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 UKSSCSC CH_318_2005 (10 June 2005)
DECISION OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY COMMISSIONER
- My decision is given under paragraph 8(4) and (5)(b) of Schedule 7 to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000. It is:
I SET ASIDE the decision of the Stratford appeal tribunal, held on 20 August 2004 under reference U/42/249/2004/00720, because it is erroneous in point of law.
I make findings of fact and give the decision appropriate in the light of them.
I FIND as facts that the narrow boat occupied by the claimant was his dwelling and that this boat was situated within the area of the local authority.
My DECISION is that the claimant's claim for housing benefit must be decided on the basis of my findings above.
- I abridge the time for applying for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal to one month from the date when this decision is issued by the Commissioners' Office (regulation 5(2)(a) of the Social Security Commissioners (Procedure) Regulations 1999).
- The issue in this case is whether the claimant is entitled to housing benefit in respect of a narrow boat on which he lived with his children. I say 'lived', because by the time of the hearings before me the claimant had been accepted as homeless and was living in temporary accommodation on dry land. This issue divides up into two. First, was the narrow boat the claimant's dwelling for the purposes of the housing benefit scheme? Second, was it situated within the area of the local authority from whom he claimed housing benefit?
The history of the case
- The local authority refused the claimant's claim for benefit. He exercised his right of appeal to an appeal tribunal. The tribunal decided in his favour that the boat was his dwelling, but against him that the dwelling was not situated within the area of the local authority. I gave the claimant leave to appeal to a Commissioner and directed an oral hearing of his appeal. I also invited the Secretary of State to consider joining as a party to the proceedings; my invitation was accepted.
- The oral hearing was first listed for 13 April 2005. It was adjourned on that day and resumed at the Commissioners' Court on 23 May 2005. All the parties were represented by counsel: the claimant by Ms Marina Sergides, the local authority by Ms Siān Davies and the Secretary of State by Mr Julian Kenny. I am grateful to all counsel for their interesting arguments and for taking me into areas of law that are outside the usual remit of a Social Security Commissioner. Despite their fascination, I have not found these other areas of law helpful in making my decision. For the most part I have not referred to them. The one exception is the homeless legislation on which both Ms Davies and Mr Kenny relied.
The facts of the case
- The claimant lived on a narrow boat with his two daughters. He had a form of agreement that was called an Assured Shorthold Tenancy, but the correct legal analysis is that he had a licence to occupy the boat. The living occupation on the boat consisted of a 'balcony' at the front, a double bedroom occupied by the children, a toilet/shower, and a kitchen/dining area in which the claimant also slept.
- The boat was kept on a canal that passes through the area of the local authority. The claimant has a licence to be on the canal, the terms of which are in the papers. There was a discussion at the oral hearing of the precise terms of that licence and the extent to which some of the provisions were merely guidance. I have not found it necessary to resolve the issues discussed. It is sufficient to say this. I am sure that the claimant is in breach of his licence, whether the provisions are all contractual terms or a mixture of terms supplemented by guidance notes on their application. At the most, he is entitled to be in the area of the local authority for 14 days out of 42. But even on the least favourable interpretation from the claimant's point of view, I am satisfied that he is nonetheless potentially entitled to housing benefit.
- The claimant stays for the overwhelming majority of the time within the area of the local authority from which he claimed housing benefit. He seldom moves from the same mooring. If he does, he does not go vary far. The most he travels is every couple of weeks when he takes the boat a few miles along the canal and then returns.
The relevant legislation
- There are two relevant provisions in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. Section 130(1)(a) provides that
'(1) A person is entitled to housing benefit if-
(a) he is liable to make payments in respect of a dwelling in Great Britain which he occupies as his home'.
And section 137(1) provides a definition of 'dwelling':
'(1) In this Part of this Act, unless the context otherwise requires-
"dwelling" means any residential accommodation, whether or not consisting of the whole or part of a building and whether or not comprising separate and self-contained premises'.
