08 Feb 2024

Government withdraws draft regulations removing HMO regulation from asylum seeker accommodation the day before trial

A judicial review challenge to the lawfulness of draft HMO (houses in multiple occupation) regulation to remove protection from asylum seeker accommodation was cancelled before it began this week. In the last working hour before the trial was due to start the court and claimants were informed that the Home Office had decided to withdraw the draft regulations.

The controversial draft regulations, which had already partly made their way through parliament, would have suspended the fire safety and other standards in HMOs procured by Home Office contractors to house asylum seekers, putting vulnerable people at great risk.

The proposal sparked widespread criticism. In May 2023 an open letter coordinated by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) urged the Home Secretary and Secretary for State to abandon the plans. The letter amassed 137 signatories, including Crisis, Shelter, the Refugee Council and Amnesty International.

At the time of issuing the letter, Gavin Smart, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Housing said:

“The licensing scheme for houses that are multi-occupied are designed to keep people safe, especially safe from fire. They need to apply to everyone, including people seeking sanctuary in the UK. That’s why we’re calling on the government to drop its proposal to exempt asylum accommodation from the HMO licencing arrangements.”

The regulations were not withdrawn by government and continued to make their way through parliament.

It then took a group of eight asylum seekers, represented by Duncan Lewis solicitors, to bring forward a legal challenge to the regulations. Chartered Institute of Housing along with eight other leading organisations all put forward evidence in support of the claim.

Nick Beales, head of campaigning at RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London) expanded on the evidence given commenting:

“It is worrying that the government states in its explanatory memorandum that part of the rationale for this proposed change is that subcontractors “have raised concerns that regulation is posing a barrier” to acquiring properties. It would appear that subcontractors have directly lobbied the government to introduce a piece of legislation that enables them to provide housing of a lower standard, and thereby increase their profits.”

Following the withdrawal of the case, Jeremy Bloom, lead solicitor on the claimants’ legal team from Duncan Lewis, said:

“The Claimants have achieved something amazing today: the government’s last-minute withdrawal of Regulations that would have reduced protections for asylum-seekers housed by the Home Office is a spectacular u-turn. The Claimants now have the enduring protection that they will not be placed in accommodation which does not meet licensing standards, which are so vital to fire-safety and to prevent overcrowding.”

Mary Atkinson at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants further added:

“We celebrate the fact that this government has bowed to pressure over their obscene proposals, which would have left some of the most marginalised people in our society at risk in unsafe housing.

“Everyone deserves a home that is decent and safe – instead of treating people seeking sanctuary as second class citizens, the government must act to quickly and fairly process asylum claims, and make sure local authorities are properly resourced to provide safe housing for all who need it.”

Further background on the creation of HMO licensing

Mandatory fire safety and other standards in HMOs was the culmination of a two-decade long campaign known as the Campaign for Bedsit Rights. It called for compulsory licensing of HMOs at a time when local authorities had the power to run local registration schemes but were not compelled to do so.

The campaign was started following a disastrous fire in Notting Hill in 1982 in a warren of 56 bedsits used to house asylum seekers. Tragically eight people lost their lives in the fire and over 100 were made homeless. 

Following the long campaign, the new Labour government decided to act. But before doing so DLUHC's predecessor commissioned research into fire safety in HMOs. It found that the annual risk of death was six times higher than in single occupancy houses and 16 times in HMOs of three or more storeys. 

Following its publication, the government then consulted on their proposals for legislation. CIH and many others all strongly supported these. Out of 579 responses received an overwhelming 93 per cent were in favour.

As the Bill made its way through the Committee stage the then minister (Keith Hill) was asked if the government’s regulation making powers would ever be used to exempt accommodation used by the Home Office's contractors if there were concerns about safety. The answer was an emphatic no.

Further housing rights information

Further information on people's rights when looking for a home, based on their immigration status can be found at https://www.housing-rights.info/index.php