Imagine if your employer told you that, following a review, they were going to make your terms and conditions of employment discretionary. Of course, they’d reassure you, we intend ring fence a pot of money exclusively for staff salaries – but they couldn’t give you any guarantees as to whether it would increase in future. And even if it did, they couldn’t reassure you that you would continue to get the same salary as now. You might end up with more, but then again you might end up with less – or possibly none at all. They’d just review the situation every few years to ensure they were securing the best value for money and let you know then what they thought they could offer to pay you – if anything.
Of course, you’d be outraged. How would you plan for the future? How could you secure a mortgage, or car finance? How could you book a holiday with confidence if you didn’t know how much you were going to be paid? But because your terms and conditions of employment were now wholly discretionary, you would pretty soon find that you no longer had any statutory protection. So you couldn’t even threaten to take your employer to an employment tribunal.
This scenario is clearly ridiculous. No one could possibly expect their employees to sign up for such a deal. It would be manifestly unfair. And no employee would willingly surrender all of their statutory rights in exchange for a few vague promises that your employer would continue to treat you fairly. You’d have to be mad to do so.
But that is exactly the scenario that short-term supported housing providers now find themselves facing. At the moment we receive funding through the housing benefit system. It is a far from perfect system, but it is administered in accordance with statute so if local authorities withhold money unfairly you can take them to an independent tribunal. I know because a few years ago YMCA Birmingham had to do just that. And the tribunal agreed that, notwithstanding the council’s claims of poverty, they were legally obliged to pay us the money we were claiming. Because the system is underwritten by statute we are able to plan for the future – to secure a mortgage, to get loan finance to fund major repairs, to employ staff with confidence. We are not beholden to the whims of the council.
But recently the government announced that this system would be swept away and replaced with a discretionary funding pot administered solely by local councils. Yes, money will be ring-fenced for short-term supported housing, but there will be no guarantees beyond the very short term as to what levels that funding might be at. And of course, the council might decide to use its discretion to withdraw your funding altogether at the drop of a hat. Perhaps your CEO campaigned a bit too vigorously against council cuts. Maybe a local councillor felt your scheme ‘brought the area down’. Or perhaps the local council decided that it would just prefer to keep the money to fund its own supported housing schemes and not bother funding anyone else’s. Even if they did that, there would be no independent tribunal to hear your claim – because, of course, the system is discretionary. If you felt that the council had treated you unfairly the organisation you would have to appeal to overturn the decision would be… that self-same council. Fancy your chances?
And, of course, whilst central government might allocate a ring-fenced fund now, there are no guarantees as to what level that funding might be in future. The fund might be frozen, or even cut – after all it is discretionary. There is also precious little to stop the government withdrawing the ring fence on the funding either so that it can be spent on whatever the council chooses. And there will be nothing that supported housing providers can do about it if that results in their funding being cut.
These fears are not hypothetical. They are exactly what happened to the Supporting People funding that was introduced by the last Labour government in 2003. Rather than going up with inflation to reflect rising costs, it was frozen and then cut in order to generate greater value for money. And eventually (in 2009) the ring-fence that was put around Supporting People funding was abolished too, so councils could spend it on anything they wanted. Providers had funding cut, often with little warning and/or for spurious reasons, but there was no independent appeals mechanism they could appeal to. It is to this chaos that the government wishes to return us.
This proposed new system therefore, is manifestly unfair. It is asking providers to surrender their statutory protections in exchange for a few vague promises that the government intends to keep providing the funding, as best it can, into the future. I’m sorry, but that clearly won’t do. When my mortgage company grants me discretion over whether I have to pay my mortgage or not, then I will be able to afford to surrender the statutory protections I have at present.
Short-term supported housing provides a home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society – rough sleepers, those battling addictions or mental health problems, and young people leaving the care system. What those people need is certainty. They need to know that their home and the associated support that they receive whilst living there is secure. They don’t want to face the prospect of losing their support worker – and perhaps even their home – because the local council has decided that it can’t afford to pay any more. They don’t want to be robbed of their statutory rights to help with their housing costs, and it would clearly be wrong to do so.
They deserve better.
Alan Fraser is chief executive of YMCA Birmingham