Social services powers to accommodate homeless young people

Powers of social services to provide financial assistance and accommodation to homeless young people aged under 18 and their families.

This content applies to England

Duties to children in need

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, social services have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area.

Section 17 can be used to assist homeless children together with their families. Social services can provide accommodation for a whole family under section 17.

The duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child in need applies to a child who is present in the local authority's area. There is no requirement for that child to be ordinarily resident.[1]

Powers under section 17

In carrying out their functions under section 17, social services have the power to provide financial assistance and accommodation to the child in need and their family.[2] In one case, the High Court held that section 17 support could be provided to the child's parents or any other family members whom social services deemed to be responsible for the child's upbringing, looking after them, safeguarding and promoting their welfare.[3]

This could, for example, help a young person access accommodation by paying a deposit and rent in advance, or to enable them to meet any rent shortfall after housing benefit.

The power to provide accommodation under section 17 often concerns homeless children needing to be accommodated with their families, for example after a finding of intentional homelessness.

However, it could arise in the case of homeless 16 or 17 year olds who were found to be competent to care for themselves and did not wish to be accommodated under section 20, or unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who did not want to be 'looked after' by social services.

Suitability of accommodation provided under section 17

Guidance for local authorities states that accommodation provided under section 17 must be suitable for the children and families it is intended for.[4]

The guidance suggests that social services consider referring to the chapter on suitability in the Homelessness Code of Guidance, and to work closely with housing departments. Social services must have regard to this guidance.

Social services must carry out an assessment of the needs of the child and their family so that they can ensure accommodation offered is suitable. It is important that social services takes into account the views of experts and specialists who may be able to contribute to the assessment process.

In one case, a medical report from a Trauma and Psychosocial expert persuaded social services to revise its children and families assessment so that instead of deciding to seek accommodation for a mother and her two young children at a considerable distance (up to three or four hours journey time) from her support network and her children's schools, they would instead look for 'suitable, affordable and sustainable property within a reasonable commute of 60 minutes journey time from maternal grandparents...within London'. The authority stressed that the 'reasonableness' of the commute would take account not just of time but also of its affordability and complexity.[5]

The six week limit on the provision of bed and breakfast accommodation to homeless families with children does not apply where accommodation is provided under the Children Act. However the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found fault leading to injustice where a local authority could not show it had assessed the harm caused to a family by placing them in bed and breakfast for more than a year, nor that it had made regular reviews of their situation.[6]

The suitability of accommodation provided under the Children Act can be challenged through judicial review.

Providing section 17 services to a child outside the authority's area

Social services' power under section 17 to provide services to a child it has assessed as being 'in need' extends to providing services even when the child is outside its own area. This power may be particularly applicable to Gypsy and Traveller families.[7]

Persons subject to immigration control

Assistance under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 cannot be provided to a person (other than to an asylum seeker in limited circumstances) who is in the UK in breach of immigration control unless refusal to assist the family would contravene that person's human rights.[8]

However, an authority cannot refuse to offer assistance under the Children Act pending a Home Office decision on indefinite leave to remain or on an appeal against removal directions if the person refuses to leave the UK voluntarily, unless the application or appeal was manifestly abusive or hopeless.[9]

Last updated: 16 June 2021


  • [1]

    s.17(1)(a) Children Act 1989.

  • [2]

    s.17(6) Children Act 1989.

  • [3]

    R (on the application of OA and Others) v Bexley LBC [2020] EWHC 1107 (Admin).

  • [4]

    Local Authority Circular LAC (2003) 13.

  • [5]

    R (on the application of AE) v Brent LBC [2018] EWHC 2574 (Admin).

  • [6]

    Local Government Ombudsman Complaint No. 18 000 313 against LB Redbridge.

  • [7]

    R (on the application of J) v Worcestershire CC [2014] EWCA Civ 1518.

  • [8]

    Sch.3 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

  • [9]

    R (on the application of Clue) v Birmingham CC [2010] EWCA Civ 460; R (on the application of Giwa) Lewisham LBC [2015] EWHC 1934 (Admin).