Written evidence submitted by Chartered Institute of Housing

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) is the professional body for people working in housing and has about 17,000 members. CIH was involved in discussions with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) when Homes for Ukraine (HfU) was being planned and has monitored the progress of the scheme since then.  

CIH manages the housing rights website, which provides detailed information to recent migrants and their advisers on eligibility for housing and benefits (the website was originally set up with help from a government grant). When the Ukraine crisis began, a dedicated page was established to give guidance on the HfU and other means by which Ukrainians could reach or stay in the UK, and their housing and benefits options. This page has been maintained since then and regularly updated. We have also covered the development of the scheme and of other measures to assist Ukrainians in our regular newsletters, which are seen by around 1,500 subscribers.  

Our evidence to the Committee addresses the four topics the inquiry is examining and also examines the lessons learned from the HfU scheme. We argue that it is vital that DLUHC and the Home Office thoroughly consider the experience of dealing with the Ukraine crisis and how this can provide learning for other, similar crises.  

The relative success of the scheme overall, which has assisted 135,000 Ukrainians to date, should be borne in mind when considering the issues noted in this evidence. The success achieved often derived from the goodwill of local authority employees and of voluntary organisations, once central government had put the scheme in place.  

1. The objectives of the scheme and how it was set up 

Given the rapid development of the crisis in Ukraine and the urgency of the necessary response, it was inevitable that there would be problems in setting up a completely new type of scheme, especially one involving volunteer hosts.   

Many of the initial problems centred on the processing of visas by the Home Office and the delays and confusion that occurred, rather than on the work of DLUHC in setting up the HfU itself. Because the department quickly created a well-staffed team, it was able to liaise with local authorities and ensure the scheme was implemented speedily, albeit with various problems encountered and then (in most cases) resolved.   

Local authorities obviously faced a new challenge in dealing both with hosts and with Ukrainian arrivals. Housing staff numbers have reduced over many years, so the requirement to set up an effective screening service from scratch was challenging for many authorities. The challenges extended across the range of hosts and applicants; some heavily-in-demand authorities were over-stretched, some smaller authorities with large numbers of candidate hosts were also over-extended at the outset.  

There was some collaboration between authorities and sharing of ideas which enabled them to make the scheme a reality in each local area, albeit with many teething problems.  

2. Arrival numbers and checks conducted on applicants and sponsors 

As the crisis in Ukraine developed, it became clear that there were two main obstacles to people being safely accommodated under the HfU: the slowness of the Home Office in providing visas (made worse by the inability to travel without one and then apply to the HfU on arrival in the UK), and the fallout from what was inevitably a rushed process to inspect properties and allocate families to hosts, which led to some unsuitable properties and allocations in some well-publicised cases. Whereas the first may be outside the scope of this inquiry, there were issues behind the second which could be addressed in a similar, future crisis:  

A report by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab had a range of further detailed comments based on a survey of hosts in the HfU. London Councils produced a report in October 2022 summarising councils’ experiences with the HfU. 

The difficulty in exchanging good practice is symptomatic of a wider challenge for social housing. The promotion of innovation and good practice is an area that has significantly lost funding over the past decade (e.g. the demise of the power to make innovation and good practice grants by the former Housing Corporation). The sector needs central government R&D support no less than other segments of the economy. Responding to exceptional challenges (Ukraine, Covid-19) requires rapid dissemination and evaluation of good practice, the cost of which would be tiny in comparison to other related public expenditure. 

Funding provided for the scheme 

This aspect of the scheme was inevitably carried out on a trial-and-error basis and it was important to treat it as a learning process.  As the scheme developed, the initial funding arrangements changed: 

Before these changes were made, it is unclear whether any consultations took place with the LGA or with councils engaged in the HfU to ascertain how much funding was needed to continue to run the scheme properly and whether these sums reflected their costs. The rationale for a 44% reduction in a per capita funding stream is unclear, especially where economies of scale are difficult to achieve.  

It is notable that a few councils were already offering additional incentive payments to hosts, before the government announcement to encourage more hosts. For example, Oxfordshire local authorities had already raised monthly support payments from £350 to £550 from 1 December 2022. Councils also hoped to encourage more people to join the scheme, and some were successful in doing this, but more might have been achieved. 

Decisions about funding for the immediate costs of the scheme were presumably based on the practicalities of the HfU, but appeared to take no account of the fall-out costs of homelessness occurring as hosts stopped hosting (see below).  

Challenges and future risks 

Homelessness among those leaving the HfU 

The major challenge facing local authorities currently is homelessness among those leaving the HfU or where hosting arrangements have ended. The HfU accounts for the majority of homelessness presentations among Ukrainians (compared to the other two schemes). As of September 30, 7,990 Ukrainian households in England had been dealt with as homeless, more than half of them (5,190) because HfU hosting arrangements broke down or ended. CIH showed that the early homelessness among Ukrainians often occurred in small authorities with limited resources for dealing with it.  

One example of difficulties facing those who became homeless is that of a Ukrainian mother with a three-year-old child who came to London under the Family Scheme. Later, her relatives asked her to move out, but she had no money to rent by herself. Advisers helped her fill out a homeless application and she was offered two housing options that were three hours away from London. Her child goes to school in London, her family and friends are in London, but the council said she has no reason to stay in that area, so if there is no local accommodation, they can offer a place elsewhere. Also, the council said that if the client refused their offer, they would close her case.  

