might not be aware of whether they’re in private rented accommodation or council temporary accommodation.

What are the potential consequences for families?

One consequence is that if you go down the private rental sector route you’re giving up your right to suitable housing. If there’s something wrong with your accommodation and you’re in the private sector, you don’t have the same rights as if you have a council tenancy. You can’t challenge the suitability of your accommodation in the same way and you don’t have the same rights when threatened with eviction.

People are giving up these rights in order to have a ‘much better chance’ of getting permanent accommodation’—but most families stand no chance of getting permanent housing through the scheme.

So the council is trying to ‘game’ the homelessness statistics by reducing the number of people on the list?

It appears that way. When they issue their homelessness figures they can say ‘we’re doing better than in previous years and we’re doing better than neighbouring boroughs’. Temp2Settled also helps them reduce the number of people they have a responsibility to house and get homeless families out of the borough. This is a big deal in a time of rising homelessness and huge housing shortages.

How have you worked with HASL to bring this challenge?

HASL have great links with the community in Lambeth—in fact, they’re part of the community. This means they can see what’s happening on the ground more easily than, say, a local law centre.

HASL initially referred a domestic violence case to us. We helped get the client into permanent accommodation. Then we started meeting up more and instead of just discussing individual cases we found ourselves talking about the wider situation with housing in Lambeth. Temp2Settled was one of the themes that emerged from those conversations.

One of the reasons we think this hasn’t been picked up before is that housing solicitors tend to work at the ‘micro’ level. They’re meeting clients’ needs case-by-case, so they don’t have time to look at the wider trends that are emerging.

What do schemes like Temp2Settled says about the culture of local authority housing departments—and what outcome are you hoping for from this case?

It appears that this is more than just negligence, but potentially bad faith. There’s a wickedness in the culture of some housing departments. People are seen as numbers and not as people. It doesn’t matter how vulnerable you are or what your circumstances are, the goal is to get the numbers down.
Of course, this mentality is related to the limited housing stock and to austerity. But councils need to be pushing back against that—not passing the pain onto vulnerable people.
Schemes like these also support the gentrification agenda of many London local authorities – it’s in the commercial interests of councils to get as many homeless and low-income families out of the borough as possible

If Lambeth council have deliberately misinformed people in an attempt to get their numbers down, we want them to admit this and apologise. We want all these families to be put back on the register. This would send a huge message to councils—that it’s not acceptable to put your targets ahead of the needs of the community.

Video – HASL member Susana explains her experience of the Temp2Settled Scheme

21 Oct 2019

Defending the Elephant against profit-driven development!

2020-01-30T16:13:46+00:0021st October 2019|

On Tuesday 22nd October at 9am there will be a solidarity demonstration outside the High Court to coincide with the start of the two-day hearing of Public Interest Law Centre’s judicial review of the proposed development of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

For the inaugural PILC blog, we asked senior solicitor Paul Heron about the case and its wider significance.

Can you tell us a bit about the case and what’s at stake for the local community?

In essence this case is about ensuring that the new Elephant and Castle development provides a maximum amount of genuinely affordable housing for the local community. Our challenge centres on the agreement between Southwark and the developer, Delancey, around the number of social housing units to be provided through the project.

Whilst social housing for working-class, migrant and ethnic-minority communities is the central issue, it is not the only thing at stake. Local traders are dissatisfied with the way the development scheme has been handled by Southwark. Some will not get spots in the new development while others will see their rents rise. We hope a positive outcome in this case will encourage Southwark to think again about their ‘regeneration’ agenda and its impact on the local community.

What are the key legal issues that the judge is going to be deciding upon during the hearing?

We are challenging whether the development scheme as proposed by Delancey is in line with Southwark’s planning policy. Delancey have claimed the most they can deliver in terms of affordable housing is 116 social housing units—out of nearly 1000 apartments that will be built. But they made this offer before claiming to have secured a GLA grant of £11.25 million! The local community want the GLA grant to be used to increase the provision of social rented units—instead of bolstering Delancey’s profit margin.

We think Southwark have undersold themselves with this development, possibly as a result of not understanding what they could get.

We’re also concerned that there may actually be insufficient money to complete the scheme and that even the paltry commitment of 116 social housing units will not be met. Southwark have given Delancey land and planning permission on the condition they provide a specified number of units. But there’s the prospect of Delancey turning round and saying to Southwark ‘we will give you money instead’. The sum offered in such a scenario is likely to be inadequate to the task and the units may not be built.

Defending housing as lived space against profit-driven development means mobilising communities. How have you worked with campaign groups to bring this case to court?

The groups we’ve worked with are Up the Elephant, 35% Campaign, Southwark Defend Council Housing and Latin Elephant. We’ve also reached out to traders.

These campaigners are massively involved in our case and they’ve been crucial to the JR being brought. One or two have a real interest in planning law and are veterans of the Aylesbury and Heygate Estate campaigns. Our case has benefitted from both their expertise and their links with the local community.

The campaigners have been involved at every stage. We’ve met with them to discuss what victory might looks like and how to press home the advantage from a win in court. We’ve also worked with them to plan for the possibility of defeat.

The judicial review had been brought on a crowdfunding basis. Because it’s an environmental case we have been able to engage Aarhus Convention rules to cap our client’s costs. The campaign has done a brilliant job in raising the £5000 needed to protect the client.

On October 22nd a coach full of campaigners will be coming up from the Elephant. They’ll be outside the High Court to remind the judge of the extent of local opposition to the way this development has been carried out.

The effect of displacement due to ‘urban renegeration’ in cities around the world has been compared to the devastation caused by war and natural disasters.[1] What do you think are the broader implications of this case for anti-gentrification campaigners? Are we in an era where the best we can hope for is to limit the damage caused by profit-driven development?

There’s an extent to which we are talking about damage limitation. Opposing these kinds of projects in London is generally a rearguard action of one sort of another, especially in boroughs like Southwark, Newham and Haringey where the Labour party establishment has traditionally been right wing and ardently pro-‘regeneration’.

Our strategy has been to use the threat—and reality—of legal action to wring concessions out of councils with respect to local residents and traders.  The message needs to be ‘we’re watching you—go back and make a better decision’.

We believe that a strong fight—and ideally victory—in cases like these can provide a springboard for future campaigns and re-galvanise community action against the commodification of lived space. In the context of broader developments in Southwark and elsewhere, that would be a pretty substantial result.


[1] David Madden & Peter Marcuse, In Defense of Housing, Verso: London and New York, 2016, p.3