- Section 134(1A) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 provides for housing benefit to take the form of a rent rebate if the claimant is liable to a housing authority. Section 134(1B) then provides:
'(1B) In any other case housing benefit shall take the form of a rent allowance funded and administered by the local authority for the area in which the dwelling is situated or by such other local authority as is specified by an order made by the Secretary of State.'
- I was also referred to two provisions in the Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987. Regulation 2(4) extends the meaning of 'dwelling':
'(4) For the purposes of these Regulations, the following shall be treated as included in a dwelling-
(c) where the dwelling is a houseboat, the land used for the purposes of mooring it'.
And regulation 10(1) deals with payments in respect of which housing benefit is payable:
'(1) Subject to the following provisions of this regulation, the payments in respect of which housing benefit is payable in the form of a rent rebate or allowance are the following periodical payments which a person is liable to make in respect of the dwelling which he occupies as his home-
(b) payments in respect of a licence or permission to occupy the dwelling;
(f) mooring charges payable for a houseboat'.
- I have not found these provisions helpful in deciding on the issues raised by the appeal. Both provisions either make clear what might otherwise be in doubt or extend the usual meaning of the statutory language. I have not found it necessary to define 'houseboat' or to decide whether the narrow boat was a houseboat.
The 'dwelling' issue
- The tribunal decided that the narrow boat was the claimant's dwelling for the purposes of entitlement to housing benefit. Both the Secretary of State and the local authority argued that this aspect of the tribunal's decision was wrong. For convenience, I take their arguments together. Mr Kenny and Ms Davies made four points: a language point, an absurdity point, an anomaly point and an address point.
The language point
- Mr Kenny separated this into two: the ordinary meaning of the word and its meaning in the statutory context. I deal with them together, because I can see no difference between them. Mr Kenny argued that 'dwelling' in section 130(1)(a) and 'residential accommodation' in section 137 conveyed fixity of location. I reject that argument.
- I accept that dwellings and residential accommodation almost always have a fixed location. However, that is a matter of practice and convenience. It is not a matter of definition. To my mind, 'dwelling' and 'accommodation' both convey a relationship between a person and that person's base. They do not convey a relationship between that base and a particular location or piece of land where it may happen to be. 'Residential' merely serves to emphasis that the base is for domestic and social purposes, not for a business, trade or profession.
- Mr Kenny quoted a dictionary definition. It can be helpful to consult dictionaries. I have consulted several while considering this point. However, there is a limit to the possibility of conveying every nuance of meaning in a definition. And given the likelihood that a person's dwelling or accommodation will have a fixed location, it is not surprising that definitions contain this as an element. However, that does not mean that fixity is always necessary.
- Part of the discussion of this point at the oral hearing involved accommodation that might be temporary or merely transitory. I can see no reason why this should affect a claimant's entitlement to housing benefit. The fact that a claimant's occupation is limited in duration or uncertain in its tenure may be relevant to the issue whether it is that claimant's home. But if that condition is satisfied, I can see no reason within the scheme why these factors should bar the claimant's entitlement to housing benefit.
The absurdity point
- Mr Kenny argued that if the claimant were to succeed in this case, it would mean that claimants could obtain housing benefit in respect of camper vans kept on parking meters and tents pitched in public parks. I accept that they would be the potential consequences of a decision in the claimant's favour. To obtain housing benefit in such circumstances would be unusual and, therefore, perhaps surprising. But I do not consider that it would be an absurdity to award housing benefit in such circumstances. The purpose of the housing benefit scheme is to provide financial support for those who cannot meet their housing costs in the rented sector. If claimants can satisfy the conditions of entitlement in those circumstances, why should they be denied benefit because their housing arrangements are unusual?
- If there is an anomaly, it would lie (on the argument of the Secretary of State and the local authority) in there being a difference between someone who had a few square inches of land on which to moor a boat and one who had no such place.
