National Audit Office investigation: The hidden scandal of rip off landlords cheating the vulnerable and the state

National Audit Office foyer Pic Credit: David Pearson

An investigation by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, this week has cast light on a hidden scandal of how private and social landlords are making huge profits from providing costly sub standard housing to the elderly, disabled, homeless, recovering drug addicts and domestic abuse survivors.

Officially called Supported Housing this covers providers of homes from short term hostels to specialised homes for the disabled who need a high level of care and sheltered housing for the elderly.

Extraordinarily the provision is not regulated and often not directly supervised by local authorities and the government does not know how many supported homes there are in Britain- the latest figure of 651,000 is eight years out of date. Spending on provision was £3.5 billion in 2016.

The NAO decided to investigate provision in 10 councils and uncovered some startling facts. The councils are

  • Birmingham City Council
  • Lambeth Council
  • Bristol City Council
  • Blackpool Council
  • Hull City Council
  • West Devon Borough Council
  • Bradford Council
  • Nottingham City Council
  • Sunderland City Council
  • Charnwood Borough Council (in Leicestershire)

In Hull for example some conditions were so bad that 323 out of 345 homes inspected needed immediate attention to protect their residents on health and safety grounds. And 62 per cent of homes in the city failed to meet the decent homes standard.

They also discovered the landlords were using the housing benefit system by putting in large claims for rent – which mostly went unchallenged by councils because the landlords would take them to court if they queried the sum.

Levelling Up department does know how many supported homes exist in the UK

The Department for Work and Pensions which often pursues individuals over benefit fraud actually has no record of how many claims there are for supported housing. But when Birmingham Council launched a team to investigate they recovered £3.5 million from fraudulent claims in just one city.

The report says : “Authorities like Birmingham, have seen increasing numbers of landlords who circumvent the regulations enabling them to profit by providing costly sub-standard housing with little or no support, supervision or care.”

“West Devon reported to MPs on the Commons Committee for Levelling up, Housing & Communities ( who also investigated this) that a number of new schemes have entered the market over recent years, claiming to provide exempt accommodation. These schemes involve an investment fund owning the property and a small housing association, registered with the Regulator of Social Housing, acting as the landlord. The local authority considers that these types of schemes are mainly designed to maximise the amount of Housing Benefit that can be claimed.”

Recovering drug addicted were housed with drug dealers

The report added: ” the Committee reported hearing “of people with a history of substance misuse being housed with drug dealers, and of survivors of domestic abuse being housed with perpetrators of such abuse.”

.So what is being done about this? The NAO report that the government has finally commissioned research to find out what exactly is going on..

The report says: “The research intends to focus on the size and composition of the sector, costs, current and
future supply and demand, the interaction between commissioners and housing providers, and how to improve monitoring.”

It is also aware that the supervision of the sector is split between three ministries – levelling up, work and pensions and health and social care so it has set up a supervisory board. And it has pump primed some £5.4 million to five local authorities, Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Bristol, Hull and Blackpool to test monitoring of supported housing.

Blackburn and Darwen told the NAO that without this money they would never have inspected the homes in their area because they hadn’t the resources. And it has asked 26 authorities to bid for extra cash over the next three years.

Bob Blackman MP

The biggest change may come from a private members bill by Bob Blackman, the Tory MP for Harrow East, now being scrutinised in the Lords, which lays out a proper framework for the sector. This still has shortcomings as it does not deal with housing benefit fraud which must be quite high in this sector.

All this is better late than never . But it says something that the government until now has not bothered about protecting vulnerable and elderly people from the landlord sharks who prey on them. It paints a pretty poor picture of modern administration in the UK which must lag behind other Western countries in looking after its vulnerable people.

As Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts says
“Vulnerable people deserve to live in housing that meets their needs.
But gaps in regulation mean a concerning number live in sub-standard accommodation, at great expense to the taxpayer.
Government must now capitalise on the work of its Supported Housing Programme Board and provide local authorities with the support they need, starting with meaningful data on the scale of the problem.

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