This is a guest blog from Beverley Williams of Addaction. Beverley chaired an RR3 (Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group) specialist interest group on accommodation for people in contact with the criminal justice system which directly influenced the development of the Rough Sleeping Strategy. In this blog Beverley explores its key points and implications for the voluntary sector.
This is an important time for housing and accommodation. We know that accommodation outcomes are worsening for people leaving prison. However, the government has made some welcome announcements which I hope shows there is scope for change and opportunities on the horizon to improve those outcomes.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) recently launched a Rough Sleeping Strategy. It is backed by £100 million of funding and has the ambitious aim to end rough sleeping in England by 2027. Within the strategy there is specific provision for people in contact with the criminal justice system (CJS), with a particular focus on those transitioning from prison to the community. There has also been a welcome announcement to keep funding for supported housing within the benefit system. The previous plans to put local councils in charge of funding for supported accommodation was concerning for many in the voluntary sector as it could mean limited access for potentially vulnerable people including those leaving prison.
The work of the RR3
The RR3 is an advisory board that exists with the purpose of building a strong and effective partnership between the voluntary sector and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The RR3 runs special interest groups (SIGs) comprised of voluntary sector experts to advise on specific areas of policy and practice. I chaired a SIG which focused on the barriers for people in contact with the CJS in accessing secure, stable and appropriate accommodation and the solutions to these. I was keen to ensure our work was informed by people with lived experience of the CJS so we held a session with experts by experience to gather their views.
I am so pleased that the work of the SIG was able to directly influence the strategy’s key recommendations. Many of the guiding principles and recommendations in our report, Ensuring the accommodation needs of people in contact with the criminal justice system are met, are reflected in the strategy. The SIG was key in shaping the thinking around the proposed pilot schemes and support to be provided for people in the CJS and will continue to guide the strategy’s development and implementation. Clinks has also received acknowledgement from the MoJ of the SIG’s report on accommodation and I am pleased that all of our recommendation have either been accepted, with plans for action, or partially accepted pending the outcome of the current review of probation.
Accommodation needs for people in the criminal justice system
We welcome the focus within the Rough Sleeping Strategy on securing appropriate, safe and sustainable accommodation for people in contact with the CJS. As highlighted by Rory Stewart OBE MP (Minister of State for the MoJ), “too many rough sleepers come straight from prison – moving from their jail cells into this outdoor life of isolation, vulnerability and addiction.” The strategy is an important recognition of the specific barriers that people in contact with the CJS, particularly those who served custodial sentences, face in accessing safe and stable accommodation and that more must be done to erode these barriers.
Prevention and joined-up working
The MHCLG will be investing £3.2 million per year for two pilot schemes designed to prevent rough sleeping on release from prison. The pilots will include a team of dedicated in-reach officers who will spend time with people whilst they are in custody to better prepare them for life outside of prison. They will also engage with them in the community to ensure continuity of support.
It is welcome that the Rough Sleeping Strategy aims to build on lessons learnt from the voluntary sector. The pilots aim to deliver through-the-gate services and wrap-around support to help people sustain their accommodation. The ongoing involvement of the voluntary sector will be key as these pilots are developed to ensure services are designed to meet the resettlement needs of diverse cohorts of people. The new in-reach officers will be crucial for facilitating joined-up working, better communication and signposting to ensure that prison and probation are utilising the voluntary sector’s services.
The key ask from the SIG was for the MoJ to develop and lead a cross-departmental accommodation strategy, but we are also conscious that this national focus needs to be informed and complimented by work taking place locally to address people’s accommodation challenges. I therefore welcome that the strategy clearly highlights that Community Rehabilitation Companies, the National Probation Service and local authorities will be working together to plan, secure and sustain accommodation for people leaving prison. We hope to see more engagement, co-commissioning and partnership opportunities for the voluntary sector arising from this cross-departmental approach.
Accessing benefits on release
The SIG had serious concerns about prison restrictions preventing people from applying for benefits and causing a delay in payments on release. To address this, a new process will be trialled in HMP Wayland & Norwich and HMP Birmingham to improve access to Universal Credit. This will include supporting people to begin their Universal Credit claim, open a bank account and verify their identity whilst they are still in prison.
The MHCLG is also keen to build on the Education and Employment Strategy published earlier this year and provide greater employment support in prisons. This includes empowering governors to commission more innovative education provision which is not only key for developing a broader view of employment but also for encouraging more engagement with the voluntary sector which can offer such innovative programmes.
Since the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, the probation system has become far more fractured. This has created confusion and ambiguity around rehabilitation and resettlement services. Difficulties in accessing accommodation have been exacerbated by this lack of clarity, particularly around the roles and responsibilities of different statutory organisations. Too many people are slipping through the gaps between departmental responsibilities.
As part of the Rough Sleeping Strategy, an ‘accommodation on release’ metric will be introduced for prison governors. We hope this will improve accountability and clarity of the roles and responsibilities of prison and probation staff and other relevant providers in relation to resettlement and accommodation support. It is essential that this metric is informed by the expertise of voluntary organisations working to provide accommodation advice and support to people in contact with the CJS.
There are other recommendations in our report which we want to see addressed. These include:
- The barriers to accessing housing in the private-rented sector
- Funding for specialist organisations delivering services for diverse and vulnerable cohorts
- Ensuring housing support structures enable people to maintain their family and community ties.
The MoJ is also working on opportunities for earlier identification, intervention and prevention by improving the timing and consistency of assessments, referrals and better data sharing throughout the different stages of the CJS. It is important to note that rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg and homelessness is a much wider issue in need of tackling – to this end the MoJ is working on producing agreed definitions of homelessness.
In the MoJ’s review of probation and in developing the next generation of probation contracts, it will be considering the RR3’s recommendations. It will consider:
- How to ensure accommodation advice and support services are commissioned and delivered from a range of providers, including small specialist organisations to meet the needs of people with protected characteristics
- The requirements placed on probation providers to record accommodation needs and long-term outcomes
- Mechanisms for accountability, which are important.
It is fantastic that the RR3 has been able to feed into this strategy and I look forward to this engagement continuing as the department implements the strategy. I am sad to say that I am stepping down from my role on the RR3 after the next meeting. I am proud that during my time on the group I have been able to lead such an important piece of work. The RR3 are recruiting for a new housing specialist. The deadline for applications is Sunday 7th October 2018.