The anomaly point
- The anomaly suggested arises from the relationship between the housing benefit legislation and the homelessness legislation. The latter is presently in the Housing Act 1996. While living on the narrow boat, the claimant was homeless within the meaning of that legislation. Mr Kenny and Ms Davies both argued that it was anomalous if he were both homeless there and yet entitled to housing benefit. I reject this argument for two reasons.
- The first reason is that it is simply wrong as a matter of law that there can be no overlap between the legislation. Just to take one example, a person who is subject to domestic violence is homeless, but may nonetheless be entitled to housing benefit pending rehousing. The obvious counter to this point is that this and other examples are merely exceptions that do not affect the basic point. That leads me to the second reason.
- This is that I can see no justification for assuming that the housing benefit and homeless schemes are mutually exclusive in law. It may be that in practice the circumstances in which a person is homeless will be circumstances in which the person could not show entitlement to housing benefit. But that is practice, not law. There is no provision expressly establishing a boundary between the two legislative schemes and I see no reason to imply or create one. They deal with different matters. Housing benefit provides financial support for those whose income is insufficient to meet their housing costs, while the homeless provisions ensure that no one is left without access to accommodation. If a claimant is prepared to live in circumstances that come within the homeless legislation, I see no reason in the legislation why public financial support should not be available.
- I suggested to Mr Kenny that if he wanted to use the homeless legislation as a context for the interpretation of the housing benefit legislation, he should rely on the earlier scheme in the legislation in force when the housing benefit scheme was created. He disagreed. I record his argument, but as I have rejected the anomaly point as he put it to me, I do not need to resolve it.
The address point
- Ms Davies introduced the need for the claimant to have an address and Mr Kenny took this up in his response to the arguments of the other parties. In so far as this is related to fixity of location, I have already dealt with it. But I do need to deal with it in so far as it concerns the possibility of communication with the claimant. The case as presented to the tribunal did not show any difficulty in communicating with the claimant. He was eventually given by the Post Office an address and a postcode. Ms Davies objected that this was just the address of the local sorting office. However, this is what the claimant was given and it proved effective for communication purposes.
The claimant's argument
- Ms Sergides' basic argument was that there was no merit in the arguments put by Mr Kenny and Ms Davies. For the reasons I have given, I agree.
The 'situated' issue
- The tribunal decided that the claimant's narrow boat was not situated within the area of the local authority, with the result that he was not entitled to housing benefit. The claimant argued that this aspect of the tribunal's decision was wrong.
- The tribunal's reasoning was this:
'I consider that the only permission that [the claimant] has is to cruise, putting down ancillary to that cruising. The visitors' mooring areas are just that: there is a 14 day maximum stay and the area is for visiting. [The claimant] cannot sensibly be said to be visiting. He intends to reside in [the area of the local authority] but his licence does not allow residence. He is accordingly obliged to duck and dive. I find equally unattractive Ms Sergides' argument that he could claim housing benefit in several areas. As housing benefit is a weekly benefit, he could replicate entitlement many time over by virtue of the fact that he is freely mobile. This cannot have been intended by Parliament.'
- Ms Sergides argued that it was sufficient for the claimant to be within the area of the local authority. No greater precision or permanence was required. She argued that section 134(1B) did not deal with entitlement; it only dealt with payment. I do not consider that it is necessary to determine this last point. My conclusion is the same whether section 134(1B) deals with payment or entitlement. On my reading, the issue raised by section 134(1B) is purely a factual one: where was the claimant's dwelling situated? That question depends, of course, on what 'situated' means.
- Both the Secretary of State and the local authority argued that the tribunal was correct to find that the narrow boat was not situated within the area of the local authority. The more extensive argument was provided by Ms Davies. For convenience, I take their arguments together.