Steps could have been taken to avoid or minimise the homelessness problem. For example:  

Of course, these measures are resource-intensive, but dealing with people who present as homeless, especially in emergency situations where they require temporary accommodation is likely to be far more expensive immediately and will have repercussions for health and education services.   

LAs are under severe pressure in respect of homelessness services in general and temporary accommodation in particular, with the District Councils Network predicting a funding shortfall this year of some £550m among English district councils outside London, for these reasons. A conference was called between district councils to discuss how to face this emergency. Within London, the homelessness crisis is worse still, with boroughs expecting to overspend by £90m on temporary accommodation this year, and consequently having to make cuts of £500m in next year’s budgets.  

Clearly, the HfU is only a small part of this picture, but experience with the HfU emphasises how little resilience there is in the system to cope with unexpected demand for accommodation, temporarily dealt with via the HfU but then impacting on already highly stretched homelessness services.  

Ukrainians struggle to rent privately in UK  

Surveys of Ukrainians by the ONS reveal the problems they are facing in trying to find private rented accommodation. In one survey, nearly half (45 per cent) experienced barriers to accessing the PRS; the most common barrier was not having a guarantor or references (59 per cent).  

Councils could have been provided with resources to assist access to the private rented sector, for example, offering basic education and expectation management about private renting (e.g. how to speak to landlords, how to present yourself at viewings, how to find properties online, etc.)  

More councils could pay rental deposits to allow Ukrainians to rent more easily or could offer guarantees for rent payments. Experience with various schemes that facilitate access to the private rented sector could have provided different solutions, had the need for transition away from the HfU been planned (and resourced) more comprehensively. 

Local authorities often take time to process payments, which means that if the first month's rent and deposit payment is to be paid by them, the time taken to authorise and process the payment often means the household cannot compete in the open market (where some landlords expect payments within hours). 

Local authorities often are not willing to be part of organisational guarantor schemes such as  RentGuarantor. It takes time to build such partnerships so that the organisation offering guarantees trusts the authority’s financial due diligence and screening processes. 

Long-term intentions to stay in the UK 

In the latest ONS survey, half of adults (52%) stated an intention to live in the UK most of the time when they feel it is safe to return to Ukraine, mainly because there are "more opportunities for work here" (60%).   

Ukrainians were allowed to seek work on their arrival, which later enabled many to resolve their own accommodation needs. Yet current visa arrangements only provide for stays of up to three years. The conflict that displaced the Ukrainians sadly appears unlikely to be resolved soon. A clear medium-term strategy needs to be developed, in conjunction with local authorities. It is unclear what will happen to those who intend to stay more permanently: for example, will they continue to have access to public funds and hence to social housing and to benefits?  

What lessons do we learn from assisting Ukrainian refugees? 

Hosting of refugees and asylum seekers is not a new idea: Refugees at Home organises hosting of refugees and asylum seekers, and NACCOM is a network of schemes which provide temporary accommodation for migrants with no access to public funds. Many local hosting schemes also exist, e.g. to help asylum seekers. Reset is a charity which supports the community sponsorship movement in the UK, involving over 300 community groups who have welcomed over 800 refugees.  

However, HfU clearly involved hosting on an unprecedented scale, as a key element in the response to the Ukraine crisis. The UK protected more people under its two Ukraine schemes in the first six months than it did under previous asylum and refugee resettlement routes between 2016 and 2021. It would have been impossible to accommodate so many arrivals without the combined effects of the HfU and Family schemes, as has been more than evident from the parallel crisis in accommodating Afghan refugees.  

The HfU used a housing resource that is not usually available: spare rooms in occupied homes. The 2021 Census showed that over 17 million households (69 per cent) have more rooms than they need. If ways can be found to make ongoing use of this resource, it would provide significant help towards solving the current housing crisis.  

Could the Homes for Ukraine scheme show how this might be done? The HfU and the Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas) Welcome Programme have demonstrated that well-planned and effectively resourced schemes are embraced by the UK public. The thousands of people who opened their homes to Ukrainians could potentially be the starting point for a wider initiative to host refugees and asylum seekers.   

In December 2022, Reset hosted a roundtable discussion on housing options in a future sponsorship scheme and a summary covers issues such as how long a refugee might expect to be ‘hosted’, how payments should be made, what move-on support would be required, and other details of a potential scheme. The report by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, noted earlier, also has recommendations for a future hosting scheme.  

The potential is enormous: a permanent hosting scheme could enable refugees to be welcomed in a planned and structured way. It could also provide accommodation for those whose asylum claims are approved and even potentially as an alternative form of accommodation for those whose claims are still being processed. At the moment, the only safe route some refugees can access is the Global Resettlement Programme, and the partner programme Community Sponsorship which, while successful, has limited placements.  

CIH urges the government to create a single sponsorship scheme which enables refugees to come safely to the UK and to have approved accommodation when they arrive. Such a scheme should learn from the experience with HfU and should take account of hosts’ varying experiences, the issues raised by local authorities and voluntary bodies, and the views of Ukrainians who have passed through the scheme.  

Use could be made of such a scheme immediately – as the asylum claims backlog is being dealt with and decisions on claims are being issued, giving new refugees only a matter of days to find housing before they are asked to leave asylum accommodation, placing huge strain on homelessness services.   

The Public Accounts Committee is therefore asked to recommend the government to examine how such a scheme can be created and resourced on a permanent basis, building on good practice in the HfU, and carrying out the required investigation and consultation as effectively and speedily as possible.  

November 2023