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028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

NI Audit Office makes recommendations on homelessness

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has released a report on Homelessness in Northern Ireland. The report examines the scale and nature of homelessness in Northern Ireland, and focuses primarily on how effective the Housing Executive’s 2012-2017 Homelessness Strategy has been in addressing this issue.

The Audit Office have made 9 recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the work of the Housing Executive, and other bodies, in tackling homelessness.

More data and clearer outcomes required

Recommendations 1 to 6 of the Audit Office report are focused on expanding the data which the Housing Executive collects in relation to homelessness, and ensuring that the objectives of the new Homelessness Strategy 2017-2022 are clearly linked to high level outcomes.

  • R1: NIHE needs to be more innovative in its analysis, interpretation and presentation of the homelessness data it collects. We recommend that, to fully understand the causes of homelessness, NIHE:
    • carries out research to determine why the level of statutory homeless acceptances in Northern Ireland are significantly higher than in other UK jurisdictions;
    • analyses the reasons for variations in acceptances across its regions; and
    • analyses the data relating to the accommodation not reasonable category
  • R2: We recommend that NIHE establishes:
    • clear objectives that capture key high level expected outcomes; and
    • SMART key performance indicators to measure overall success.
  • R3: We recommend that NIHE systematically evaluates performance in dealing with homelessness against its strategic objectives and regularly reports progress to the Board and other key stakeholders.
  • R4: We recommend that the Department and NIHE develop a system that captures data on intervention outcomes of its partner agencies and feeds this into the new customer management information system to help target resources appropriately.
  • R5: We recommend that the Department expands the number of data sets collected and statistical information published on homelessness in Northern Ireland.
  • R6: We recommend that an annual report is submitted to the NIHE Board which presents a summary of expenditure and benchmarked cost data demonstrating that accommodation-based services provide value for money.

Housing Rights welcomes the Audit Office’s emphasis on improving and expanding the data held and published by the Housing Executive and DfC, ensuring Homelessness Strategy objectives link clearly to high level outcomes, and encouraging progress against these outcomes to be considered at the highest level.

In our consultation response to the Housing Executive’s outcomes-based draft 2017-2022 Homelessness Strategy, we proposed several additional outcomes and indicators for the Strategy. Several of these proposals were adopted by the Executive in their final Homelessness Strategy, and we welcome the Executive’s steps here to expand the data used to measure progress in addressing homelessness.

Publish an annual report on delivery of Homelessness Strategy

Housing Rights also welcomes the Executive’s commitment to publish an annual report on delivery of the Strategy. We would additionally recommend that those Departments involved in addressing homelessness submit a similar annual report to the Homelessness Strategy Steering Group (HSSG); this could help to make cross-Departmental working on homelessness, and the strategic oversight of this, more accountable and robust.

Measure the outcomes of the work of partner agencies

Housing Rights welcomes the recommendation that DfC and the Executive develop a system which measures the outcomes of the work of partner agencies. Housing Rights currently measures and reports on outcomes across our work in advising, supporting and representing clients. In 2016/17, using the “P1E definition” of homelessness prevention, Housing Rights prevented homelessness for 1,147 households. According to 2015 research “Calculating the cost of homelessness in Northern Ireland”, each case of homelessness in Northern Ireland costs around £15,470 per year: therefore, our prevention of homelessness in 2016/17 saved £17.74 million for the public purse.

Northern Irish rates of homelessness are higher than the rest of the UK

Finally, Housing Rights acknowledges that Northern Irish rates of homelessness are higher than the rest of the UK. As the Audit Office report acknowledges in para 1.25, this is partially due to the fact that NI housing legislation is more likely to treat those living in unreasonable accommodation as homeless than GB legislation (see also the Crisis NI Homeless Monitor 2016).

The Audit Office state that the implementation of the Housing Options approach in GB has resulted in a reduction in the number of homeless presentations, and that the Housing Executive will complete implementation of a similar preventative model (“Housing Solutions”) by March 2018. Housing Rights believes it would be prudent, in rolling out the Housing Solutions model, for the Housing Executive to learn from the Scottish example and introduce robust guidance on how the operation of Housing Solutions should work in line with the Housing Executive’s statutory responsibilities. This was one of 4 proposals included in Nichola Mallon MLA’s private member’s bill on homelessness prevention, introduced in the last Assembly.

Cross-Departmental framework recommended

Recommendations 7 to 9 of the report focus on encouraging the development of a cross-Departmental, outcomes focussed approach, with a particular focus on the role of health issues and support needs in addressing homelessness.

  • R7: We recommend that the framework for addressing homelessness is developed in an integrated way with an emphasis on outcomes rather than existing departmental structures. This may lead to a widening of the scope of the Homelessness Strategy Steering Group.
  • R8: We recommend that an in-depth cross-departmental review is jointly commissioned to identify and quantify health-related support needs for homelessness service providers and homeless households across Northern Ireland.
  • R9: We recommend that NIHE, in partnership with other service providers, develops improved systems for regularly monitoring and measuring the extent of rough sleeping throughout Northern Ireland to determine if action currently being taken is adequate.

Widening scope of Homelessness Strategy Steering Group

Housing Rights strongly supports Recommendation 7. In the previous Assembly, as mentioned above, Nichola Mallon MLA introduced a Bill on homelessness prevention – with input and support from Housing Rights – which centred on legally requiring public bodies to co-operate on homelessness, rather than simply take the Homelessness Strategy into account, which is the current statutory framework. Housing Rights would also welcome widening the scope of the HSSG, which is a valuable forum for cross-Departmental and cross-sectoral working, and could provide further strategic oversight to co-operative efforts.

Health related support for homeless

Finally, Housing Rights welcomes the Audit Office recommendation of a cross-Departmental review of health-related support needs for homeless households. A related proposal was also contained in Nichola Mallon’s private member’s bill, whereby the Housing Executive, in liaison with other relevant bodies, would be required to assess the housing support needs of any homeless household. This follows best practice in Scotland, where local authorities must assess the support needs of any homeless households who may be in need of such support, and then provide such support services. Assessing and providing housing support to those who need it, on an interagency basis, could make a significant contribution to tenancy sustainment and homelessness prevention.

Tagged In

Research, Homelessness


Stephen Orme

This article was written on 21 November 2017. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.