- The tribunal's reasons raise the issue of lawfulness. This issue arose at various points in the argument. Examples were given of circumstances in which claimants were not lawfully occupying their accommodation. And both Mr Kenny and Ms Davies argued that the claimant's use of the canal through the local authority's area was in breach of his licence. However, when pressed on the point Mr Kenny refrained from putting his argument on the ground that lawfulness of occupation was decisive. In her final written submissions, Ms Davies was not so reticent.
- I reject the argument that only lawful residence is within the housing benefit scheme. Regulation 10 expressly provides that housing benefit is payable in respect of what are in effect damages for trespass. The housing benefit scheme expressly accepts the possibility that the claimant's presence in the accommodation may not be lawful. I therefore reject any argument in so far as it is based on the fact that the claimant was not entitled to be where he was.
- Referring to the trips outside the area of the local authority, Ms Davies argued that they would on the claimant's argument entitle him to housing benefit from the other local authority as well. That may or may not be so. I doubt whether mere passage along a canal within a local authority's area is sufficient for a dwelling to be situated there. The claimant's argument is different. He argues that he is, these short trips apart, permanently based as a matter of fact within the area of the same local authority.
- Ms Davies argued this was not sufficient. She argued that 'situated' meant residence plus permanence and that a transient presence was not sufficient to be permanent. On questioning, she argued that the key issue was whether the claimant was always able to return to the same mooring or merely had to take his chance with other users of the canal.
- Ms Davies also relied on the legislation that governs the assessment of an appropriate rent for the dwelling: the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Order 1997, as amended. She argued that it was impossible in the claimant's circumstances to assess a rent in accordance with that legislation.
- My analysis of 'situated' is this. The word conveys connotations of a location. The precision with which that location is delimited will depend on the context. In section 134(1B), the degree of precision is expressly set out. It is the area of the local authority. The claimant's dwelling must be situated with that area if housing benefit is to be available. (I use 'available' as a neutral word sufficient to cover entitlement and payment.) Usually a dwelling will be permanently situated in one place. In the case of a dwelling that moves, it is a matter of fact and degree whether it is situated within a local authority's area. Take two extreme examples. A claimant who lives in a camper van which passes through a local authority's area on a motorway stopping only at a service area would not be situated in that area. But a claimant who lives in a camper van which stays permanently on the same camp site leaving only to visit a supermarket elsewhere would be situated in that area.
- I apply that analysis to the facts like this. The evidence shows that the narrow boat was on the stretch of the canal that passed through the area of the local authority. On my reading of his oral evidence to the tribunal, he moved out of the area for the sake of form every so often, travelling a few miles and returning without stopping. He told me at the hearing that he was almost always able to return to the same spot and that he never failed to find a mooring. On that evidence, which neither the Secretary of State nor the local authority challenged before me, the narrow boat was situated within the area of the local authority continuously, except for a few hours every couple of weeks when it left and returned.
- I have no doubt that claimants who live as the claimant did cause practical problems for local authorities. There are questions of proof as to the claimant's living arrangements. And there are the difficulties of assessing a rent. But there is no reason in principle why these practicalities should deny the claimant entitlement. Suppose a claimant was allowed to pitch a tent in an isolated field in the countryside where there were no other dwellings for miles around. Or suppose that homeowners in this local authority's area allowed the claimant to live in a tent pitched in their garden. Both those examples would satisfy Ms Davies' test for 'situated', but both would cause problems for a rent officer who was required to assess a rent.
- For these reasons, the tribunal was wrong to find that the claimant's narrow boat was not situated in the area of the local authority. The tribunal either misdirected itself on the meaning of 'situated' or came to a conclusion of fact that was not open to it on the evidence.
- I reject the arguments of the local authority and the Secretary of State. The tribunal was correct to decide that the narrow boat occupied by the claimant was his dwelling for housing benefit purposes, but it was wrong to decide that it was not situated within the area of the local authority. I set aside the tribunal's decision and substitute the decision that it should have given. The local authority will now decide the claimant's entitlement to housing benefit in respect of the narrow boat.
|Signed on original
on 10 June 2005
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