Reform of Welsh homelessness law could be ‘world-leading’

Published 06/11/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Usually it’s Scotland that gets the credit for having the world’s strongest legal framework for protecting people from homelessness.

But Wales was the first nation globally to create a statutory prevention duty so that local authorities would assist anyone at risk of losing their home. And a new White Paper, currently out for consultation, outlines further proposals aimed at realising the Welsh Government’s ambition to make homelessness brief, rare and unrepeated.

The White Paper puts forward several reforms already carried out in Scotland, including ending the ‘priority need’ test. This test reduces the amount of help someone can get unless they fall into certain categories, such as being responsible for children or being street homeless.

It proposes to strengthen the existing Welsh prevention duty and also to end the ‘intentional homelessness’ test. This test reduces the amount of help someone can get if they are deemed to have deliberately done something to cause themselves to lose their home.

It also outlines a set of new legal duties on a wide range of bodies, including the NHS, social services and housing associations, recognising that often the keys to solving homelessness lie with other agencies outside the homelessness system.

Taken together, the proposed legislative changes have been described as ‘world-leading’ by Crisis, the charity that facilitated the review on which the White Paper is based.

A ‘never-ending prison sentence’

In August 2022 the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, tasked Crisis with convening an Expert Review Panel with a membership spanning the Welsh housing sector, to make recommendations on legislative reform to end homelessness.

The Panel’s work was informed by more than 300 people who’d had direct experience of the Welsh homelessness system. The Panel said:

It was clear that homelessness is traumatic in and of itself, but that our stretched services and systems can sometimes further compound this trauma. Many people told us that various systems presented blockers to getting the support they needed or were ill-equipped to respond to their individual circumstances. Others told us that systems were hard to navigate and left them feeling as though they were in a “never-ending prison sentence”, unsure as to when they could settle into a home and move on in their lives.

The White Paper has stuck fairly closely to the Expert Review Panel’s recommendations, proposing to:

  • Increase the definition of ‘threatened with homelessness’ from 56 days to six months to encourage earlier prevention
  • End the priority need test, with a ‘clearly defined lead in time’ to assist local authorities to prepare
  • End the intentional homelessness test
  • Create a new ‘deliberate manipulation’ test to remove priority for social housing where someone has deliberately manipulated the homelessness system to gain advantage when applying for social housing
  • Add groups of people to the list of exemptions to the local connection test, to allow for non-familial connections with communities and to better take account of the reasons why someone is unable to return to their home authority
  • Create new duties on wider bodies, including local health boards, social services departments and registered social landlords, to identify people at risk of homelessness, refer them for support, take action to mitigate the risk of homelessness, and cooperate with local authorities
  • Improve standards for temporary and settled accommodation
  • Increase social housing allocations to homeless households
  • Strengthen the rights of care experienced people to homelessness assistance, in line with recommendations from the Children, Young People and Education Committee.

There are, however, some areas where the Welsh Government has taken a different tack from the Expert Review Panel. For example:

  • The Expert Panel recommended that private landlords should be under a duty to make a local authority homelessness referral when they issue a possession notice – the Welsh Government has not confirmed that this will be included in the Bill but said it was ‘more appropriately considered as part of an ongoing review of Rent Smart Wales, and as part of parallel policy development in relation to adequate housing, fair rents and affordability’
  • The Panel recommended that schools should be among the bodies subject to the duty to identify and refer – the White Paper said this proposal would be subject to further testing, in light of recent Welsh Government commitments to reduce workload and bureaucracy for school staff.

Long-term savings

The White Paper arrives at an extremely challenging time, with 11,185 people in temporary accommodation, including 996 dependent children aged under 16 in bed and breakfasts and hotels.

The Ending Homelessness National Advisory Board, which advises the Minister on homelessness policy, recently highlighted ‘the difficult context for homelessness services, worsened by cost-of-living pressures.’

In a plenary debate on 18 October, Senedd Members debated solutions, including the need to step up numbers of affordable homes and the need to adequately fund support services that help people retain their homes.

The Expert Review Panel emphasised that changing the law would not by itself end homelessness:

Although changes to the law certainly set clear baseline standards, these standards will not be consistently met without sufficient investment in the required resources, including revenue funding for support services, staffing capacity, and housing supply.

The Welsh Government also acknowledged that ‘implementation of the reforms will require significant investment’. How much investment remains to be seen: the Welsh Government said that future versions of the draft Regulatory Impact Assessment will provide more detail, but also said that upfront costs need to be counted against the potential for savings.

Using research by Price Waterhouse Cooper, the Welsh Government estimates annual savings in the longer term in the range of between £32 and £212 million in relation to people who are homeless in temporary accommodation and, based on the average saving related to prevention, a further potential saving of around £100 million.

Next steps

The White Paper will be followed by a Bill this Senedd term. Although the exact timing hasn’t been announced, the five-day gap between publication of the Expert Review Panel report and the White Paper suggests the Welsh Government is working to a tight timescale.

In the meantime the Scottish Government is pressing ahead with its own proposals to create statutory prevention duties. Whether it’s Wales or Scotland that wins the prize for most ‘world-leading’ homelessness legislation, both nations will no doubt continue to share lessons with each other and with other nations working to end homelessness.

Tune into this Thursday to hear the Minister for Climate Change giving evidence on housing to the Local Government and Housing Committee.

Article by Jennie Bibbings, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament