Will Shelter sue Birmingham City Council or letting agents and landlords?Make Text Bigger
On 22 August Shelter issued its press release about the mystery shopping, which had notes for editors. The first note said detailed research can be found in ‘Stop DSS Discrimination: Ending prejudice against renters on benefits’ – copies available from Shelter’s press office.
The conclusion of that document included this paragraph: “The widespread prejudice towards housing benefit renters set out in this report is not only morally unjust, it could be unlawful. ‘No DSS’ policies could amount to indirect discrimination because women, especially single mothers, and people with disabilities, are more likely to rely on housing benefit to top up their rent. The bottom line is that discriminating against housing benefit tenants on face value is unacceptable in 2018.”
This press release was ignored by all the daily papers except the Mirror. But the BBC were not to know that would happen, and had prepared in advance a discussion about the alleged ban on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on BBC2. It is available here to watch or download until 20 September: Click Here
The discussion starts at 1 hour 39 minutes in. But on the way, at about 8 minutes in, the News slot has the newsreader quoting the press release about bans on housing benefit tenants “wreaking havoc on hundreds of thousands of people’s lives”.
Victoria introduced the discussion by referring to “people who are protected by anti-discrimination laws – like people with disabilities”. She did not mention women.
Those involved were: Stephen Tyler, who was disabled after an accident in 2016, Richard Lambert, CEO of the NLA, Karen Jackson who is a disabilities discrimination lawyer, and Greg Beales, Shelter’s Director of Communications, Policy & Campaigns, He took up this role in September 2017 after leaving his position as Senior Director of the multinational advertising agency WPP. Beales is a former Downing Street adviser to Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and formerly Director of Strategy and Planning for the Labour Party.
Victoria said that five of England’s leading letting agents actively discriminate against tenants on housing benefit (quoting the first line of Shelter’s press release), and could be in breach of the Equality Act. That first line was completely misleading. It suggested that the agents had company-wide discrimination policies, although the survey itself told Shelter that this was not true. In fact the survey claimed that a tiny minority of their branches discriminated. Click Here
However, Shelter’s Director of Communications did not jump in to correct her.
Stephen Tyler, who was in a wheelchair, said that since February he has had to sleep in his car. He said he was evicted from his previous property after he asked for adaptations to be made for wheelchair access. He said that Birmingham City Council provided 5 nights in a hotel room for himself and his children then aged 1 and 3 – he did not say why his partner was not there. The council then offered them accommodation 90 miles away. He said they offered his youngest child a bus-pass to travel the 90 miles to a nursery and back. (This does not make sense, there must be a nursery near the offered accommodation.)
He said no letting agent or landlord that he had phoned accepted “DSS”, they all prioritised working tenants. He said he could not work in the career he wanted – as a driver – so he has to be on housing benefit, which they won’t accept.
He said that his partner and children had gone to live with her parents. As her mother was also disabled her house had wheelchair access so he was able to get in to take showers, but he couldn’t live there because he could not get up the stairs. His own parents were not mentioned.
At the end of his piece he said “I’ve approached Birmingham City Council and private Housing Associations, but nobody wants to help, at all.”
Victoria then asked “What is wrong with a tenant on housing benefit, who can answer that?” Greg Beales of Shelter immediately jumped in and steered the subject away from the council and housing associations back on to letting agents. (Phew, that was close! You can have too many facts.)
He said ”Stephen is a victim of straightforward prejudice. Letting agents are not assessing him for whether or not he can afford a property, whether or not he would be a good tenant” “Why?” asked Victoria. Beales said “It’s prejudice I’m afraid, there is no other word for it. It’s discriminatory.” he said, adding another word for it.
He said “I mean I actually think facts show that people on benefits are very good tenants.(with an emphatic shake of his head), landlords make as much profit from people who are on benefits as landlords make from people who aren’t on benefits”. (I actually think I would like to see the facts he referred to.)
He blamed shows like Benefits Street and Benefits Britain, and some politicians, for “giving a completely misleading impression in our society of what it means to receive benefits, and that’s leading to this sort of prejudice”. (Oh, I see, they are being turned down because of their public image, not because they are more likely to be late with the rent, or even just spend the housing benefit on other things.)
At one point Beales managed to squeeze in the statistic that 60% of people on housing benefit are women. He then said “Our intent over the next few months is to bring a series of test cases to ask the courts to look at this closely, ……to ask them to say it’s unlawful.”
Victoria asked Karen Jackson whether on the face of it, it would seem to be unlawful. She replied “Absolutely, I think there is an indirect discrimination claim for somebody in Stephen’s situation but also in other disability claims (sic)”. She didn’t mention women.
Richard Lambert, CEO of the NLA, said he was shocked that letting agents were doing it and said three times that he did not know the reason, He said there had been “a great reduction in the number of landlords who are prepared to work in the benefits market”, but he did not explain why. He did not mention that S24 was forcing rents up beyond the reach of HB tenants, or forcing landlords to sell up and evict them.
Lambert said a ban was wrong, unethical and unlawful – even though the other two had indicated that this has not yet been decided by a court.
Nobody asked Stephen why he did not work in a different type of job. Nobody asked him why he refused the property he was offered. Nobody asked what the likelihood was of a property with wheelchair access being vacant and available to rent in the PRS. Assessing him for affordability will not overcome that barrier. However, common sense questions like that only get in the way of Shelter’s claim that he could be the victim of indirect discrimination, which might be illegal.
Now it’s decision time. Birmingham City Council gave Shelter £933,000 in the year to March 2017 to spend on four different projects, and £819,000 in the previous year for three projects. Do you think that Shelter will be taking Birmingham City Council to court for discriminating against Stephen by not providing a property with wheelchair access on its own patch?
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